Monday, April 05, 2010

Autism, art, and religion

Bryan Appleyard writes an article in The Sunday Times which, at face value, appears to be about the relationship between mental illness and creativity. It is only at the end, however, that we find out what the article is really about.

Appleyard's article touches on a character called Christopher, the protagonist from a novel by Mark Haddon. Christopher is a character with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. All people with autism, we are informed early in the article, have a deficient capacity for empathy with other minds. After a fairly routine discussion of whether mental illness and artistic creativity stem from a common source, the reader is suddenly, without warning or justification, presented with a rather bizarre, ad hominem attack on biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett:

Christopher is a Dawkinsian observer of the human world. He thinks that mathematics is the highest truth and he is constantly trying to reduce human behaviour to a series of rational categories.

"But the mind," he thinks at one point, "is just a complicated machine. And when we look at things we think we’re just looking out of our eyes like we’re looking out of little windows and there’s a person inside our head, but we’re not. We’re looking at a screen inside our heads, like a computer screen."

Christopher is right up there with certain philosophers of consciousness, such as Daniel Dennett. But, like them, he only sees half the picture.

I ask Haddon where he stands on the truth, sanity or otherwise of Christopher’s attitude.

"Only a very long answer would do this question,” he replies, “but I’m taking Karen Armstrong over Richard Dawkins."

Armstrong is a thinker on the side of religious insight and the fundamental mystery of the human condition; Dawkins and Dennett are emphatically not. Armstrong is right, she is on the side of sanity. Great art is the highest form of sanity, the highest form of insight into other minds.


The first thing one notices from the extract above, is that Appleyard has fundamentally misunderstood the point that Christopher was making, when he suggests that we're looking at screens inside our heads, rather than looking out through windows. By implication, Appleyard seems to think that this is an expression of eliminative materialism, a position in the philosophy of mind which holds that the brain exists, but the mind doesn't. On the contrary, Christopher's assertion is in fact a statement of what is variously called indirect realism or representative realism in the philosophy of perception. Indirect realism holds that we can only be directly acquainted in perception with our internal, sense-data representations of the external world, whilst direct realism holds that we are directly acquainted with the objects of the external world.

Whilst eliminative materialism excludes the existence of the mind, numerous other approaches in the philosophy of mind, such as functionalism, accept that the mind supervenes on the brain, but reject the idea that mental states and processes can be defined in terms of brain states and processes. Such approaches certainly cannot be accused of seeing only "half the picture."

The mystery here, is how a discussion of art and mental illness has suddenly decayed into an attack upon atheists such as Dawkins and Dennett. One might well accept that great art provides the "highest form of insight into other minds", but it is clear that Appleyard also regards art as a kind of shop-window for religion. Accordingly, we suddenly find Appleyard linking great art with "religious insight" into the "fundamental mystery of the human condition." And in this context, it should be noted that some Christian thinkers refer to the Incarnation of Jesus as 'the mystery'. For example, Andrew Louth, of whom Karen Armstrong speaks approvingly, argued that "the heart of the Christian mystery is the fact of God made man, God with us, in Christ," (Discerning the mystery: an essay on the nature of theology, p74).

It is, of course, perfectly consistent to empathise with other minds, and to appreciate great art, without in any way needing to believe that there is any religious mystery to the human condition. Failure to understand this, demonstrates an inability to understand and empathise with the secular mind.

4 comments:

XiXiDu said...

Here is some refreshing reductionism regarding the topic of the philosophy of mind:
http://lesswrong.com/lw/on/reductionism/

More:
http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Mind_projection_fallacy
http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/How_an_algorithm_feels

And here something on the topic of art, science and materialism:
What can we make of someone who says that materialism implies meaninglessness? I can only conclude that if I took them to see Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," they would earnestly ask me what on earth the purpose of all the little dots was.
http://lesswrong.com/lw/1yi/the_scourge_of_perversemindedness/

XiXiDu said...

Oh and regarding math and truths I wrote something here:
http://spacecollective.org/XiXiDu/5818/Mathematics-as-a-way-of-knowing

And Asperger is widely not perceived as mental-illness.

Sean said...

da Vinci and Michelangelo two of the greatest engineers and polymaths in their time and also two of the greatest artists in history seem to falsify Bryans odd point.

I will reserve judgment on the state of mind and that of reality till you blokes give me good science on what antimatter really, I fancy this is the key to unlocking the mysteries of the mind.

Still he will behind a paywall soon talking to himself.

Sean said...

Oh go on then I will give it ago.

I think both these two images, the screen and the window are wrong, the mind I believe is an organic mirror.

I think from what I understand Hume was partially right, there is no such thing as self. But where he is wrong is that self is "self created" if you exercise the freewill the mirror gives you.

You can choose to block out pain, paint a great picture, clear parts of the mirror to better understand particle physics or remain just a material being joining in the riot with everyone else

The mirror of the mind must be real or I would not be able to control it..for better or worse.

I think Bryan is much possessed by the tyranny of numbers. he should not listen to R4s Today as much to hear "the latest figures" its his mirror, so his choice.