Sue Blackmore and the Suicide of the Enlightenment

Sue Blackmore is in the news once again. She’s was in the on-line comments page of the liberal British paper, the Guardian, arguing that belief in God is merely a meme, and that this explains why it’s so dangerous today. Needless to say, she’s wrong, and if anyone’s been preaching dangerous nonsense, I’d say it was Sue Blackmore herself.

Blackmore is a psychology lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol. When she was an undergraduate she had an Out Of Body Experience, which awakened in her a strong belief in the paranormal. She spent 20 years in the Society for Psychical Research, a society of British scientists, which researches the paranormal, investigating ESP and the paranormal and trying to replicate her experience. Then, a few years ago, she decided that it was ‘all tosh’, left the SPR and became an extremely outspoken Sceptic. Following Daniel C. Dennett she decided that the mind and consciousness don’t exist. Brains are just biological machines for processing ‘memes’. Indeed, she wrote a book on the subject, entitled The Meme Machine. Now a self-described ‘Zen atheist’, she spends her time telling the world that the self doesn’t exist and that belief in God and anything remotely supernatural is very stupid.

I saw her speak on this subject on a blazing hot June day last year at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Listening to her preaching her views on the absence of the self it became apparent to me that she had pushed Enlightenment ideas to their ultimate, and dehumanising conclusion. The liberating belief in rationality that the Enlightenment had embraced against what it saw as oppressive superstition had now turned around and cut its own throat with its mechanistic logic. In the genteel, neo-classical splendour of Cheltenham’s Town Hall, the Enlightenment had publicly committed suicide live on stage in front of a paying audience of the British chattering classes.

I’ll explain what I mean.

I went up there with friends to see her speak. I’ve an interest in science as well as the paranormal. Cheltenham has for many years hosted a very well respected Festival of Literature in October, and a few years ago began to host a similar Festival of Science in June. Both are worth going to if you’ve an interest in literature and science, though the format is basically the same for the two festivals. They tend to consist of authors talking in front of the paying audience, promoting their latest book. This is usually on sale in the book tent set up by one of the local booksellers at the back of the Town Hall, and to which some of the authors make their way to sign copies and meet their audience after speaking. They do have some very good speakers in, ranging from veteran BBC foreign correspondents, like John Simpson, media dons like Jenny Uglow, and cult figures on the SF and fantasy circuit, like Terry Pratchett and Brian Aldiss. The tone is generally BBC Radio 4 and quality broadsheet, with the audience generally being what was once described as ‘the chattering classes’. In the case of the Festival of Science, this also has hands-on science exhibits from a centre in Cardiff, and various scientific toys and games for sale, like junior electronics and chemistry sets.

Blackmore had just published her book, Conversations on Consciousness, which consisted of her interviews with a number of senior researchers on consciousness, such as Susan Greenfield, and the Churchlands. Blackmore herself is an entertaining speaker, recalling some great stories, like the elderly Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, appearing at a scientific gathering. Slowly coming forward on the stage, Hofmann had excused his lack of vigour with the words, ‘I’m sorry, but I keep forgetting I’m not 98 anymore’.

However, it was very clear that she was approaching the brain from a rigidly reductionist, materialist perspective. Benjamin Libet’s brain scans, which apparently showed that the brain initiated the preparations for actions before consciously deciding on them, proved, according to Blackmore, that humans didn’t have free will. She went further to state that the sense of self was itself illusory, and illustrated her denial of the ‘I’ by referring to herself as ‘this body’, ‘this machine’. When someone asked her what she got out of telling herself that she didn’t exist, she thought for a while before replying ‘a sense of freedom’.

It was the final culmination of Enlightenment materialism, and one of the most blatant and profound statements of the ‘abolition of man’, as C.S. Lewis put it. It was Lamettrie taken to its logical conclusion. Lamettrie, an ardent materialist, had written his L’Homme Machine during the 18th century to express his rationalist, materialist belief that humanity was only an organic machine, reacting to material stimuli like any other organism, or machine, without any interference by God, whose presence was not needed and deemed to be absent. Because of his vehement near atheism, the book became one of the most notorious works of Enlightenment Scepticism, an attack on religion and the religious conception of the human creature. Although very conscious of his radical attack on the religious establishment of the time, Lamettrie himself actually didn’t think he was doing much that other philosophers hadn’t already done. Descartes, for example, had considered animals as merely organic machines without consciousness or soul, and Lamettrie merely extended this reductive analysis to humans. Descartes had considered humans as also acting like machines, but believed that they were saved from being wholly so through the presence of the soul in the pineal gland. Blackmore made pretty much the same mistake. At times she seemed to be saying that she didn’t believe in consciousness or the soul, because there wasn’t a specific part of the brain devoted to consciousness, like Descartes’ pineal gland.

I have to say that this didn’t impress me. Although I don’t share Aristotle’s materialism, the Neoplatonist view of the soul as ‘the form of the body’, which allowed for the location of specific functions of the soul in the brain and body while also allowing it a transcendental character, seems to me to make this type of reasoning just daft and simplistic. It’s also very, very dangerous. Morality, and moral feelings, are constructed around the statement that pain and suffering are very real. People, as conscious beings, aren’t robots to be tinkered with at will, who can be programmed and reprogrammed according to the whims of society, but genuinely feeling, thinking beings with an innate dignity and value. Moreover, the whole of Western society and its concepts of justice are based on this idea of humans as rational, autonomous beings capable of taking informed decisions to shape their own futures and those of others responsibly.

Now Blackmore realises this, but trivialises it. She mentioned it was intensely controversial and threatened long-cherished views of the human animal. However, rather than saying anything about how it threatened to undermine democracy and human dignity, she flapped around the stage waving her hands around to act out the panic of some people over the philosophical implications that if they didn’t exist, why should they get up in the morning. When discussing her question to Susan Greenfield about the implications of this materialist removal of the soul for freedom of choice, she instead reported Greenfield making various comments about how this would affect whether she had certain things on the menu. This irritated me, as it seemed an attempt to laugh off a very serious, profound threat to human freedom.

Eventually her presentation came to an end, and during the question and answer session one or two people challenged her denial of the self. After briefly diving into the canteen area for lunch, my friends and I headed off to the book tent so we could challenge her there. We didn’t get very far. There was an extremely long queue ahead of us, with people earnestly speaking to her. We were still patiently waiting in the queue when the announcer on the tannoy declared that the signing was over, and she and her husband got up and left. After failing to meet and challenge her in debate, all that was left was for us to head off back into town.

It wasn’t all bad, however. Cheltenham in the summer is glorious, though packed with people. Not only was the Festival of Science on, drawing crowds, but the pubs and restaurants were packed with people watching the football during the lunch hour. After spending the afternoon going round town and talking, I finally took the train back home. I did hear afterwards that someone in the audience who also wasn’t impressed with her denial of the soul tried to get through to her on her website, but gave up after finding it full of stuff on John Lennon. Well, Lennon and McCartney were great musicians, but to me they don’t quite cut it as philosophers.

As for Blackmore’s views on the mind, they’re actually becoming increasingly untenable. Very few scientists take memes seriously, and a few months ago the papers over here carried a story about fruitflies having free will. Apparently scientists had analysed their flittering about, and come to the conclusion that it was not random, but the product of conscious decisions. As for the problem for free will caused by Libet’s brain scans, there also seems to be evidence against that as well. Some neuroscientists now consider that there are different parts of the brain which initiate different actions, and that these act independently of each other, although they do communicate. Thus it seems to me that it’s quite possible that the part of the brain initiating the actions Libet measured was doing so as part of a conscious process, but only appeared to be unconscious because of the time lag created while it communicated with the other part of the brain Libet was also measuring.

There is also some intriguing evidence from recent neuroscience research that the brain tends to react to circumstances three seconds before these circumstances arise. For a good overview of this, go to:

There are also strong arguments against Blackmore’s materialism from the perspective of traditional Cartesian dualism.

Thus it seems that Blackmore herself has gone from one extreme position – as an ardent defender of the paranormal – to another, where as a Sceptic of the Dawkinite variety she vehemently attacks it. In the meantime, the Enlightenment she so vociferously seeks to defend has reached its ultimate reductio ad absurdum and effectively killed itself. The great ideologues of the Enlightenment firmly believed in human rationality and people’s capability of making informed, rational, responsible decisions. The whole concept of democracy, which philosophes like Voltaire so passionately defended against tyranny and what they perceived as superstition, is based on this. By denying human rationality and personal responsibility, the basis of democracy is being undermined, while by regarding the human organism as simply ‘this machine’, human dignity itself is similarly denied.

Blackmore and Dawkins view religion as the enemy of reason and freedom. Yet in Switzerland, the heartland of European democracy, vox populi did indeed mean vox dei. Similarly in ancient Greece, the popular assembly of the polis made the decisions and laws, which were then ratified by the oracle. Democracy, or public participation in government, existed with and supported by religion.

Here the situation is reversed. Blackmore and Dawkins materialist attack on the supernatural also has the effect of attacking democracy and responsible human government. Never mind protecting society from religion. It could well be argued that the greatest danger to society is Scepticism like theirs.

17 Responses to “Sue Blackmore and the Suicide of the Enlightenment”

  1. JOR Says:

    We could go all analytic on them. Sure they can use the phrase ‘this machine’ instead of ‘I’ but then they’re just equivocating by using the word ‘machine’ to mean ‘conscious person’. If you call a tail a leg, and all that.

  2. Frank Walton Says:

    I’ve heard a lot about Sue Blackmore. Since she’s a Dawkins friendly, there’s much to worry about.

  3. Bjørn Are Says:

    Interesting analysis!

    You’re sounding more and more like British Christians should, like a blend of GKC and McGrath;-)

    Perhaps my short take at also could be of some interest?

  4. mattghg Says:

    Blackmore and Dawkins view religion as the enemy of reason

    Which is ironic, seeing as it’s not at all clear how there could be such a thing as reason if “memetics” is for real. Is modus ponens just a meme that has managed to survive in the meme pool?

  5. beastrabban Says:

    We could go all analytic on them. Sure they can use the phrase ‘this machine’ instead of ‘I’ but then they’re just equivocating by using the word ‘machine’ to mean ‘conscious person’. If you call a tail a leg, and all that.

    Lol, JOR. 🙂 I think that might cause a bit of fun there, as I’ve got the impression that Blackmore doesn’t read a lot of analytical philosophy. I can remember her in the talk in Cheltenham stating that she didn’t understand the view of the mind presented by one of the philosophers or neuroscientists she interviewed. I think we’d just get a long lecture based on the Enlightenment view of the reflex action as a disproof of intentional behaviour, along with other more modern experiments which supposedly confuse the sense of self in people.

    However, it is an example of the kind of use of language which Wittgenstein critiqued. I think you could have endless fun trying to work out what would have happend if she’d had to face Ludwig asking her whether she meant that, and what she thought she meant when she said it.

  6. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Frank – yeah, Blackmore is a Dawkins friendly, and I do find her philosphy of major concern because of its assault on human dignity and freedom.

    Having said that, a lot of the influence there seems to be derived from Daniel C. Dennett. I’m not at all impressed with his philosophy, as it seems to be just warmed up Behaviourism and Gilbert Ryle, with memes added to plug the very gaping holes in it. Behavourism itself has fallen, and Dennett is essentially fighting a rearguard action to defend an increasingly beleagured position. In fact, I’ve seen two scientists of Christian faith describe him as a material ‘King Cnut’ futilely trying to ward off the encroaching sea of evidence against his bleak reductionism.

    As for Blackmore herself, like anyone in the public eye you have to treat her with a certain degree of scepticism. You have to be careful about the issue of ‘image’ over ‘content’. She’s billed as a ‘consciousness researcher’, which is true. However, she said during her lecture that she started writing her books on consciousness because she found that despite the immense amount of work done on it, nobody had actually brought it all together into a textbook. I’ve therefore seen her described as a science writer, rather than a scientist, in this regard.

    Also, watch the way she’s promoted. Blackmore’s articulate and presents the material in an entertaining and accessible manner, which, let’s face it, a lot of academics aren’t. In fact, some of the greatest scientists and academics probably wouldn’t make it onto the TV because they’re not televisually interesting or otherwise judged to put the public off. She’s a bit of a character – she’s very much a hippy, with a touch of the Goth, so it means there’s a bit of a human interest angle that can be pursued there. None of this actually means that her ideas are any good.

    For example, I’m not actually sure how much of her stuff would actually stand up to criticism from a philosopher of mind who genuinely knew their stuff. During the talk one of the friends I was with leaned over to me and quietly said, ‘Note that she’s gone now from talking about ‘mind’ to ‘consciousness’.’ There seems to be an element of confusion in her thinking in this regard that would probably leave a professional philosopher unimpressed, but looks convincing, or is intended to look convincing, to the rest of us.

    In fact, what I found when I started chasing up what she had said in her talk afterwards is that there’s a real crisis in neurology, the confident materialism she espoused is under a lot of attack. My guess is that these assaults are going to grow over the next few years. There seems to be the attitude that if she says something loudly enough and with enough conviction, somehow believe are going to believe it.

    Now I’m sure a lot of people will. That doesn’t mean it’s true or has any value. Watching the video you put up on your blog with Greg Bahnsen advising kids on how to defend such Sceptical attacks did have a lot of good advice on adopting a sceptical attitude to claims about AI and Behaviourism, as well as not becoming an intellectual bully oneself.

    As for memes, I’ve heard from a lot of people that despite the noise about them, as a science they’re more or less dead. Also the Functionalist view of the mind Blackmore’s based her views on – that the mind is a kind of computer running meme software, if you like, is itself under a lot of pressure. John Searle in his little book on consciousness refutes it. That’s interesting because he states that he got more abuse and vitriol for doing that from fans of Dennett than from outraged Christians or religious people about his generally atheist, materialist stance. Bear that in mind the next time you hear someone drone on about religion making you ‘anti-reason’ and prone to violence: at least as far as Searle’s experience in, admittedly this one department, goes, it’s been the other way round. The vociferous spleen has come from angry fans of Dennett.

  7. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Bjorn!

    And I’d be delighted to read what you have to say on the matter. Unfortunately, when I tried the link, I got a message saying, ‘page not found’. Could you repost the link or fix it? Thanks.

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Matt! You’re absolutely right about memetics undercutting reason. A number of people have repeatedly pointed that out, but what you get back from Dennett, Dawkins and Blackmore is essentially special pleading: reason still exists, and memes exist, and aren’t merely memes, because it’s all science, which is experimental and based on objective reality.

    However, the logic supporting this statement is never adequately explained, and basically comes down to ‘memes are true, because they’re a scientific explanation, which no matter how bad or rubbish is always going to be better than religion.’

  9. beastrabban Says:

    Regarding good material which should challenge Dennett’s, Blackmore’s and Dawkins’ to exorcise the soul, here are a few books which I think might be of some help.

    Keith Ward, In Defence of the Soul .
    Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of Soul .
    John Hick The New Frontier of Religion and Science: Religious Experience, Neuroscience and the Transcendent (Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan 2006),
    Denyse O’Leary and Mario Beauregard, The Spiritual Brain .
    William Barrett The Death of the Soul: Philosophical Thought from Descartes to the Computer (Oxford, OUP 1986). This last is about the way philosophy has progressed to attacking the notion of the self, from the perspective of a distinguished philosopher who feels that this is very, very dangerous.

    Also, most introductory textbooks on philosophy and philosophy of mind will contain a chapter presenting the case for Cartesian dualism.

  10. Bjorn-Are Says:

    Sorry, the link lacked the last letter, here it is again:

  11. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for that, Bjorn-Are – great article! I noticed that although P.Z. Myers wanted to promote atheism as synonymous with science, he realised that they weren’t. As for the dismissal of philosophy, I’m afraid that seems all too prevalent amongst some scientists. It’s a pity, as there’s a lot of wisdom there that badly needs to be heeded.

    Most atheists like Myers in my experience tend to be naive Postivists. Science is the only arbiter of truth, and everything is getting better as society develops and becomes more scientific. Now around 1900 in Italy there was a ‘turn against Positivism’ amongst Italian philosophers, which exposed Positivism to a relentless critique and made the case that although it was important, it certainly was not the only, nor the most important form of knowledge. Some of these philosophers became outspoken critics of Fascism when it emerged.

  12. Roger Pearse Says:

    Interesting points. I always note that these kind of reductionist atheists don’t really (in their own terms) disprove the existence of God; rather they disprove the existence of *man*, as a reasoning being with a soul and a conscience. The aim or effect or both of these arguments is to reduce man to a talking animal.

    It is never a good sign when men use their intelligence to reduce themselves to beasts. If man is half an angel and half an animal, in which direction do we wish to proceed?


  13. beastrabban Says:

    Good point, Roger. Though there is an urge to transcendence in a lot of Science Fiction. Arthur C. Clarke, who is very atheist, was asked by one of his biographers why he hated the Church, when in books like 2001 he has humanited becoming transformed into a godlike entity by creatures who have evolved past the need for corporeal forms. His response was that their claim that transcendence was real was ‘premature’. I have to say that says more to me about the essential religious urge behind a lot of Science Fiction than it does about the truth claims of the Church.

    But you’re right – there is this strong drive to reduce humanity to just a talking animal. Daniel C. Dennett is very clear on this point. He once responded to a question about his views on the soul with a ‘urgh’ of disgust, and stated that he felt disgusted at the very notion that something of him might survive death.

    There’s a very dangerous trend here with such sentiments. The notion of animals as machines can be considered as part of the Enlightenment’s project to control nature, though the idea really goes back to just before then, to Rene Descartes. By reducing humanity to an automaton as well, we’re right back to an attempt to control humanity. It’s the ultimate abolition of man, as C.S. Lewis commented and the Transhumanists actively look forward to. It’s an incredibly disturbing, totalitarian vision, where the fabric of people’s bodies isn’t theirs, but designed by the state, or society, or some other, artificial human corporate entity, and their minds as well are controlled. One way or another, this type of Scientism leads back to the total state.

  14. Ilíon Says:

    Now a self-described ‘Zen atheist’, she spends her time telling the world that the self doesn’t exist and that belief in God and anything remotely supernatural is very stupid.

    She, at least, and unlike most ‘atheists’ one encounters, understands (though, the proper word may well be “admits”) the inevitable logical conclusion of ‘atheism:’ that is, if one denies that God exists, then one must logically end up denying that one’s own self exists.

    And, after all, the self — the mind — is quite a “super-natural” entity.

  15. M M Rose Says:

    If one denies that God exists, then one must logically end up denying that one’s own self exists.

    I’m afraid I don’t understand this point, could someone elucidate for me the reasoning here?

  16. Biscuitnapper Says:

    *In fact, I’ve seen two scientists of Christian faith describe him as a material ‘King Cnut’ futilely trying to ward off the encroaching sea of evidence against his bleak reductionism. *

    As ever coming to this a bit late, but I find this doubly ironic because the official version of the story is that Cnut was trying to demonstrate the limit of human authority when compared to God’s (as exemplified by the actions of Nature), hence his attempt to order the waves still.

    I’m being a tad mean, but I think the analogy with this ‘New’ Materialism/Atheism is rather appropriate…

  17. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Biscuitnapper. The version of the story about King Cnut I heard was that he deliberately making a point about how daft the flattery he was being given by his courtiers was. They told him that he was so majestic and powerful that even the waves would stop on his command, so he purposefully sat on the beach as the tide came in, telling it to stop, to show that, of course, he had no such power. It’s slightly different, in that it doesn’t contain the point that Cnut was trying to make that only God, not humans, can do things like that, but otherwise it’s the same tale. But with that element added, yeah, it is even more ironic for Dawkins.

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