Sunday, September 30, 2007

On Neuroscience and the Soul


Thanks, once again, to Frank Wilson, I review A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul today in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

13 comments:

  1. Excellent piece, Bryan. One thing that intrigues and baffles me as a non-scientist observing this latest fad in materialist determinism is how enthusiastic, sanguine and comfortable modern "brights" have become with this stuff. Not so long ago, when guys like Sartre ruled the roost, atheistic materialism was supposed to be terrifying and only for the stalwart--remember all that stuff about having the near superhuman courage to stare into the abyss of nothingness? Now everybody seems to be having a big party scorning that scary old free will, and religion is positively terrifying.

    Determinism, the intellectualization of pointlessness, should be gloomy and scary and depressing. It should sap a lot of our strength. So what is it that drives its proponents to ever-more frantic and regimented lives? Was Muggeridge right that modern man can't bear the idea that his sexual freedom should be restrained (even if he isn't getting much himself)? Careerism? The winter getaway to the Caribbean? Is it that nobody really believes it applies to them but it is a great way to pigeon-hole and control everybody else?

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  2. V. interesting; thanks. A friend of mine once asked a neuroscientist whether he (the neuroscientist) could explain the way in which some people can undergo a sudden and intense transformation and emerge within about a day as almost a different person. This doesn't have to involve religion - the stress and terror of a battle would be an example. To his credit, the neuroscientist said we simply don't know and can't explain what happens in this way; it is almost as if the brain manages near-instantly to rewire itself, in a materialist view. But then who or what tells the brain to change? This is an endlessly fascinating subject.

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  3. Thought-provoking piece, Bryan. As I don't have a firm belief either way, I am put-off by most discussions of this subject, as most who want to discuss think and speak only in absolutes. In a universe of infinite shades of gray, I see no reason for this to be the one subject that is black & white, but I haven't got a clue what that means.

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  4. Bryan wrote: "The materialists, reductionists and militant atheists have not done what they claim to have done, and Beauregard performs an admirable service in explaining why. Above all, he shows that our current science is provisional and as far from answering final questions as science has always been."

    Firstly, I'm not sure that the materialists et al have made such emphatic claims that they have all the answers. I think at best all they are doing is promoting some interesting ideas (perhaps hypotheses at best) for how the brain creates the mind. They would be the first to admit that there is a lot we don't know yet (that's what real scientists know). If all this book does is confirm this, then it is doesn't have much to offer.

    But I think you are missing something important in your review. The authors paint a picture that attempts to show that current materialist explanations are inadequate to explain the mind - therefore because of this we must resort to a supernatural explanation (which of course in this case is the 'soul'). Does this kind of reasoning ring a bell? If you follow the Intelligent Design debate it should - because that's exactly the argument ID supporters make against evolution. The argument goes a lot like this - the theory of evolution is imperfect and incomplete, therefre Godiditt! It isn't a long stretch to extrapolate this to, "the brain doesn't yet explain the mind - therefore Goddit!"

    If you haven't realized it O'Leary and probably Bureaugard have already made up their minds on which side of the fence they belong, and no amount of empircal evidence, science or good data is going to persuade them otherwise. They clearly wrote the book with a conclusion in mind.

    And guess what, who is one of the most prominent supporters of ID and William Dembskis blog-mate in crime - yes, that's right - Denyse O'Leary, co-author of this book. If you want to get an idea of her thoughts and ideas, I suggest you read some of her blogs...I think you might be a little shocked to see how out there her ideas are...she is anything but open-minded and scientific in her approach...

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  5. Only two words come to mind for me, but they explain everything: "Corpus callosum."

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  6. Susan B

    "Only two words come to mind for me, but they explain everything: "Corpus callosum.""

    Hardly, or else we would be having the same discussion about almost every member of the mammalian order.

    And Fran B, you're point about the ID connection is well made, but I think you would be foolish to dismiss this on that basis. And as for the materialists under discussion here discussing some interesting ideas rather than making emphatic claims, I'm afraid the emphatic claiming is exactly and embarrassingly what they do: for an example, one needs look no further than the inventor of 'The Brights' (oh, please), Daniel Dennett.

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  7. Recusant, the corpus callosum is the last frontier of the brain. It's what makes us human, it's where a great deal of what happens to us neurologically is tweaked.

    The Brights are annoying, sans doute, and ditto Richard Dawkins; but the ID people are equally annoying and the creationists are far worse than that.

    Having read a number of cosmologists talk about the universe, the hugeness and tininess and above all connectedness of things, I feel there is some evidence for my otherwise irrational feeling that forces far bigger than our puny species are at work. But it's just my sense and I have no intention whatsoever of inflicting it on everyone else and I'd prefer not to have their feelings, couched as rational arguments, inflicted on me.

    I'm married to an atheist and p'raps that tempers my opinions. But every time a rant gets going on here, it's invariably about God v. No God. Can't it simply be an individual choice?

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  8. recustant said: "And Fran B, you're point about the ID connection is well made, but I think you would be foolish to dismiss this on that basis. And as for the materialists under discussion here discussing some interesting ideas rather than making emphatic claims, I'm afraid the emphatic claiming is exactly and embarrassingly what they do: for an example, one needs look no further than the inventor of 'The Brights' (oh, please), Daniel Dennett.

    Well I must admit I kind of agree with you on the 'Brights'. Great idea, lousy execution.

    As to Daniel Dennett - I'm not so sure you're right. I recently read his 'Breaking the Spell' and was very struck with how very tentative it is (and it offers several alternatives). Didn't seem at all dogmatic to me.

    As to being foolish to dismissing this book - well, I probably will read it. I'll even try to be open-minded. But given O'Leary's track record of misinterpreting science in the name of ID/creationism, I will be a little O'Leery about it...

    Yes, I do agree these are good questions to ask and write about. I guess I'd rather see it come from a more respected and mainstream scientific source, than one that has obviously already reached their conclusions in the foreword.

    I kind of hoped that Bryan would have been a little bit more wary and less enthusiastic of this book given the authors obvious agenda...

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  9. Oh, Fran B, everyone has an agenda now, and I'm afraid it's not 'even scientists', but 'especially scientists'.

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  10. Bravo, Susan, for differentiating between the ID people and creationists. I belive in a Creator, but subscribe to neither theory. Re God vs. no God, it is an individual choice, but presumably someone is right, which means someone else is wrong.

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  11. I've posted a review of The Spiritual Brain, a recent book on this subject, on my blog at http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2007/10/spiritual-brain.html

    Just thought you might find it interesting!

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  12. If you found this book intriguing, you will definitely enjoy reading My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor, and her talk on TED dot com about her stroke which is an 18 minute talk you Must Not Miss! (there's a reason it's been forwarded friend to friend millions of times!). When you read the book and see the TEDTalk, you'll understand why this Harvard brain scientist was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People. Her unique experience, combined with her perspective as a neuroanatomist, and her sensitivity and awareness (not to mention beautiful writing style!) has produced something so powerful and so revolutionary that I think it's going to become a transformational movement in itself. Oprah also did four interviews with her (that I was able to download on the Oprah website) that are also worth checking out. I am trying to share Dr Taylor's story with as many people as I can because I truly believe if everyone saw it the world would be so much better and people would love one another and no longer fight.

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