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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Brain and the Meaning of Life

Paul Thagard is a professor of philosophy, with a cross appointment to psychology and computer science, and director of the Computational Epistemology Laboratory at the University of Waterloo. He blogs at Psychology Today.

In a book published this year, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton University Press), he argues that evidence-based thinking leads us to believe that the mind and the brain are the same entity and that this realization, as it catches on, will revolutionize the way we think about the meaning of life. He writes:
Suppose physics is right that our universe began about fourteen billion years ago in a big bang that produced billions of stars; and suppose biology is right that human beings are just a kind of highly evolved ape. Then our lives cannot have the special, central place in the universe promised by religion based on faith, and by philosophy based on a priori reasoning. Hence it is unsurprising that the Brain Revolution encounters opposition from those who fear its practical as well as its intellectual consequences.

This book aims to show that neural naturalism can serve to satisfy wonder about the nature of mind and reality, and also to alleviate anxiety about the difficulty of life in a vast and apparently purposeless universe. Philosophy and neuropsychology can do little to remove the hardships that people face as their lives develop, with inevitable bouts of failure, rejection, disease, and eventually death. But together philosophy and science can paint a plausible picture of how minds, even ones that are merely brains, can apprehend reality, decide effectively, act morally, and lead meaningful lives enriched by worthwhile goals in the realms of love, work, and play (p. 12).
While most religious people and many nonreligious people hold that the mind (or soul) and the brain are different entities,
most psychologists and neuroscientists are materialists and believe that minds are brains: the mind is what the brain does. General acceptance of this view would amount to the most radical conceptual revolution in the history of human thinking (emphasis mine). Previously, the two most sweeping scientific revolutions were Copernicus's rejection of Ptolemy's view that the earth is the center of the universe, and Darwin's rejection of the religious view that humans were specially created by God. . . . The Brain Revolution now in progress is even more threatening to human's natural desire to think of ourselves as special, for it implies that our treasured thoughts and feelings are just another biological process. Unsurprisingly, even some nonreligious thinkers find disturbing the view that minds are brains, despite the mounting evidence for such identification. Not only immortality but also the highly compelling doctrines of free will and moral responsibility have been tied to the idea of minds as souls. The lure of dualism is powerful (p. 42).
Religion, and especially conservative religion such as Evangelical Christianity, will no doubt oppose the findings of neuroscience on this point as they are still opposing the current findings of geology, physics, and biology as it relates to the age of the earth and the evolution of species. Eventually, though, they will have to surrender and then readjust their theology to deal with the evidence. And the evidence is mounting. Thagard states:
Mind-brain identification follows a long line of theoretical identifications that have marked scientific progress: sounds are waves; combustion is chemical combination with oxygen; water is H2O; heat is motion of molecules; lightning is electrical discharge; light is electromagnetic energy; influenza is a viral infection; and so on (p. 43).
The clever maneuvering, reinterpretation of biblical texts, and adjusting of doctrine by evangelicals to deal with the findings of neuroscience will be interesting to watch.

38 comments:

  1. Another book to add to my wish list.

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  2. and I thought the souls were at the bottom of your feet!
    Of course the mind and the brain are the same thing. Who ever thought otherwise? Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of brain neurophysiology and biochemistry needs no other proof. How do you think antidepressants make people less depressed, or antipsychotics eliminate delusions and hallucinations? Magic? No, they simply alter the brain biochemistry.

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  3. This book will be an interesting read.

    Personally, I don't think the mind (which I believe is part of the human spirit, along with rationality) can be too far separated from the brain. God created man as an organic unity - body, soul, and spirit. Without any one of these components, a whole person does not exist. I haven't read the book yet, but don't think it will have as much of an impact on Christianity as you suppose, (insert deprecatory comment here), nor to I think many evangelicals will maneuvere, reinterpret, or adjust our theology (again, deprecatory comment insertion point).

    I will simply point out that because God has created man as an organic unity certain functions of humanity are difficult to distinguish. The soul (will and emotions) and spirit (mind, rationality) relate to the body fundamentally through the brain, though some functions of the soul may operate through other body parts (e.g. glands). However, both the soul and the body need the spirit for control. For example, all human emotions, drives, and passions which seem to have their locus in the soul (will/emotions), are more than simply glandular (i.e. non-rational) functions. That is, morality and intelligence enter into all such actions and, thus, the actions stem from the spirit (mind/rationality). My point being, because God has created man with both immaterial and material parts and united them into one being, both the material and immaterial must be involved with one another in an organic way. That is, one cannot separate the functions of the mind from the biology of the brain anymore than one can separate the emotions of the soul from the functions of the glandular system. You can remove glands and still have emotions, but you cannot remove the brain and have a person. Not that you can disect the brain and find the soul spirit (remember, I said there were immaterial).

    I see this post, and Thagard's book as a bit of a red herring. Him saying that the mind and brain have an organic connection only serves to bolster my theological position, not warrant the "clever maneuvering, reinterpretation of biblical texts, and adjusting of doctrine" thought necessary.

    I will read the book and look forward to interacting with his arguments firsthand.

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  4. I think you are right that many evangelicals, and non-religious "traditional" thinkers, will be opposed to the idea.

    But many religious people, such as panentheists, see God as a sort of meta-reality underlying all things. And many Eastern religions do too, of course. I tend to gravitate towards this view.

    But life is still weird. Really weird. For instance, life struggles to work against the second law of thermodynamics. And I don't just mean our individual wills, but the whole of evolution. I am not saying we will succeed, but it is really, really weird. There is definitely a sort of duality there - we feel nature pulling towards equilibrium, yet we continually strive to create more ordered states of affairs further and further from equilibrium.

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  5. DWSmith - your comment kind of makes no sense in the context of the blog post or modern psychology.

    Did the railroad spike also impair Phineas Gage's immaterial soul? Oh wait.... then there's the whole immaterial-material interaction problem.

    Substance dualism doesn't make a lot of sense.... Thagard isn't indicating that there is a mystical spiritual connection between mind and brain.... but rather that brain produces mind.

    Ken - thoughts? Did you ever read much Berkeley? I definitely have monist intuitions - but I'm toying around with idealism right now rather than materialism.

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  6. David,

    You seem to have a pretty elaborate understanding of the human person, i.e., the soul and its functions and connections, the spirit and its functions and connections and the body and its functions and connections. I suppose you have derived this from your understanding of the Bible. However, you must know that not even all conservative tbeologians would agree with your tripartite analysis. Many would simply say that man has a material and an immaterial nature withouth breaking the immaterial part down into a separate spirit and soul.

    Nonetheless, as I see it, all of this is simply the ancient Hebrews and Christians attempt to understand the human person. They also sometimes attributed emotions to other body parts like the bowels. Anthropologists have found that other religions have attributed specific emotional or psychological functions to the bladder and to the liver. Ancient man was doing the best he could to understand how the human psyche works. Today, though we have science, and 95% of what we now know about how the brain works has been learned since the advent of CT scan and MRI technology that could applied to the brain. What we are finding is that there is no reason to believe there ia any immmaterial part of the human being. The whole concept of a soul is an invention of religions.

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  7. "Suppose physics is right that our universe began about fourteen billion years ago in a big bang that produced billions of stars; and suppose biology is right that human beings are just a kind of highly evolved ape. Then our lives cannot have the special, central place in the universe promised by religion based on faith, and by philosophy based on a priori reasoning."

    G'day Ken, thought I might visit here and comment, hope that's OK. May I ask can you outline the steps of reasoning in this argument please? The best I can come up with is something like:

    1. The universe is big and old and humanity evolved.
    2. Therefore there is much more in the universe than us.
    3. Therefore we couldn't be important to God or God couldn't exist.

    The jump from 2 to 3 doesn't actually make much sense to me, does it to you? Can you spell the logic out?

    "most psychologists and neuroscientists are materialists and believe that minds are brains"

    Of course they do, I have read a number of books on the subject too,and they all imply the same. But since they have defined their science (quite rightly) to only study the material, if there was anthing more than matter, how would they know? Just like the (probably apocryphal) story I heard of the marine biologists who never found any baby fish, just fully grown ones, and then realised they were using a 3" mesh net! You only find what your assumptions and equipment allow.

    "our treasured thoughts and feelings are just another biological process"

    Including this particular thought? Can a biological process be "true" or does it just happen? And if it just happens, why should I believe it is true? Why should I believe any thinking is true? The scientists should read some philosophy, such as this.

    Best wishes. : )

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  8. Uncle E,

    Thanks for your comments and questions and yes, I am glad to have you here. I appreciate dialogue with those who disagree.

    You ask how one can jump from #2 to #3? I think that religion and especially evangelical Christianity has always held that man is the center of God's purpose for the universe. God created the world, the animals and everything in it for man's use. Man is the only creature made in the "image of God." When one realizes how very small man is in comparison to the universe, how recent man's appearance in the universe is, and the fact that he is biologically descended from the other animals, it should cause one to rethink the teachings of man's uniqueness and primacy.

    Regarding the article by Plantinga, Thagard is a philosopher (Ph.D. in philosophy) as well as a psychologist and computer programmer (has advanced degrees in each). His book is really an attempt to look at the findings of cognitive science from a philosopher's viewpoint.

    As far as whether something is "true" or not, obviously depends upon one's definition of truth. However, in science it basically means that it corresponds to reality (granted this assumes that our perception of reality is accurate). Observation and experimentation are used to test whether something is "true" in this sense.

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  9. Uncle E,

    BTW, see Fitelson and Sober's response to Plantinga's argument that evolution is an epistemic defeater of naturalism.

    I am not a professional philosopher so much of this goes over my head but I don't think that Plantinga has shown that a belief in evolution defeats a belief in naturalism.

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  10. Ken,
    We cannot disect the brain and reveal the immaterial part of man, but neither can science prove conclusively that it's not there. Though I have not read Thanga's work, I am getting the picture from the post and subsequent comments that his discussion is primarily a philosophical one.

    To explain what I was saying, let me ask a question, What makes a brain dead person such? Medically, doctors can point to the cessation of electrical activity passing through the neural pathways, and show this with a CT scan or MRI. But that's all science will show, the biological effects. What I am saying is that man's immaterial part of his being (whether dichotomist or trichotomist in position doesn't matter) and biological parts are so intertwined in creation that one cannot differentiate between them. The human being's physical needs the metaphysical in order to function as God designed it and vice versa, the metaphysical needs the physical as the vehicle for its expression.

    I think it would help me if you would please define what constitutes "mind" for both you and Thagard.

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  11. David,

    I agree that science does not have the tools to detect the "undetectable." That's whats so great about much of Christian theology--it cannot be confirmed nor disconfirmed.

    However, science can show that there is geat similarity between the way man's brain works and the brain's of other large mammals. In other words, there is no reason to presuppose the existence of a soul as some kind of distinct entity that only man possesses.

    As far as definition of "mind," I would say as Thagard does: The mind is what the brain does . In other words thinking, the sense of self, etc. are functions of the brain.

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  12. The word "mind" seems to be confusing to people here. It might be easier to use words like "thinking processes" or "cognitive function" or "memory" These functions are all located in different parts of the brain. They can be seen or observed and measured using PET scans, EEGs etc. There is also psychometric testing.
    When these parts of the brain are damaged, then one or more of these functions ceases to exist, or they are impaired in some way. Therefore mind=brain. I do not know how I can put it any more simply so that you can understand.
    Philosophy cannot explain these physical functions, so has no place in this discussion.
    If we have not brains, then we have no reasoning ability.

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  13. Ken said: "You ask how one can jump from #2 to #3? I think that religion and especially evangelical Christianity has always held that man is the center of God's purpose for the universe. God created the world, the animals and everything in it for man's use."
    Two things I find unsatisfactory with this answer:

    (1) I have lived amongst evangelical christians for 50 years and I've never heard anyone make that claim about the universe. Notice how you have jumped from "world" to "universe"? Humanity could well be the centre of God's plan for earth while only one part of God's plan for the universe. And even if we were the only spiritual life in the entire universe what's the big deal? Lady Julian of Norwich once had a vision in which God approached her and held out his hand. In it was a small nut. She asked him what it was and he replied: "Everything that is." It would be no big deal for God to create the entire universe just for us and just for "fun".

    (2) You haven't answered the question and supplied the logic. I think because the argument is fallacious. In which case the whole point fails.

    Of course I know that Plantinga's argument is not accepted by everyone, but it should be considered. I've seen Sobel's response and think the argument is still very much alive. The point is that scientific truth means corresponding to reality but we are now talking philosophy. And if naturalism is true then our brains have evolved for survival not truth, and so may be very good at doing science but lousy at doing philosophy. So we may know truths about brain electro-chemistry (science), but our conclusions about the mind-brain issue (philosophy) may be dodgy - if naturalism is true.

    If you write a post on philosopy, you can hardly avoid the problems with it by saying "I am not a professional philosopher so much of this goes over my head" : )

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  14. Clare said: "Philosophy cannot explain these physical functions, so has no place in this discussion."

    I'm sorry Clare, but I don't think you can escape philosophy that easily! These matters start with science, but they end with making philosophical statements. Thinking otherwise doesn't mean you are not doing philosophy, but rather just leaves you in danger of doing bad philosophy. Here are a couple of examples:

    "The word "mind" seems to be confusing to people here. It might be easier to use words like "thinking processes" or "cognitive function" or "memory" These functions are all located in different parts of the brain. They can be seen or observed and measured using PET scans, EEGs etc. There is also psychometric testing.
    When these parts of the brain are damaged, then one or more of these functions ceases to exist, or they are impaired in some way. Therefore mind=brain."


    Just look at the logic here (and remember that logic is part of philosophy). Your argument seems to be something like:

    1. Thinking (mind) processes occur in the brain.
    2. When the brain is damaged, the thinking/mind functions are damaged.
    3. Therefore mind=brain.

    Clearly this argument is fallacious. Necessary does not equal sufficient. Just because the brain is necessary for the mind doesn't mean it is sufficient to explain it. Imagine a parallel argument to #2: When the heart stops the brain stops, therefore heart = brain. No, the mind=brain statement is pure metaphysical assumption, as Alwyn Scott says in Stairway to the mind. "Although dualism cannot be disproved, the role of science is to proceed on the assumption that it is wrong and see how much progress can be made."

    It is well known that a reductionist view such as you present struggles to explain consciousness, qualia, intentionality and a host of other aspects of human experience. Reductionist science, which looks into the brain from the outside generally ends up saying these things are illusory, or merely things that happen in the brain. But human experience, from the inside, finds them to be very real. Both views are assumptions based on the evidence but unprovable in any scientific way. For the present at least, I'll place my bets on the latter. You and the scientists are obviously free to bet on the former (well, if you are correct, you aren't free at all, but that's another story!), but you have no more certainty than I do.

    So I suggest that we need good science and good philosophy. And if we use both, we know enough to question what you have concluded, and the original post as well. Best wishes.

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  15. unkleE,

    Perhaps something more like

    1. Thinking (mind) processes occur in the brain.
    2. When the brain is manipulated (mood enhancers, sleep, anesthesia, swift blows to the head, etc.) the thinking/mind functions are correspondingly manipulated.
    3. Therefore mind most likely = brain.

    I am not hardcore on this stuff. I guess I gravitate towards a kind of property dualism, but I am open-minded.......thanks to my brain, I guess. ;)

    "Reductionist science, which looks into the brain from the outside generally ends up saying these things are illusory, or merely things that happen in the brain. But human experience, from the inside, finds them to be very real."

    I agree that science often ends up promoting a kind of dualism where our experiences seem different than scientific theory (the arrow of time comes to mind). But it does not follow that just because something is physica then it is not real or meaningful.

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  16. Why would this be a problem for Christians? That's a sincere question. My understanding was that Christians are unique among world religions in insisting that the soul requires the body (and not just any body -- *your* body). This is why we have a doctrine of resurrection, and also why some Catholics have venerated relics of the saints bones and so on.

    I can see how it would be a problem for other religions, but not Christianity. Is there something about Christian theology that I'm misunderstanding?

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  17. UnkleE and Joshua,

    I think the reason that neither of you see this book as problematic for Christians is because you have in mind a different kind of Christianity than I do. My background and the focus of my blog is the conservative evangelicalism that is dominant in the US and is represented by people like John MacArthur, John Piper, and Al Mohler and denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, and Lutheran Missouri Synod. Granted this is not the entirety of American evangelicalism but it is the largest and most vocal part.

    I think these conservatives have a big problem with Evolution (see the recent controversy over Bruce Waltke) and will have just as big a problem with the idea that the brain=mind or soul. The Bible is very clear in presenting a dipartite view of man (some as my friend, DW Smith, believe in a tripartite view of man). If science maintains that man has no immaterial component, you can expect conservative evangelicals to denounce these findings.

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  18. Ken, yes no doubt you are correct that your former colleagues would not like this book. But I still have problems with it, and with this statement of yours: "If science maintains that man has no immaterial component". I just don't see how science can at the same time confine itself to what can be empirically (i.e. physically) tested and then say that humans have no immaterial component. The first view makes it impossible to draw any conclusion about the latter.

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  19. Unkle E,

    Yes you are right that science can only observe that which is observable. It can only detect that which is detectable. However, many evangelicals, such as Dinesh D'Souza, are arguing that out of the body experiences (OBE's) and Near Death Experiences (NDE's) are "scientific" evidence for the existence of the soul. If these experiences can be explained naturalistically, then their position is undermined.

    I tend to agree with you that science and religion deal with two different realms and that thus, science can never either prove or disprove religion. However, if science can show that "religious experiences" can be explained naturalistically, it undercuts the need for a supernatural explanation. To illustrate what I am saying, see "The New War Between Science and Religion".

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  20. Unkle E,

    To clarify my position, science cannot disprove the existence of god(s) but it can make belief in them unnecessary and their existence unlikely. That is precisely why fundamentalists and evangelicals in the US especially are so opposed to evolution and, those who know about it, neuroscience. For example, see John MacArthur's blog where for the last month or so, he has been saying that belief in Darwinism is incompatible with the Bible and thus must be opposed at all costs. He says this is the place where evangelicals must "draw a line in the sand." Its that type of mentality that I am addressing.

    In addition, though, the Intelligent Design folks, who while much more scholarly and accomodating to the findings of science than conservative evangelicals, nevertheless, in my opinion, misuse and abuse science by arguing that evidences of design in nature demand a Creator. I think they are misguided as well.

    I addressed this subject recently in a post called: Can Science Disprove God?

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  21. 1. Thinking (mind) processes occur in the brain.
    2. When the brain is manipulated (mood enhancers, sleep, anesthesia, swift blows to the head, etc.) the thinking/mind functions are correspondingly manipulated.
    3. Therefore mind most likely = brain.

    Yes, Steven, you put it better. Of course I was trying to make things simple to understand. Scientists can never prove anything is absolutely 100 percent certain. Only evangelical Christians say that.
    The cognitive functions and memory are only a small part of the function of the brain, but we know where in the brain they are located. No-one so far has located a soul, and it is very unlikely that they ever will. It is not measurable and not testable because we do not even know what we are testing for. It would help if one could define the parameters of the soul, in measurable terms. That is the problem with the supernatural -we do not really know what we are looking for. Lets try this one: supernatural=superstition=does not exist in nature or in our known universe

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  22. @Ken - How is this any different from saying, "The soul resides in the body. When I kill the body, I can no longer interact with that person's soul. Therefore, there is no immaterial soul."

    It doesn't take any modern science to demonstrate this fact. It's a simple empirical test. Christians have been ignoring the empirical evidence about the soul residing in the material for the past 2,000 years. Why would this evidence be any different?

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  23. G'day everyone, and thanks for your comments. But you seem to be answering questions I didn't ask and not answering what I did say.

    Ken said: " science cannot disprove the existence of god(s)".
    Yes, we agree there, but it wasn't my point. I was simply saying that you and the author(s) you quote seem to be happy to make the jump from neuroscience (the brain works in such and such a way) to metaphysics (therefore mind=brain). The latter statements are made with the apparent authority of science when they are simply speculation. And once recognised as speculation, the argument in this post fizzles out.

    Steven said: "3. Therefore mind most likely = brain.".
    That is much fairer, but still overstated. Better would be Therefore as scientists we have no evidence for anything more than brain (but then, we are not equipped for that). Fairer still would be to not make any metaphysical statements in a scientific article without clearly identifying them.

    Clare said: "Scientists can never prove anything is absolutely 100 percent certain. Only evangelical Christians say that. "
    A "nice " little put-down, but quite inaccurate. Scientists make similarly overstated claims all the time. Try these from an interview with Richard Dawkins:

    He described belief in God quite definitely as "something for which there is no evidence" then went on to say:
    "for me what matters is the truth"
    Interviewer: "The scientific truth?"
    RD: "What other truth is there when we're dealing with talking about the universe ...?"

    Did he forget historical truth? Did he forget the philosophical arguments that are based on the evidence of the universe?

    Then in another interview he said quite definitely that belief in God and an afterlife led people to care less about this life. Did he have any evidence for this? Did he ever check, and find that surveys show exactly the opposite? That believers are almost twice as likely as non-believers to do voluntary community work? Has he ever looked at who is doing the most caring in third world countries, believers or non-believers?

    I think you are right that some christians are arrogantly convinced of their opinions, but so are some atheists. It is a human trait, not an exclusively christian one. Be fair!

    Joshua said:"Christians have been ignoring the empirical evidence about the soul residing in the material for the past 2,000 years.".
    I'm sure you are right Joshua, though I'm not sure the evidence for your statement was strong 2000 years ago! But I didn't mention a soul as a separate entity. I don't believe that. I said that the brain was necessary for the mind, but not sufficient explanation of it, which is a little different.

    Thaks to you all, and best wishes.

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  24. Which part of mind does the brain fail to sufficiently explain?

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  25. "Which part of mind does the brain fail to sufficiently explain?"

    In my opinion: consciousness, qualia, intentionality, freewill, rational thought and how it influences physical events and probably more.

    Do you, perhaps, think you can explain these things in physical terms?

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  26. I'll let psychologists and neurologists chime in there on the matters of consciousness, qualia, and intentionality.

    Rationality seems to be a by-product of brain structures which have evolved.

    I'm just not that well-schooled in neuroscience - nor am I fully sure what you mean by intentionality. I suppose it's something like volition. I can't really take a strong position yet. I just don't know or understand enough.

    I don't think positing an immaterial substance is very helpful though - precisely because if our investigation is limited to the senses and conscious awareness, then we have no way of knowing it. It would be an item of faith rather than knowledge.

    ***

    As far as free-will.... I don't even really understand what the concept means.

    I think my will is determined by beliefs and desires which are determined by causes and conditions. I think there is an element of self-awareness (consciousness) that lets us shape those causes and conditions....

    for example, I could not will to be a Christian if I did not believe in Christianity or think it desireable (belief and desire), and I could not believe or desire in Christianity if I had never heard of it (causes and conditions). So in that sense.... my will is caused.

    I don't think it's possible for someone to will X unless they believe and desire X, and I don't think they can believe and desire X if causes and conditions do not exist for X to be a viable option for them. In that sense, I don't think the will is free.

    Between choice A and B - there may be the appearance of freedom because there are two choices. But I think it's very possible that between those two choices - the will is still determined by prior causes and conditions.

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  27. "I can't really take a strong position yet. I just don't know or understand enough."
    G'day again, Samuel. This is the key for me too - we just don't know. It is the strong metaphysical statements made as if they were scientific statements that I have been objecting to. Without them, the argument in this post withers.

    "I don't think positing an immaterial substance is very helpful though - precisely because if our investigation is limited to the senses and conscious awareness, then we have no way of knowing it. It would be an item of faith rather than knowledge."
    Again I agree, but I don't find that to be a problem. As I see it, we have a dilemma. It seems from the inside as if consciousness, qualia, intentionality, etc, are real. But the scientists cannot "find" them. So do we go with some scientists and say they're not real, do we go with our experience and say they are real, or do we say we just don't know? It's a choice based on evidence, but insufficient and conflicting evidence. That's sometimes the best we have as humans.

    But notice that if you take the view on freewill that you outline, it isn't very meaningful to say "I don't think the will is free". Sure it may be true that you don't think that, but if you haven't freely chosen to say it, what meaning does it have for me?

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  28. Just because I haven't freely chosen to say it doesn't mean it's not so. :-)

    I don't think scientists aren't saying consciousness, qualia, or intentionality aren't real.... just that we don't fully understand how the brain produces them. It's a little different.

    It's interesting reading Buddhist understandings of consciousness and mind. I wish I knew more. It's still compatible with empiricism (well, Buddhism isn't monolithic but I'm referring more to philosophical rather than religious expressions).

    So when I eat an apple, and experience the sweet taste, wherein does the experience sweetness lie?

    I don't know. But I also don't know that positing an immaterial substance gets us any closer to solving the problem.

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  29. "I don't know. But I also don't know that positing an immaterial substance gets us any closer to solving the problem."

    I don't think I'm positing an immaterial substance, just refusing to limit myself to a totally material explanation when that seems unlikely. I think that solves some of the problems though of course it creates others.

    But in the end, if this was the only reason to do that, I would almost certainly be more agnostic. But it's part of a larger picture, where several lines of thought lead to the conclusion that (1) the material alone is insufficient explanation, and (2) the non-material, spiritual, supernatural, God, whatever, seems like a more reasonable explanation.

    That doesn't satisfy the hard-core physicalist scientists, but they have defined themselves out of the discussion and cannot explain many things most human beings believe and experience about life and love and many other things. As I said before, agnosticism is a good intellectual position, but it doesn't help us live life, and these issues do, and increasingly will, affect how we live, our ethics, education and criminal justice system, our culture, etc. If the reductionists are right, we all lose. I don't believe they are right and I sure hope they aren't.

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  30. "If the reductionists are right, we all lose. I don't believe they are right and I sure hope they aren't."

    Not to go off on too much of a tangent, but the reductionist view is much, much better than the traditional Christian view, that the vast majority of people, despite being created by God, will spend eternity in damnation.

    If we all merely die, that would be preferable to this horrible alternative.

    But, of course, you may not go along with the traditional views in this regard.

    One aspect of my thinking that has changed over the last few years, is that I have tried to change my negative attitude towards matter - towards materialism. The physical world is amazing - on a quantum level things pop in and out of existence - trillions of virtual particles appear out of nowhere to carry forces to and from objects.

    We are mostly made up of nothingness, the spaces between subatomic particles. Amazing stuff.

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  31. EunkleE: "I don't think I'm positing an immaterial substance, just refusing to limit myself to a totally material explanation when that seems unlikely. "

    If your positing immaterial stuff to explain phenomena.... then er.... you kinda are.

    ***
    Steven - "We are mostly made up of nothingness, the spaces between subatomic particles. Amazing stuff. "

    Shunyata! 0=Infinity. :-D

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  32. BTW, to illustrate my point that Christians will take aim at the conclusions of neuroscience, just as they have been on the conclusions of geological and biological science see theReasonable Doubts Blog:

    Not content with attacking evolution, the Discovery Institute and its cultural allies are taking aim at psychology. Believing that any naturalistic approach to psychology is inherently biased against religion they seek to overturn the "materialist paradigm" in neuroscience and replace it with their own version of mind-body dualism.

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  33. Steven Stark said: "But, of course, you may not go along with the traditional views in this regard."
    No I do not - I think (1) the NT teaching has been misrepresented, and (2) the is a move towards a change here. But I was referring to the way we live, and there I still think the evidence shows that theism leads to a more humane view and actions than does materialism.

    "I have tried to change my negative attitude towards matter - towards materialism"
    I find that interesting - why did you have a negative view? I think I have a very positive view of matter - I just find materialism doesn't fit the facts and leads to disastrous outcomes.

    Samuel said: "If your positing immaterial stuff to explain phenomena.... then er.... you kinda are."
    I don't wish to be pedantic, but I wasn't positing anything, just expressing my disagreement with materialism. You have read that view into my comments. In fact, I'm not sure what is the truth here, I just know some things I don't believe. So. yes, I said "the non-material, spiritual, supernatural, God, whatever" but I didn't suggest these were a "substance". In fact "immaterial substance" seems to me to be a contradiction.

    Ken said: "they seek to overturn the "materialist paradigm" in neuroscience and replace it with their own version of mind-body dualism"
    I don't know what anyone else may be trying to do, but my aims were more modest. I simply wanted to point out that there was a difference between the findings of neuroscience based on good experimental data, and the "materialist paradigm" which is based merely on assumption. And to suggest avoiding conflating the two would be a victory for truth. Surely you can agree with that, even if you hold the "materialist paradigm"?

    Thank you all for the discussion, and best wishes to you.

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  34. Unkle E,

    You say: the "materialist paradigm" which is based merely on assumption .

    What is the "dualist paradigm" based on?

    We have to assume something and then test it. So far the tests pretty much agree with the hypothesis of a "materialist paradigm."

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  35. The dualist paradigm is based on Descartes meditations of course!

    It seems that the idea of a disembodied soul is more of a pagan addition to Christianity - hence the original emphasis on a bodily resurrection and what not. But my history is fuzzy.... so correct me if I'm wrong.

    ***

    unkleE: "In fact "immaterial substance" seems to me to be a contradiction."

    Well if substance means "that which exists", and you find the word immaterial substance to be a contradiction - we're back at materialism.

    Of course I didn't define substance, but to get a little technical:
    "something that exists by itself and in which accidents or attributes inhere; that which receives modifications and is not itself a mode; something that is causally active; something that is more than an event. " (Random House, 2010)

    Don't worry.... I'm not necessarily on the materialist boat - I'm just fervently off the dualist boat.

    esse est percipi?

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  36. Ken said:"What is the "dualist paradigm" based on?"

    Common human experience. The things the neuroscientists say don't seem to fully explain what we all experience and the way we all live our lives. That doesn't make it correct, but it is food for thought.

    But notice again (as I have said before), I am not arguing for dualism. I am simply suggesting that basing everything on what reductionist science can demonstrate misses out on the evidence of human experience (and some science which appears to support something more than reductionist thinking).

    I am suggesting we need more open minds, not trying (yet) to close my mind on something solid (to misquote GK Chesterton).

    "We have to assume something and then test it. So far the tests pretty much agree with the hypothesis of a "materialist paradigm.""

    Of course. The tests are designed according to reductionist or anti-materialist science. They demonstrate certain things are true, not that certain other things are not true - indeed they cannot demonstrate that. It would be easy (if I was a neuroscientist) to devise a non-materialist hypothesis that fits all the experiments and also fits human experience - something like the body and brain are necessary for life and thought and consciousness, but not sufficient explanation of it, that there is more to humanity than science can measure. It could not be tested by science directly, but it would agree with human experience. Such a view need to be theistic - philosopher David Chalmers is not a theist but holds some such view, as have a small number of scientists, not all theists.

    I don't ask you to believe such a hypothesis were I competent to formulate it, only that you don't make statements ruling it out that the science cannot support.

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  37. Samuel said: "It seems that the idea of a disembodied soul is more of a pagan addition to Christianity"
    That is my understanding also. The Jews had a very integrated view of the self (I understand), and the New Testament concept is of the resurrection of the body. But many christians have inherited wrong thinking here (in my view) and believe in souls. I think there is more to humanity than materialism allows, but I don't believe in a soul, and I believe if it were not for a miracle of resurrection, when we die we would rot, all of us.

    substance: "something that exists by itself and in which accidents or attributes inhere; that which receives modifications and is not itself a mode; something that is causally active; something that is more than an event. " (Random House, 2010)
    Yes, we should have been more careful here, I agree. I was using a more general definition such as this one (from the Free Online Dictionary): "That which has mass and occupies space; matter."

    That definition rules out mind, consciousness, thought, God, spirit, soul (if such existed), etc. It basically encompasses the physical, the realm of empirical science.

    I too am not necessarily on the "dualist boat". There are dualist views that don't posit a "soul". John Polkinghorne professes to be a "dual aspect monist". I might agree with one of those viewpoints if I knew enough to make a choice.

    One of the difficult things about internet discussion, especially in the small space allowed in blog comments, is how people (on both sides) jump to quick conclusions about what their opponents say. I haven't proposed or defended dualism, haven't really attacked materialism all that much - rather I have attacked the unjustified assumption of materialism.

    But it seems you and I have now reached some sort of moderate agreement, as much as we might expect here, and perhaps that is achievement enough to conclude on?

    Thanks and best wishes.

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  38. I look forward to future conversation.

    Until then, I'll have to get started on good ol' Bishop Berkeley!

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