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Jun 19 2006

Religion’s last stand: The brain

As almost everyone is aware, the science-religion wars have focused largely on the opposition of some Christian groups to the teaching of evolution. The religious objections to Darwin’s theory of natural selection have been based on the fact that if the universe and the diversity of life that we see around us could have come about without the guidance of a conscious intelligence like god (even operating under the pseudonym of ‘intelligent designer’), then what need would we have for believing in a god?

But while evolution has been the main focus of attention, I see that as more of a preliminary skirmish to the real final battle battleground for religion, which involves the brain.

The crucial question for the sustaining of religious beliefs is the relationship of the mind to the brain. Is the mind purely a creature of the brain, and our thoughts and decisions merely the result of the neurons firing in our neuronal networks? If so, the mind is essentially a material thing. We may have ideas and thoughts and a sense of consciousness and free will that seem to be nonmaterial, but that is an illusion. All these things are purely the products of interactions of matter in our brains. In this model, the mind is entirely the product of the physical brain. This premise underlies the articles selected for the website MachinesLikeUs.com.

Or is the mind a separate (and non-material) entity, that exists independently of the brain and is indeed superior to it, since it is the agent that can cause the neurons in our brain to fire in certain ways and thus enable the brain to think and feel and make decisions? In this model, the ‘mind’ is who ‘I’ really am, and the material body ‘I’ possess is merely the vehicle through which ‘I’ am manifested. In this model, the mind is synonymous with the soul.

If we are to preserve the need for god, then it seems that one must adopt the second model, that human beings (at the very least among animals) are not merely machines operating according to physical laws. We need to possess minds that enable us to think and make decisions and tell our bodies how to act. Most importantly, our minds are supposed to have the capacity of free-will. After all, what would be the value of an act of ‘faith’ if the mind were purely driven by mechanical forces in the brain?

It should be immediately obvious why the nature of the mind is a far more disturbing question for religion than evolution is or ever will be. With evolution, the question centers around whether the mechanism of natural selection (and its corollary principles) is sufficient to explain the diversity of life and changes over time. As such, the debate boils down to the question of weighing the evidence for and against and determining whether which is more plausible.

But plausibility lies in the eye of the beholder and we have seen in a previous posting how the desire to preserve beliefs one holds dear leads people to adopt intellectual strategies that enable them to do so.

Tim van Gelder, writing in the article Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science (College Teaching, Winter 2005, vol. 53, No. 1, p. 41-46) says that the strategies adopted are: “1. We seek evidence that supports what we believe and do not seek and avoid or ignore evidence that goes against it. . . 2. We rate evidence as good or bad depending on whether it supports or conflicts with our belief. That is, the belief dictates our evaluation of the evidence, rather than our evaluation of the evidence determining what we should believe. . . 3. We stick with our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence as long as we can find at least some support, no matter how slender.”

In the discussions about evolution, people who wish to preserve a role for god have plenty of viable options at their disposal. They can point to features that seem to have a low probability of occurring without the intervention of an external, willful, and intelligent guidance (aka god). These are the so-called ‘irreducibly complex’ systems touted by intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates. Or they can point to the seeming absence of transitional fossils between species. Or they can point to seemingly miraculous events or spiritual experiences in their lives.

Scientists argue that none of these arguments are valid, that plausible naturalistic explanations exist for all these things, and that the overwhelming evidence supports evolution by natural selection as sufficient to explain things, without any need for any supernatural being.

But in one sense, that argument misses the point. As long as the debate is centered on weighing the merits of competing evidence and arriving at a judgment, van Gelder’s point is that it does not matter if the balance of evidence tilts overwhelmingly to one side. People who strongly want to believe in something will take the existence of even the slenderest evidence as sufficient for them. And it seems likely that the evolution debate, seeing as it involves complex systems and long and subtle chains of inferential arguments, will always provide some room to enable believers to retain their beliefs.

But the mind/brain debate is far more dangerous for religion because it involves the weighing of the plausibility of competing concepts, not of evidence. The fundamental question is quite simple and easily understood: Is the brain all there is and the mind subordinate to it, a product of its workings? Or is the mind an independently existing entity with the brain subordinate to it?

This is not a question that scientific data and evidence has much hope of answering in the near future. Eliminating the mind as an independently existing entity has all the problems associated with proving a negative, and is similar to trying to prove that god does not exist.

But since the mind, unlike god, is identified with each individual and is not necessarily directly linked to god, discussing its nature carries with it less religious baggage, and its nature can be examined more clinically

Next: Descartes gets the ball rolling on the mind and the brain.

POST SCRIPT: Choosing god

I came across this story (thanks to onegoodmove) that illustrates the point that I was trying to make on the way people choose what kind of god to believe in. I have no idea if the events actually occurred, though, or if the story has been embellished to make the point.

The subject was philosophy. Nietzsche, a philosopher well known for his dislike of Christianity and famous for his statement that ‘god is dead’, was the topic. Professor Hagen was lecturing and outside a thunderstorm was raging. It was a good one. Flashes of lightning were followed closely by ominous claps of thunder. Every time the professor would describe one of Nietzsche’s anti-Christian views the thunder seemingly echoed his remarks.

At the high point of the lecture a bolt of lightning struck the ground near the classroom followed by a deafening clap of thunder. The professor, non-plussed, walked to the window, opened it, and starting jabbing at the sky with his umbrella. He yelled, “You senile son of a bitch, your aim is getting worse!”

Suffice it to say that some students were offended by his irreverent remark and brought it to the attention of the Department Head. The Department Head in turn took it to the Dean of Humanities who called the professor in for a meeting. The Dean reminded the professor that the students pay a lot of tuition and that he shouldn’t unnecessarily insult their beliefs.

“Oh,” says the professor, “and what beliefs are those?”

“Well, you know” the Dean says, “most students attending this University are Christians. We can’t have you blaspheming during class.”

“Surely” says the professor, “the merciful God of Christianity wouldn’t throw lightning bolts. It’s Zeus who throws lightning bolts.”

Later the Dean spoke with the Department Head, and said, “The next time you have a problem with that professor, you handle it, and let him make an ass out of you instead.”

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