What the neuroscience community thinks about the mind/brain relationship


The idea that the mind is purely a product of the material in the brain has profound consequences for religious beliefs, which depend on the idea of the mind as an independent controlling force. The very concept of ‘faith’ implies an act of free will. So the person who believes in a god is pretty much forced to reject the idea that the mind is purely a creation of the brain. As the article Religion on the Brain (subscription required) in the May 26, 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 52, Issue 38, Page A14) says:

Pope John Paul II struck a similar theme in a 1996 address focusing on science, in which he said theories of evolution that “consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.”

As I wrote yesterday, the flagging intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement seems to be hoping for some fresh energy to emerge from the work of psychiatric researcher Dr. Schwartz. Or at the very least they may be hoping that they can persuade the public that the mind does exist independently of the brain. But they are going to have a hard time getting traction for this idea within the neurobiology community. There seems to be a greater degree of unanimity among them about the material basis of the mind than there is among biologists about the sufficiency of natural selection.

Stephen F. Heinemann, president of the Society for Neuroscience and a professor in the molecular-neurobiology lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, Calif., echoed many scientists’ reactions when he said in an e-mail message, “I think the concept of the mind outside the brain is absurd.”

But the ability of the neurobiology community to do their work unfettered by religious scrutiny may be coming to an end as increasing numbers of people become aware of the consequences of accepting the idea that the mind is purely a product of the brain. People might reject this idea (and be attracted to the work of Dr. Schwartz), not because they have examined and rejected the scientific evidence in support of it, but because it threatens their religious views. As I discussed in an earlier posting, people who want to preserve a belief system will accept almost any evidence, however slender or dubious, if it seems to provide them with an option of retaining it. As the article says:

Though Dr. Schwartz’s theory has not won over many scientists, some neurobiologists worry that this kind of argument might resonate with the general public, for whom the concept of a soul, free will, and God seems to require something beyond the physical brain. “The truly radical and still maturing view in the neuroscience community that the mind is entirely the product of the brain presents the ultimate challenge to nearly all religions,” wrote Kenneth S. Kosik, a professor of neuroscience research at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in a letter to the journal Nature in January.
. . .
Dr. Kosik argues that the topic of the mind has the potential to cause much more conflict between scientists and the general public than does the issue of evolution. Many people of faith can easily accept the tenets of Darwinian evolution, but it is much harder for them to swallow the assumption of a mind that arises solely from the brain, he says. That issue he calls a “potential eruption.”

When researchers study the nature of consciousness, they find nothing that persuades them that the mind is anything but a product of the brain.

The reigning paradigm among researchers reduces every mental experience to the level of cross talk between neurons in our brains. From the perspective of mainstream science, the electrical and chemical communication among nerve cells gives rise to every thought, whether we are savoring a cup of coffee or contemplating the ineffable.
. . .
Mr. [Christof] Koch [a professor of cognitive and behavioral biology at the California Institute of Technology] collaborated for nearly two decades with the late Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, to produce a framework for understanding consciousness. The key, he says, is to look for the neural correlates of consciousness – the specific patterns of brain activity that correspond to particular conscious perceptions. Like Crick, Mr. Koch follows a strictly materialist paradigm that nerve interactions are responsible for mental states. In other words, he says, “no matter, never mind.”

Crick summed up the materialist theory in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (Scribner, 1994). He described that hypothesis as the idea that “your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

What many people may find ‘astonishing’ about Crick’s hypothesis is that among neurobiologists it is anything but astonishing. It is simply taken for granted as the way things are. Is it surprising that religious believers find such a conclusion unsettling?

Next: What does “free will” mean at a microscopic level?

POST SCRIPT: Why invading Iraq was morally and legally wrong

Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation has written a powerful essay that lays out very clearly the case of why the US invasion and occupation of Iraq is morally and legally indefensible, and why it has inevitably led to the atrocities that we are seeing there now, where reports are increasingly emerging of civilians being killed by US forces. Hornberger writes “I do know one thing: killing Iraqi children and other such “collateral damage” has long been acceptable and even “worth it” to U.S. officials as part of their long-time foreign policy toward Iraq.”

The article is well worth reading.

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