NeurostitionMay 22, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
What do you get when you cross neuroscience with superstition? One answer might be the word I made up for the title of this post. A somewhat longer answer, though, can be found in Chuck Colson’s latest post at townhall.com.
In a recent issue of the New York Times, respected columnist David Brooks described how what he calls a “revolution in neuroscience” is shaping “how people see the world.” I agree with him—up to a point…
Our brains are not “cold machines.” Rather, “meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.”
And Brooks is right when he says that research like this will turn the recent debates over atheism into a “sideshow.” There is simply no way to sustain a “hard-core” materialistic understanding of human consciousness and morality in light of the new research. Where does the consciousness and moral decision-making come from?
That’s a question with an interesting answer, but before we look into that, what shall we make of Colson’s triumphal declaration that recent neurological studies have sounded the death knell for materialism?
The studies Colson refers to have been extensively discussed and basically boil down to doing brain scans of various types on people who are answering questions about morality, like “is it ok to kill a baby whose cries might mean death for villagers hiding from enemy soldiers,” etc. The scans revealed that certain parts of the brain “light up” when the person is busy making moral judgments, indicating that these areas are the structures that compute the “moral calculus” of the question.
Needless to say, this is exactly what a materialist would expect to find: morality comes from the physical operation (measurable by scientific instruments) of specific physical structures in the brain. What’s Colson so happy about then? What makes him think this is atheism’s last gasp? His logic seems a bit strained, but apparently he thinks that the physical mechanisms of morality are “programmed” into us, as in “we’re the work of an Intelligent Programmer” or something.
[This research] corroborates the biblical idea that we are, to use a modern phrase, “hard-wired” for spirituality and God. It suggests that we are irresistibly religious, as philosophers have always argued.
Notice, however, that ascribing this situation to God is merely superstition, not evidence. (It’s also confusing morality with spirituality, but we’ll let that slide.) The research confirms that people are naturally moral, to be sure, but we’ve always known that people are moral. The non-supernaturalist view has always been that this is simply a function of our biology, and not some mystical, magical law operating in and through us. And guess what? That’s just what the research shows: physical functions operate to produce moral judgments.
Colson is claiming that brain structure has a supernatural cause, but he does not demonstrate any verifiable connection between his purported cause and the structure of the brain, nor can he even describe how such a connection could be verified if it did exist. And that’s the definition of superstition: asserting a cause-and-effect relationship where the neither the cause nor its connection to the effect is verifiable (or even describable). If Jehovah, Loki, Athena and Pele (the volcano god, not the soccer star) were put in a police line-up and accused of having tampered with the programming of the human mind, they’d all have to be let go, because there’s no objective evidence to link any of them to the crime. Colson’s claim is a mere superstitious attribution, not an explanation.
Colson would like to argue that this research shows “we have the law of God written on our hearts,” as the Apostle Paul put it. But again, that’s not what the research shows.
Volunteers are asked whether killing the child to save the others is justified. …[T]he vast majority say “no”—thankfully
In other words, our brains are not pre-programmed with black-and-white answers to moral questions (otherwise all the participants would have responded with the same programming). What we have are subjective moral judgments, a biological mechanism that derives an ad hoc answer based on the weighted assessment of a number of inputs. Again, this is a physical function responding to a number of physical variables, just as we would expect to find in a material being like man. (And, by the way, the whole idea of moral “programming” contradicts the notion that men have some kind of free will that God is eager and/or obligated to keep His hands off of.)
Immaterialists would like to have us believe that the true center of consciousness is non-corporeal, an ethereal “soul” that exercises will, moral judgment, consciousness, and so on, independently of the material body. The brain, in their view, functions as a mere interface between the immaterial soul and the physical organism.
Colson alludes to this when he suggests that materialism has no answers to the question “Where does the consciousness and moral decision-making come from?” But in fact the research indicates that Colson’s answer is not the correct one. If the brain were indeed a mere interface between physical senses on the one side and an immaterial soul on the other, it would need circuits enabling it to function as a transmitter (of sensory data to the soul) and receiver (of commands from the soul). We ought to find that these same transmitter/receiver circuits lighting up for all body-soul interactions, whether the soul is making moral judgments, or exercising its will power, or simply experiencing consciousness. Communication with the soul ought to show up as the primary, not to say exclusive, function of the brain.
That’s not what we’re finding, however. We’re finding that the various facets of consciousness and personality reside in the brain, in physical brain structures that physically process the various different aspects of our personality. The “soul” is not something that operates externally on the brain, but is a function of the brain, a pattern of biochemical activity physically real enought to register on scientific instruments. Thus, consciousness is not something that passes through the brain (i.e. from a non-corporeal soul), it is something physically generated by the brain. For Colson to claim that this research shows that materialism cannot explain consciousness is like some guy claiming a botanist couldn’t possibly find a forest with all these trees in the way.
What neuroscientists are trying to do now is to discern which neurological patterns correspond to which perceived aspects of consciousness—a task not unlike trying to describe the harmony of a symphony in terms of the distribution of rapidly fluctuating variations in air pressure. Small wonder that the task rapidly exhausts our limited human ability to assimilate and synthesize large amounts of finely-detailed data. Who knows when, or if, we’ll be able to truly understand it all.
But ignorance is fertile soil for superstition. So long as science continues to ask new questions, people like Chuck Colson are going to claim that their God is the answer, superstition or not. And perhaps it gives them some comfort to think so, but it does nothing to enhance our understanding of the real world. Meanwhile, science keeps learning. Thank God.