Late in life, Darwin wrote, “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
While Darwin might have some doubts about the fully ‘naturalized mind”, most of his current supporters believe and feel good about it. By itself, using their own terms and definitions we cannot disconfirm their own intrinsic faith. They propose a variety of material explanations for the mind, the most unimaginable complex of entities, the mind.
Many people grow up with science as the business end of naturalist atheism. They have been taught that a “scientific” explanation is one that describes a universe devoid of meaning, value, or purpose. That is how we know it is a scientific explanation.
Science wasn’t always understood that way, and this approach has consequences. It means, for example, that multi-verse cosmology can consist entirely of evidence-free assumptions. Only a few try to question whether it is science and generally get dismissed as being old-fashioned or the product of religious dogma.
Physicist Carlo Rovelli sounds distinctly old-fashioned when he says, “Science does not advance by guessing.” What is a scientific advance? If science means accepting theories of the universe — irrespective of evidence, because they sound remotely like theism — then guessing is an accepted and acceptable strategy of science.
Origin-of-life studies are “scientific” to the extent that they seek an origin without any intelligent cause. If a century and a half of dead end explorations and theories, prompts no rethink of the basics; neither would a millennium. Even when probability theorists show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that an intelligent cause is necessary, the correct explanation is rejected out of hand because it is not “scientific.”
In studies of human evolution, the starting point is that “humans are evolved primates, a possible exceptional twig on the tree of life, though like many other twigs, we are just accidental outliers.” And no finding that doesn’t support that interpretation can be considered “science.” Any thesis that does support it, even that humans are chimp-pig hybrids, may be considered scientific
So the “scientific” approach to the most marvelous of entities, the human mind, means interpreting it in a naturalist and materialist way.
Along the course of this series of articles, we will look at the problem of consciousness and the conundrums that free will, altruism, and religion create for naturalism. We will examine “evolutionary” claims about psychology, politics, business, and art. Political, social, and educational leaders often take these claims seriously. They need only be fully ‘naturalist’ to qualify as science.
Most partial or whole explanations of the human mind propose one of the following models:
- The brain randomly generates illusions that self-organize as a “mind.” Behavior is thus better accounted for by the study of neurons and how they interact (neuroscience) than the study of the illusory “mind.”
- Our hominoid ancestors passed on hypothetical genes via natural selection acting on random mutation. These claimed (not yet defined or demonstrated) genes result in our attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavior — mistakenly seen as the outcome of thought processes (evolutionary psychology).
- These genes ‘determine’ behavior in the present day. These include the “bad driver” gene, the infidelity gene, the liberal gene, the ‘rapist’ gene, the ‘addict’ gene of the ‘abusive’ gene for starters. Whether or not such claims correspond to how genes work, the pop science media deems them plausible because they are ‘naturalist’. They allow us to bypass widespread ‘illusions’ such as moral and intellectual choice.
- How our primate cousins’ behavior in the wild can explain our behavior is the common assumption, because we are 98 percent chimpanzee. ‘Naturalism’ means never having to ask commonsense questions like: If chimps’ behavior explains ours, why didn’t they continue to develop (in any evolutionary direction) as we did? Naturalism simply does not allow such questions to be asked of it. It is true without evidence, and cannot be confuted by evidentiary failures.
- Artificial intelligence enthusiasts hope to create ‘conscious’ machines with superior intelligence or a ‘material mind’. 2020 is the current apocalypse year according to some. However preposterous, if it is naturalist, it is science.
While their explanations can rarely be disconfirmed when using the naturalists’ own rules, they can, of course, be dissected, falsified, and sometimes just plain show the absurdities for what they are. We will do that using the facts based upon reasonable doubt.
It will be a difficult challenge for us because the evidence does not support them, but the culture does.
The clearest exponent of the culture is Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who proudly advocates scientism: “Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about.” Elsewhere he writes: “Ultimately, science and scientism are going to give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, inside or outside of our minds.”
Many neuroscientists would just say, “The mind is what the brain does.” Their claim cannot be directly assailed because it is “science,” that is, it supports ‘naturalism’.
In 2009, New York Times politically correct science writer David Brooks informed us that: “I’m free to speculate that the work in progress will someday give us new categories, which will replace misleading categories like “emotion” and “reason”.”
Why are these categories misleading? Maybe because they rely on human experience, not just brain claims that can be reduced to on/off or yes/no. The ‘naturalists’ seem to think we are dealing with computers and not our minds that exists within our living brain.
In the field of “long and important” neuroscience, new pop books have flooded the market, simplifying complex human behavior by the magic of brain scanning: Nudge (getting one’s way) and Blink (thinking without thinking) are two of the more popular tomes.
Both the United States and the European Union are throwing billions of dollars at projects designed to map the human brain. Neuroscientists worry that more is being promised than can be delivered. For one thing, fMRI (brain imaging) shows which brain areas have high oxygen levels when a person is thinking something. It simply cannot tell us what people are thinking, because many brain centers are active and those that are active may be activated for many reasons. Each brain is unique so data from studies must be averaged. But thoughts are not averaged; they belong to each individual.
Two hundred and fifty scientists are protesting the European Human Brain Project on the grounds that a proposed computer simulation isn’t realistic for understanding basic brain function. Indeed, the main practical effect of more and better neuroscience has been to blow up conventional neuroscience assumptions or pop legends:
- The brain cannot regenerate. In reality the brain is constantly fine-tuning itself by its uses throughout life.
- The “reptilian brain” explains objectionable human behavior. The idea originated in the 1970s, based on the fact that we share a brain area near the stem with reptiles. So some attributed “reptilian” behavior to that area. But in reality, socially objectionable behavior is mediated by many areas of the brain.
- Humans can be divided into left- and right-brained thinkers. Such claims have no solid basis in science. As Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller wrote in a Wall Street Journal recently: “The brain doesn’t work one part at a time, but rather as a single interactive system, with all parts contributing in concert, as neuroscientists have long known.”
- We use only 10 percent of our brains. That’s hardly possible, because unused areas would likely be reassigned or eliminated, you know, through the process of evolution.
- Mirror neurons are crucial to how primates (including humans) understand the actions of others. This 1990s idea resulted in the idea of the ability of mirror neurons to inform the primate brain’s “action understanding.” Several neuroscientists, have reevaluated the roles played by these neurons.
- Dyslexia is strongly associated with high intelligence. Guesswork by social sciences trying to create a solution for a cause is common, but the data behind this surprising dyslexia claim is not believable.”
- Then we have the case of neuroscientist who discovered that, according to his interpretation of brain scans he had reviewed he would have to diagnose himself as a psychopath, which led him to rethink this approach.
- Even New Scientist admits that brain science is drowning in uncertainty and in any event, amassing data to be viewed is only a start- determining what data and how it should be viewed is still being defined.
A surprising turn of events is that pushback (“neuroskepticism”) is increasing within the discipline. The Scientist admitted that there are issues in a respectful review of a
book addressing some of them:
“Brains are hot,” Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld acknowledge in Brainwashed, their “exposé of mindless neuroscience” (mostly practiced not by neuroscientists, they stress, but by “neuropundits,” among others). The “mediagenic” technology of fMRI imaging has made the brain, aglow with metabolic hotspots, into a rainbow emblem of the faith that science will soon empower us to explain, control, expose, exploit, or excuse every wayward human behavior from buying to lying, from craving to crime.
“Neuropundits?” Terminology like that and neuroessentialism (“using the terms of neuroscience as evidence for claims made in psychological or sociological frameworks”) now abounds — when neuroscientists are being polite.
When they are not so nice to each other, one may also hear neurohype, neuro-nonsense and neurotrash.
It is somewhat unusual during the reign of naturalism for so much dissent to come from within the discipline, as it has in neuroscience. Most cosmologists accommodate untestable multiverse cosmologies, origin-of-life researchers guard naturalism zealously despite its fruitlessness, and human paleontologists are more numerous than important fossils, with the usual results of much ado about nothing. Why is human brain research so different?
First, there are some anomalies that completely defy the naturalists position and they have no answer for it (which any good theory should). For example, we have the case of the man rendered significantly brain-absent in an accident and achieved a remarkable recovery- he lived and could do tasks attending to his own body, he was not in a vegetative state. And the normal 88-year-old man whose brain had never had a connection between the two halves of the corpus callosum. Other possible individuals with conditions as anomalous as these may function normally but have never presented themselves for a brain scan. These cases warn us that a brain is not just a material object like a car, and a mind is not just an illusion it creates.
There is also the fact that most people think of neuroscience as part of medicine. That tends to ground its clinical practice in the real world, when it is mainly theoretical research.
It is still conventional to assert that the mind is not merely the brain. Does neuroscience’s stubbornness in the face of materialism portend big changes? If all we want from an explanation is that it be naturalist, all other values can be fudged or ignored. Next we must address the conundrum of consciousness itself.
Researchers early on decided to embrace naturalism as the method of proof of ‘consciousness’. Decades later, they have not discovered anything that reduces basic, overlapping concepts such as consciousness, the mind, the self, or free will to naturalistic explanations. There is no serious scientific theory of consciousness now, and none appearing on the horizon.
When we are conscious, we are both observers and observed. Greg Peterson suggests, “It is as if we were trying to look both in and out of the window at the same time.”[i] Lack of objectivity is only one difficulty. Consciousness cannot be observed directly. There is no single center of consciousness in the brain. Nor is it a by-product or a mechanism of the brain.
Research has taught a few things, of course. Self-talk, for example, was found to take up a quarter of conscious experience. We have also detected consciousness in patients in a vegetative state by showing an Alfred Hitchcock movie — which demonstrated, among other things, that some of his films really can, almost wake the dead.
But the difficulties are formidable, even if naturalist approaches can solve them. For one thing, as neurobiologist Nicholas Spitzer explains, the neuroscience is fairly new: “We have a hundred billion neurons in each human brain … Right now, the best we can do is to record the electrical activity of maybe a few hundred of those neurons.”
Evolution hasn’t turned out to be much help. Human and monkey brains are more similar than expected, which only makes the gap between the species harder for naturalists to account for.
The popular science media have told a stories at odds with the state of the research. Science writer Michael Lemonick announced in Time (1995), ” … consciousness is somehow a by-product of the simultaneous, high-frequency firing of neurons in different parts of the brain. It’s the meshing of these frequencies that generates consciousness … just as the tones from individual instruments produce the rich, complex and seamless sound of a symphony orchestra.”[ii] Francis Crick and Christof Koch, who put forward that concept, considered it highly speculative from the beginning. And Crick prudently hedged his bets anyway by saying that Darwinian evolution did not equip our brains for such tasks as understanding consciousness.[iii]
The result is that there are many theories of consciousness. Here are a few that have made the news recently:
One model, self-organized criticality, has survived its pioneer, Per Bak (1948-2002): The brain is an incredibly complex machine. Each of its tens of billions of neurons is connected to thousands of others, and their interactions give rise to the emergent process we call “thinking.” According to Bak, the electrical activity of brain cells shift back and forth between calm periods and avalanches — just like the grains of sand in his sand pile — so that the brain is always balanced precariously right at that the critical point.
Critics have said things like “a good scientific theory must be more than elegant and beautiful,” and besides, it is “ridiculously broad.” In other words we have to make the theory complex so very few can understand it and make it fit only the concepts we want to include.
Even more ambitious, Christof Koch is now championing a new approach, a panpsychism in which consciousness arises out of complex systems. As Wired tells it: All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the Internet could be. That’s just the way the universe works.
Okay, so humans, earthworms, and maybe even the Internet are conscious. How does such a model help explain what ‘consciousness’ is? And are there varying degrees of ‘consciousness’? Is an earthworm ‘aware’ of the length and breadth of the world, does the internet ‘know’ how big it is?
There is also a “quiet revolution” going on in theoretical physics: “A new way of thinking about consciousness is sweeping through science like wildfire”: Consciousness is a state of matter. Cosmologist Max Tegmark defines it as: “the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware,” and suggests the term “perceptronium.” Apparently, since cosmologists and astrophysicists are having trouble explaining the amazing amount of made up concepts in their field, why not cross over to another field such as neurobiology?
Meanwhile, LiveScience tells us, “Scientists Closing in on Theory of Consciousness,” offering a list of the current competing and unproven theories. But not a single exciting new breakthrough on anything.
The fact that this stuff sounds unserious shouldn’t blind us to a key cultural outcome of its dominance: Alternative medicine proponent Deepak Chopra was ridiculed at Forbes for saying “Consciousness may exist in photons, which seem to be the carrier of all information in the universe.” Yet great physicists have said similar things. Max Planck said “I regard matter as a derivative of consciousness.” And Koch, remember, thinks the Internet may be conscious. But are he or Max Tegmark (“perceptronium”) so easily ridiculed in the same places?
The standard is probably this: Koch and Tegmark are assumed to be naturalists and Chopra certainly doesn’t sound like one. Irrespective of the state of the evidence, actual or perceived naturalism distinguishes the genius from the fool.
One does, however see the beginnings of a pushback. The Scientist recently featured a cautiously favorable review of a new book trashing the idea that current neuroscience is close to “reading minds.” Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by psychiatrist Sally Satel and psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, explains why we should properly be skeptical of pop media claims about the power of fMRI imaging.
What we are seeing is probably not a retreat from materialism. It is rather a recognition that, facing a hard problem, we need more rigorous research, less hype. Along those lines, an interesting letter in Physics Today offers: “Surely, not only the question of the origin of life, which Keith Schofield raised in his letter (Physics Today, August 2012, page 12), but questions of consciousness and of free will may be beyond the bounds of science. For instance, what measuring devices, other than human beings themselves, can we use to detect human consciousness? Clearly, purely physical data cannot penetrate the mystery that is the human mind.”
Perhaps we need to start with careful thought about “the bounds of science.”
The problem of consciousness is being made much harder by the effort to reduce it to a fourth state of matter. To continue the absurdity it would be like trying to reduce the U.S. Constitution to an ice cream flavor.
Naturalism (the view that it’s material nature all the way the cosmos to our ‘consciousness’) hasn’t done much better with human language than with consciousness. The problem is that the things we communicate to each other are often ideas that nature can never know. Whether it is “We hold these truths …” or “Love your neighbor as yourself,” these phrases are not the opinion of nature as such but of a specifically human nature, which we explore when we explore the human mind. The phrases have a meaning beyond the simplicity of the words themselves.
Naturalist approaches to language suffer from a superficiality that would feel far more embarrassing if the basic doctrine were not so widely believed.
We do know some natural facts about language. Communication barriers tend to result in development of new dialects for a language which may eventually grow into an entirely distinguishable language on its own.. For example, people who are separated for many generations become mutually incomprehensible. There is a competing tendency for minority languages to simply disappear in the vicinity of a majority language. This is principally because most key social opportunities will be offered to speakers of the majority language. The difference between Spanish in Mexico and Tex-Mex of Southwest Texas is remarkable.
On the other hand, there are no “primitive” languages, in the way that we can speak of “primitive” technology (knapped stone vs. high-grade steel). It is possible to translate the Bible into any language, despite its ancient origin and the complexity of its tangled multi-kingdom histories and abstruse theological arguments. Yet there is something natural about language — natural to humans, that is.
Some say the world looks different to speakers of different languages; others ridicule the idea. It’s hard to say. The people who use a language will tend to put their own stamp on the particular ideas various words convey. The world may indeed appear different to them, but that’s not the fault of the word stock or the grammar so much as what they habitually believe these words to mean.
Yet one hears little of these subtle questions when one turns to naturalist accounts of language. We are still where we were. Humans learn to talk and animals do not. Not all the argumentation or insult available to the naturalists has ever changed this.
Not that they haven’t tried. Experts have apparently dated the origin of human language as anywhere from half a billion to 50,000 years old (which is not specific enough to be of much use for anything). We are informed that “learning to talk is in the genes,” due to the identification of the ROBO2 gene, related to the number of words spoken by children in the early stages of language development. Further, researchers have shown that when mice were genetically engineered to express the human version of a gene, Foxp2, they ran mazes much faster than other mice. (“The key finding was therefore that the humanized Foxp2 gene makes it easier to turn mindful actions into behavioral routines.”) Yet the mice still had nothing to say.
Chimpanzees, we learn, can use gestures to communicate when hunting for food: Researchers at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center examined how two language-trained chimpanzees communicated with a human experimenter to find food. Their results are the most compelling evidence to date that primates can use gestures to coordinate actions in pursuit of a specific goal.
But so can bees. So, how and when will this all explain how you and I can communicate ideas, agree or disagree with those ideas?
One aspect of the problem is that human language often includes “qualia,” concepts whose overlapping meanings somehow connect all of us. Consider the word “liberty.” It could mean anything from the millennial traditions of a sovereign people to releasing thousands of factory farm turkeys from a tractor trailer onto a highway, to advertise animal rights. Yet we all adjust our understanding of the word when discussing the issue at hand.
Some would rid us of qualia. W. Alex Escobar has explained that “Breaking down experiences into millions of parts may help explain consciousness.” Yes, that should help us understand our memories of our late grandma’s pecan pie cake-: break the pie up into millions of parts.
Seriously, because language is so intrinsically human, it resists the mechanistic handling naturalism requires.
Yes, there can certainly be a science of language but it will be more like information science, and not at all like naturalism.
[i] Greg Peterson”God on the Brain: The Neurobiology of Faith”, Christian Century, January 27, 1999. A review of The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet by James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright (Pilgrim 1999).
[ii] Michael D. Lemonick “Glimpses of the Mind,” Time Magazine (July 17, 1995)
[iii] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Simon and Schuster Touchstone, 1995), p. 262.