"P. Z. Myers's Neurons Give Talk" 

Neuroscience is all the rage these days (see here and links within) among people who want to deny spiritual reality. Our atheist friend P.Z. Myers has apparently jumped aboard with a talk delivered to the Minnesota Atheists. There's no transcript available, but apparently Michael Egnor was able to get hold of an abstract of sorts.

[Update July 24: I received word by email from Minnesota Atheists that a podcast of this talk should be available at their website in a couple weeks or so. It will also be on iTunes as "Atheists Talk."] 

Myers was saying,

"We've made great strides in the past century towards understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that drive brain function, and I will briefly present an overview of some of the major conclusions of that work. In short, though, what we have are sophisticated molecular regulators and sensors and effectors and modulators that generate patterned impulses in pathways throughout the brain, and the mind is ultimately reducible to highly organized chemistry—there's no room for ghosts, souls, or spirits, and no need for them, either.

"Recently, researchers have made progress in identifying the neural substrates of higher level patterns of thought. This work is much more tentative, and we have to be aware of the limitations of our interpretations, which is a consequence of the complexity of the data. I will discuss one narrow aspect of this research, the neural basis of religious belief, and explanations for its evolution. Religious belief is an emergent consequence of much broader genetically determined properties of the brain; I will make the argument that there is no 'god gene', no specific hard-coding of religion into human brains, and that religion itself is a kind of conceptual parasite that takes advantage of other desirable and even 'virtuous' intrinsic qualities of the brain."

Dr. Egnor's rejoinder to this is, as usual, sharp and clear. I won't retrace his steps. There is one point on which he could have said more, though:

"[T]here's no room for ghosts, souls, or spirits..."

By "room," Myers certainly didn't mean that all the space inside the skull is packed so full of other things that it's too crowded for a soul to squeeze in. He would not be so naive as to make that mistake. But he's close to being that naive. Here's why. (Admittedly I don't know what he said in the rest of his talk, but this is an educated guess based on other things he writes, and what others in his camp also write.)

The "room" to which he's likely referring is conceptual space. He and others are saying that we now know enough about how the brain works that we can (at least in principle) explain everything it does, by its chemical and physical processes. So there's nothing left to explain, no work left for a soul to do, nothing for spirit to contribute. The naivete of this is (among other things already pointed out by Egnor) that it pays no heed to the counterargument.

At least one of the opposing positions is substance dualism, which says, sure, there are brain processes, and of course they are a necessary aspect of mental life, but they are not sufficient; and there is a non-physical reality which is also involved in mental processes. When neuroscientists discover details of physical and mental processes in the brain, that has no impact on the truth or falsity of substance dualism. Substance dualism is a philosophical conclusion, derived from phenomena like consciousness, the sense of continuing unified personal identity, rationality, moral knowledge, and more. It is perfectly at home with the idea that mental processes require the brain, and that functions are expressed through physical and chemical processes in the brain. It accepts that a healthy functioning brain is a necessary condition for mental processes (and life, behavior, etc.) but shows philosophically that the brain is not a sufficient condition for these things.

(Substance dualism also has Biblical support, in addition to its philosophical grounding, in my opinion; but it doesn't appear to be necessary to believe in the Bible to be a substance dualist, nor does it appear to be necessary to be a substance dualist if one believes in the Bible.)

That's not a full exposition of substance dualism, nor is it meant to be. My purpose is just to name the problem that P.Z. Myers overlooked. And here is where he and others embarrass themselves. They claim to have disproved a position that they don't even address. If they intend to show there is no soul, they ought at least to pay attention to what they're trying to disprove. They are ignorant of it, or they blithely assume it's safe to ignore it. They are so secure in their naturalistic scientism--which does indeed dominate much of the discussion--that they believe they can assume its truth. But that is circular: you can't prove there is no soul by assuming naturalistic scientism is true; you would be assuming your conclusion. You have to show scientific naturalism to be true, or you have to conduct your disproof of soul in other ways.

I'm not seeing much of either being done.

(P.S. I've said recently there's no time for blogging while I'm at this CCC staff conference. It doesn't seem to work that way, though. It's been said that if you wonder whether you should be a writer, the answer is no; if you can't stop yourself from being a writer, then maybe you should be. [I just had an article accepted by Discipleship Journal, by the way, for publication next year.] I was actually getting anxious for not taking quiet times alone to think; and for me, thinking and reading and writing are hard to separate. So I had to get up early this morning to find a coffee shop and a chance to catch up. To sort of catch up, that is; I'm only able to pop in here for this one entry, until the next time I find myself compelled to get up early and do it again.) 

Posted: Mon - July 23, 2007 at 09:45 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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