Tom Gilson

“War over the brain”

Amanda Gefter wrote in New Scientist on October, 22,

Could the next battleground in the ID movement’s war on science be the brain?

[Link: Creationists declare war over the brain – brain – 22 October 2008 – New Scientist]

Some key excerpts:

The article is riddled with words like “worry,” “attack,” “war,” “threat.” Gefter tried to make it seem such language comes from the non-material side primarily, but the effect of it all on materialist scientists shows clearly.

Clearly, while there is a genuine attempt to appropriate neuroscience, it will not influence US laws or education in the way that anti-evolution campaigns can because neuroscience is not taught as part of the core curriculum in state-funded schools. But as Andy Clark, professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, UK, emphasises: “This is real and dangerous and coming our way.”

He and others worry because scientists have yet to crack the great mystery of how consciousness could emerge from firing neurons. “Progress in science is slow on many fronts,” says John Searle, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley. “We don’t yet have a cure for cancer, but that doesn’t mean cancer has spiritual causes.”

Gefter’s last word is,

What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain – and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the “God of the gaps”.

What can scientists do? Let’s back that question up a step. What can scientists do for what? What are they so concerned to protect? Just this, it seems: science’s hegemony on knowledge; its ownership of all explanations; its insistence that it is the sole source of information. Other than that, what threat does this pose science?

Well, yes, there’s more. Philosophy of mind “threatens” to show that material explanations are not entirely sufficient. That opens the door another crack for the dreaded Intelligent Design to enter.

Be afraid, materialist science. Be very afraid.

I’ll add this before closing: the Evangelical Philosophical Society has also responded to Gefter’s article on their blog, including several corrections of factual errors, and this from J.P. Moreland:

The simple truth is that in both science and philosophy, strict physicalist analysis of consciousness and the self have been breaking down since the mid-1980s. The problems with physicalism have nothing directly to do with theism; they follow from rigorous treatments of consciousness and the self as we know them to be. The real problem comes in trying to explain its origin and for this problem, naturalism in general and Darwinism in particular, are useless. In my view, the only two serious contenders are theism and panpsychism which, contrary to the musings of some, has throughout the history of philosophy been correctly taken as a rival to and not a specification of naturalism.

Angus Menuge also corrected Patricia Churchland’s assertion that non-material views of mind come from an argument from ignorance:

At any given time, scientists should infer the best current explanation of the available evidence, and right now, the best evidence from both neuroscience and rigorous philosophical analysis is that consciousness is not reducible to the physical. Churchland’s refusal to draw this inference is based not on evidence, but on what Karl Popper called “promissory materialism,” a reliance on the mere speculative possibility of a materialistic explanation. Since this attitude can be maintained indefinitely, it means that even if a non-materialist account is correct (and supported by overwhelming evidence), that inconvenient truth can always be ignored.

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5 thoughts on ““War over the brain”

  1. Let’s say it happened, Tom, and ID was accepted. What would that mean to you? How do you anticipate it would change your life and your world?

  2. Hi, os,

    It’s been a busy weekend. Sorry to be so slow responding. I devoted a post to a question like yours once.

    In view of the current article, I think a more interesting question is, how would materialist scientists’ lives and world change? The evidence of articles like this is that they don’t just disagree with nonmaterialist explanations, they fear them. What’s so frightening?

  3. ordinary seeker wrote:

    What would that mean to you?


    … Update Monday morning: for those who wonder what “Tewar” means 🙂 — it’s random text. I was testing a new wordpress plugin that allows the user to quote from prior comments more easily. I quoted part of os’s comment, typed a random string, and entered. Then since it was meaningless I deleted it.

    Now I know that one effect of that plugin I tested was that it interfered with deletions done that way. I thought I was deleting it, but it didn’t happen. The plugin has gone to the grave of failed blog experiments.

    So the bottom line is, “Tewar” has nothing to do with anything whatsoever.

  4. The most that can be said about recent physicalist accounts is that reductivistic physicalism is seen to be inadequate while non-reductivistic accounts still has some great potential.

    And as I argued on the EPS blog, the introspective arguments used so frequently by Moreland are simply inadequate: there is nothing in ‘introspection’ that even hints at the existence of an un-extended soul. The very examples he uses are rife with spatially situated language, as is our experience of the things he mentions. For that reason, it is unclear what the dualistic account has to offer.

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