The Case for a Creator: Belief and Decision

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

The essence of science isn’t test tubes or lab coats, but a special kind of scrupulous intellectual honesty. It’s the willingness to try to prove yourself wrong, to subject your own ideas to the most rigorous, make-or-break tests you can conceive of. Equally as important, it’s the willingness to consider every plausible alternative and weigh them all fairly – and if a competing hypothesis explains the data better than your own, to acknowledge that and respond accordingly.

This is a standard that this book doesn’t meet, and chapter 10 shows why. A recurring theme of this chapter is that Strobel and Moreland consider only the simplest possible hypotheses of how the brain causes consciousness – and when they identify a weakness, they conclude that not just that hypothesis, but all the more complex alternatives as well, are false.

In this section, Strobel has asked, “What positive evidence is there that consciousness and the self are not merely a physical product of the brain?” Here’s how Moreland responds:

“For example, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated the brains of epilepsy patients and found he could cause them to move their arms or legs, turn their heads or eyes, talk, or swallow. Invariably the patient would respond by saying, ‘I didn’t do that. You did.’….
No matter how much Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he said, ‘There is no place… where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.’ That’s because those functions originate in the conscious self, not the brain.” [p.258]

This argument only works if you assume an extremely simplistic model of consciousness: that beliefs and decisions originate from one single spot in the brain, and by poking that spot, you can activate the processes that produce them. But this is unlikely in any plausible materialistic view of consciousness. It’s much more likely that these higher-order functions involve the coordinated activity of many brain regions, since after all, forming a belief or making a decision necessarily requires integrating many different sources of input. In fact, Moreland’s view that simple electrical stimulation should produce beliefs and decisions would make more sense under a Christian view of the brain – like that of Descartes, who believed there was a single anatomical region (the pineal gland) where the brain interfaced with the soul and received its marching orders.

But you’ll notice that Moreland, unintentionally I’m sure, has committed himself to a completely testable claim: if we have a soul, our beliefs and decisions originate there and not in the brain. Therefore, it’s a necessary consequence of his view that no physical alteration of the brain, whether caused by accident, disease or anything else, should cause a person to believe or decide in a particular way.

Well, if that’s his challenge, I’m happy to take him up on it. It may be that Penfield’s crude electrical stimulation didn’t cause his patients to form beliefs or make decisions, but there are many types of brain disorders that do exactly this. I’ll list a few, all of which are described in greater detail in my essay “A Ghost in the Machine“:

Capgras’ syndrome: Sometimes occurs in people suffering from schizophrenia, dementia, or head injury. The patient suddenly begins to insist that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an impostor who looks and acts exactly like the missing individual. This meets Moreland’s criterion of brain injury causing a person to believe.

Frontotemporal dementia: A disease similar to Alzheimer’s that causes degeneration in the frontal lobes of the brain. Individuals suffering from the early stages of FTD have been known to show dramatic changes in their personal likes and dislikes, political preferences, and even their religion. This meets Moreland’s criterion of brain injury causing a person to decide.

Environmental dependency syndrome: Often caused by tumors pressing on the frontal lobes or other types of frontal lobe dysfunction. Patients with this disorder act as if their behavior is governed by external cues rather than internal decisions. They also show dramatically reduced impulse control, often choosing to act in ways they previously never would have done. One famous case is Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman who survived a freak accident that destroyed part of the frontal loes of his brain, but in the aftermath, baffled his friends and family by transforming from a diligent, well-respected worker to a lazy, shiftless drifter.

Akinesia: Unlike paralysis, the inability to move, akinesia is the unwillingness to move. Akinesia sufferers lose the motivation to do anything except respond to the most immediate needs. Again, this condition is often caused by tumors or brain damage. One case I detail in my essay is of a Baptist preacher who quit his church because he no longer felt like going to work. When a surgeon removed a tumor pressing on his frontal lobes, he soon regained his motivation and returned to work.

All these disorders, and others like them, are totally inexplicable on Moreland’s view. If the soul is the source of belief and decision and is not dependent on the brain, as he insists, then we should never find cases like this. On the dualist view, we might expect to find cases where the soul’s “lines of communication” to the body were cut by brain damage, but that should only produce effects like paralysis or coma, not actual alterations to a person’s desires and personality. But the dualist view clashes with reality. In cases like the ones I’ve described, people can still do exactly what they want; the problem is that what they want has changed.

Strobel and Moreland never address evidence like this, so it’s hard to tell how they would respond to it. The thoroughly mechanistic nature of consciousness, and the fact that it can be changed by changing the brain, as surely as a computer can be reprogrammed, is evidence that Christian apologists in general haven’t acknowledged or come to terms with. But to anyone who’s familiar with the discoveries of modern neuroscience, the idea that beliefs and decisions originate somewhere other than the brain, in some separate and supernatural “conscious self”, is as laughable as the idea that mental illness is caused by demonic possession.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • CSN

    How about any and all medications (or recreational drugs) that act on the central nervous system? Perhaps not structural changes but chemical changes that can drastically change a person. What’s more, prolonged use of some of these can permanently reshape the way a person’s brain works, so it’s not just a temporary distortion of the God-antenna caused by the presence of the drug itself.

  • silentsanta

    There’s some even more devastating evidence emerging recently: This article describes an experiment in which a magnetic field applied to the brain can alter people’s sense of morality.

    The full scientific paper is found here (login details required) but I haven’t read it myself yet.

  • silentsanta

    Abstract for that article:

    When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we rely on our capacity to infer the actor’s mental states (e.g., beliefs, intentions). Here, we test the hypothesis that the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), an area involved in mental state reasoning, is necessary for making moral judgments. In two experiments, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt neural activity in the RTPJ transiently before moral judgment (experiment 1, offline stimulation) and during moral judgment (experiment 2, online stimulation). In both experiments, TMS to the RTPJ led participants to rely less on the actor’s mental states. A particularly striking effect occurred for attempted harms (e.g., actors who intended but failed to do harm): Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible. Thus, interfering with activity in the RTPJ disrupts the capacity to use mental states in moral judgment, especially in the case of attempted harms.

    Liane Young, Joan Albert Camprodon, Marc Hauser, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, and Rebecca Saxe. Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. March 29, 2010.

  • lpetrich

    The magnetic field itself does not have a direct effect. It’s produced by electric-current pulses in TMS coils that last a few hundred microseconds, and it induces electric fields that affect the neurons.

    There’s a further problem with dualism and the “soul antenna” theory of the brain: why would an immaterial soul need such a big and complicated antenna?

  • http://pointlessness.arc-nova.org/ Serenity

    Something I found while looking up Phineas Gage, which may be worth noting in light of the “lazy, shiftless drifter” portrayal above:

    By late 2008 an advertisement for a previously unknown public appearance by Gage had been discovered, as well as a report of his physical and mental condition during his time in Chile, a description of what may well have been his daily work routine there as a stagecoach driver, and more recently an ad for a second public appearance. This new information suggests that the seriously maladapted Gage described by Harlow may have existed for only a limited time after the accident—that Phineas eventually “figured out how to live” despite his injury, and was in later life far more functional, and socially far better adapted, than has been thought.

    Wikipedia – Phineas Gage, Current Research

  • Tacroy

    This is one of the things I don’t understand about religion. If someone prefaced a complicated mathematical argument with “Assume 1 + 1 = 3″, you wouldn’t argue against their complicated argument – you would say “well, but 1 + 1 clearly does not equal 3, so who cares?”

    Almost all religions are the same way – assuming a soul exists, the righteous go to heaven; assuming a soul exists, sinners go to hell; assuming a soul exists, we may be reincarnated. Why do people argue against the going to heaven part, when the assumption of souls is so clearly false?

  • http://feralboy12.com feralboy12

    Well, some would say those diseases are caused by demons claiming one’s soul.
    Of course, when you’re allowed to posit demons it’s pretty easy to explain away reality.

  • Zietlos

    Demons begone!

    The real devils are, of course, in the details. I guess if what feralboy12 says is true, the Amish have it right, eh? Car accidents, as opposed to horse and buggy accidents, are far more likely to cause possession by a demon. Motorcycles even more than that. In fact, the faster you’re moving, the more likely that demons will possess you if you suddenly stop and live to tell the tale. This means demons must view a different wavelength than us, as only fast things are visible to them to take over. We have some scientific demons here. As they react to fast speeds, they likely operate like bumblebees, in the UV spectrum. These reviews and comments give me great ideas for my stories!

    As an aside, why is falling on the floor in convulsions gibbering considered Tongues and a good thing for a priest, but considered being possessed and a bad thing to the common vulgar weak licentious crowd?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    How about any and all medications (or recreational drugs) that act on the central nervous system?

    As someone i know once said, “I don’t know what consciousness consists of, but I know that it’s soluble in ethanol.”

  • Fortuna

    What’s worse for Strobel and Moreland is that we do, in fact, have an example of brain stimulation that produced beliefs and intentions;

    http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/05/science-vs-free-will-again.html

  • http://www.undergroundgames.dk Slater

    What the hell?

    When did movements stop being decisions? According to this Moreland freakshow, we – as in the soul – apparently only have control over our opinions. Movements are purely controlled by the physical brain, which is incapable of making decisions, meaning that every movement we make is either preordained by God or completely random. That’s one fucked up belief.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    In defense of Phineas Gage, he did also develop a high affinity for animals. ;)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Fortuna: What a beautiful link! That really puts the last nail in the coffin of Strobel’s scientific claims. It’s no wonder that the only scientific experiments he cites in this book are several decades old: all the newer ones contradict his beliefs!

  • http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress Glenn

    You were doing really well until you said: “All these disorders, and others like them, are totally inexplicable on Moreland’s view. If the soul is the source of belief and decision and is not dependent on the brain, as he insists, then we should never find cases like this.”

    Not quite. Moreland has commented on cases like this. He says that the brain is like the TV antenna that the soul communicates with. When the antenna is broken, the signal is confused.The trouble is, this destroys his use of penfield, because it results in the view that you can interfere with the brain and produce belief after all. This suggests that his appeal to Penfield was disingenuous.


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