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:

The Pope's Laudato: So Close And Yet So Far
The World in the Dark
Book Review: 1491
When Rationalists Reinvent Religion
About Adam Lee

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