The Spiritual Brain

I had to force myself to pick up The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, since my expectations were not high, largely because I was not impressed with the views O’Leary has expressed, and the way she has expressed them, on her own blogs and on Uncommon Descent. The reason I have started reading it anyway is twofold: First, its subject matter is of interest to me generally, as someone whose personal faith is rooted in having had a life-changing spiritual experience – in other words, having been born again. Second, the subject of neuroscience, religious experience and the soul is one that is part of my course on religion and science.

When I say I am disappointed with the book thus far, I wish to be clear that my disappointment stems largely from the fact that, even though Beauregard and O’Leary have some very important and valuable things to say, the acrimonious tone and ridicule leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Moreover, the authors seem to leave no room for any middle ground or additional options other than their own and the opposing extreme of reductionist materialism.

Here’s what I appreciated about the book: It highlights the fact that some are claiming that experiments on the neuroscience of religious experience are claiming more than is justified by the evidence currently available. I genuinely agree with the authors when they object to those who suggest that, because we are animals, there is nothing genuinely distinctive about us (pp.41-42). Such “nothing buttery” or reductionism is unjustified. To provide a famous example, the band The Bloodhound Gang sang a song which said “You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel”. When people use (or rather abuse) scientific conclusions in this, it is not inappropriate to object. We clearly are able to reflect on our actions and not follow our instincts in a way that is, as far as we know, unique among the life forms on our planet.

I am thus happy that, whereas a reviewer in the most recent issue of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education felt disappointed that she was unable to find three good things to say before offering criticism when reviewing one of O’Leary’s earlier books, I was able to find one. Alas, I must immediately qualify it. Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design regularly point to things that are still unknown about the details of evolutionary history and the mechanisms that drove it, and then draw the completely illegitimate inference that this indicates something wrong with the theory itself. The fact that we do not know certain things about religious experience and the brain does not mean that we will not know them, nor does it make hypothesizing based on what we do know inappropriate.

To claim that the only way to account for spirituality and genuine personhood is to posit an immaterial soul is a non sequitur. It is like saying that, since neither hydrogen nor oxygen is wet, when God creates water he must add an immaterial “soul of wetness” to it. It is much more scientific, and much more plausible, to suggest that the properties of water are emergent properties. We can say that water is not just hydrogen and oxygen, without having to deny that it is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, or posit something additional added to it. This is the concept of emergent properties. Why viewing water, or the soul, in this way would be felt to be reductionistic materialism is hard to fathom. The author of Genesis viewed Adam as a psychosomatic unity, an animated body rather than an incarnate soul. What Nancey Murphy calls “non-reductive physicalism” has been an interesting place of intersection between modern science and Biblical studies, as Joel Green has noted in several studies. The authors of this book, on the other hand, take the typical ID approach: matter, they say, cannot account for mind, so it must be something metaphysical. But if explosive hydrogen and combustible oxygen can, in combination, quench our thirst, and if silicon in a complex arrangement with other elements and materials can be manifested as a video game, then why is an explanation of mind in terms of the physical felt to be impossible by definition? They are certainly right that most of our questions about mind are unanswered. But rather than follow ID in stopping the search for understanding, I express my gratitude to the scientists who are doing the studies which, although they will probably not provide the answer to these questions, are making the progress necessary so that future generations of scientists will have a serious chance to do so.

Neurotheology is a topic of widespread interest, and Beauregard and O’Leary had the opportunity to communicate clearly the difference between what the scientists currently know and what the media sometimes claims about their results. Instead, other authors, including ones who struck me as genuinely seeking to not go beyond the evidence, are ridiculed, if you can believe it (take a look at p.60 if you can’t), for inserting words like “may” and “possibly” into their work! Serious scientific publications such as Scientific American have looked at this topic, and present the subject in an appropriately balanced way. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, it is better to look there than in Beauregard’s own book to get a balanced understanding of his research and what it does and doesn’t prove.

The book is reviewed much less appreciatively (to say the least) on the Pharyngula blog, which also exposes where some of the numbers and other factual claims made in the book are not merely incorrect, but so far from the mark as to undermine any claims to credibility the authors might have had. I will nonetheless try to finish the book, even though it seems more and more likely that it is laced with too much pseudoscience to be useful either personally or professionally. But what disappointed me most was the irate tone. Perhaps this is one of the greatest ironies of the Intelligent Design movement. They complain about the philosophy and ideology of mainstream scientists, but claim they are “just doing science” themselves. And when push comes to shove, many proponents of ID seem willing not only to deny that they are motivated by Christian beliefs, but set aside Christian teachings about behavior, in the pursuit of their goals. How the doctrine of an immaterial soul can be considered more fundamental to the Christian faith than loving one’s enemies is not explained. Personally, I expect those who claim to represent a Christian viewpoint to not merely (and not necessarily) reach different conclusions, but to demonstrate a certain kind of character in the way they go about their research and in the way they articulate their conclusions.

Let me conclude with what might deserve the “most ironic moment” award, the authors’ mention of cognitive dissonance (p.42). It is certainly true that all of us at times deal with the tension between what we think we know (often because we’ve heard it from an authoritative source) and what we see/experience. But that anyone could mention this without using movements such as creationism and intelligent design as illustrations of this phenomenon would be a missed opportunity. But for a proponent of one of these views to use this as an argument against their opponents without realizing that it applies to them – now that’s irony. The inability of the proponents of ID to be self criticial and to accept criticism from peers shows that the movement is neither scientific nor Christian in any genuine sense.

  • Anonymous

    Hi ReligionProf, I am paraklete from uncommondescent.com…I really think that the mind-as-emergent property-of-matter view needs to be thought through some more. When we consider all the different views, from reductive materialism to dualism to emergentism, we need to bring in background information to help us determine which view makes the most sense. From what we know of matter, that it is basically “stuff” that follows natural laws, it is as you know very difficult to see how mental properties – non law like properties – could “emerge” from physical properties. This difficulty does not just appear to be our inability to imagine it, it seems to be based on the very nature of the two phenomena, mental and physical. Not only that, but there’s the question of how a network of matter can unify itself into a single stream of consciousness – the “I”.Now on the flip side, when we consider dualism, I believe we have some interesting background information to consider. First, we have a virtually universal ability to conceive of minds without bodies. The vast majority of the world actually believes in minds without bodies, whether it be angels, demons, ghosts, dead ancestors, out of body experiences, and the near universal belief in life after death. Next, we have religious sources telling us about minds without bodies. From the Bible, which you cited regarding Adam, we have a consistent belief in dualism, contrary to what you stated. The psychosomatic unity conception does not at all contradict dualism, for there are forms of dualism that see a deep interweaving of the body and the soul, most notably Thomistic dualism, a view defended by J.P. Moreland in “Body and Soul.” For a book that lays out the dualism found in the Bible, I recommend “Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting” by John W. Cooper. Indeed the Hebrew conception of Sheol clearly implies dualism. And Jesus himself was a dualist (e.g. Luke 16:19-31)So in my opinion, I think the background information should lead us to a dualist view. The only criticism that I have seen against dualism is the “ghost in a box” argument, which basically asks how spiritual substances can interact with physical substances. There does not appear to be any mechansim linking the spiritual to the physical. But I think this is a weak objection, because a child has no problem conceiving of a spirit acting on the physical world, and never does a child think, “Wait, what mechanism is there for this interaction?” The demand for a mechanism is circular reasoning, I think, for a mechanism is itself a physical concept.Anyway, those are my thoughts, and I appreciate how you have shared your thoughts with a respectful tone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for taking the time to visit, and for your very thoughtful comments! I certainly would agree that the New Testament authors had a concept which, if not fully the Greek view that looked forward enthusiastically to the soul’s liberation from the body, at least viewed it as possible. Paul’s reference to absence from the body as equivalent to being present with the Lord comes to mind.But that is why I chose an instance from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. It seems pretty clear that, prior to the writing of the Book of Daniel, the standard viewpoint was that in the grave one either no longer existed, or existed in at best some shadowy form. Examples include Ps. 6:5; 115:17; Job 7:9; Ecclesiastes 3:19-21; 9:5,10; Isaiah 38:18.Note as well that the Israelite prophets warned the nation of judgment within history and not in an afterlife. This is not to say that we should, on the basis of these verses, reject concepts like the soul. But the close connection that science has uncovered between our personalities, emotions and reason seems to me to suggest that what we have traditionally referred to in terms of ‘the soul’ is not entirely unconnected to the brain.Paul the Apostle took a side in the debate in his time – he sided with Aristotle and placed these elements in the heart rather than the head. Scientifically, he was mistaken, but that doesn’t mean that his points about these aspects of our thoughts, feelings and faith were off target. I don’t think it is an all-or-nothing sort of question, and I while I find it as unsettling as the next person to rethink my fundamental beliefs in light of new scientific discoveries, I think there is more to be gained than lost when we have the courage to do so. Of course, science in the future will inevitably overturn much that we have concluded based on our current state of knowledge. But just as Paul took the best understanding available in his time and used it to communicate the Gospel, I believe Christians should not simply repeat Paul’s words, but follow his example. Anyway, this is a rather hurried reply to just a few of the very important points you made. I look forward to continuing the conversation!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11662713010603845622 K. Signal Eingang

    The comment above reminds me of one of my favorite sayings:”Common sense is what tells you the world is flat.”Just because we can conceive of a thing don’t make it so. And the trend that is clearly emerging as our scientific knowledge expands is that the things that are so, the human mind literally cannot conceive.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11662713010603845622 K. Signal Eingang

    (By the comment above I mean “anonymous”, not Prof. McGrath, obviously.)

  • J-Dog

    Greetings Dr. McGrath.Congratualtions on your successful posts at Uncommon Descent. It is not often that a dissenting opinion is allowed there!I usually post at Pharangula and After The Bar Closes, where we have an entire thread devoted to ridiculing the positions posts and posturing of the UD minions.I enjoyed your thoughtful review of The Spritual Brain, and invite you to please visit us at ATBC, where we are always looking for intelligent proponents of other views, and have not found many IDists – including Bill Dembski – that are much beyond the “Bible (Or ID) Tells Me So It Must Be True” stage.I will set up a link for you,and we would enjoy discussing the failings of ID and their followers with you. Please visit us at http://www.antievolution.org/cgi-bin/ikonboard/ikonboard.cgi?s=470e699a7f04b583;act=ST;f=14;t=5231

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11709426868740115521 Petter Häggholm

    ‘anonymous’ said:”From what we know of matter, that it is basically “stuff” that follows natural laws, it is as you know very difficult to see how mental properties – non law like properties – could “emerge” from physical properties. This difficulty does not just appear to be our inability to imagine it, it seems to be based on the very nature of the two phenomena, mental and physical.”To which I reply,You are a priori assuming that “mental” phenomena are not physical. In fact, you are using this assumption to further your argument that mental phenomena are not emergent properties of physical phenomena! This is a circular argument, a tautology.By what reasoning, that does not start with the assumption that dualism is real, can you arrive at the conclusion that it is so? What premises based on observable reality can take you there?’anonymous’ said:”Now on the flip side, when we consider dualism, I believe we have some interesting background information to consider. First, we have a virtually universal ability to conceive of minds without bodies. The vast majority of the world actually believes in minds without bodies, whether it be angels, demons, ghosts, dead ancestors, out of body experiences, and the near universal belief in life after death.”To which I reply,…Which tells us that dualism is something that it is easy and tempting to believe in. That does not imply that it is therefore true: It is easy and tempting to believe in a flat earth, too.’anonymous’ said:”There does not appear to be any mechansim [sic] linking the spiritual to the physical. But I think this is a weak objection, because a child has no problem conceiving of a spirit acting on the physical world, and never does a child think, “Wait, what mechanism is there for this interaction?”"To which I reply,Nor does the child think “Wait, how can Santa Claus visit all the world’s children in a single night?”How can you seriously use “children believe it” as an argument for the truth of a statement?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05450567023462306789 Sarcastro

    How the doctrine of an immaterial soul can be considered more fundamental to the Christian faith than loving one’s enemies is not explained.Simple: the doctrine of an immaterial soul is easy; Loving one’s enemies is hard.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    paraklete, your discussion of how supernaturalism “explains” anything about minds is, simply disheartening. How can you possibly feel that you’ve been enlightened as to what a mind is merely by deciding that you can rule out what it is NOT (which, we should note, requires the rather arrogant assumption that you understand the material world completely)? I certainly think that minds are fascinating mysteries to which I would love to find some insight, no matter what metaphysic it needs to fall under. But for the most part, those that tell us that we must leave the testable material world. don’t leave it to offer us any new insights elsewhere: they leave it and hand us handwaving vacuity that never gets around to explaining anything.If anything, it just spits all over the original mystery. How do minds work? They just do! Because in the “supernatural” realm, anything can happen!Color me bored and disappointed.

  • Anonymous

    Hi James and all, paraklete hereThanks for the responses.First of all, regarding the ability to conceive of something and the power of that, the reason I bring it up is because I believe it demonstrates that it is not impossible (which many physicalists argue) and thus certainly plausible, and that it’s such a widespread belief. No it does not prove dualism to be true, it’s just one piece of a big pie. I happen to think it’s powerful, but I can see why many people do not, so I’ll let it go. But before I do it may be helpful to consider another thought experiment: Do numbers or mathematics emerge from any physical entities? Do the laws of logic emerge from physical entities?Second, I think you all missed my point about Thomistic dualism, how it views a deep interweaving of spiritual and physical substance, not a stark separation as in Cartesian dualism. So yes I am familiar with the deep connections between our mental activity and our brain activity, but Thomistic dualism accounts for this. Check it out, I think many of you would be interested in a more holistic kind of view of body and soul. Another interesting aspect of this view is the idea that the soul is “bigger” than the mind – the mind is only one faculty of the soul. The brain would therefore not be the seat of the soul, but one’s entire body or possibly a subset of parts.Third, I am not assuming a priori that physical and mental entities are substantially different, all I am saying is that from what we know it sure looks that way, and we need to find the best account for this huge difference. You are free to believe that emergentism is a better account than dualism, but I am free to disagree, and I am free to say that I think you should consider Thomistic dualism because you may find that it aligns with your intuitions.James I believe your take on Old Testament ontology is mistaken, although popular. I believe that the Hebrew concept of Sheol implies personal existence after death, albeit an existence that many did not look forward to. It appears to be a very cloudy and gloomy existence, but an existence nonetheless. It appears to me that weakness and inability are the main characteristics of existence in Sheol. I will also note that there was a common practice among the Hebrews to contact the dead, such as Saul contacting Samuel in 1 Samuel 28. Contacting the dead was prohibited by God (Lev. 19:31; 20:6; Deut. 18:11). This certainly implies non-bodily existence.In addition, when the Sadducees challenged Jesus about life after death, he referred them to the Torah, where God refers to himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then Jesus said that God is the God of the living, not the dead (Mark 12:18ff). Jesus points out that they have misinterpreted the Torah when it comes to life after death, and perhaps many current scholars have as well.Well, that’s all I have time for. Please be kind in your responses.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11709426868740115521 Petter Häggholm

    Regarding the ability to conceive of something and the power of that, the reason I bring it up is because I believe it demonstrates that it is not impossible (which many physicalists argue) and thus certainly plausible, and that it’s such a widespread belief. No it does not prove dualism to be true, it’s just one piece of a big pie. I happen to think it’s powerful, but I can see why many people do not, so I’ll let it go.Why is this powerful? Many superstitions abound all over the world. Why do you find it so powerful and suggestive that many people believe in a particular unsubstantiated notion? Going back to that tired old example, the flat earth, it’s an intuitive, common, and utterly wrong belief. The fact that many people from many cultures have believed it doesn’t make it any more powerful (except in terms of cultural inertia), nor any less wrong.Do numbers or mathematics emerge from any physical entities? Do the laws of logic emerge from physical entities?Mathematics (and logic, which is a subset of mathematics) are descriptions of physical entities, and facts about physical entities. Their “laws”, as well as facts in general, are concepts, not themselves physical entities. If you want to be reductionist, the physical representation of these laws and facts and all other concepts resides in the neural structure and activity of the brain, but I do not see how this is helpful…I’m skipping over the section about Thomistic dualism because I see no reason to consider dualism if no one can present any reason why I should believe that there exists another piece of the (asserted) puzzle to consider. Dawkins’s fairyology, and what not…I am not assuming a priori that physical and mental entities are substantially different, all I am saying is that from what we know it sure looks that way, and we need to find the best account for this huge difference.Actually, you said earlier thatFrom what we know of matter, that it is basically “stuff” that follows natural laws, it is as you know very difficult to see how mental properties – non law like properties – could “emerge” from physical properties. This difficulty does not just appear to be our inability to imagine it, it seems to be based on the very nature of the two phenomena, mental and physical.This, to me, looks very much like you assume that “mental properties” are not physical — you explicitly differentiate between the two! We can correct my earlier post by substituting “assert” for “assume” if you like, but that seems disingeneous to me: I merely assumed that you held to the assumption that you presented in your argument.In any case, I disagree with your assertions that mental faculties are “non law like properties”, that we find it difficult to imagine mind emerging from matter, and, most especially, the implicit assertion that mental and physical phenomena are two distinct categories. (Of course I consider the former a subset of the latter, and we may regard them as proper sets, if you like, but once again that is clearly not the view that your earlier post expressed.)You are free to believe that emergentism is a better account than dualism, but I am free to disagree, and I am free to say that I think you should consider Thomistic dualism because you may find that it aligns with your intuitions.[...]Please be kind in your responses.Of course we’re both free to believe whatever we believe. I still think you’re wrong, mind you… Let’s not allow political correctness to stand in the way of clarity and free expression! I don’t mean to be rude (well, not very, anyway…), but I find requests for kindness in the context of intellectual debate very disheartening. Truth does not make allowances for feelings, and if you value feelings above truth, you shouldn’t get involved in a debate.This means you’re allowed to tell me I’m dead wrong, too, without pulling punches! –though I’ll expect you to back it up.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08131181929874342944 Tia Lynn

    I just wanted to let you know that I have changed the URL to my blog. Abandon Image can now be found at:www.abandonimage.blogspot.comThis looks like a good post, I’ll be back to read the whole thing

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17336244849636477317 John Pieret

    [Donning Devil's Advocate robes]Why do you find it so powerful and suggestive that many people believe in a particular unsubstantiated notion?It is fair to say that many (most?) people, when contemplating their own mind/personality intuit something more going on than a mechanistic chemical reaction. Even Steven Pinker has said (to paraphrase) that despite what he (thinks he) knows about the brain and its mechanistic workings, he still goes home at night and experiences love for his wife.The question then becomes why should we distrust our intuition? (Merely because it has been wrong in the past is not sufficient — science has been wrong in the past too.) If we say: ‘because reason has shown that there is nothing but the mechanistic workings of the chemistry of the brain,’ there is a significant begging of questions involved: What is “reason” in mechanistic chemical terms? Do hydrogen and oxygen “reason” out the properties of water or are those properties deterministically set by the physical nature of the molecule? “To reason” implies a choice … it is a process by which (so far as relevant here) alternative possible explanations are evaluated and the best explanation chosen. How do deterministic chemical reactions “evaluate” and “choose”?If we posit some sort of natural selection of chemical vats we call “brains” that come closest to “good reasoning,” then we have no more cause to think that our reasoning is valid than we do to think that our spines are optimal for bipedal megafauna.On a mechanistic materialistic reductionistic account, each one of us is nothing more than a kind of temporary standing wave in an ongoing, self-sustaining chemical reaction some 4 billion years old. There is no “me” in here and there is no “you” in there. I feel like that is wrong about me. Given that “you” are telling me that is wrong based on an argument that would, if correct, make “your” reason and judgment questionable or nonexistent, why should I not accept my intuition?

  • Al

    To paraklete, who writes:”I will also note that there was a common practice among the Hebrews to contact the dead, such as Saul contacting Samuel in 1 Samuel 28. Contacting the dead was prohibited by God (Lev. 19:31; 20:6; Deut. 18:11). This certainly implies non-bodily existence.”It merely implies that someone living back at that time believed in “non-bodily existence”. That is not evidence, nor can it be confused with evidence by anyone outside of the judeo-christian tradition. Those folks also believed in lots of other things that we know now are wrong. How do we know that they are wrong? Evidence. So unless you have some EVIDENCE for a non-bodily existence (and so far, I have heard none here), one cannot conclude that it is a fact.Notions found in an old book are not evidence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11709426868740115521 Petter Häggholm

    [Donning Devil's Advocate robes]You seem to wear them with disturbing comfort — and panache… I feel like I should be a philosopher to attempt the answer: Alas, all that I have available is a software developer with omnivorous scientific appetite.It is fair to say that many (most?) people, when contemplating their own mind/personality intuit something more going on than a mechanistic chemical reaction. Even Steven Pinker has said (to paraphrase) that despite what he (thinks he) knows about the brain and its mechanistic workings, he still goes home at night and experiences love for his wife.Did the word “despite” come from Pinker or from your paraphrase? I do not see why there should be a “despite” any more than there should be a “because”. Why must the one diminish the other?The question then becomes why should we distrust our intuition? (Merely because it has been wrong in the past is not sufficient — science has been wrong in the past too.) If we say: ‘because reason has shown that there is nothing but the mechanistic workings of the chemistry of the brain,’ there is a significant begging of questions involved: What is “reason” in mechanistic chemical terms? Do hydrogen and oxygen “reason” out the properties of water or are those properties deterministically set by the physical nature of the molecule?The first, most obvious, most flippant, and least satisfying answer is probably this: If we accept your argument that reason cannot be trusted, then why on Earth should I trust your reasoning in arriving at this conclusion? –No, no, I know that’s not much of an answer: I include it because it amuses me, although I think it’s not completely without value. I need to consider a larger chunk to make a good answer, though. In the meantime, I will note that we have agreed that intuition is fallible.“To reason” implies a choice … it is a process by which (so far as relevant here) alternative possible explanations are evaluated and the best explanation chosen. How do deterministic chemical reactions “evaluate” and “choose”?If we posit some sort of natural selection of chemical vats we call “brains” that come closest to “good reasoning,” then we have no more cause to think that our reasoning is valid than we do to think that our spines are optimal for bipedal megafauna.Not at all, and I think your analogy is disingeneous. We might equate a brain that always comes up with the proper, reasoned answer to every question to an optimal biped’s spine, but surely no one has, and no one would, argue that we are in possession of either! I speak as someone with hyperlordosis, mild scoliosis, and a disturbing tendency to occasionally experience [and generally discard] erroneous intuitions, and sometimes I attempt to reason but fail. But just because my reasoning is not always good and valid that does not imply that it never is, or that we cannot possibly find the difference, any more than my minor spinal deformation means that I cannot ever walk anywhere without pain or discomfort (and practice jiu-jutsu; don’t pity me too much).We know that “intuition” sometimes fails and is therefore not, on its own, a reliable indicator of much of anything. We also know that our attempts at reasoning sometimes fail, and are therefore not completely reliable either. In order to make sense of this, the best tool we have is the scientific method and the principle of testability. Take any principle of science or of reason, even something so simple and fundamental as a law of logic, and it can be expressed in terms of verifiable tests: “If ‘a’ implies ‘b’ then ‘not b’ implies ‘not a’” — we can test this sort of proposition by finding chains of causation. I grant you that if we transform the laws of logic into empirical hypotheses we lose that sense of absolute certainty, but absolute certainty is largely an illusion anyway: We may treat the laws of logic as absolute, but every useful conclusion we ever draw therefrom rests, in any case, on premises derived from empirical observation.On the other hand, simply because our reasoning sometimes fails, that does not render it useless. We have evolved to have spines that may not be optimal for our way of life, but they do work, even if they have some maintenance problems. Similarly, our brains are certainly not optimal in an engineering sense, but brains that drew conclusions mostly contrary to reality would be weeded out of the gene pool by natural selection.On a mechanistic materialistic reductionistic account, each one of us is nothing more than a kind of temporary standing wave in an ongoing, self-sustaining chemical reaction some 4 billion years old. There is no “me” in here and there is no “you” in there. I feel like that is wrong about me. Given that “you” are telling me that is wrong based on an argument that would, if correct, make “your” reason and judgment questionable or nonexistent, why should I not accept my intuition?Because we have agreed that both my reasoning and your intuition are fallible, but unlike your intuition, my reasoning can be reduced to testable, verifiable and falsifiable statements that I can check for myself, that you can check for yourself, that a thousand people or a thousand un-evolved, simplistically deterministic and coldly logical computers can check.If there is a philosophical magic bullet answer to this problem, I do not know what it is. Personally, I think that we are all fallible in our thinking and that the ways of thinking least likely to lead to erroneous conclusions are those which come equipped with some form of error correction. Intuition does not. Reason does, and in the scientific method it is inherent — in fact of paramount importance.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17336244849636477317 John Pieret

    Did the word “despite” come from Pinker or from your paraphrase?It’s my paraphrase but (if memory serves) it doesn’t do damage to Pinker’s sense -– he considered it at least potentially anomalous. I do not see why there should be a “despite” any more than there should be a “because”. Why must the one diminish the other?If love is nothing but the result of a deterministic chemical reaction in your brain, is it is anything more significant than what two flat worms experience? If so, what is the source of the significance?If we accept your argument that reason cannot be trusted, then why on Earth should I trust your reasoning in arriving at this conclusion?If reason is the result of the existence of the “soul” (one other suggested origin of reason) or the non-material “mind” (another suggested source) then the objection based on the limitations of mechanistic materialistic reductionism no longer apply. There may be other objections to those suggestions but this sticking point is avoided. I think your analogy is disingeneous. We might equate a brain that always comes up with the proper, reasoned answer to every question to an optimal biped’s spine, but surely no one has, and no one would, argue that we are in possession of either! I speak as someone with hyperlordosis, mild scoliosis, and a disturbing tendency to occasionally experience [and generally discard] erroneous intuitions, and sometimes I attempt to reason but fail. But just because my reasoning is not always good and valid that does not imply that it never is, or that we cannot possibly find the difference, any more than my minor spinal deformation means that I cannot ever walk anywhere without pain or discomfort (and practice jiu-jutsu; don’t pity me too much).No, the problem here is that the best human spine is still sub-optimal when we compare it to spines of other types in other species. But if there was only one sort of spine in the world, how could we recognize ours as sub-optimal? The only way we can judge our own reasoning is with our own reasoning … there are no other examples to compare it to … which is a circular exercise that cannot be relied on (or, at least, not anymore than we can rely on intuition). On the other hand, simply because our reasoning sometimes fails, that does not render it useless. And why would there be a different rule for intuition?Similarly, our brains are certainly not optimal in an engineering sense, but brains that drew conclusions mostly contrary to reality would be weeded out of the gene pool by natural selection.Hmmm … looking at the majority of people in the world, do you really want to maintain that there is strong selection for reason or even for recognition of reality? In any case, as the old joke goes, I don’t have to outrun that grizzly bear … I only have to outrun you.… unlike your intuition, my reasoning can be reduced to testable, verifiable and falsifiable statements that I can check for myselfI think you are not appreciating the problem with the mechanistic materialistic reductionistic account. What “you” are you talking about? And in what sense do chemical reactions “check” anything? Or “know” anything”? Or “sense” anything? If there is a philosophical magic bullet answer to this problem, I do not know what it is. Now that I can give you. It’s a certain humble uncertainty as to what does and does not constitute “reason” or “logic” or “reality.” I agree that the scientific method is the best we got but that does not mean our intuition, feelings and emotions should be (totally) ignored on issues such as this.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11709426868740115521 Petter Häggholm

    [The word choice "despite" is] my paraphrase but (if memory serves) it doesn’t do damage to Pinker’s sense -– he considered it at least potentially anomalous.Then I disagree with Pinker — I consider it orthogonal.If love is nothing but the result of a deterministic chemical reaction in your brain, is it is anything more significant than what two flat worms experience? If so, what is the source of the significance?Because what goes on in my brain is a lot more significant to me than what goes on in any other brain, and what goes on in brains sufficiently similar to mine for intellectual discourse and mutual empathy matters much more to me than what goes on in the nervous system of a flat worm (which, I suspect, doesn’t even have a brain).If flat worms could have any conception of human love, I would expect them to consider it much less significant than flat worm reproduction; and rightly so from their perspective, I think!If reason is the result of the existence of the “soul” (one other suggested origin of reason) or the non-material “mind” (another suggested source) then the objection based on the limitations of mechanistic materialistic reductionism no longer apply. There may be other objections to those suggestions but this sticking point is avoided.But we still have no evidence that this is true, even using those minds which, you suggest, transcend matter.No, the problem [with the spine/brain objection] is that the best human spine is still sub-optimal when we compare it to spines of other types in other species. But if there was only one sort of spine in the world, how could we recognize ours as sub-optimal? The only way we can judge our own reasoning is with our own reasoning … there are no other examples to compare it to … which is a circular exercise that cannot be relied on (or, at least, not anymore than we can rely on intuition).“Optimal” does not mean “the best there is”. It means “the best there can be [given the constraints at hand]“. Even if all cars in the world were destroyed but the Ladas, Yugos, and Pintos, so that these were the best cars around, their design would still not in any sense be optimal… If there were only one sort of spine in the world, it would be harder to figure out that it is flawed if regarded as a design, but with modern engineering, computer simulations, and the development of bipedal robots, I’m pretty sure we’d figure it out eventually. In any case, I don’t see that we need to compare ourselves to different species to realise that there are varying degrees, here: My spine is probably worse than yours, just as my brain is better than many human brains out there, and worse than many others.In any case, my point was that the spine, sub-optimal though it may be, still works and gives useful results. We have brains for the same reason: They work and give useful results, even if they aren’t perfect.“On the other hand, simply because our reasoning sometimes fails, that does not render it useless.”And why would there be a different rule for intuition?Can you give me any evidence whatsoever — weak as it may be — that intuition, separate from reason, is anywhere near reliable? Of course intuited notions will occasionally be correct — ‘chance’ grants us that. But reason is often and consistently so (modern technology, that glorious testament to the effectiveness of the scientific method, is a shining example), and can be verified.Hmmm … looking at the majority of people in the world, do you really want to maintain that there is strong selection for reason or even for recognition of reality?No, I would argue that modern society, with welfare and medical care et cetera, has largely short-circuited natural selection with respect to the human species. In history, on an evolutionary time scale, however — yes. Compare humans to even our nearest relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees, and perhaps you will agree with me that our reasoning powers are superior. (Quantitatively, not qualitatively!) In any case, as the old joke goes, I don’t have to outrun that grizzly bear … I only have to outrun you.And so your genes pass on, and mine do not, and (on a large enough time-scale so that chance and environmental factors are cancelled out) the average predisposition of fast running speed will have increased a little in the human gene pool. And so it goes…I think you are not appreciating the problem with the mechanistic materialistic reductionistic account. What “you” are you talking about? And in what sense do chemical reactions “check” anything? Or “know” anything”? Or “sense” anything?The “me” that represents a locally (and temporarily) coherent organisation, a piece of the self-replicating pattern representing life on Earth. And…in the only way there is to “check” or “know” anything. How else would we have senses or knowledge, if not by means of our sensory organs and brains?This seems to me a rather slight variation of the ‘argument from personal incredulity’: “I personally don’t see how such complex consequences could arise from these conditions, therefore the conditions must not suffice to produce the consequences. The only logical answer is that our minds exist in an immaterial spirit world of undefinable laws, for which there is no evidence, interacting with the physical world by unspecified means.”“If there is a philosophical magic bullet answer to this problem, I do not know what it is.”Now that I can give you. It’s a certain humble uncertainty as to what does and does not constitute “reason” or “logic” or “reality.” I agree that the scientific method is the best we got but that does not mean our intuition, feelings and emotions should be (totally) ignored on issues such as this.I don’t pretend to hold all the answers — I’m just giving the best answer I have. I find that more useful and interesting in a debate than loudly proclaiming “I don’t know!” — so please don’t confuse presenting my position as best I can with arrogance. (I don’t blame you, mind; the “please” is genuine. I think we all tend to do a bit of satanic advocacy whenever we debate anything.) If all I wanted was to express humility and uncertainty I might as well shut up, and I hope (since you are responding to me) that we both find this way more stimulating.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17336244849636477317 John Pieret

    If there were only one sort of spine in the world, it would be harder to figure out that it is flawed if regarded as a design, but with modern engineering, computer simulations, and the development of bipedal robots, I’m pretty sure we’d figure it out eventually.Based on … your intuition? Don’t feel bad, much of our cognition involves intuiting answers rather than reasoning them out. Natural selection saw to that.We are seriously in danger of going around in circles, while I point out that, on a materialistic reductionist account, you have no grounds for believing that you even have sense organs or a brain or other people to compare experiences with (solipsism is a poor philosophy of life but a correct description of the problem of knowledge). In effect, you keep positing entities for which you have not given a materialistic reductionist explanation … but never mind. Instead, I’m going to take the unusual step of recommending a book I’m just starting to read (though I’ve known of it for a while): David J. Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind. Chalmers is a well-known philosopher of mind, who argues (persuasively enough to get, for example, an uncritical entry in The Oxford Guide to Philosophy) for a kind of dualism that he maintains is compatible with naturalistic science, even though he argues materialism is insufficient to explain consciousness and reductionism works for just about everthing but mind. (He also claims that all arguments appeal to intuition at some point, though I hadn’t read that when we began this.) I think it will be a stimulating read.If all I wanted was to express humility and uncertainty I might as well shut up, and I hope (since you are responding to me) that we both find this way more stimulating.It is hardly an all-or-nothing proposition. In my experience, forcefully taking a position while acknowledging it weaknesses and/or the strengths of the opposing view adds to the credibility of the arguer, if not the argument as well.It’s been a pleasure.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11709426868740115521 Petter Häggholm

    “If there were only one sort of spine in the world, it would be harder to figure out that it is flawed if regarded as a design, but with modern engineering, computer simulations, and the development of bipedal robots, I’m pretty sure we’d figure it out eventually.”Based on … your intuition?No, based on the fact that modern engineers overcome many very difficult challenges and strive to optimise their solution (for cost efficiency purposes, etc.); based on the fact that there is a market for bipedal robots; based on the fact that if bipedal robots are made with endoskeletons (and exoskeletons scale less well) this is an engineering problem that human engineers will be faced with. I consider this extrapolation from known facts. See, however, the next point.Don’t feel bad, much of our cognition involves intuiting answers rather than reasoning them out. Natural selection saw to that.Leaving your patronising tone aside for the moment, I think the word “intuit” is in danger of being too vague here, as it may refer both to sub-conscious reasoning processes and to un-reasoning feelings. In my work (designing algorithms etc.) I tend to intuitively feel that a certain approach will have a linear, or quadratic, or exponential logarithmic growth or decay. This isn’t just woolly “feeling”; this is reason sufficiently in-grained that I can approximate some answers without applying conscious reasoning to it. (Although I do, to check my answers. The “intuitive” part is good for hashing out ideas to test.) That doesn’t mean I’d be able to do this if I hadn’t learned the reasoning process behind it.This sort of intuition is obviously valuable. An “intuition” not founded on reason, I maintain, is not.We are seriously in danger of going around in circles, while I point out that, on a materialistic reductionist account, you have no grounds for believing that you even have sense organs or a brain or other people to compare experiences with (solipsism is a poor philosophy of life but a correct description of the problem of knowledge). In effect, you keep positing entities for which you have not given a materialistic reductionist explanation … but never mind.I do mind, actually; if anything, I feel that your position is rather less well-defined than mine. I freely concede that I do not have all the answers, and have never denied it. I merely conjecture as little as possible and stick as much as possible to that which is known. If we posit that there exists nothing beyond that acknowledged by my “materialism”, we have a few core problems of knowledge. If we posit that something “beyond” does exist, we still don’t know how knowledge works, and on top of that we are now burdened with the conjectured existence of something for which there exists no evidence. I do not see how this helps us.What entities, precisely, do you feel I need to strive to define? Why do you feel that materialism leads us to a view in which we should regard it as probable that our subjective experience is contrary to reality? (The evolution of a brain that models reality with reasonable accuracy — on a human scale of space and time — is fairly easily explicable. It is not even that surprising that consciousness should arise from the humble origins of self-replicating molecules, given enough time: The intelligent power of prediction allows planning which can be easily seen to improve ‘fitness’.)On top of that, while the form of argument reminds me unpleasantly of Pascal’s ridiculous wager, I’m unable to see a downside to assuming that reason does not work: If we assume that reason works, we may reach useful conclusions; if we assume that reason doesn’t work, we have no basis even to draw the conclusion that we should therefore abandon reason. I therefore assume that reason does work — call it arbitrary, if you will.On the other side of the argument, while you claim that assuming a dualist view solves this “problem of knowledge”, it seems to me that it only creates a regression problem of the same form as “Who designed the Designer?” — you posit something unknown, undetected, undetectable simply because we have not yet solved the problem using only the puzzle pieces we actually know to exist. Where does your view explain something that can be observed to be real, that a materialistic view cannot explain, to justify the assumption of the ineffable?Instead, I’m going to take the unusual step of recommending a book I’m just starting to read (though I’ve known of it for a while): David J. Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind. Chalmers is a well-known philosopher of mind, who argues (persuasively enough to get, for example, an uncritical entry in The Oxford Guide to Philosophy) for a kind of dualism that he maintains is compatible with naturalistic science, even though he argues materialism is insufficient to explain consciousness and reductionism works for just about everthing but mind.Unfortunately, I can’t easily get my hands on the book: The Vancouver libraries are closed as the library workers are on strike (along with the garbage workers), alas. Can you explain how something can be simultaneously compatible with naturalistic science and claim that materialism — id est, all that is measurable and acknowledgeable by naturalistic science?Personally, I want to read Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel Dennett.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14479224236264150172 Ben

    Excellent post! You’ve taken exactly the position I would expect a reasonable Christian to take given the nature of the current evidence, the obvious fallacy of composition at the heart of dualism’s “argument,” and the precedence of methodological naturalism. Cheers!Ben