Solving Scientism's "Mind Problem"
David Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. He is also a self-described "utter and absolute, dyed-in-the-wool, scientifically oriented, hard-headed, empirically insistent, atheistically committed materialist." Thus, when asked after a lecture what was the most difficult unsolved problem in science, he recalls that he
answered without hesitation: How the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth, what philosophers call "the hard problem of consciousness."
Now, there are some other very hard problems in science, such as figuring out what "dark energy" really is, or how to prove "string theory" experimentally. But, Barash admits,
the hard problem of consciousness is so hard that I can't even imagine what kind of empirical findings would satisfactorily solve it. In fact, I don't even know what kind of discovery would get us to first base, not to mention a home run.
Still, Barash hopes that science will someday figure out how the physical brain creates our "selves."
In his must-read book, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, science writer and medical doctor James Le Fanu details how the scientific research conducted before, during, and after the "Decade of the Brain" (proclaimed by Congress and President George H. W. Bush in 1990) has only deepened the mystery of human consciousness and our sense of self. Many hoped we would discover the physical roots of self-consciousness, the material causes of the sense of having free will, and the neurological wiring of everything from love to anger to shame to compassion. We would be able cure Alzheimer's and someday even help reprogram the brains of serial killers and drug addicts. Le Fanu writes:
While theoretically it might be possible for neuroscientists to know everything there is to know about the physical structure and activity of the brain, its "product," the mind, with its thoughts and ideas, impressions and emotions, would still remain unaccounted for. As the philosopher Colin McGinn expresses it: ". . . knowledge of your brain does not give me knowledge of your mind."
That is not a shocking statement, unless you are an absolute materialist. Le Fanu explains:
This distinction between the electrical activity of the material brain and the non-material mind (of thoughts and ideas) as two quite different things might seem so self-evident as to be scarcely worth commenting on. But for neuroscientists the question of how the brain's electrical activity translates into thoughts and sensations was precisely what needed explaining—and their failure to do so has come to haunt them. So, for everything that the Decade of the Brain undoubtedly achieved, nonetheless, as John Maddox, editor of Nature, would acknowledge at its close: "We seem as far away from understanding [the brain] as we were a century ago. Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free." (p. 19)
In an important sense, the intense research on the brain (see Tom Gilson's feature article) may actually help make the case for the mind, and even for the soul. That is because, as long as the physical mechanisms of the brain were little understood, materialists like David Barash could claim that what we call the mind or the soul would someday be explained. After all, physicists have successfully unlocked many of the secrets of the structure of reality: atoms, sub-atomic particles, quarks, time-space, gravity, black holes, and so on. And biologists have discovered genes and DNA. Give neuroscientists enough time and they will unpack the brain and find its operating manual.
But now that we have a great deal more information about the workings of the brain, thoughtful neuroscientists, such as Mario Beauregard, are using these findings to argue the case for the existence of the soul (see his book, The Spiritual Brain, co-authored by Denyse O'Leary).
Nevertheless, just as Barash continues to believe (or at least hope) that science will yet solve the mind problem, so also do materialist brain scientists continue to assume that they can or will be able to explain your mind (see "Brain Scams" by Denyse O'Leary, p. 52).
You can make up your own mind on these matters, because you really have one and it belongs to you. You are more than the sum of your neurons. You really are a person, a unique self. Just because others have given over their minds to neurons doesn't mean you should lose yours. •
From Salvo 19 (Winter 2011)
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is the executive editor of Salvo and the Director of Publications for the Fellowship of St. James.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #19, Winter 2011 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo19/a-matter-of-mind