This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church: Are the Facts In? The previous blog is Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain. We are now considering some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu (Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves) that deal with the human brain and the ways in which scientific materialism in and of themselves cannot account for what it means to be human and how the brain in fact works.
Le Fanu postulates that in fact thoughts are non-material and yet have physical effects. This goes against the grain of those scientists who are committed to atheistic materialism and who deny that the non-material can have any effect on the world and thus must deny free will which is a non-material force.
“Science holds that nothing can happen that is not governed by the natural laws of material causation. Thoughts are non-material, therefore by definition they can’t cause anything to happen. Hence, my supposition that I am free to choose one course of action over another must be an illusion generated by the physical activity of the brain to create the impression that it is my non-material ‘self, it is ‘I’, who is making the decision.” (Kindle Loc. 3654-57)
Some scientists do claim that there is no such thing as free will since all thoughts and emotions are the direct result of chemical processes in the human brain or other organs. Le Fanu does not accept this assertion and upholds a notion that thinking is real, cannot be completely explained by chemical/electrical impulses in the brain and that these non-material thoughts do in fact effect not only ourselves but the rest of the world as well.
“But to accept the supposition that non-material thoughts (the desire to cross the road) can have physical effects (causing the legs to move) would be to introduce into our understanding of the natural world some non-material force that stands outside, and is not governed by, the principles of lawful material causation. This dilemma can be resolved only in materialist terms by supposing that the decision (for example) when to cross the road is not freely taken, but is determined by the electrical activity of our brain.” (Kindle Loc. 3014-17)
Such determinism has been part of human thinking for centuries. It is not the thinking in Orthodox tradition however which does accept the notion of free will. Some Christians, especially Calvinists, completely believe in predestination – God determines everything in the universe. Atheistic scientists reject God and accept notions of total determinism – human thought is merely the product of electrical impulses running through the brain cells and thus follows the materialistic law of cause and effect. Thinking is thus totally materialistically caused and thus there is no such thing as free will. Orthodoxy has traditionally rejected such determinism and has accepted the notion that we do have the ability to make choices, for good and for ill. There really is a thing called the “self” and the self makes real choices which shape the future. [It is interesting to note that Einstein was a determinist as well and this is why he had such great problems with quantum mechanics which allow for uncertainty and indeterminism.]
Le Fanu says that despite the denial of a few prominent scientists the evidence shows that non-material processes (thinking for example) do have an effect in the world. Everything does not follow a perfect cause and effect pattern set off by random events. Rather, humans are able to make choices and influence their future. A purely materialistically based approach to humanity does not take into full account what it is to be human. Le Fanu says there is an existing mystery involving humanity, and conscious awareness and thought is part of that mystery and is as real as any physical property.
“Collectively the findings of these studies strongly support the view that the subjective nature of mental processes (e.g. thoughts, feelings, beliefs) significantly influence the various levels of brain functioning. Beliefs and expectations can markedly modulate neurophysiological and neurochemical activity in brain regions involved in perception, movement, pain and various aspects of emotional process.” (Kindle Loc. 3715-18)
The non-material, so scientific studies have shown, thus exists and is able to influence the material world. This is a basic assumption of believers and Le Fanu thinks the scientific evidence proves the point. Secular scientists reduce being human to material impulses that ultimately have no true meaning. We simply do what our bodies’ chemistry and electronic impulses tell us to do. While that view is held by some scientists it is not the thinking of most theistic Christians who accept free will.
“‘You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’” (Kindle Loc. 3027-28)
While the above sentence might appear to be true to those who cannot accept the role of a Creator God, for believers there is something backwards in the thinking. “I” am not created by cellular electrical impulses, rather the behavior of the nerve cells and molecules is “me” working out my will through the cells and electrical impulses. “I” am willing my material body to behave in a certain way. The “self” is inseparably linked to its material brain. Both brain and mind emerge together and in their interconnectivity the self is born. We do not have in this world a “self” apart from our corporeal existence. The self which is non-material is based in the very material nature of the brain and the non-material self effects the brain, allowing us to do things, seeing for example. The eye works in a most mysterious way to allow us to see colors.
“… yet the particles of light impacting on the retina are colourless, just as the waves of sound impacting on the eardrum are silent, and scent molecules have no smell. They are all invisible, weightless, subatomic particles of matter travelling through space. It is the brain that impresses the colours, sounds and smells upon them. ‘For the [light] rays, to speak properly, are not coloured,’ wrote the great Isaac Newton.” (Kindle Loc. 3358-61)
The brain is interpreting the impulses the body receives. The brain which mysteriously and even organically is linked with the self imposes meaning on the material and immaterial worlds.
“The first mystery is how the fundamentally similar neuronal circuits in Rachel Carson’s brain conjure from the barrage of colourless photons and soundless pressure waves impinging on her senses that vividly unique and unified sensation of that ‘wild night all around us’…” (Kindle Loc. 3783-85)
Thus our brains, quite material in their existence open up to us to perceive, remember and organize both the physical and non-materials experiences we have in the world. Le Fanu sees this as part of the great mystery which is ourselves. We discover through science that we are not merely physical beings, but have a true non-material dimension which introduces into our study of human beings notions of the self, the soul, the mind, the heart.