The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self

“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them…?”    (Job 7:17, NRSV)

Icon Detail: the Creation of Adam

Back in January I read Evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne’s USA  TODAY article,  Why We don’t Really Have Free Will, in which he dismisses the notion of self and free will claiming science has proven these to be illusions.  I didn’t find his evidence or arguments all that convincing and wrote my own blog series in which I questioned his claims.  The point in the blog series where I begin discussing Coyne’s arguments is Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (2) .

It so happened that about the same time I read the review of two books, written by scientists in which they call into question the conclusions and claims  of some of the neo-atheists like Coyne regarding the brain and free will.   I purchased the two books and read them which in turn prompts me to write this blog series.

The two books I read are Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.  Both authors accept evolution and Darwinian claims and both acknowledge the value of much of the neuro-medical research currently being done.   But each author also reservations about some of the claims being made some neuro-scientists based on this research.  The questions they raise about the research varies from scientific questions to philosophical assumptions.  Does the research really prove there is no free will, or does it philosophically assume there is no free and then interprets the data in the light of its philosophical bias?

The books were interesting, but difficult reads at points – sometimes because my lack of medical training made the science difficult to understand and sometimes because the issue being raised was critically looking at philosophical issues and points of logic, which I am also not well versed in.  So I had to stop at points to keep terminology and points of logic straight.

Tallis is a self-professed atheist, secular humanist. I first encountered his arguments in the June 2011 issue of the The Wilson Quarterly.   I wanted to read him because though an atheist he defends both the notion of ‘self’ and of ‘free will.’   I found it interesting that theists and atheists may find common cause in resisting some of the claims of the neuro-scientists as we defend the reality of free will and the self.  Tallis writes:

“In defending the humanities, the arts, the law, ethics, economics, politics and even religious belief against neuro-evolutionary reductionism, atheist humanists and theists have a common cause and, in reductive naturalism, a common adversary: scientism.”  (p 336)

Tallis has coined phrases to derisively portray what he sees as the misreading of the scientists by those not being guided by the scientific method but rather who use philosophical biases to determine how to read the evidence.  He opposes biological determinism, known as biologism which is based completely in a materialist viewpoint and says basically that everything that happens in the universe is simply the result of previous materialistic causes.  Thus no one has free will, rather the universe, including all human behavior,  is unfolding according to the laws of nature.  Tallis’ arguments say that many scientists have completely bought in to two errors which are against both science and logic:

1)    Darwinitis – “the ‘Darwinization’ of our understanding of humanity”; and

2)    Neuromania – “the appeal to the brain, as revealed through the latest science, to explain our behavior”.

Tallis complains that by scientists describing animal behavior anthropomorphically what results is “the Disneyficaton of animal consciousness” meaning we really psychologize all animal behavior reading into animals human emotions and logic and we animalize human behavior.  We assume that animals think like humans, and we come to believe that humans are nothing more than an animal.  These notions are false and both Tallis and Gazzaniga  set out to show why they are false assumptions.  Tallis cautions:

“… what I am attacking is not science but scientism: the mistaken belief that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and their derivatives) can or will give a complete description and even explanation of everything, including human life.” (p 15)

Gazzaniga expresses it this way:

“I think that we are facing the same conundrum that physicists dealt with when they assumed Newton’s laws were universal. The laws are not universal to all levels of organization; it depends which level of organization you are describing, and new rules apply when higher levels emerge. Quantum mechanics are the rules for atoms, Newton’s laws are the rules for objects, and one couldn’t completely predict the other. So the question is whether we can take what we know from the micro level of neurophysiology about neurons and neurotransmitters and come up with a determinist model to predict conscious thoughts, the outcomes of brains, or psychology. Or even more problematic is the outcome with the encounter of three brains. Can we derive the macro story from the micro story? I do not think so.”   (Kindle Loc. 2070-75)

Next:   The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self (II)

25 thoughts on “The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self

  1. Pingback: The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self (II) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: The Matter of Evolution | Fr. Ted's Blog

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