The blog series which which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self is now available in one document as a PDF. The series explores questions about the existence of free will, the mind, the brain and the self. Neo-atheists who are ideologically committed to a materialistic denial of free will, have claimed neuroscience now proves free will is an illusion, created by the biochemistry of the brain. Other scientists and atheists have critically questioned the conclusions of these neo-atheists saying they haven’t used science to prove their point, rather they have read their ideological assumptions into facts. Thus they incorrectly change science, the study of the material universe, into scientism, which is a philosophical ideology but not science. This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists: 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.
I have not commented on the political developments in this Presidential election year because I have not had a lot to say. There is something about the American form of democracy that I don’t like. The campaigns are completely media driven with sound bites far more important than substance. Negative campaign ads seem to rule the day. Being little attuned to the media since I almost never watch TV, I find it hard to attune to campaigns that are totally designed for TV and the media. The campaigns generate more heat than light, as they say. Some of course contend that democracy when it works is messy, loud, based in ad hominem attacks, appealing to fears and emotions rather than to real policy (one can see these signs all the way back in the Adams vs. Jefferson election of 1800). And obviously if everyone were simply in agreement a one party system works fine. When, however, there are real disagreements, one should expect contentious campaigns. I realize all of this but still am not fond of the way we do elections. I think I heard in France that in the last several days of a campaign, no TV or radio ads are permitted at all. That idea would suit me. Let the candidates stand on their own words not on the hundred millions of dollars spent on media imaging and spin.
The Spring 2012 edition of THE WILSON QUARTERLY cited two studies which cast doubt on whether the whole series of Republican debates really benefited the voters in any meaningful way. One criticism is that “debate moderators of 2011 sometimes seemed more interested in stoking conflict than in eliciting meaningful answers—and the candidates weren’t given enough time for meaningful answers anyway.” Of course that makes for better television drama than having candidates calmly state their positions. Maybe that is what the newspapers are for! Additionally, “Debates have allowed the press to elbow their way in front of voters for commercial purposes.” It’s as if the press to justify its own existence, not to mention is self-importance, makes sure its presence in the debates is known. Everything is mediated through the press who also digests it all and feels the need to interpret everything to the voters who apparently can’t think of anything to ask and wouldn’t understand the answers anyway. “During the 20 debates between May 5, 2011, and mid-February, 2012, the NYU team counted 46 questions about social issues (abortion and gay rights), four about the Arab Spring, two about climate change, one about small business – and 113 about campaign strategy and negative advertising.” So apparently the biggest concern for the future leader of the free world has to do with campaign strategies and the media. The media inserts itself as the biggest issue for Americans to be concerned about.
The media makes sure that people pay attention to the media and wants to ensure that our only access to the candidates is through the media. “Pay attention to us,” is their motto. Voters would do well to turn them off completely. As voters, we won’t take time to read speeches or position papers. We want sound bites and bullet points, which the media and the candidates obligingly provide. No wonder candidates give stump speeches even in answer to debate questions. They know what the media will focus on and we the voters seem willing to accept that impoverished campaign diet.
I found more encouraging the 23 April 2012 TIME magazine article, Inside The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. It is a glimpse into their new book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. What I saw (maybe because it is what I wish were true) is that despite all the adversarial political rhetoric which may occur between the various presidents especially when they campaigned against each other, the presidents do find a way to cooperate with and use the experience of their predecessors. Some have become friends but all found ways to work with each other. They do realize they are the president of the United States and all its people, not just the leader of their party’s ideological wing. That is far more appealing to me then the attack ads they use to get elected. I know many who prefer that our presidents remain ideological enemies with presidents from a different political party. I find no particular comfort in that partisanship. I prefer presidential statesmanship to political brinkmanship.
Mooney says research has shown that there are five things that can make a liberal vote Republican. First, liberals become more conservative when something consumes more of their mental attention. When liberals are distracted with things that demand their attention they think more like conservatives. On the other hand, “Cognitive load did not appear to change the view of conservatives in the study.”
Second, “Alcohol intoxication is not unlike cognitive load, in that it cuts down the capacity for in-depth, nuanced thinking, and privileges economical, quick responses. Sure enough, in a recent study of 85 bar patrons, blood alcohol content was related to increased political conservatism for liberals and conservatives alike. … higher blood alcohol content was associated with giving more conservative answers.”
Third, “Subjects under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative terms.”
Fourth, when people were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer or were asked to use a hand wipe before responding, they became more conservative in their opinions.
Fifth, studies show that fear causes us to become more conservative. Being afraid moves us politically to being more pro-military and with favoring the death penalty.
So, “priming people to feel either fear or disgust (or the need for cleanliness) seems to favor political conservatism, and politically conservative candidates.” Research on the other hand, does not show any similar ways to make conservative become more liberal.
“Love for God begins to manifest itself and act in us when we begin to love our neighbor as ourselves and not to spare either ourselves or anything belonging to us for him, as the image of God; when we endeavor to serve him for his salvation in everything we can; when, for the sake of pleasing God, we refuse to gratify our appetites, our carnal vision, our carnal wisdom, which is not subjected to the wisdom of God. ‘For he that loveth not his brother, whom he hath seen, how can he love God, Whom he hath not seen’ (St. John IV. 20)? ‘They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts’ (Galatians V.240.” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pg. 228)
When I first began reading reports that science had in fact proven that free will was an illusion and not real, I was curious enough to try to research a little more into these claims. I was not at all convinced by what I read that science had disproven free will. It was a claim like that of Samuel Clemens’ death, which he later labeled as “greatly exaggerated.” I read two books both written by scientists who dismissed the claims: 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 present different, but rather convincing evidence that free will has hardly been disproved by the current discoveries of neuroscience. Gazzaniga takes a position that in fact the existence of self and free will are not provable by materialistic means in any case since they are more issues of philosophy. Science has its limits which are to study the material world not to pontificate on issues of morality and philosophy. Tallis, though a self professed atheist and secular humanist, takes a much more hard line attitude that the scientific evidence against free will is in fact not there. Those who want to claim free will is nothing but a figment of the imagination are practicing bad science as well as bad logic.
So I would like to conclude the blog series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self with a quote from the Septuagint. Written perhaps as early as 280BC, the Wisdom of Sirach offers us a particular pre-scientific insight into what it is to be human. It is a ancient view upheld by Christian theists today. Even if we allow that it is evolution which has shaped the modern human, the humans have evolved with particular traits (consciousness and free willed) which are scientifically observable. From the believers point of view these are traits which God bestowed upon humanity; even if by divine fiat, at some point the physical characteristics which define the human species became part of the natural world and have continued to follow the laws of nature. This is how God designed His creation. We are composed of genetic material like all other living things, and our genetic development continues to unfold according to the processes of sexual reproduction.
The Lord created man from the earth
and returned him to it again.
He gave them a certain number of days and an appointed time,
and He gave them authority over it.
He clothed them in strength like His own
and made them in His image.
He put the fear of man upon all flesh
and gave him dominion over wild animals and birds.
He gave mankind the ability to deliberate,
and a tongue, eyes and ears, and a heart to think with.
He filled them with the skill of comprehension
and showed them good and evil.
He set His eye upon their hearts to show them the majesty of His works.
They will praise His holy name so as to fully describe the majesty of His works.
One can easily see the parallelism of the lines as is typical of Hebrew poetry. But of interest to me in this blog series is that ancient wisdom which does recognize humans as having a uniqueness about them of all the species in God’s creation. Rational thought, consciousness, free will and conscience all contribute to humans having a certain dominance over the other animals. We all may share the same basic material nature, all are taken from the dirt of the ground, but still humans have some qualities which distinguish them from all the other animals and allow the humans to domesticate those animals which can be domesticated and to successfully compete against those that cannot be so domesticated.
What is this difference? Sirach says it is our ability to deliberate and think, for so God has equipped the humans to be able to do these things. We are able to comprehend even abstractions and to communicate our thoughts and ideas however abstract to others. We have a consciousness which enables us to think and act and to create recorded shared memories – history. Consciousness also enables us to create things and to use technology to create even more complex things. We have an ability to create culture. All of these things require our free participation. We are not simply the end effect of previous causes. Humans actually relate to the physical world and can consciously manipulate it, and convey in symbols and abstractions to others what we are thinking and choosing. We have become part of the force which shapes our own genetic development – we are a consciously seeing force which is acting in an otherwise blind material universe. And we certainly believe there is more to the universe than meets the eye – we are not blinded by materialism. We understand there are non-material forces active in the world, and among these are human thought, creativity, morality, social sharing, emotions as well as the forces of culture and society.
Those neo-atheists who embrace reductionist thinking try to dumb down humans to being nothing more than chemical processes like all of the rest of the stuff of the universe. Such a description of humans does not fit the reality we can experience. The very fact that the neo-atheists are creatively producing their arguments against free will seems proof enough that free will in fact exists. Otherwise, why do they bother to resist the fate they say that determines all activity in the universe? Humans do deliberate. For believers, this is a gift from God to us to enable us to deal with empirical creation for our benefit and to the glory of the Creator.
I’ve assembled into single documents the blogs that I’ve posted each year concerning the Sundays after Pascha: St. Thomas Sunday, the Myrrhbearing Women, the Paralytic, the Samaritan Woman, the Man born Blind, and the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council. Links to the PDF for each year are listed below. (2008 was the year I began blogging, it is interesting to me how I changed my blogs through the years as I understood the medium – started with just reproducing texts, slowly added links and photos with less text).
A theme regarding the interpretation of Scripture which I have frequently mentioned is that for Christians, Christ is the hermeneutic or interpretive key for understanding the Old Testament texts. Unlike what some modern Christians like to claim, that literalism is the principle by which we read the Old Testament, the New Testament itself gives us the clue for reading the Old Testament. We find this interpretive principle in John’s Gospel, Chapter 5. It is an idea I have presented in many blogs as the Orthodox principle for reading the Old Testament. (see for example my blogs: Jesus the Key to Understanding Torah, Christ is the Key to Reading Scripture, Christ is the Key to Open the Scriptural Treasury, Reading the Old Testament with Jesus, Reading the Old Testament to Reveal the Truth). Today, one of the scheduled Scripture Lessons is John 5:30-6:2. It is the very passage in which Jesus offers a hermeneutic for reading the Scriptures. Jesus is in a dialog or debate with His fellow Jews discussing the messiah, who Jesus is and the purpose of the Scriptures. Jesus says (the emphasis is mine and is not in the original text):
“And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen; and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe him whom he has sent. You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from men. But I know that you have not the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me; . . . Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:37-47)
Jesus makes a very bold claim that Moses wrote about Him (Jesus). Moses is credited with having written Torah, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible. Jesus says Moses was writing about Him (Jesus)! To read the Genesis text literally to discover history and science is to misread and misunderstand the text. We read Genesis and all of Torah and the entirety of the Old Testament in order to come to faith in Christ.
St. Luke in his Gospel offers a very similar lesson as Jesus explains to the two disciples walking to Emmaus the prophecy of and the purpose of His (the Messiah’s) own suffering, death and resurrection:
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)
Jesus says according to St. John that the very way the texts of Moses are to be read is in and through Him. It is Moses, not Jesus, who will judge whether or not the Jews (and all of us) have been faithful in reading and obeying Scriptures. Jesus says if you really believe Moses, if you read his writings with faith and understanding, then you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah. If you read Moses incorrectly – without faith – you won’t understand what he was purposefully saying and so you won’t believe Jesus either.
The real debate according to Jesus is not whether the Genesis creation story is literally true or not. The real debate is whether you read Moses with faith and recognize that Moses was writing a prophecy about the Messiah. If we understand that even Genesis is about Jesus, we will rightly understand its importance in our lives. For Jesus believing Moses’ writings means recognizing that they are written about Jesus, the Messiah.
Jesus asks His fellow Jews, “if you do not believe Moses’ writings, how will you believe my words?” Jesus is saying there is a right way to read Moses and the Torah. That way requires the understanding that Moses wrote about Jesus the Messiah. This way of reading Torah is very much in line with the many competing views of the proper way to read Scripture that existed among Jews in Jesus’ day. Jesus offers a particular interpretation of Moses, a particular hermeneutic. If you believe what Moses wrote you will agree with what Jesus teaches. Only if you disbelieve Moses will you not believe in Jesus as Christ.
The New Testament writers use a number of images for the Church – it is the Body of Christ and a living temple. We are to build up the Church, to edify our fellow members in order to build up the living edifice. Our spiritual lives and efforts are thus not directed selfishly to our own salvation, but rather toward loving neighbor and fellow church member. St. John Chrysostom said:
“St. Paul said: Let no one seek his own interests, but those of his neighbor. And again: Edify one another. Therefore, do not look only to your own health and freedom from disease, but take considerable thought and care that your fellow member is set free from the hurt which comes from this evil and that he flees this disease. For we are members of the other. And if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with it, or if one member glories, all the members rejoice with it.” (Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pg. 86)
The last issue I will bring up in relation to the topic of the brain and free will is the issue of what defines a human as being alive (which no doubt some would say defines when a human is a human). Dick Teresi writing in the May issue of DISCOVER magazine, “The Beating Heart Donors,” points out that “In 1968, thirteen men gathered at the Harvard Medical School to virtually undo 5,000 years of the study of death.” What these 13 men did was to redefine death by defining the concept of brain death. For the previous 5000 years death was declared when the heart stopped beating or when the lungs could no longer breathe. “When his breath depart he returns to his earth” (Psalm 146:4). Teresi claims now “you were considered dead when you suffered the loss of personhood.” At this point in history, “the medical establishment assumes that the brain is what defines humanity and that a functioning brain is vital to what is called a human being’s personhood.” Teresi says this new definition of death was not in any way established by the scientific method – no experiments were performed on humans or animals and no patients were used as the basis for establishing this totally new concept of and redefinition of death. Teresi connects this new definition of death to the committee’s being fixated on making human organ transplants more possible. Today the organ transplant industry harvests human organs and $20 billion per year in business. It is a business made possible by changing the criteria for declaring a person dead – and Teresi notes the donors and their families are excluded from receiving one penny of the income generated. The profits are reaped by this medical industry.
Teresi points out that today it is largely anesthesiologists who question “whether beating heart cadavers truly are unfeeling, unaware corpses.” They are “questioning the finality of brain death.” The article offers a number of anecdotes which call into question the very premises on which brain death is based. It is very unsettling reading – and appears not in a religious journal but a scientific one. The moral questions raised cannot be answered by science alone.
Teresi’s article is not directly related to the issues I raised in this blog series about the brain and free will. He isn’t addressing the same issues that I have as he focuses only on questioning the certainty of death when the criterion used is brain death. However, It certainly seems possible that the neo-atheist denial of consciousness or self will somehow shape the debate about brain death. If a human is nothing more than a lump of atoms, what does brain death mean anyway? And if there is no personhood (since some of the neo-atheists ideologically claim the ‘self’ is an illusion caused by the biochemistry of the brain) then how can the medical profession use the loss of personhood (brain death) as a criterion for determining when a person dies? Of course the issues now being raised by the neo-atheists regarding free will were not part of the thinking of scientists in 1968. We have, however, again come to that same point that science cannot be separated from morality, and no real morality can be deduced from materialism.
[Christianity, by the way, doesn’t deny that humans are made up of the same stuff as the rest of the universe. Even the literal readers of Genesis 2 see God taking the dirt of the earth to form the human being. Christianity however denies that materialism is all the human is. For Christians with Jews see God breathing life into the human – a non-material element animates the human. Humans consist of body (material) and spirit (breathe, immaterial) which come together to form the soul (the interface point between the material and the spiritual).]
In his article, Teresi points out the importance of our understanding of what it means to be human. The definition of what a human is or when a human is alive are essential questions which cannot be answered by science alone. [As Teresi points out “science” did in fact decide – without following the scientific method – that death is defined by brain not heart activity. But now some in the medical professional are questioning both the science and the morality of this decision.] The implications of these questions and their answers are obviously central to issues of declaring someone dead and harvesting organs for transplant. There are 20 billion reasons why we should be concerned about what is happening with these medical decisions. We come again to the realization that the claims of the neo-atheists and adherents of scientism are not abstractions but affect if not threaten us all. For the concept of “brain death” allows scientists to decide when to stop a beating heart, or, rather when to disconnect it from its original body/person to transplant it to someone new. The questions raised have ultimate implications for this same industry has created the expectation in thousands of critically ill patients that they can be helped by a transplant. The intention is good but the unintended consequence might be that some donors are chosen for death so that a recipient can benefit, and a $20 billion dollar industry can continue to profit.
The implications for the unborn and abortion are also there. The prolife lobby is trying to get laws passed that recognize human life as soon as a beating heart exists. But there is another lobby which is arguing human life exists only if the brain above the brain stem is functioning. The brain dead (‘permanently non-functioning brain’) definition says a flat EEG confirms death. I don’t know at what age of fetal development an EEG registers, though some brain activity is detected normally between 40-43 days of development. Brain death is defined when a person can’t breath spontaneously. No wonder many think a fetus cannot be considered human or viable. The concept of brain death is not going to be a resolving issue in the abortion debates. But because it shapes our thinking of what it is to be alive and to be human, it has repercussions on our understanding of these issues.
Claims from atheist ideologues that free will does not exist are ultimately not purely abstract philosophical debates. They have real and practical implications for how we understand and treat our fellow human beings – the newly conceived in the womb as well as the dying-but-not-yet-dead. To believe that science is somehow a morally neutral enterprise is to misunderstand the real life implications of the philosophical assumptions which shape scientists and scientism. While science is not antithetical to morality, neither is its application morally neutral. Remember Einstein’s comment that science can only tell us what can be done not what should be done. The desire to deny the existence of free will or consciousness or self is an ideological one, not a scientific one. It is applying materialistic assumptions to non-materialistic ideas. It is a reductionism that debases and dehumanizes people denying the very things (which are observable – a key scientific criterion), that make humans unique in the world. We consciously ask and explore questions about existence and free will. We experience life at an non-materialistic level (consciousness, emotional, intellectual, creativity, morality) that itself offers proof of the existence of consciousness and free will. And for believers in a Creator, we see the proof around us that something other than the material world exists. Our material existence is inseparable from the non-material existence. Science doesn’t disprove free will but rather shows the limits (and we would say insufficiency) of the materialist point of view of scientism.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
During the weeks following Pascha, we read liturgically in the Orthodox Church from the Acts of the Apostles. St. Justin Martyr (d. ca 165AD) offers a brief synopsis of ACTS and of the early church:
“For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no talent in speaking, but by the power of God, they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach too all the word of God. And we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willing die confessing Christ.” (St. Justin Martyr in For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace, and Nationalism edited by Fr. Hildo Bos, pg. 102)
One of the areas which the new neuroscience is exploring is the nature of memories. What a memory is exactly in terms of brain function is still not completely understood. While scientists are exploring the nature of memories in mice, how this translates to the human mind is not completely known.
“A mouse’s memory of a single fearful event is one thing: the complex associations of human memory, powered by a dense network of neuronal connections, is quite another. … More complex memories, like the recollection of an event that happened to you, are stored in many different areas of the brain.” (Dan Hurley, “Where Memory Lives,” DISCOVER, April 2012, 37)
Tallis commented extensively on how memories cannot be reduced to a simple biochemical or neuronal action. Memories are complexly stored over a wide area of the brain. Part of the wondrous mystery of the brain is exactly how the memories are stored and how they are recalled to form cogent images that our brain can interpret and use. Not only does an individual’s brain use these memories, but they can be shared socially by a number of people in meaningful interactions.
Tallis’ point is that human mental activity is not coterminous with the brain functions that bring them about. There is an immaterial element to thinking, remembering, choosing and creating. This is the “self” which the neo-atheists cannot allow because of their ideological commitment to materialism, not because it doesn’t exist.
Even the recent claims by some of the neo-atheists that science proves the brain begins to act seconds before the human appears to know what action it is going to do fails to take into account that a human does not just begin acting in any one second, but rather each human mind is composed of a countless number of neuronal connections – memories of past experience as well as inherited reflexes. So any activity we do is shaped by and founded in memories and thoughts that are already stored in the brain. We simply do not have the complete picture yet and so cannot claim that free will does not exist. Past choices and experience do shape our thinking, choices and actions – the brain doesn’t just suddenly jump into motion with no premeditation when it has a choice before it. Past experience, likes, pleasures, memories, emotions, etc, are all already at work in us and so predate every decision we make. The fact that neurons begin working and that scientists can from fMRIs predict what a person is going to do before they are aware themselves of what they are going to do, doesn’t disprove free will, it only shows us that our self and will is married to our physical bodies and cannot be completely separated from them. The science is telling us that a dualistic understanding of the human is an incorrect understanding. The notions of self, consciousness and free will are essential for understanding what it is to be human – to understand what has evolved in the human species, in the uniqueness of the human mind.
Jonah Lehrer writing in the March 2012 issue of WIRED (“The Forgetting Pill”) describes the efforts of medical science to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Neuroscientists are trying to understand the nature of memories to see if a memory can be isolated in the brain and then in one fashion or another removed or neutralized so that a person can overcome their PTSD and be freed from the pain of those memories. Such “memory tweaks” raise a variety of ethical problems and questions: Who decides which memories are to be erased? When we lose memories we also lose lessons learned – who accepts responsibility for that loss? How do we deal with people who intentionally erase memories so as not to be held accountable for things they did? Who owns our memories – do future generations (our children for example) have a right to possess or inherit our memories? And legally a host of problems will be raised in courts when people intentionally erase memories which are needed as evidence (tampering with evidence is a crime after all) and witnesses will be invalidated by accusations that their memories were tampered with.
Again, the push for the use of science raises ethical concerns that science itself cannot answer.
Jeffrey Kluger writing in the 5 March 2012 issue of TIME applies some of the same neuronal questions to the subject of will power and whether science can reshape the will once it understands the neuronal activity involved in self-indulgence and self-denial. Here too the complexity of brain function has meant so far an incomplete understanding of how will power works and what can be done to affect it.
But the implication in all of these studies is that science one day will be able to know exactly how the brain functions and will be able to control or change that function in any/every human being. Whether we want science to have that power, or whether we believe that power will be harnessed by other social groups (government for example; or militant ideologues) for their own nefarious purposes, we come to understand that all of these issues in neural science have serious ethical implications for us all.
We need to pay attention to what science might wrought.