“… then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
This is the 6th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is The Evolved Brain and The Emerged Mind.
I became interested in the topic because of an increasing number of media claims that neuroscience had been able to connect notions of self or free will with particular activities in the brain which led to claims by neo-atheists that in fact science had proved self, consciousness and free will are nothing more than illusions created by the biochemistry of the brain. Daniel Dennett for example says:
“There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain… we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition, and growth.” (Tallis, p 41)
This is the claim of course of materialists who cannot allow for there to be anything but or beyond the material world. However, and of interest to me is the reaction of some scientists who have stated that the claims that neuroscience has proven self and free will are mere illusions are vastly overstated and not supported by what science has actually been able to demonstrate. Questions about what is in fact science and what claims really belong to the belief system of scientism have been raised by many, but were the themes of two books I recently read: 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. Tallis especially challenges the scientific claims, the philosophical presuppositions and the logic of those who want to deny the existence of free will or that there is anything unique about the human being. I find the claims of both authors interesting because they are questioning from the point of view of science claims that certain atheistic scientists are making about the nature of humans.
While it is true that our mental existence (consciousness, self, free will) has a connection to the material world cannot be disputed. We are whole beings which have minds and bodies. The material body (the brain) does affect the immaterial mind. This is certainly something Christian ascetics have known for centuries and thus the great emphasis on fasting as a spiritual exercise. Additionally as Tallis notes: “Our mental states have physical effects. If they did not then our thoughts and our intentions, and even our perceptions, would not be able to bring anything about.” The mental and the physical do interface and interact, each having an effect on the other. Tallis in his book lays out his basic argument and the scientific data as to why the claims that neuroscience have disproved free will are in fact wrong:
“…neuroscience does not address, even less answer, the fundamental question of the relation(s) between matter and mind, body and mind, or brain and mind. If it seems to do so this is only the result of confusion between, indeed a conflation of, three quite different relations: correlations, causation and identity. .. . . a correlation is not a cause: even less is it an identity. Seeing correlations between event A (neural activity) and event B (say, reported experience) is not the same as seeing event B when you are seeing event A. Neuromaniacs, however, argue, or rather assume, that the close correlation between events A and B means that they are essentially the same thing.” (Tallis, p 85)
“The errors of muddling correlation with causation, necessary condition with sufficient causation, and sufficient causation with identity lie at the heart of the neuromaniac’s basic assumption that consciousness and nerve impulses are one and the same, and that (to echo a commonly used formulation) ‘the mind is a creation of the brain.’” (p 95)
“But the phrase ‘from the brain, and from the brain only’ is at the root of the notion, to which this book is opposed, that the brain is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition of conscious experiences: this it is the whole story. And Hippocrates sounds very like Francis Crick, talking 2,500 years later: ‘You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associate molecules.” (p 30)
The claim that consciousness or free will are nothing more than biochemical reactions in the brain are proven according to the new atheists by the neurotechnology of the fMRI. Tallis dismisses these claims:
“… fMRI scanning doesn’t directly tap into brain activity… fMRI registers it only indirectly by detecting the increases in blood flow needed to deliver additional oxygen to busy neurons. . . . Much more of the brain is already active or lit up; all that can be observed is the additional activity associated with the stimulus.” (p 76-77)
“The claim that it is possible to look at a single fMRI image and see what the person is seeing, never mind what they are feeling, and how it fits into their day, or their life, is grossly overstating what can be achieved. Ordinary consciousness and ordinary life lie beyond the reach of imaging technologies, except in the imagination of neuromaniacs.” (p 82)
“… there is a monotonous similarity about neural activity throughout the cerebral cortex and yet it is supposed to underpin the infinite richness of phenomenal consciousness.” (p 97)
Tallis as a doctor and scientist offers his own assessment of what the new neurological science actual can show and what it does prove. Basically he says the fMRI only shows limited changes in brain activity which cannot be equated with saying the brain activity is the memory or the image or the idea or the consciousness of the brain. The synapses are firing and biochemical actions are taking place that are related to mental activity but that mental activity is not coterminous with the brain or with what the brain is doing.
Thus all the media driven ballyhooing that science has disproved the existence of free will are, according to both Tallis and Gazzaninga vastly overstated claims.
Next: Consciousness: Mind over Matter? (Gazzaniga)