This is the 14th 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 Free Will. This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will: 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.
The new fMRI technology has opened some exciting possibilities regarding our understanding the functions of the brain. As Tallis notes popular media stories about neuroscientific findings are ubiquitous in the news these days. Claims about what fMRIs can prove abound in scientific and popular literature. Both Gazzaniga and Tallis offer some cautionary advice about what the new neuroscientific achievements can actually prove. Tallis especially points out that those with strong materialistic beliefs are proclaiming neuroscience now proves consciousness, the self and free will are illusions created by brain biochemistry. And Tallis warns that these claims far exceed what the science actually shows but rather the materialists are reading into the evidence what they already believe rather than extracting from the evidence testable conclusions. Just a quick look at 3 Magazines that come into my house:
DISCOVER magazine, a publication reporting on recent trends and findings in science has regular features on the brain and new neuroscience: The April 2012 edition had an article by Dan Hurley, “Where Memory Lives”; Carl Zimmer contributes regular articles on “The Brain” to the magazine. The 5 March edition of TIME magazine had an article, “Getting to NO: The Science of Building Willpower”, by Jeffrey Kluger which also relies on fMRI studies on the brain. The October 2011 edition of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC featured David Dobbs’ article, “Beautiful Brains: The New Science of the Teenage Brain.”
Claims are abounding as to what neuroscience has proven and because of the drive of some neoatheists, this science is now being offered as the basis for an entirely new morality and calling for sweeping reforms of the justice system. For if the material world is all that exists and free will is an illusion, than any ideas about morality and personal responsibility will have to be completely revamped. Age old ideas of how to deal with social problems and crime which are based in the free will choice of the perpetrators will have to be thrown out.
Tallis offers a very stark warning about the agenda being pushed by the neo-atheists.
“The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, should strike a chill in the heart. The twentieth century demonstrated how quickly social policies based in pseudo-science, which bypassed the individual as an independent centre of action and judgement but simply saw humanity as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe. Unfortunately, historical examples may not be successful in dissuading the bioengineers of the human soul because it will be argued that this time the intentions are better and consequently the results will be less disastrous.” (Tallis, p 70)
Tallis is clear in his book that the scientific evidence and logic itself do no support the claims of these neo-atheists. Though himself an atheist he comes in his book to the defense of religious beliefs about free will and personhood and calls upon modern philosophers to challenge these modern claims based in sound logic. He also sees dire consequences to humanity not in following science but only in allowing science to be interpreted by scientism.
Gazzaniga offers some thoughts which perhaps not his main intention are solid support for the notion of free will and a rejection of materialistic determinism.
“On the neurophysiological level, we are born with a sense of fairness and some other moral intuitions. These intuitions contribute to our moral judgments on the behavioral level, and, higher up the chain, our moral judgments contribute to the moral and legal laws we construct for our societies. These moral laws and legal laws on the societal scale provide feedback that constrains behavior. The social pressures on the individual at the behavior level affect his survival and reproduction and thus what underlying brain processes are selected for. Over time, these social pressures begin to shape who we are. Thus, it is easy to see that these moral systems become real and very important to understand.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2966-70)
Social pressures (non-material forces) do in fact change behavior as can be demonstrated in scientific studies. People have free will and are shaped by society and moral beliefs. Thus the claims that all behavior is purely controlled by biochemical processes in the brain are not supported by our experience in life nor by what scientific studies show.