A Test Case – Applying Neuroscience to Law

This is the 15th 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 Implications of the Free Will Debate.   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.

Arguments about whether or not humans have free will are not abstract debates with no practical implications.  As Tallis makes perfectly clear those he labels as the ideologues of Darwinitis and neuromania are intent on reshaping all of human culture according to their philosophical presuppositions.  Tallis warns that we all should be paying attention to this debate and not allowing ourselves to be deceived by scientism which pretends to be science.  Gazzaniga is not so confrontational and rather wants us all to recognize that there are different realms of knowledge and that questions about free well, consciousness and self are after all philosophical debates and not scientific ones since they are dealing with immaterial concepts and science by definition is limited to the study of the material world.   We can look at one issue which Gazzaniga spends some time on: the legal implications of the free will debate.  Both Tallis and Gazzaniga see the neuroscientific technology of the fMRI being brought ever more frequently into the courts as evidence and neuroscientists being called upon to offer their expert opinions on behaviors and free will.  Since the modern Western  sense of justice requires that a person must be capable of making a choice before being found guilty of having committed a crime, the neuromaniac’s claims that there is no such thing as free will has absolute implications for justice of any kind.

Leaving aside the ideological claims of the neo-atheist’s faith in scientism, we can see wherein there are problems.  Gazzaniga outlines the judicial problem in the following way:

“Justice is a concept of moral rightness, but there has never been an agreement as to what moral rightness is based on: ethics (should the punishment fit the crime, retribution, or be for the greater good of the population, utilitarian?), reason (will punishment or treatment lead to a better outcome?), law (a system of rules that one agrees to live by in order to maintain a place in society), natural law (actions results in consequences), fairness (based on rights? based on equality or merit? based on the individual or society?), religion (based on which one?), or equity (allowing the court to use some discretion over sentencing)? Nonetheless, the judge tries to come up with a just disposition.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3270-75)

First, Gazzaniga may overstate the problem – there was a fair amount of broad social agreement on dealing with issues of justice that governed Western civilization for some time.  It is the case that as modern Western society has moved away from a purely modernist view point and relied more on human reason than divine revelation that more diverse viewpoints have come to the forefront.  Multiple perspectives on any issue have become increasingly accepted in our totally individualistic and autonomous based thinking.  The seeds of the Enlightenment’s fight for the absolute rights of the individual have taken root.  Post-modernism and its rejection of any meta-narrative tying together individuals is a fruit of this evolution in thinking.   So under the influence of several very prominent current philosophical trends, agreements about morality and normality and what is acceptable have eroded.  This is the cause of the very partisan and divisive politics in our country.  Some would also say it is simply the nature of modern democracy.

The neuroscience contribution to the fray is that in courts more appeals are being made to fMRI technology to excuse or defend individuals based on the notion that they have “abnormal brains” and thus cannot be held personally accountable for their behavior.  Gazzaniga points out some of the problems with the courts uncritically accepting fMRI scans as scientific proof for excusing behavior:

“There are other problems with the abnormal brain story, but the biggest one is that the law makes a false assumption. It does not follow that a person with an abnormal brain scan has abnormal behavior, nor is a person with an abnormal brain automatically incapable of responsible behavior. Responsibility is not located in the brain. The brain has no area or network for responsibility. As I said before, the way to think about responsibility is that it is an interaction between people, a social contract. Responsibility reflects a rule that emerges out of one or more agents interacting in a social context, and the hope that we share is that each person will follow certain rules. An abnormal brain does not mean that the person cannot follow rules.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3078-83)

Gazzaniga in the above statement comes closer to the position and concerns that Tallis raises.  Personality responsibility like consciousness and free will do not reside only at the level of individuals but are part of the shared social space in which all humans participate.  Gazzaniga points out:

“Diagnosed with schizophrenia after the fact by a psychiatrist for his defense, John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for his attempt to assassinate President Reagan. This attempt, however, was premeditated. He had planned it in advance, showing evidence of good executive functioning. He understood that it was against the law and concealed his weapon.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3092-94)

Wisdom, Justice, Vice & Crime, Corruption, Slander, Deception, Despotic Power

The push by some neo-atheists to deny the existence of free will in humans carries with it an extensive agenda to reform society  based on the ideology of scientism, which is a system of belief which denies many of the ideals, aspirations and hopes that have traditionally guided society.  It calls into question the purpose of legal consequences by denying that a person has the ability to make the choices they do.  Gazzaniga counters:

“No matter what their condition, however, most humans can follow rules. Criminals can follow the rules. They don’t commit their crimes in front of policemen. They are able to inhibit their intentions when the cop walks by. They have made a choice based on their experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3432-34)

Lady Freedom

Thus the push for changing how human society has dealt with social problems based in the belief system of scientism is an effort to deceive for it claims to be based in pure science while it based in the philosophical beliefs of materialism.  This is why Tallis warns strongly that we should be afraid of those who believe they can scientifically engineer human morality.  Scientism may be a child of the Enlightenment but it intends to gut the very nature of American idealism which is based in human freedom and personal responsibility.

Next: Do We have the Brains to Deal with Ourselves?

Free Will

An icon of free will

This is the 13th 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 Memory and the Mind.   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.

Both Gazzaniga and Tallis offer criticisms of the claims of some that neuroscience has disproved the existence of the self or of free will.  Tallis by far offers a much stronger defense for free will from the scientific evidence, from philosophy and from logic.  Gazzaniga certainly has reservations about the far reaching claims of what neuroscience has proven.  However, he does hedge his ideas a bit.

“Vohs and Schooler suggested that disbelief in free will produces a subtle cue that exerting effort is futile, thus granting permission not to bother. People prefer not to bother, because bothering, in the form of self-control, requires exertion and depletes energy. Further investigation along these lines by Florida State University social psychologists Roy Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and C. Nathan DeWall found that reading deterministic passages increased tendencies of the people they studied to act aggressively and to be less helpful toward others. They suggest that a belief in free will may be crucial for motivating people to control their automatic impulses to act selfishly, and a significant amount of self-control and mental energy is required to override selfish impulses and to restrain aggressive impulses. The mental state supporting the idea of voluntary actions had an effect on the subsequent action decision. It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1831-40)

Gazzaniga moves in the more neutral direction of pointing out that even if free will is an illusion, it still has positive effects on our behaviors and for society as scientific research has shown.  But in the above passage he says, “The mental state supporting the idea of voluntary actions had an effect on the subsequent action decision.”   The very statement that we can effect decisions by our behavior indicates that determinism doesn’t rule everything in the human life.  We are not merely following a cause and effect chain of events, but we actually engage life, make decisions and our decisions have an effect on what happens next.  We in fact are marking choices and these choices change what happens next – this is in fact the exertion of free will.  Our empirical brains process input from the world and from other humans; this results in real thinking and decision making.  There is in fact an immaterial aspect to our existence even when our self and free will are always interfacing with the material world in and through our brains and bodies.  What the studies Gazzaniga show is that non-material input received by our brains does translate into changed behavior which can be statistically demonstrated.  This is scientific evidence against absolute materialist determinism.

Tallis goes much further than Gazzaniga and is very clear that the evidence of science is that humans do exhibit free will as part of human consciousness.

“As Carter says: ’The illusion of free will is deeply ingrained precisely because it prevents us from falling into a suicidally fatalistic state of mind – it is one of the brain’s most powerful aids to survival…’     This is an interesting claim because it suggests that our belief  that we are free can (after all) alter what happens in the world: initially, as far as we are concerned, for the better because it helps us survive.  In short, the illusion of free will does deflect the course of events, and hence it is self-fulfilling.  It is not an illusion.  For if we really cannot deflect the course of predetermined events, then the idea that we are free cannot change anything, any more than the idea that we are not free can change it.” (Tallis, p 262)

Beliefs can alter what actions we take.  The immaterial influencing the material.  The material brain is able to make choices which effects what we do, which in turn changes what happens in our lives and in the world.  In other words science is demonstrating that free will exists and that strict determinism is not governing everything that is unfolding in the universe.  Even genetically speaking aberrations and mutations unpredictably enter into genes – we see that record in the human genome.  Absolute determinism based in materialism does not describe reality as we know it anymore than Newtonian physics can describe the quantum world.   There is uncertainty in the world of physics as well as in human sociology and psychology.

Next: Implications of the Free Will Debate

Is the Brain Nothing but a Biological Computer?

This is the 11th 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 Reductionism and Determinism.   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.

One of the ways in which some neo-atheists attempt to shape the thinking that humans are not in any way different from other animals is to create the image that nothing exists in the universe except materialism.  Since they accept as fact their belief that there is nothing but material existence, they assume humans too cannot rise above mere material existence. So the materialists unceasingly repeat the claim that the human brain is no different than a computer  – just a machine crunching information and creating an illusion of self, consciousness and free will. Tallis reports for example that Colin Blakemore in her lectures “Mechanics of the Mind” said:

“The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs… It makes no sense (in scientific terms) to try to distinguish sharply between acts that result from conscious attention and those that result from our reflexes or are caused by disease or damage to the brain.” (Tallis, p 52)

The notion that what the brain does is ‘information-processing’  is called the Computational Theory of the Mind and is associated especially with cognitive psychology.   Both Gazzaniga and Tallis take exception to these claims  that the brain is merely a computer as do a number of other scientists.  Tallis points out repeatedly that it takes a conscious mind to make a computer function or be useful.  Without an operator to create and activate a computer, it would do nothing, unlike the human mind which is functioning continually.

“We start imagining that machines that help us to carry out certain functions actually have those functions …  We forget that in the absence  of any human beings using the tool its function would not be performed … It is therefore wrong to imagine the mind as being analogous to a computer.  In the absence of minds, computers do not do what minds do.”  (Tallis, pp 184-186)

Tallis cautions that there exists logical and terminological confusion which contributes to assuming the brain is simply a computer.  He points out that Information Theory uses the word “information” is a specialized way in order to quantify it.  However, this technical use of “information” should not be confused with the common ideas of perception or meaning as being “information.”   Information in engineering means technically “uncertainty reduction” which is not how we commonly use information when speaking about what the brain deals with.  Tallis writes:

“…the information in a book, or on a disk, is only potential information … it remains merely potential until it is encountered by an individual  requiring and able to receive information, able to be informed.  In the absence of such a (conscious) organism, it is sloppy and inaccurate to refer to the states of objects as ‘information’; but  such lose talk is the beginning of a very long journey. …  Once the concept of information is liberated from the idea of someone being informed and from that of a conscious someone doing the informing, anything is possible.”  (pp 207-208)

There is, Tallis reports, a huge difference between what a human mind does with information and what a computer is capable of doing with information.  That difference is that humans are conscious and related to the world about them and consciously use experience in shaping and being shaped by what they experience.  The conscious human, the self (an observer, interpreter, user), is a necessary element for there to be information at all.  This point Tallis makes in a variety of ways as he shows what the limits of a computer are and how it does not come close to being a human brain.

“Computers do not get any nearer to becoming conscious as their inputs are  more complexly related to their outputs and however many stages and layers of processing intervene between the two.  A Cray supercomputer with terabytes of RAM is no more self-aware than a pocket calculator.” (Tallis, p 173)

For Tallis the Computational Theory of the brain falls seriously short by not recognizing the different between what a mind does consciously with information versus what a computer does in processing data.  The computer comes nowhere even close to consciously dealing with anything.

Additionally, as mentioned previously, not only are humans different from other animals and from computers because humans are conscious, there is among humans that shared social space in which individual consciousness interacts and forms that social dimension which in turn is acting consciously on the environment.

“The same holds true for brains. Brains are automatic machines following decision pathways, but analyzing single brains in isolation cannot illuminate the capacity of responsibility. Responsibility is a dimension of life that comes from social exchange, and social exchange requires more than one brain. When more than one brain interacts, new and unpredictable things begin to emerge, establishing a new set of rules. Two of the properties that are acquired in this new set of rules that weren’t previously present are responsibility and freedom. They are not found in the brain, just as John Locke declared when he said, ‘the will in truth, signifies nothing but a power, or ability, to prefer or choose. And when the will, under the name of a faculty, is considered, as it is, barely as an ability to do something, the absurdity in saying it is free, or not free, will easily discover itself.’ Responsibility and freedom are found, however, in the space between brains, in the interactions between people.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2174-82)

Sky, trees and sun reflected in a creek

Human consciousness has created an immaterial “space between brains,” the interactions between people – society, social interfacing –  which means humans are not limited to, completely controlled by or coterminous with material existence.  Humans create and experience and share this immaterial conscious space, and it is very much part of what it is to be human.  It also is the way in which humans are totally unlike any other animal and also unlike computers.

Next:  Memory and the Mind

Reductionism and Determinism

This is the 10th 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 Society: The Reality of Collective and Shared Consciousness.    I’m looking at the works of two scientists who are considering recent claims from neuroscience:  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 assumption of atheistic materialists is that the entire universe simply follows an endless series of cause and effect that was set in motion by the Big Bang.  Thus everything which occurs in the universe is pre-determined by what occurred before.  In the materialist’s thinking, determinism rules humans completely since humans are simply one part of the material universe, and in fact there is nothing but the material universe.  Thoughts and consciousness in this thinking are merely the products of the same deterministic material world working through its cause and effects – in fact, according to the neo-atheists, they don’t exist at all but are an illusion created by the empirical brain.

“So the hard determinists in neuroscience make what I call the causal chain claim: (1) The brain enables the mind and the brain is a physical entity; (2) The physical world is determined, so our brains must also be determined; (3) If our brains are determined, and if the brain is the necessary and sufficient organ that enables the mind, then we are left with the belief that the thoughts that arise from our mind also are determined; (4) Thus, free will is an illusion, and we must revise our concepts of what it means to be personally responsible for our actions. Put differently, the concept of free will has no meaning. The concept of free will was an idea that arose before we knew all this stuff about how the brain works, and now we should get rid of it.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2059-65)

Both Gazzaniga and Tallis point out the science that does not support the claims of absolute determinism in the universe.  The evolutionary atheists who want determinism to be true still have to deal with what is known as the randomness of the universe – in natural selection, as expressed in chaos theory, as demonstrated in quantum physics.  Pure determinism is not upheld by experience or by science.

“The thing is, you can’t predict Newton’s laws from observing the behavior of atoms, nor the behavior of atoms from Newton’s laws. New properties emerge that the precursors did not possess. This definitely throws a wrench into the reductionist’s works and also throws a wrench into determinism. If you recall, the corollary to determinism was that every event, action, et cetera, are predetermined and can be predicted in advance (if all parameters are known). Even when the parameters of the atom are known, however, they cannot predict Newton’s laws for objects. So far they can’t predict which crystalline structure will occur when water freezes in different conditions.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2004-9)

Thus as Tallis commented in an earlier blog, what science may have discovered is not proof that determinism governs the universe or that free will does not exist, but rather that there are limits to science and limits to what we can know.  Determinism cannot in fact be determined with absolute certainty because of our limits – we cannot know all there is to know, nor can we even be absolutely certain in complex systems  of what “all” consists.  Rain drops for example may actually fall in a pattern, but because we cannot control or measure all of the variables, we cannot know for sure that they do not (see also my The Word, The Information, the Bit III).

“If the presence of chaotic systems in nature, Poincaré’s fly in the ointment, limits our ability to make accurate predictions with any degree of certainty using deterministic physical laws, it presents a quandary for physicists. It seems to imply that either randomness lurks at the core of any deterministic model of the universe or we will never be able to prove that deterministic laws apply in complex systems.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1916-19)

Tallis sees this limit as something which science must come to own as a truth rather than trying to ignore it because it is inconvenient.  Tallis sees the limits of scientific knowledge and also sees problems with the logic and philosophical assumptions materialists must make to hold to their beliefs.  Gazzaniga on the other hand opts to accept a notion that there are different realms of knowledge which we must acknowledge and not confuse.

“We should also not waste time arguing whether the world itself is deterministic or stochastic since this is a metaphysical question that is not empirically decidable.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1971-72)

Tallis thinks the limits of determinism must be acknowledged if we are going to deal with reality as it is, not as we need it to be to fit our epistemology.

Next:  Is the Brain Nothing but a Biological Computer?

Society: The Reality of Collective and Shared Consciousness

This is the 9th 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 Consciousness: Mind over Matter? (Tallis).   In this series we are reflecting on the works of two scientists who are concerned with recent claims from neuroscience:  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.

While some neo-atheists believe that neuroscience is proving that there is nothing more to the universe than matter and that consciousness/free will are illusions created by the biochemistry of the brain, some scientists have reacted against these claims.  Gazzaniga and Tallis are two scientists who recently published books defending the existence of consciousness and defending the uniqueness of humans in the evolutionary process.  Not only have humans emerged with individual consciousness but humans have used their conscious awareness to create a shared conscious space, known as society.  This is seen as a further development in human evolution.

“…what could account for the vast differences between our species and other animals. He pointed out that one of the possible consequences of social behavior, which triggered so many changes, was becoming sedentary and abandoning the nomadic lifestyle. Between 10,500 and 8,500 B.C., many things that had been accumulating over the past thousands of years came together and made a major change in lifestyle possible. There was the end of the last glacial period; there was control of fire and more effective hunting; the dog had been domesticated (the social world really took off, now that man had a best friend!); there was an increased consumption of fish and a greater reliance on storable cereal grains. Festinger concluded that sedentary existence was the fundamental change that irreversibly altered the course of human evolution. A sedentary lifestyle allowed humans to reproduce more successfully (owing to a reduction of miscarriages and a reduction of spacing between children), and group size quickly increased to around 150. Although the environment and natural resources normally temper the population increases caused by the endogenous drive to reproduce, this was not so for humans. They were able, sooner or later, to find or invent solutions to problems and markedly change their environment while they were evolving. So as sedentary groups formed, their populations increased; around 7,000 B.C. someone had a big idea, and agriculture came on the scene.

This was followed by increasing specialization from 6,000 to 4,500 B.C., which required more interdependence in communities, which in turn created a greater potential for status and power differences. Meanwhile, there was the development of natural and religious technologies, social rules, gossip, and moral stance to control and organize these communities of people.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2397-2410)

The rise of consciousness in humans resulted in the creation of societies – spaces which each individual consciousness share with all others.  This changed everything for humans, for no longer were they simply being determined by nature or the genes, now they were making decisions that began to effect nature itself and furthered their own intellectual and conscious development.

The continued and on-going social and technological development of humanity as a result of consciousness has meant as Tallis noted several times in his book that humans lead their lives, they don’t simply live them as other animals do.

“It is only because individually (and in the case of science collectively) we transcend the matter of which we are made that we are able to develop immensely powerful accounts of matter.  It is because we are able to stand outside matter, to reflect on it, to have it as an object of thought, through the collective consciousness developed through our various modes of discourse, that we have a science of it.”  (Tallis, p 341)

The very existence of science for Tallis is evidence of human consciousness and self will.  Some of the neo-atheists however have attempted to show that everything about culture is simply rooted in materialistic biochemistry.  In keeping with their purely materialist views, they have embrace the notion of the “memes” which are units of cultural transmission.  It is a way of reducing human culture and memory to information which is simply stored in the brain’s biochemistry.  By such reductionism, they can try to re-image the human as nothing more than materialistic activity.  Tallis rejects the use being made of “memes”, units of cultural transmission that are nothing more than brain impulses:

“Indeed, it is difficult to see how meme-possession could offer anything other than the image of the mind as a lumber room or junkyard full of cognitive or cultural bric-a-brac.  This would hardly correspond either to the reality of experience or, more importantly, to the  reality of the way we navigate through, and interact with, the world of daily life, never mind how we project ourselves into a complex, timetabled future, on the basis of a complex past composed of singularities.  Memes, passively acquired and stitching themselves together in clusters or “meme-plexes”, hardly answer this. . . .  So Darwinitics talk about ‘social evolution’ or ‘institutional evolution’ as if they were the same as organic evolution; in other words as if they were unconscious processes, requiring no effort on anyone’s part or sense of direction even at a micro-scale.  In reality, evolution as it applies to technologies or social institutions, while it is indeed a gradual process that has no final goal in view, involves much deliberation and has many explicit intermediate goals. . . .  The extension of evolution from genes to memes propos up this exaggerated assessment of the scope of Darwin’s great theory.  Memes fill the gap between man the organism and human beings who are persons, conscious agents, genuine individuals, actively leading their own lives with something that has the passivity and automaticity of Darwinian natural selection, marginalizing individuality, the self and agency. ”  (Tallis, pp 167-169)

Evolution ceased being a purely unconscious process for humans – the rise of consciousness meant humans could and did interact with and shape their own history and continued development.  While Tallis accepts evolution, he rejects the use being made of it by extending it to all things which exist. He sees this as reductionist and not true to the facts we can scientifically observe about humans.  Though he himself is an atheist, he outlines very well the exact problems theists face when watching the neo-atheists push to have Darwinism explain everything in the world.  Tallis, the scientist sees the need for the existence of consciousness and self, and sees the scientific evidence as supporting the existence of these immaterial manifestations in the empirical world.

Next:  Reductionism and Determinism

Consciousness: Mind over Matter? (Gazzaniga)

“Before I was aware, my fancy set me in a chariot beside my prince.”   (Song of Solomon 6:12)

This is the 7th 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 (II). I’m looking at the works of two scientists who are considering recent claims from neuroscience:  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.

Our own sense of ‘self’ (as when we are being ‘self aware’) is that there is an “I” which is in control of our bodies.  The neo-atheists have claimed this is purely an illusion (delusion?) since there is no ‘self’ but rather nothing exists beyond the material world and so there is nothing more than biochemical processes on-going in the brain which create this false sense of self.  Both Gazzaniga and Tallis challenge the conclusions of the neo-atheists regarding conclusions about the ‘self’ drawn from recent neuroscience.  First we look at how Gazzaniga deal with the sense of self/consciousness:

“How can a system work without a head honcho and why does it feel like there is one? The answer to the first question may be that our brain functions as a complex system. Complex Systems A complex system is composed of many different systems that interact and produce emergent properties that are greater than the sum of their parts and cannot be reduced to the properties of the constituent parts. The classic example that is easily understandable is traffic. If you look at car parts, you won’t be able to predict a traffic pattern. You cannot predict it by looking at the next higher state of organization, the car, either. It is from the interaction of all the cars, their drivers, society and its laws, weather, roads, random animals, time, space, and who knows what else that traffic emerges.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1145-52)

Gazzaniga takes a system approach to the issue – brain functions are complex and work together as a system, so there actually is something which exists ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ the merely material.  Complex brain functions create a system which works together to form this sinse of self.

“The view in neuroscience today is that consciousness does not constitute a single, generalized process. It is becoming increasingly clear that consciousness involves a multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes, the products of which are integrated in a dynamic manner by the interpreter module. Consciousness is an emergent property. From moment to moment, different modules or systems compete for attention and the winner emerges as the neural system underlying that moment’s conscious experience. Our conscious experience is assembled on the fly, as our brains respond to constantly changing inputs, calculate potential courses of action, and execute responses like a streetwise kid.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1636-42)

Of course the emergence from the complex brain system of an “interpreter” still doesn’t account for why there is a unified experience through time of self.  The ‘self’ doesn’t simply emerge temporarily while the particular brain systems are operating, it is there through a life time – it doesn’t disappear through time and so doesn’t leave us with the sense of constantly being constituted anew with no connection to the past.  (Though a Buddhist perspective might be closer to this sense that the self is an illusion which happens to emerge).

“Consciousness flows easily and naturally from one moment to the next with a single, unified, and coherent narrative. The psychological unity we experience emerges out of the specialized system called “the interpreter” that generates explanations about our perceptions, memories, and actions and the relationships among them. This leads to a personal narrative, the story that ties together all the disparate aspects of our conscious experience into a coherent whole: order from chaos. The interpreter module appears to be uniquely human and specialized to the left hemisphere. Its drive to generate hypotheses is the trigger for human beliefs, which, in turn, constrain our brain.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1644-49)

Gazzaniga to some extent replaces the nebulous “self” with a theory that the brain system acting together creates this ‘interperter” but this is pretty much the self.  Tallis on the other hand directly defends the existence of “self”, whatever self happens to be.

Next:  Consciousness: Mind over Matter? (Tallis)

The Evolved Brain and The Emerged Mind

This is the 5th 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 expressed in two books: 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 previous blog is Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps?

While both Gazzaniga and Tallis embrace evolution, they are also very clear that humans are not merely chimps who have evolved slightly.   They both agree that humans have evolved in unique ways which are far beyond all the other creatures on the planet and far beyond anything which the scientific evidence would predict.

“So the question still remains: how is it that certain configurations of matter should be aware, should suffer, fear, enjoy and so on?  There is nothing in the properties of matter that would lead you to expect that eventually certain configurations of it (human bodies) would pool that experience and live in a public world.  No wonder many materialistically inclined philosophers like to deny the real existence of consciousness.”  (Tallis, p 175)

The appearance of consciousness according to Tallis is a real problem for the adherents of scientism and materialism, which they cannot adequately explain and so they simply dismiss.  Tallis, himself an atheist, sees their response as scientifically insufficient.

“The truth is, no theory of matter will explain why material entities (e.g. human beings) are conscious and others are not.  The phenomena described in physics are present equally in conscious and unconscious beings; indeed, they are universally distributed through the material world.  So they provide no account of the difference between, say, a thought and a pebble, which is the kind of difference that any theory of consciousness worthy of the name must be able to capture.”  (Tallis, p 119)

Tallis especially recognizes that there is some part of being human – the self or consciousness which are in fact “immaterial” and thus cannot be fully accounted for by the current assumption of materialists/scientism.   He argues that this simply has to be recognized as fact if science is in fact going to deal with truth.  Remember, he is an atheist and certainly has no interest in ideas such as the “soul” or spirit. (His very comments raise another obvious question for scientists who deny the existence of self or free will – who or what exactly is trying to deal with the truth about materialism a collection of cells which have no other purpose than to help ensure their own continuation?  The existence of scientists studying humans is great evidence that humans have evolved beyond all other animals).  Gazzaniga raises similar questions or issues to those of Tallis:

“The arrogance of the particle physicist and his intensive research may be behind us (the discoverer of the positron said ‘the rest is chemistry’), but we have yet to recover from that of some molecular biologists, who seem determined to try to reduce everything about the human organism to ‘only’ chemistry, from the common cold and all mental disease to the religious instinct. Surely there are more levels of organization between human ethology and DNA than there are between DNA and quantum electrodynamics, and each level can require a whole new conceptual structure.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2143-47)

Here Gazzaniga raises the issue that only if we practice a reductionism which ignores organic reality can deal with some basic cellular interaction while completely ignoring the many levels of organization of which the cells are but one part.   In literary studies it is like studying only the written text while ignoring the entire literary and social context in which that text exists.  We can try to break down human consciousness and study it only on the cellular level but then we have to ignore that cells exists as part of greater bodies which in turn exist as parts of society, etc.

“…humans enjoy mental states that arise from our underlying neuronal, cell-to-cell interactions. Mental states do not exist without those interactions. At the same time, they cannot be defined or understood by knowing only the cellular interactions. Mental states that emerge from our neural actions do constrain the very brain activity that gave rise to them. Mental states such as beliefs, thoughts, and desires all arise from brain activity and in turn can and do influence our decisions to act one way or another.”  (Gazzaniga,  kindle Loc. 1695-99)

An issue that becomes obvious is whether the brain is merely a materialistic object which reacts to stimuli, or whether it somehow becomes an actor in the process – as Tallis says not merely living but leading life.  Something – self or consciousness or free will – something immaterial is present that begins to act upon the material world.

“So while the brain is sensitive to the impingements of the outside world, via the sense organs, it is also a filter regulating its own sensitivity, giving priority to essential and novel stimuli – relevant to survival – over irrelevant and unimportant events.”  (Tallis, p 21)

Consciousness becomes a factor in what is happening in the empirical world.

Next:  The Evolved Brain and The Emerged Mind (II)

Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps?

So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.  (Genesis 2:19)

This is the 4th 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 expressed in two books: 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 previous blog is The Matter of Evolution.

While both Tallis and Gazzaniga accept the basic claims of Darwinian evolution for humans, they both note that human evolution has taken some particular turns that have made humans distinct from all other animals.  Gazzaniga describes the evolution of humans, noting some disadvantages which evolution caused for evolving humanity; and yet these very demands which natural selection put on humans resulted in changes which led to the development of the unique human animal.

“Becoming bipedal produced another disadvantage: The birth canal became smaller. A wider pelvis would have made bipedalism mechanically impossible. Embryonically, the skulls of primates form in plates that slide over the brain and do not coalesce until after birth. This allows the skull to remain pliable enough to fit through the birth canal, but also allows the brain to grow after birth. At birth, a human baby has a brain that is about three times larger than that of a baby chimp, but it is developmentally less advanced.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 422-25)

So evolution allows for the fact that the human animal was evolving into a unique species, but some of the new and unique features of this species were not purely advantageous in terms of evolution.

“…once you have a species that depends on consciousness then it is essential for its members to remain conscious. . . .  an organism that has to plan, to deliberate, to remember, to rehearse possible courses of action and to see wholes so as to deal with singulars, in order to survive, is in a mess: at any rate, disadvantaged compared with the unerring unconscious biological machines generated by the laws of material nature.”  (Tallis, p 177)

The emergence of a species with a bigger brain and which relied on consciousness for survival offers a challenge to surviving in a world in which other creatures act instantly on instinct.   The appearance of the large brained human poses some questions for Darwinian theory as the evolutionary advantage is not so automatic as we might think.  Tallis critically queries:

“Darwinism cannot give satisfactory answer to either of these two questions: how did consciousness emerge; and what is consciousness for, anyway?” (Tallis, p 170)

Tallis certainly believes that the emergence of consciousness has moved the human animal into a unique category, a category that cannot be completely explained by evolutionary theory and one that is not fettered completely to materialistic activities.  The emergence of consciousness has added a new dimension to the animal kingdom.  This new dimension, the emergence consciousness, can not be completely accounted for by materialistic science in Tallis’ estimation since the larger brain was not a purely advantageous evolutionary change.

“The biological story of the passage from single cells to full-blown eyes, therefore, tells us nothing about the quite different journey from light incident on photosensitive cells producing a programmed response, to the gaze that looks out and sees, and peers at, and enquires into, a visible world.   And this is accepted by some physicists; for example Brian Pippard, who expresses this as follows: ‘What is surely impossible is that a theoretical physicist, given unlimited computing power, should deduce from the laws of physics that a certain complex structure is aware of its own existence.’” (Tallis, p 173)

In other words, material science which for the atheist must be able to account for all things, could not deduce that some physical structures (in this case, humans) have self awareness.   There are aspects of human existence that are not predicted by nor totally accounted for by materialistic science.

That humans are unique in all the creatures on earth is easily demonstrated by how different humans are than our nearest genetic relatives, the chimps.

“We are the only animals who deliberately instruct each other.  Chimps don’t even teach their young such elementary skills as breaking a nut with a stone.” (Tallis, p 157)

“The absolute pinnacle of chimp tool use is the employment of a stone to break a nut and this takes the beast about five years to learn!” (Tallis, p 222)

“Unlike chimpanzees, however, other research from Tomasello’s lab found that twelve-month-old children will also freely give information. If they know where an object is that someone is looking for, they will point to it. Interestingly, altruistic behavior, which is appearing to be innate in humans, is influenced by social experience and cultural transmission.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2313-16)

“alone of all the creatures, we teach our young facts, norms, skills, practices, customs.”  (Tallis, p 236)

Thus Tallis and Gazzaniga agree that humans are not merely more highly involved chimps.  Whatever our evolutionary relationship to chimps is, humans evolved in a radically different way that puts us at a greater developmental distance from chimps than chimps are from other animals.

“Darwinism does not oblige us to embrace biologism or, more specifically Darwinitis…”  (Tallis, p 213).

Biologism means biological determinism and Darwinitis is Tallis’ own term for over applying Darwinian thinking to all things human.  For both Gazzaniga and Tallis there is something unique about being human, and both oppose science losing sight of this uniqueness.   The problem which occurs is that some choose to deny or ignore just how different humans are from the rest of the animal world.  That difference is based in human consciousness and the social space that humans share intellectually.  The human brain has evolved not slightly but to such an extent that humans represent a new force in nature – intentionality by humans shapes society, the future and evolution itself.  It is reductionism which both Tallis and Gazzaniga oppose in the scientific understanding of what it is to be human.  Reducing humans to the status of being exactly like any other animals but nothing more denies the evidence – society and science itself (!) – that is all around us. Denying the uniqueness which human minds and human society represent in the animal kingdom really is like the old joke in which the man murders his parents and then asks for mercy from the court because he is an orphan.

Next:  The Evolved Brain and The Emerged Mind

The Matter of Evolution

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  (Genesis 1:26)

This is the 3rd blog in this 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 expressed in two books: 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 previous blog is  The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self (II).

While both Gazzaniga and Tallis accept the basics tenets of Darwinian evolution, both authors note to differing degrees disagreement with the growing emphases  in some evolutionary thinkers that:  a) humans are nothing different than any other animal  and,  b) humans should not distinguish themselves from other animals or really from the rest of matter since we are nothing but an animal and matter ourselves.  This is a philosophical assumption of scientism based in materialism.  Interestingly, Tallis, an atheist and secular humanist, argues vehemently that human evolution has in fact moved to the point that we are not simply evolving deterministically based solely in the laws of physics.  We have emerged as a creature which interacts with and influences its evolution and so we are not merely the deterministic effects of an endless chain of materialistic causes.

“…neuromaniacs and Darwinitics seem unable to notice or accept that, for many hundreds of thousands of years we have been drifting away from our biological origins and from our solitary bodies and solitary brains and have been weaving a collective space on which we each have our own individual take.  … So to try  to find our public spaces, lit with explicitness, in the private intracranial darkness  of the organism illuminated by the fMRI scans and other technology is to look right past what it is that makes us human beings, and makes us what we, and our lives are.”  (Tallis, p237)

Tallis sees as a major part of and proof of the human distinctiveness from all other animals is that humans have created a collective space in which we share ideas and communicate abstractions including notions of the past and future.  It is because of this “immaterial” space of intellectual and abstract ideas which we also turn into the stuff we invent to advance our lives on earth that Tallis dismisses as not being proven at all the new neuroscientifc claims that they have identified memories and ‘free will’ as nothing more than biochemical train reactions in the brain.   Tallis sees in human evolution that “we actively lead our lives rather than merely live them” (p 242).  We have in many aspects taken control of our life on earth rather than merely being determined by it.  So while he accepts evolution, he rejects the biological determinism of scientism as being inappropriately applied to humanity which has evolved in a unique way which allows us to actually influence and affect our live on earth and our future evolution.

Tallis critically sees a type of circular reasoning in which the scientists who believe in materialism,  see only materialism at work; then since they only see materialism at work they argue that this proves that materialism is the only force at work.   What they believe becomes without proof the proof for what they believe.  Thus he argues that the current fascination by neuroscientists (he himself is one) with fMRI scans is misplaced and is not at all proving what they claim:  that there is no free will in humans only biochemical activity in the empirical brain.  (We will get back  to this claim in a future blog, but see also my Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will in which I question what the new neuroscience has in fact proven).  Tallis takes images right from Darwinian explanations in defining what has in fact occurred in evolution:

“The challenge is to imagine, how, ultimately out of the blind forces of physics, there arose the sighted watchmakers that we are; or, less ambitiously, how we came to be fundamentally different from other creatures and not merely exceptionally gifted chimps.”  (Tallis, p 214)

Where some atheists claim if there is a watchmaker which created the universe, it is the blind watchmaker of chance, Tallis while denying any God says humans have emerged as sighted watchmakers who are now actively engaging the universe in our own continued evolution.   He affirms free will and the value of humans in the universe, things which theists have accepted for centuries.

Michael Gazzaniga offers similar thoughts in his book: evolution has taken a turn in humanity and our intellect and brains are evolving differently than are the rest of the animals on the planet.

“With this mounting evidence of physical anatomical differences, differences in connectivity, and differences in cell type, I think that we can say that the brains of humans and the brains of other animals appear to differ in how they are organized, which, when we truly come to understand it, will help us understand what makes us so different.”  (Kindle Loc. 668-71)

“Modern neuroanatomists are quick to point out that as you climb the primate scale to humans, it is not that additional skills are simply being added on as once was hypothesized, but the whole brain is getting rearranged throughout.”  (Kindle Loc. 495-97)

Thus humans, though following the natural path of evolution, have emerged as a species quite distinct from all other animals in the evolutionary process.  It is not only that we think differently, but we create shared intelligence, and the very nature of our cell types and of the arrangement of our physical brains is causing an ever greater distance to emerge between the human animal and the rest of the created world.

Minerva: Goddess of Learning

Tallis argues that too many modern philosophers even are way too eager to cave in to the unproven claims of neuroscience that humans are nothing but predetermined beings pushed through time by the irresistible forces of nature.  He calls for humanists to show a little more backbone and a lot more brainpower in confronting the claims of scientism.

“The distinctive features of human beings – self-hood, free will, that collective space called the human world, the sense that we lead our lives rather than simply live them as organisms do – are being discarded as illusions by many, even philosophers, who should think a little bit harder and question the glamour of science rather than succumbing to it.”  (Tallis, p 8)

Obviously for those of us who believe in the Creator who has a plan for the universe which involves humanity, recognizing the uniqueness of human beings among all the animals on earth has been part of our thinking from the beginning.  It may be that we will find common ground to dialogue with scientists as some distance themselves from the extremist claims of those who embrace scientism.  The question, what does it mean to be human?, is a a basic question of theism, philosophy and science.

[See also my blog series Atheism: Luminous or Delusion? which looks at David Bentley Hart’s criticism of the new atheism in his book ATHEIST DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES]

Next:  Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps?

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

“As in water face answers to face, so the mind of man reflects the man.” (Proverbs 27:19, RSV)

The 1st blog in this series is The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self 

Recent claims by some, especially neo-atheist writers, that neuroscience had in fact ‘proven’ that there is no such thing as self or free will but rather these experiences were an illusion created by brain cells, prompted me to look more into the topic and so I read a couple of books by scientists which temper or oppose the claims of the neo-atheists.

The Bible itself is brainless in the sense that it doesn’t mention the brain, that large organ of the nervous system which is so highly developed in humanity.  The Bible does speak numerous times of “mind.”  (Volumes have been and can still be written about the meaning of and the relationship between terms like brain, mind, self, soul, intellect, heart, person, and how these terms are understood differently in various biblical and Patristic contexts).  The biblical perspective is not based in the modern notion of materialism, so doesn’t see a need to connect or found everything in materialism.  Thus the bible offers no explanation about the connection between mind, self and the brain; even the need to do so would not have occurred to the biblical writer.  The authors of the Bible were also not dualists, so they didn’t oppose mind to matter but saw them both as being part of God’s creation;  mind, matter and soul all belong to the created world and so share created nature.

It really will be viewing the bible through such lenses as Platonism, Aristotelianism and modern scientific materialism that will force a dualistic interpretation on the biblical claims by imposing on them a logic and philosophy that wasn’t part of the inspired mindset of the biblical authors.

Modern science and philosophy are asking questions that the biblical authors could not even imagine.  The biblical authors were not trying to answer modern scientific and philosophical concerns which leaves today’s believers with the arduous task of trying to bridge the gap in knowledge and understanding between the questions of modern science and what questions the biblical authors were answering.  But some of the assumptions of the neo-atheists, their philosophical presuppositions and biases, are based in their belief system (materialism) rather than in proven propositions.  I intend to look at these in this blog series.

There really is a lot at stake in all of this.  For it is one thing for scientists in labs to be studying the material universe and offering their scientific observations about the nature of things.  But the neo-atheists are pushing to apply their thinking to social engineering, creating humanity in the image of their philosophical and ideological values.   The Judeo-Christian tradition accepted a notion that humans had been created in the image and likeness of God, and yet we had fallen far from the perfect image.  The religious tradition however saw humans as capable of aspiring to divinity, to uplifting all of humanity to something greater.  The neo-atheists on the other hand want to reduce humans to the common denominator with all the rest of creation:  mere matter which like putty can be shaped into whatever humans decide with no ultimate ethical consequences since humans are nothing more than matter, just like any rock or junk that happens to exist in the universe.  The neo-atheistic thinking by denying self and free will also deny that there is any significance in anything we do to creation or to our fellow human beings.  We saw that thinking play out in the fascism of Germany and Japan in the 1940s and in communism of the 20th Century.    Social engineering based in some heartless rationalism is quite willing to inflict global suffering on humanity in the name of science and ideological beliefs.

In the next few blogs, I want to look at the writings of Michael S. Gazzaniga,  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 are critical of the claims which are being made as a result of the current neuroscientific research, but both are committed to the scientific method and to the basic claims of evolution.

Gazzaniga attempts to put a more positive spin on what neuroscience is discovering and how it might shape the human future:

“It is that magnificence of being ‘human’ that we all cherish and love and that we don’t want science to take away. We want to feel our own worth and the worth of others. I have tried to argue that a more complete scientific understanding of the nature of life, of brain/mind is not eroding this value we all hold dear. We are people, not brains. We are that abstraction that occurs when a mind, which emerges from a brain, interacts with the brain. It is in that abstraction that we exist and in the face of science seeming to chip away at it, we are desperately seeking a vocabulary to describe what it is we truly are.”  (Kindle Loc. 3450-55)

Gazzaniga presents the issue as more about our “feelings” about being human and that science only “seems” to be chipping away at our understanding of what it means to be human.   Yet his book shows ways in which some are attempting to use the new neuroscience to change society itself.

Tallis sees the risks and dangers to humanity that the ideologues of the new neuroscience represent in more stark terms.   The danger of what Tallis calls neuromania can be seen for example in the writings of Julian Savulescu who argues that  “as technology advances more rapidly than the moral character of human beings, we are in increasing danger.  We must therefore seek biomedical and genetic means to enhance the moral character of humanity.”    Savulescu is saying that it is biomedical tinkering and genetic engineering  which are going to be needed to help humanity deal morally with the changes being brought about by modern technology.    The belief that scientists can biomedically engineer a morally superior human being causes Tallis to conclude: “Be afraid, be very afraid.”

In the next few blogs I want to look at the science of evolution: are humans merely matter (even if highly organized) or is there something that distinguishes humanity from the rest of matter and even from the rest of the animal kingdom?

Next:  The Matter of Evolution