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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Is Neuroscience the Next Culture War Front?

"Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. ... However, as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained. Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all?" Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nancey Murphy of the Fuller Theological Seminary write in a recent issue of the journal Science.
"By raising questions like this, it seems likely that neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions. Predictably, then, some theologians and even neuroscientists are resisting the implications of modern cognitive and affective neuroscience. 'Nonmaterialist neuroscience' has joined 'intelligent design' as an alternative interpretation of scientific data.'"
Yet they point out that dualism is a relatively modern concept; the biblical view of human nature was definitely physicalist. Finally, they remind us that "just as Galileo's view of Earth in the heavens did not render our world any less precious or beautiful, neither does the physicalism of neuroscience detract from the value of meaning of human life."


V.V. Raman said...

"...as neuroscience advances, it increasingly seems that all aspects of a person can be explained by the functioning of a material system."

This is not a discovery, but one of the tenets of science. Given that science has never officially acknowledged the existence of God (nor in all likelihood ever will), I doubt that any serious scientist believes that neuroscience or any science will prove the existence of a soul via the scientific methodology. One might as well try to prove that laughter is a feature of humans by studying facial muscle contractions.
It would seem that news-flashes like this serve no other purpose than to provoke the religiously inclined into open combat with science, and exacerbate the ugly culture wars that are already disfiguring the face of civilization.
Any scientist who holds the view that through electron-microscopes and brain-scanning one can prove or disprove the existence of souls must be having a very different notion/definition of a soul than the ones that different non-concurring religions have, let alone Pythagoras and Plato.
Science may legitimately investigate and pronounce upon the detectable and measurable physiological effects on the brain resulting from different mental states which may range from reactions to seeing a piece of candy and listening to an aria to getting angry and reading a love poem, but from this to speak about soul and heaven seems to be needless excursions into realms that have no definable elements in the map of science.
The thesis that human personhood is more like a tapestry woven from multiple neuronal threads rather than an internal lamp that illumines our intangible facets is the core thesis of science, and there seems to be growing evidence for this. But then, some may replace the lamp-model by the tapestry which may then be called the soul. The debate will then turn to what happens to that tapestry when the body is declared to be brain-dead. Here most traditional religions will hold on to the scientifically improvable proposition of post-mortem-persistence, while science can at best say, "No, I don't believe in it." And the disagreement will continue. The poetry of religions cannot be proved to be false by the logic of mathematics or the data of experiments. Its goal is to transport our being to loftier levels, and not to prove or disprove whether caring and compassion are for real. Science does not advance significantly by gleefully demolishing the elements that constitute poetry.