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3/11/10

Couples In Love As Particles In Motion

Newspapers will not herald in bold headlines that "Your World View Is Changing," but it will happen to the public, slowly, almost imperceptibly, as research thinking on brain, neuroscience, and the philosophy of consciousness spreads into the public sphere.

Let there be no doubt: the current thinking is revolutionary. Whatever you thought was obvious about yourself is threatened to be undermined by the revolution. Among potential threats, one is that people will come to believe that life is pointless, meaningless.

A young couple in love, walking along the bank of the Seine in Paris become only moving particles. Such is the logical culmination of the revolution in reductionism. Reductionist approaches to brain and consciousness study have the ear of mass media, and that view is trumpeted to the public.

As society and culture absorb the view, there will be no moment when thought shifted, no memory of an earthquake in public perception. It will happen quietly, over many years, seeping into society and culture. It will be a change as powerful as the impact Darwin had on the Victorian world, but without the explosive quality. It will whisper, relentlessly corrosive.

Unless a counter-view becomes ascendant.

Let me be clear. I am not a creationist. I believe in scientific evidence and not superstition. I have one argument, and it is not with reductionism as fruitful science, but with the sweeping claims of reductionism.

In reductionism we already witness an erosion of belief in meaning, value, agency, and a sense of purpose in life. As physicist Steven Weinberg put it, “All the explanatory arrows point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry, and ultimately to physics.” Weinberg also says, “The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.” That is the consensus among thorough-going reductionists.

There is an alternate view, non-reductive emergent phenomenalism. It is a mouthful, and other terms describe the same concept, but essentially it argues that you can't get there from here--from the top down to a reductionist explanation of everything at the top--because Darwinian evolution is not a simple two-way street. Preadaptations are an example of the dynamic and creative quality of evolution. (As an example, an early fish jaw became tiny parts of the inner ear.) Purpose, agency, meaning, and value are real in their own right precisely because they are at the top and cannot be entirely explained by downward-pointing physics and biology. You and I are not simply a bunch of moving particles.

Mass media unquestioningly presents scientific research to the public. People can be influenced by the loudest reductionist voices for explanations of consciousness and the brain. Your neurons made you do it, according to these experts interviewed by reporters.

Below, a pundit addresses the issue--the effect on the public of brain and consciousness research--but I am not as sanguine as he is about public reaction to the new thinking on the subject. In his New York Times column David Brooks provides window dressing, but does not explore the field in depth. I wish he had given even some attention to the alternate view, non-reductive emergent phenomenalism, a top-down, dynamic systems approach that could well rescue morality, value, purpose, and agency. For Brooks, read on.

"In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called 'Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,' in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.

To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.

Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and “the soul is dead.” He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists.

Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it.

The atheism debate is a textbook example of how a scientific revolution can change public culture. Just as The Origin of Species reshaped social thinking, just as Einstein’s theory of relativity affected art, so the revolution in neuroscience is having an effect on how people see the world." More

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