Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Mind, the Brain, and the Non-Existence of an Interventionist Deity

From the New Scientist :
Creationists declare war over the brain
"YOU cannot overestimate," thundered psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, "how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You're gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about... how Darwin's explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it... I'm asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality."

His enthusiasm was met with much applause from the audience gathered at the UN's east Manhattan conference hall on 11 September for an international symposium called Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness. Earlier Mario Beauregard, a researcher in neuroscience at the University of Montreal, Canada, and co-author of The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul, told the audience that the "battle" between "maverick" scientists like himself and those who "believe the mind is what the brain does" is a "cultural war".

Schwartz and Beauregard are part of a growing "non-material neuroscience" movement. They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism - the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial - in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul. The two have signed the "Scientific dissent from Darwinism" petition, spearheaded by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, headquarters of the intelligent design movement. ID argues that biological life is too complex to have arisen through evolution.
We see as through a glass, darkly. Which is to say, we see parts of the whole, and have to guess the rest, while searching for more and better data. It really is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, formulating hypotheses about what the picture we're trying to find is, and using those hypotheses to guide our search in particular areas. "This corner piece is entirely blue, so let's see what other blue pieces there are, as it's unlikely that the blueness is confined only to this one piece."

I've written in a previous post about a simple experiment that would show the existence of a non-material form of perception and consciousness. I don't believe such will be found, but it's worth a look, just to make absolutely sure. That post also delved into attempts to synthesise an intelligence, a mind, by emulating each of its known components. We already know that we can take very simple electronics, and have the resultant entity replicate the behaviour of a simple creature such as a spiny lobster. To me, that argues against spiny lobsters being terribly intelligent, but others may disagree.

I've also written in many previous posts about the quantum weirdness that is currently our only explanation - and our only reason for looking for it - for a split between Mind and Brain. Almost all of psychiatry, a whole branch of medicine, is predicated on such a split existing, or at least, it relies on such a split being a useful model, a facet of the truth, even if the thing as a whole is purest hokum.

It's no accident though that a profession that was once largely about dream-analysis and racial-memory recovery is now more about balancing neurotransmitters and titrating doses of chemicals. The "God of the Psychiatric Gaps" has lost much of his temple now, and it's shrinking all the time.

One thing though that has been lost in the shuffle: the disproof of the narrowest definition of Theism. We can't prove that the Universe wasn't created. We can prove that if a creator (or Creator) existed, then only Deism is consistent with the facts. That such a Creator certainly can't be Omniscient - for as an observer, the Creator would cause the collapse of wave-functions that we know remain indeterminate. We can show that any Divine Intervention would require things to be quite different, and outside existing physical laws.

It's possible to postulate such an Entity, one who can do anything, outside all physical bounds, but such an Entity would be utterly ineffable, and completely outside our understanding in even the smallest respect. If He can do anything whatsoever then there's no point in saying that anything is cause or anything is effect. The Invisible Pink Unicorn does the lot.

Maybe so. And maybe you who are reading this blog only came into existence a microsecond ago, complete with memories and a whole physical Universe to exist in. I can't prove you didn't, and neither can you. All you have to do is to suspend all physical laws, which the Invisible Pink Unicorn has to be able to do in order to intervene in even the smallest way.

To me, a really impressive Deity would be one who sets the ball rolling, then gets out of the way, hoping and expecting that after the requisite eons of cooking, that the recipe will be a success. Perhaps not the first time He's done it, either. Making Friends, as I'll explain later.

Do I think that there is a "soul", a non-material component to existence? I really don't know. I hope there is, but hoping and wishing is not the same as believing. I certainly think it's possible, given what we know now. If it exists though, it should be possible to detect it. Perhaps not in the OOBE experiments I mentioned before, but in other ways. And if it is indetectable, then it may as well be said not to exist. Or to be exactly as real as the Invisible Pink Unicorn (mhhhnbs).

And meanwhile in my PhD studies I'm finding out not just the what of Evolution, but the How. Not just in biological systems, but systems generally, how biospheres and ecologies (including economies and religions) evolve. "Intelligent Design" I consider an uninteresting idea, as un-necessary as the IPU doing things with her holy unshod hooves. Maybe Aliens really did come to Earth and steer Evolution. I can't prove they didn't. I think I can prove that it's un-necessary to postulate them in order to explain observations though.

What I would like to happen after my death is that I eventually get to meet a Creator who was so utterly clever, so benevolent and kind, that He created a whole Multiversal system that would (he hoped) generate Universes that would allow the development of beings like himself, without further intervention or observation. That would generate Species that would eventually evolve into his equals, and his offspring.

Wanting is not the same as believing though, and until I see rather more compelling evidence than I have of a metaphysical reality, it's not something I give any great weight to.

You might note that I haven't mentioned morality above. That's because I consider it to be an an entirely separate issue. If something is Evil, it's Evil, regardless of whether a Big Bully Policeman in the Sky will send anyone to an eternal torture-chamber for not for doing it. Similarly, if something is Good, it's Good. And would be so even if doing that meant Eternal Damnation at the hands of "Infinite Power and Infinite Sadism". But that's another story...


c00L D00d said...

Please, I got a question I'd like you to answer:

It's the last one.

Anonymous said...

Nica said...

but...but...I LIKE Invisible Pink Unicorns...

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that that there is a phenomenal consciousness. The questions that do not have factual answers are; Why do we have it? What is it for? How can we use it to our benefit? What does it mean? Where is it located? When was it formed?

Chris said...

So the IPU is Maxwell's Demon?

Anonymous said...

The quantum of the brain does not follow the thermodynamics laws.

sumptos devil s advocate said...

Here is a bit of how I see the Obama election:

Bush's policies were not by any stretch of the imagination libertarian, unlike what many Democrats and progressives like to lie about or talk in complete ignorance of. The only thing they can get that seems libertarian about Bush is from his rhetoric, but actions speak louder than words, and what I see is that in the first 4 years of Bush's administration alone, non-defense spending expanded as much or more than it did in Clinton's entire 8! A lot of this included spending for prescription drugs and education and other big government programs.

Oh he did cut taxes, but he did not cut spending with it, causing a massive deficit. Again, that is very unlibertarian.

He also said he would vote for a renewed assault weapons ban if it landed on his desk and he had an amicus brief sent to the Supreme Court in DC v. Heller saying the DC handgun ban should have been upheld.

Again, not by any stretch of the imagination was Bush libertarian. Instead, he seemed more progressive than anything.

Zoe Brain said...

SERIOUSLY Off Topic. Please desist.

And on another issue, I may have to institute a policy of deleting unsigned anonymous comments unread. Politeness isn't working.

Nica said...

I was just thinking, Zoe, how do we know that these unicorns are pink if we cannot see them? Does it require a leap of faith?

Zoe Brain said...

"Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can't see them."
— Steve Eley

Cardinal Pole said...

"It's possible to postulate such an Entity, one who can do anything, outside all physical bounds, but such an Entity would be utterly ineffable, and completely outside our understanding in even the smallest respect."

There is a fascinating footnote early in the Catechism of the Council of Trent that lists some of the attributes of God as inferred by the great Pagan authors like Anaxagoras, Xenophanes, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. These attributes are remarkably similar to the ones that God revealed to the ancient Hebrews, though the Pagans had some errors mixed in, of course. So I'm not sure why you think that God is "completely outside our understanding in even the smallest respect".

"If He can do anything whatsoever then there's no point in saying that anything is cause or anything is effect. The Invisible Pink Unicorn does the lot."

That's putting it pretty crudely. To look again to the Roman Catechism, we read that "Not only does God protect and govern all things by His Providence, but He also by an internal power impels to motion and action whatever moves and acts, and this in such a manner that, although He excludes not, He yet precedes the agency of secondary causes." (

As to morality, you say you consider it entirely separate, so it's up to you whether you want to pursue this or not, but what do you mean by evil being evil and good being good? Are you saying that you would agree with St. Thomas that sin (speaking analogically from your perspective) is an offence against reason, and so evil means trangressing the laws of right reason and good means abiding by them? The problem is then, if there is no metaphysical reward and punishment, then what is so unreasonable about sin in the first place?

Let me offer two examples: lying and sodomy. Now sodomy is punished through the natural order, through anal fissures, genital warts and so on. Clearly, then, sodomy is evil. But lying, which, I expect, you would agree is in some sense wrong, does not necessarily carry any earthly punishment, and can even bring advantages in this life. So do you even agree, then, that lying is intrinsically wrong? I suppose what I'm saying is that given that the essence of morality is recognising a law and abiding by it (see, for instance, Prof. Amerio in Iota Unum), and supposing that the only laws are the laws of physics, then what really makes evil evil and good good?

Zoe Brain said...

You make assumptions I disagree with, my axioms differ.

No system can be both complete and consistent: Goedel Theory states that for any system whatsoever, there must either be unprovable truths, or inconsistences, where there exist propositions that can be both proven true and proven false at the same time.

As a computer scientist dealing with (amongst other things) information theory, and as a Pure Mathematician, Goedel theory and computability, consistency and completeness of systems in a mathematical sense, is something I can't ignore, or Reality slaps me in the face.

So if we are to have a system that is consistent, it is necessary (but not sufficient) to have axioms - unprovable assumptions.

Now assuming a non-physical component of identity exists, and "soul" is as good a word as any for that, then that may be the source of gnosis. Knowledge about Good and Evil. It is however, a very unsatisfactory answer, as without reason to shore it up, without experimentation showing that Good intent tends to lead to Good outcomes, and Evil intent tends to lead to Evil outcomes, (no matter how you define them), then it is not useful, and may be disregarded as mere conjecture, even if it genuinely is True.

My own personal beliefs can be encapsulated in 1 Corinthians 13. Or, to reduce it to a sound-byte, Love one another. All else is elaboration and commentary.

You do this not because of rewards and punishments, those are merely means to coerce good acts, and may even be morally wrong as often as they are morally right. You do Good because it's good. Virtue is its own reward, and on this earth, often it's only reward. The race is not always to the swift, nor the contest to the strong, but that's where the smart money is, and not on who's more virtuous.

In that regard alone, I have faith. It transcends questions of theology, whether souls exist, whether God exists, either as interventionist or creator unable to intervene in His own creation as that would be the same as making his children into robots.

I will try to be kind, and will attempt to do so, regardless of reward or punishment. And I will spend a lot of time thinking deeply about what "being kind" means, as there's always the possibility of error.

And if He exists, God deserves my respect to the extent that He is Good, not to the extent that he is powerful. Might, even supernatural might, does not make Right. I refuse to fear Him, but I may have some compassion for Him. Love too, as a daughter has for her father.

I don't believe Yeshua ben Yosef was the son of God. But he had some remarkably insightful things to say, and one could do far worse than follow the precepts he espoused. A lot has, however, doubtlessly been lost in the translation. For if not, there would be no schisms, no sects, no Orthodox, Catholic, Marionite, Meringovian, Hussite, Copt, Baptist, Anabaptist, 7th day Adventist, Exclusive Brethren etc etc. Let alone Shia, Sunni, Sufi and so on.

Cardinal Pole said...

I agree heartily: virtus sola nobilitat, virtue is its own reward--or better: virtue is an end in itself. But Zoe, don't you see, then, the inconsistency of what you say here:

"You do this not because of rewards and punishments, those are merely means to coerce good acts, and may even be morally wrong as often as they are morally right. You do Good because it's good. Virtue is its own reward, and on this earth, often it's only reward. The race is not always to the swift, nor the contest to the strong, but that's where the smart money is, and not on who's more virtuous."
(my emphasis)

Justice is a virtue, a cardinal virtue, and justice, to put it as simply as possible, means each person gets what he is owed. In other words, justice is reward and punishment. A reward is never wrong in itself, and neither is a punishment. In fact, withholding the reward or punishment would be the evil, and accordingly should only be permitted in order to procure a greater good or avert a greater evil.

So how, then, can you speak of rewards and punishments as mere means, when they are virtuous, they are ends in themselves? How can they be morally wrong, when they are just?

Zoe Brain said...

Justice should be tempered with mercy: judge not, lest ye also shall be judged.

I seem to recall an incident involving stones, and casting the first thereof.

Note also that "Go thou and sin no more" is the important issue here, and not a perfectly just and wholly righteous punishment for wrongdoing. Forgiveness. Repentance. Restitution, as much as that can be given, else repentance is merely a word.

I prefer the word "charity" rather than the over-used "love" in the translation of 1 Corinthians 13.

Forgive me, you Eminence, for I have seen and personally experienced far too much Righteous Wrath, which is all too often merely an excuse for cruelty. Many with evil in their hearts wish to be violent and cruel, yet their religion and social sanction forbids this. So when they see a fellow sinner, one who has been outlawed, they give full rein to their malice and spite, all the time piously prating about how they're merely doing God's work.

Islam is particularly vulnerable to such hypocrisy, but all religions suffer it to one degree or another, Catholicism included. It's almost - but not quite - enough for me to believe in the existence of an Adversary who tries to delude us. However, before I could believe in such an entity, I'd have to believe in God first. That's a personal axiom.

If we do not punish, would that not encourage other evildoers to continue, knowing they'll face no comeback? Well, yes, inarguably. The trick is to make sure that we don't fall into the trap of lacking mercy, and history is rather too full of such examples.

My thanks for your continued presence here, your incisive (as in razor-like) logic is an ornament to this blog.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, a deep post but it is also limited. I deduce you are extremely intelligent with years of education underpinning that intellect. Unfortunately, that is also what hampers your ability to perceive the universe.

I think we could have long and involved conversations about this topic, but I also think you have limited the universe to what can fit into your head. With that handicap, there are limits to the value of conversation.

Morgan Hikikomori Johnson

Zoe Brain said...

Hi Morgan! Welcome! Please have a look at other posts. You may find the ones tagged "religion", "ethics" and "brains" interesting.

As regards limiting the Universe to what can fit in my head - I agree, I do. But I have yet to see any evidence that others don't too.

Zoe Brain said...

BTW I recommend Cardinal Pole's Blog.

Commentary, from an uncompromisingly Traditional and arch-reactionary perspective, on Australian and world Catholic and secular news and ideas

An honest description from an uncompromisingly honest person. Though "arch-reactionary" understates the case, if anything.