Creationists unaware of past, doomed to repeat it

New Scientist has an article on a group of creationists who are attempting to argue that we have a soul based on the difficulty of reducing mental events to neurobiology. The article makes out that this is a new front on the ‘war on science’ but I wouldn’t be manning the barricades quite yet, as the issue has been around as long as neuroscience itself.

The creationist-affiliated researchers suggest that the ‘mind-body problem‘ – the difficulty in explaining subjective mind states in terms of objective biological processes – means that the mind must be partly non-material and, therefore, have some spiritual aspect to it (i.e. the soul).

What’s interesting in this debate as many scientists respond by simply denying there is a problem and suggesting that this is just a issue of progress and eventually we will be able to explain every mind state in terms of brain function.

This is unlikely, however, owing to the fact that the mind and brain are described with different properties and so cannot be entirely equivalent. Therefore, one will never be completely reduced to the other.

This does not imply that there must be a soul or non-material mind at work. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, try this example.

Why does Elvis not want you to step on his blue suede shoes? You buy a copy of the track on CD but analysing the physics of the sound waves in the song will not fully answer your question.

You might find out that the volume or pitch increases at specific points to highlight certain key phrases, but you can’t fully understand why Elvis is so protective of his new shoes through physics alone.

In other words, you can’t explain everything about the song through objective scientific methods. This does not mean your CD, or the sound waves, have a soul.

The same goes for the mind and brain. There are some things we talk about in terms of experience, mental events and thoughts that will not be adequately explained at the level of objective biological measures. Similarly, this does not imply the existence of a soul.

Importantly, it doesn’t disprove the existence of a soul either, because unless you make specific falsifiable statements about what a soul actually does in the brain in an empirically testable way, science can’t test it one way or another. It can only make inferences.

On the basis of the fact that no proposed ‘soul effect’ has ever been detected, most neuroscientists think that a non-material aspects to the mind doesn’t exist. The mind, like Elvis songs, are just part of the world, even if we need to use different levels of meaning to fully explain them.

However, some neuroscientists think different, and have done for as long as neuroscience has been around, and this is why this ‘new’ development is unlikely to be a big threat.

In fact, Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Sir John Eccles believed until his dying day that there was a non-material aspect to the mind. Dana Magazine has a great article on Eccles’ dualism which is well worth reading if you want a summary of his views.

But this just illustrates the point that the recent claims by creationist-affiliated researchers are neither new nor particularly threatening. Neuroscience has not come crashing to the ground, and science seems remarkably untroubled.

UPDATE: The Neurologica Blog also has some great coverage of the NewSci piece and has more of an in-depth analysis.

Link to NewSci piece ‘Creationists declare war over the brain’.
Link to Dana article on Eccles’ dualism.

4 Comments

  1. The Gentleman Netizen
    Posted October 25, 2008 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    The title of the article does not seem fitting. New Scientist seems unaware of the past of the issue, that this is nothing new. At least according to the article, the soulful researchers have no claimed that their idea is anything very new. Therefore, wouldn’t it be that New Scientist is the one that hasn’t learned from the past?

  2. Posted October 25, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I´m not so sure about the issue of inconmensurable paradigms, say, the brain and mind are described in different languages or the irreducibility of mind to the physics of brains.
    I think that trying to describe the feelings of songs (the physics of our brains) in terms of wave of sounds (the physics of mediums) is misleading. But this doesn´t mean that physics is not the right frame of causality. To describe both of them we have necessarily
    to appeal to physics, only that different realms of physics.
    Neverthless, this issue is a matter of confirmation or disconfirmation in terms of scientific grounds and perhaps i´m wrong and you are right.
    But the proposal of the general movement called “creationism”, is not really a scientific issue because is imbued with political and cultural claims beyond the reach of science. They are trying to give us “toyan horses” or causal ineficacious entities (like non-material stuff) as the responsible of mental functions.

  3. McDuff
    Posted October 25, 2008 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m struggling to see how the analogy proves what you claim it does. The fact that you cannot demonstrate the motivations of a singer on a piece of recorded work through mere physics does not mean that it is outside the realm of science, just that you may need to use a different methodology. That you can’t open a can of beans with a forceful argument does not mean that a can of beans is unopenable either.
    In any event, even if motivations and the inner workings of Elvis Presley’s head are beyond the reach of pure, peer-reviewed “Science” in every aspect, there is no need to say that they are beyond the reach of pure unforgiving materialism.
    Indeed, the CD metaphor is quite apt for showing the other side of the argument. Music is indeed more, cognitively and emotionally, than the mere sum of its compressions and rarefactions. But without those physical things, without the bits on the CD or the pressure changes in the air, music simply would not exist. Blue Suede Shoes cannot be inquired about philosophically unless it is first produced and second listened to, both entirely physical processes.
    Without the glob of synapses flashing around in their hormonal soup, the mind does not exist. There are no disembodied minds floating around that are not emergent properties of some brain somewhere, even though many people claim otherwise. There is absolutely zero evidence that non-brain minds do exist, have existed or ever could exist, or that if they do that they would have any interaction with the material world at all and, thus, that they would be absolutely irrelevant to the matter in hand. There is no posited mechanism by which a non-material mind could interact with a material brain, gathering sensory information and feeding back decisions. There is no mechanism by which adrenaline or dopamine could affect our thoughts without those thoughts being the products of physical processes.
    Dualism simply asserts that music exists in the absence of compression waves in the air, and takes it as read that such an assertion, because it ticks a lot of boxes in our cognitive biases, is therefore a reflection of the truth. This is not just saying that it is not a scientific proposition – dualism is only testable as long as people are prepared to be proved wrong – but that it is increasingly a nonsensical proposition.
    Philosophy at its root was an effort to explain the world. Creation myths and hypotheses like dualism fulfilled one function in the ancient world, because they offered a reason for the way things are as they are. Now, they increasingly find themselves not just failing to explain large swathes of the world, but having to be explained for themselves. They have transitioned from explanatory theories to aggressive social mythologies. They now no longer explain but obfuscate, and this is why they are incompatible with rationality.

  4. Posted October 25, 2008 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Hi there,
    I am not claiming it is outside the realm of science, but just that we need different levels of explanation. i.e. not everything can reduce to lower levels of explanation (physics, in the example I was using).
    However, just because one level can’t fully reduce to another, it does not mean there is some ‘magic’ stuff there. We just need to accept theories of varying levels for an adequate explanation.


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