Several recent articles illustrate the mental struggle materialists have with human uniqueness, particularly the mind and consciousness.
The animal continuum: Described as a “highly influential researcher studying animality (our animal nature),” Dominique Lestel thinks the human-animal divide is a false dichotomy, reported Science Daily. He takes issue with Western philosophy that elevates humanness above the beasts. He thinks man needs to “reactivate his animality and animalize himself anew.” One might wonder what college students would do with that advice. Another might ask what other animals do research and publish it in Social Science Information, a journal of SAGE.
The consciousness debate goes on: Live Science described a panel discussion at the World Science Festival in New York between philosophers and scientists about consciousness. Tanya Lewis opened with the material angle: “As you read this sentence, the millions of neurons in your brain are frantically whispering to each other, resulting in the experience of conscious awareness.” Her article gave the edge to the materialists who believe “the brain gives rise to conscious phenomena.” Her opening question, though, “But can modern neuroscience ever hope to crack this mysterious phenomenon?” led to admissions that they’re not there yet. The article led to a lively discussion in the comments between monists and dualists (i.e., those who see mind as separate from matter).
Is morality mental or natural? Bob Holmes on New Scientist reviewed two books about the origin of human morality: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal, and How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King. Both books “show that we must be careful when studying animals to learn about the origins of human traits and behaviours,” he said. He thought de Waal was more thoughtful than King, but Holmes was inclined to agree (and believes most of New Scientist’s readers will concur) that morality is relative, not absolute:
If he’s right, then there may be no absolute code of right and wrong out there to be discovered. Instead, each individual’s evolved sense of empathy and concern for the group may help shape the group’s consensus on what kind of behaviour is appropriate. In short, says de Waal, morality may be something we all have to work out together. It’s a persuasive argument, and de Waal’s cautious and evidence-based approach is one that many New Scientist readers are sure to find congenial.
Is neuroscience the answer? Another article on New Scientist cast a shadow on materialist hopes in neuroscience. David Robson reviewed two more books that challenge the notion that neuroscience will ever understand consciousness. The books are, Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What neuroscience can and cannot tell us about ourselves by Robert A. Burton. The titles alone indicate that the authors aren’t ready to give neuroscience a free pass, and neither does Robson:
NO CREVICE of the human experience is safe. Our deepest fears and desires, our pasts and our futures – all have been revealed, and all in the form of colourful images that look like lava bubbling under the skull.
That, at least, is the popular conception of neuroscience – and it’s worth big money. The US and the European Union are throwing billions of dollars at two new projects to map the human brain. Yet there is also a growing anxiety that many of neuroscience’s findings don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s not just sensational headlines reporting a “dark patch” in a psychopath’s brain, there are now serious concerns that some of the methods themselves are flawed.
And that takes the discussion right back to philosophy, so long criticized as asking good questions but not providing good answers. “Neurology is not destiny,” Robson says, after pointing out some false positives using fMRI (functional MRI) and other tools of neuroscience. But Robson is not ready to throw out the neuroscience baby with the bathwater. He puts his hope in what neuroscience will learn some day.
Game Theory: Meanwhile, evolutionists continue to speak of human mental traits in materialist, evolutionary terms. Michael Taborsky in Current Biology continued sounding the ongoing paradigm that human cooperation and altruism are a result of social evolution; Milot and Pelletier in Current Biology advanced the idea that human beings are still a playground for natural selection (but cf. Science Magazine’s review of Paleofantasy and our 3/13/13 entry). The scientific institutions pay little respect to, or even notice of, the views of theologians or philosophical dualists.
If the brain is a window, who is looking through it? If the brain is a computer, who is typing on the keyboard and watching the screen? If morality is a dark spot in an fMRI image, who is interpreting it?
God help the disciples of Frans de Waal who think they can agree on a consensus for what is “appropriate” as a substitute for morality. Most likely, their consensus will be crushed by another culture with better weapons and more motivation for power. What will they say as they are dying? “You can’t do that. That’s not right!”
Each of the authors above defeats materialism by arguing for it. Who is doing the arguing? Their brains? Who is deciding who is telling the truth? Someone who doesn’t accept that truth is real? Who is deciding who has the best arguments, someone who disbelieves in absolute morality? Those who think humans are “mere” animals (though even theologians acknowledge our animal natures) would make sense if they left off writing books, and concentrated on stuffing bananas into their mouths and scratching their bottoms. The moment they try to access the realms of the mind and consciousness, they become dualists in spite of themselves. The moment they assume truth exists and morality can be judged by each of us with sufficient accuracy, they become supernaturalists in spite of themselves. And the moment they say humans “should” do anything (like pay attention to their arguments rationally), they become theists in spite of themselves. You can’t argue for materialism without assuming the very thing you want to disprove: we are more than mere animals; we have a soul that is consciously aware of absolute truth and morality.