July 15, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Does the Brain Produce the Mind – and Ethics?

Two contrasting views on the mind/body problem appeared in science journals recently.  In Nature this week,1 Paul Bloom (Yale) reviewed The Ethical Brain (Dana Press, 2005) by Michael S. Gazzaniga, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.  Bloom felt the need to clarify the difference between theological and evolutionary views on the source of ethics, because he felt Gazzaniga was careless about specifying the existence and source of moral sensibilities.  Bloom was frank and earnest about the distinction:

Gazzaniga is a lot less cautious when it comes to the implications of neuroscience for ethics in general.  As he puts it in his preface, “I would like to support the idea that there could be a universal set of biological responses to moral dilemmas, a sort of ethics, built into our brains.  My hope is that we soon may be able to uncover these ethics, identify them, and begin to live more fully by them.  I believe we live by them largely unconsciously now, but that a lot of suffering, war, and conflict could be eliminated if we could agree to live by them more consciously.”
    This conclusion would follow if our universal moral sense had been implanted by an all-knowing and all-loving God.  But biological evolution is a notoriously amoral force.  Innate moral universals would have been shaped by the selective advantages that arise from caring for our kin and cooperating with our neighbours, but nothing in our genes tells us that slavery is wrong, or that men and women deserve equal rights.  Such insights emerge through individual and group processes that engage all of our faculties, including our innate moral sense, but also the capacity to appreciate abstract arguments, formulate analogies, learn from experience, take other’s perspectives and so on.  Much of moral progress consists of using reason to override our gut feelings. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

A very different view of the mind has been published by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society2 by Jeffrey Schwartz, a friend of intelligent design leader William Dembski.  Schwartz contends that assuming the brain can produce the mind is based on “ideas about the natural world that have been known to be fundamentally incorrect for more than three-quarters of a century,” namely classical physics compared to quantum physics:

Contemporary basic physical theory differs profoundly from classic physics on the important matter of how the consciousness of human agents enters into the structure of empirical phenomena.  The new principles contradict the older idea that local mechanical processes alone can account for the structure of all observed empirical data.  Contemporary physical theory brings directly and irreducibly into the overall causal structure certain psychologically described choices made by human agents about how they will act.  This key development in basic physical theory is applicable to neuroscience, and it provides neuroscientists and psychologists with an alternative conceptual framework for describing neural processes.  Indeed, owing to certain structural features of ion channels critical to synaptic function, contemporary physical theory must in principle be used when analysing human brain dynamics.  The new framework, unlike its classic-physics-based predecessor, is erected directly upon, and is compatible with, the prevailing principles of physics.  It is able to represent more adequately than classic concepts the neuroplastic mechanisms relevant to the growing number of empirical studies of the capacity of directed attention and mental effort to systematically alter brain function.

In effect, you cannot get mind out of matter, because this is precluded by quantum physics.  Dembski explains that this proposition “challenges the materialism endemic to so much of contemporary neuroscience,” and “argues for the irreducibility of mind (and therefore intelligence) to material mechanisms.”


1Paul Bloom, “Dissecting the right brain,” Nature 436, 178-179 (14 July 2005) | doi: 10.1038/436178a.
2Schwartz, Stapp and Beauregard, “Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology: a neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 0962-8436 (Paper) 1471-2970 (Online).

Bloom properly distinguished the stark contrast between theological and evolutionary explanations for ethics, but he committed logical fallacies in supporting the latter.  He borrowed Christian words like innate moral sense, appreciate, reason and progress which are undefined terms in the Darwin Dictionary.  How can he decide that the amorality of evolution is “notorious” without making a value judgment?  His argument shoots itself in the foot and thus leaves the alternative, the proposition that “our universal moral sense had been implanted by an all-knowing and all-loving God,” the logical choice.
    The paper by Schwartz does not establish the theological origin of our innate moral sense, but undercuts one more materialist assumption for the alternative – at least temporarily.  Since science is tentative, today’s quantum theory may not be a final theory: it cannot serve as an ultimate foundation.  Any ethical system not based on absolutes and the assumption of an all-knowing and all-loving God is doomed to become merely a matter of personal opinion and social convention, and thus not a moral system at all.  The Bible offers a sure standard, a bulwark of moral confidence for troubling times.

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