Monday, 10 November 2008

Creationists declare war over the Brain

From NewScientist;

In August, the Discovery Institute ran its 2008 Insider's Briefing on Intelligent Design, at which Schwartz and Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon at Stony Brook University in New York, were invited to speak. When two of the five main speakers at an ID meeting are neuroscientists, something is up. Could the next battleground in the ID movement's war on science be the brain?

Well, the movement certainly seems to hope that the study of consciousness will turn out to be "Darwinism's grave", as Denyse O'Leary, co-author with Beauregard of The Spiritual Brain, put it. According to proponents of ID, the "hard problem" of consciousness - how our subjective experiences arise from the objective world of neurons - is the Achilles heel not just of Darwinism but of scientific materialism. This fits with the Discovery Institute's mission as outlined in its "wedge document", which seeks "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies", to replace the scientific world view with a Christian one.

Now the institute is funding research into "non-material neuroscience". One recipient of its cash is Angus Menuge, a philosophy professor at Concordia University, Wisconsin, a Christian college, who testified in favour of teaching ID in state-funded high-schools at the 2005 "evolution hearings" in Kansas. Using a Discovery Institute grant, Menuge wrote Agents Under Fire, in which he argued that human cognitive capacities "require some non-natural explanation".

. . .

And for Patricia Churchland, a philosopher of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, "it is an argument from ignorance. The fact something isn't currently explained doesn't mean it will never be explained or that we need to completely change not only our neuroscience but our physics."

The attack on materialism proposes to do just that, but it all turns on definitions. "At one time it looked like all physical causation was push/pull Newtonianism," says Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy and neurobiology at Duke University, North Carolina. "Now we have a new understanding of physics. What counts as material has changed. Some respectable philosophers think that we might have to posit sentience as a fundamental force of nature or use quantum gravity to understand consciousness. These stretch beyond the bounds of what we today call 'material', and we haven't discovered everything about nature yet. But what we do discover will be natural, not supernatural."

And as Clark observes: "This is an especially nasty mind-virus because it piggybacks on some otherwise reasonable thoughts and worries. Proponents make such potentially reasonable points as 'Oh look, we can change our brains just by changing our minds,' but then leap to the claim that mind must be distinct and not materially based. That doesn't follow at all. There's nothing odd about minds changing brains if mental states are brain states: that's just brains changing brains."

"This nasty mind-virus piggybacks on reasonable worries"
That is the voice of mainstream academia. Public perception, however, is a different story. If people can be swayed by ID, despite the vast amount of solid evidence for evolution, how hard will it be when the science appears fuzzier?

What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the "God of the gaps".

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