Mind Shadows


Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

Nancey Murphy is a Christian theologian and philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary. Psychologist Warren S. Brown is director of the Lee Edward Travis Research Institute there. He spent 11 years as a research scientist at the UCLA Brain Research Institute. As their background might suggest, their book, takes as key interests the physicalism of science and the room it leaves for the existence of God. I offer a review of the book, but do not want it to become overlong. For that reason, I do not develop explanations of some of their points.

Both Murphy and Brown believe in God but hold that the world can be explained by a physical account of it. Still, they argue that a physicalist account alone cannot make sense of meaning. We find meaning in our lives and in the world, which cannot be explained by a resort to only physical explanations.

The authors believe that, unlike our forebears, contemporary men and women have no "shared account of the nature of the human person." Some people believe in the soul, others do not. Some regard humans as having an innate sense of morality. Others don't. Here is a snapshot of the impact science has had on lives through its anti-spiritual explanations.

Today, many thinkers are concerned about the impact of neuroscience research findings on society. One concern is that neuroscience reveals our brains as creating the illusion of moral responsibility and free will. This book addresses that concern and finds that it is wrongly rooted in the view that a physicalist (or materialist) explanation of our minds automatically becomes a reductionist explanation.

Reductionism is a top-up approach to the world, but the problem in it is that it goes only one direction. It is a one-way street. As Stuart A. Kauffman observes in Reinventing The Sacred, if it were a viable explanation, the route would work both directions. As a single example, we cannot follow our sense of morality back down to any "parts that explain it." In fact, many philosophers and scientists find that much is left wanting in the use of evolutionary adaptation to explain morality. Further, much evidence supports the mind--and consciousness itself--as an emergent phenomenon. We find that development occurs in hierarchies of complexity and they do not allow for bi-directional explanation. They are dynamic systems, self-contained, ever-changing, and unyielding to static, reductionist reasoning. (That they are dynamic does not require that they be supernatural in causation.)

The authors say that an underlying thesis of their book is that--despite changes in physics-- many in our culture are still functioning with a largely Newtonian view of causation and are still largely Cartesian in their understanding of mind. That is, many see theirs and others' minds as an autonomous control center rather than as something integral with the body. In fact, the brain evolved to serve the body, not the other way around.

Meaning and intentionality have been wrapped in mystery as a refuge from the glare of scientific examination. The authors regard meaning and intentionality as products of a Cartesian assumption that mental acts, because internal, are unknowable. If instead we consider the mental in terms of manifesting itself as action in the social world then we have a connection to meaning and intention. There is something in how the word "chair" hooks into the world--how to sit in it. Unlike a Cartesian, Murphy and Brown are not dualists. Dualism is not a position commonly accepted today. Reductionist, physicalist--whatever the term--the typical contemporary stance is monist. (One notable exception is David Chalmers, a dualist who regards qualia--the "what if feels like to be me"--of consciousness as, at least for him, inexplicable from a monist vantage.)

An ultimate question is one of responsibility. If we are creatures of determinism, that frees us from moral responsibility. The social implications would become immensely devastating should the public come to believe in determinism. The authors ask, Who is responsible? In doing this, they turn to a central theme of book, a philosophical analysis of the concept of moral responsibility. In this, language because it is symbolic becomes essential for morally responsible action. The representation of good and bad behavior is a function of language.

The authors make a rather axiomatic assumption, that a sense of self is "one of several cognitive prerequisites for moral responsibility." In turn, this sense of self depends on narrative memory and other functions of the human brain. I must say that I agree with their axiom. My reasons follow.

Some philosophers of consciousness such as Thomas Metzinger (The Ego Tunnel, and Being No One) argue that the sense of self is an illusion created by the brain. They then say we have to live with this illusion to be functional members of society. The problem here is that if their view comes to dominate public understanding, an immense ethical problem arises for society. Murder? Rape? Robbery? One could insist that his neurons made him do it.

But we have an intuitive sense of ourselves as free agents. The authors are concerned with the question, How can we still believe in free will while understanding how our brain works--its body map, its construction of self-images, its basis in evolutionary adaptation?

Faced with their central question of human morality, the authors maintain that physical reductionism has to be false. Reductionism consists of denial that anything need be added to the human body to make a human being. Their thesis is that human reason and human accountability can be explained but not explained away.

They take the position of non-reductive physicalism and hold that theirs is a coherent position. For them, the reductionist point of view presents a key problem regarding free will. Reductionism ultimately explains things in terms of parts. To the reductionist the whole is no greater than its parts. In this view, there is no "me," so it can be said nothing made "me" do it.

Despite their physicalist view of the human body and mind, they find no reason to rule out the larger question of the existence of God.

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