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Pruett on Science and Faith [EvolutionBlog]


Go have a look at this post over at HuffPo. It’s called “Science and Faith: Reconciling After the Divorce,” by Dave Pruett. To judge from that title, you might surmise that’s it’s not exactly my cup of tea, and you’d be right. The catch, though, is that Dave is a very good friend of mine, having just retired after many years in the math department right here at JMU.

Dave has a new book out called Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit, from which the present essay has been drawn. I’m about fifty pages in so far and I am finding it a fascinating read, even though ultimately I suspect I am going to disagree with the book’s main conclusions. But I definitely recommend checking it out. If anyone can convince me I’m wrong on these questions, it’s Dave.

Here’s an excerpt from the HuffPo piece:

The central challenge facing 21st-century science is understanding the human mind. That science finds itself confronting the question of consciousness comes unexpectedly. First, mind appears to be resolutely immaterial; science can’t poke it with a metaphorical finger as Erin intuited. Second, mind as a domain of inquiry has been off-limits to science since Descartes.

There are in actuality two problems of consciousness: the “easy” problem and the “hard” one. The first concerns how sensory perception correlates with neural activity. Twenty-first century imaging techniques allow modern Magellans — cartographers of the neural realm — to map brain function at a submicron level of resolution. Progress is rapid, and it is virtually certain that the “easy” problem will be fully resolved.

The “hard” problem is altogether something else. In a nutshell: “Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication, of the real world.” How do physical stimuli generate subjective experience? Humans perceive light at a wavelength of 700 nanometers as red; we haven’t a clue why red. The mind is not a tabula rasa, the titan of philosophy Immanuel Kant concluded. Uninterpreted sensory input is useless, “less than a dream,” said Kant. In today’s lingo, uninterpreted sensation is noise devoid of music, pixels devoid of image or caresses devoid of care. Mind and brain are not synonyms.

This is where I have my first problem with Dave’s argument. I agree that you can’t poke the mind directly. But we certainly can, and have, “poked” the brain, and what we have found provides no comfort to people who think the mind is anything more than what the brain does. Everything that we normally think of as being associated with that little immaterial “you” that sits in your head pulling the levers of your physical body; whether personality, mood, conscience or anything else; can be directly affected by poking the right area of the brain. I would point to brain injuries that can cause people to perceive colors as sound, or which fundamentally change your personality. I would point to the success of drug therapies for mental illness, which treat mood disorders and whatnot as resulting from chemical imbalances in the brain. So while it is fine to say that mind is not synonymous with brain, I see no evidence that mind is the result of anything beyond the enormously complex physical processes of the brain.

I agree that it is a hard problem to explain how physical processes in the brain produce subjective experience. As I have written before, I not only don’t know how to explain it, I don’t even know what would count as an acceptable explanation. Can you even invent an explanation which, if true, would make you feel like you really understood how physical processes lead to subjective phenomena? I, for one, wouldn’t know what to invent. The trouble is, I would say the same thing about every nonphysical explanation for mind that I have ever heard. It’s not as though scientists with materialist blinders on have ignored the really nifty and clear-thinking explanations of mystics and new age gurus. It’s that no one, whether operating from a physical or a nonphysical perspective, has anything much to say about the origins of subjective experience.

Dave concludes with this:

Copernicus and Darwin upset the cosmos — physically, then biologically — forcing a schism between scientific and religious worldviews. But a new, holistic and healing story is now emerging through the unfolding of a third “Copernican” revolution. In the new physics, the veil between science and mysticism seems precariously thin, and the universe begins to take on a numinous glow. To hard-boiled positivists, this signals a disastrous turn of events. But for many of us, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air. Philosophy — the love of wisdom — may once again become whole.

Hmmmm. I’m not so sure about that. The title of the essay referred to science and faith. Faith in what, I wonder. Now we hear about “religious worldviews,” but considering the tremendous variety of religious beliefs and experiences in the world, that term is too vague for my taste. And tell me more about this new physics. What does it claim to have discovered and upon what evidence does it make those claims? I follow physics fairly closely, and it looks to me like they are mostly doing good old “poke and observe” physics. I’m afraid I missed the news about this new physics that has positivists quaking and which is giving the world a numinous glow (whatever that actually means.) (Incidentally, I think Dave meant “materialists” and not “positivists.” I was under the impression that positivists have been extinct for at least fifty years or so.)

Then again, Dave’s book is rather long and I have not yet gotten to the really juicy bits. And I hope this is just the first of many blog posts over at HuffPo. I don’t have to agree with an argument to find it interesting, after all. Perhaps when I finish the book I’ll have cause to retract this post.

Regardless, Dave is one of the nicest people on the planet and he’s a very engaging writer, so I highly recommend checking out his book. I may not agree with everything he says, but he always provides food for thought.


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