Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Response to "Our Godless Brains"

This is a response to this article:

There is a lot to say about it so I'll just be rapid-firing some responses here. I may get more in-depth into some issues later in the week, or I may not. Hey, it's my blog. I act upon whatever catches my fancy.

Take the most famous equation of all, E = mc2. Just what does that equal sign mean? It implies that the variables on each side are the same. But is mass really identical to energy? True, mass can be converted to energy, as atom bombs prove, and energy can even be turned into mass. Still, they are not the same things. Not only are the units of measurement different, but the equation is only descriptive and predictive. It does not explain how mass converts to energy or vice versa.

One has to wonder if this guy knows what an "equals" sign means. This guy complains that he doesn't know enough about physics to talk with absolute confidence, but that is not his problem. His main problem is that he sucks at philosophy, and philosophy is what he does through most of the article. He seems kind of short on logic, as the above statement shows.

The limits of math become more troublesome when physicists try to explain the origin of the universe. Math does not really explain how a universe can exist without a first cause. True, physicists invoke the “big bang,” a massive explosion of supercondensed matter. They call this the “singularity,” as if that explains things any better. Whatever words, or math, they use, they cannot explain what created the supercondensed mass in the first place. Where did that mass come from? If it was created by energy, where did that come from? You can see that such questions create an infinite loop of effects that have a cause. Scientists call this “infinite regression,” which is an untenable way to explain anything.

Even if you invoke the idea of a creator god, where did that god come from? So, you see, physicists and the rest of us are stuck with the unsatisfying conclusion that something can be created from nothing. I have only read one explanation for how this might happen, which I will discuss shortly, but it makes no sense to me.

No, 'scientists' don't call it an 'infinite regression', philosophers have been calling it that, long before there were any scientists. He doesn't even deal with the main problem here, or the really interesting philosophical point, which is the question of whether the laws of physics themselves have always been here, for it is these laws from which all that happens in the universe is supposed to derive. Of course, theists think it is God that always exists. The question isn't about an infinite line of creation but whether anything exists that is uncreated, and what that something might be. I happen to think that an eternally existing God makes more sense than an eternally existing set of natural laws, since the former is conceived as non-physical and the latter is by definition physical. But that is the real question. It is about contingency and necessity. None of these issues are even mused over here.

Only a few neuroscientists argue that the human mind is not materialistic. Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and journalist Denyse O’Leary have written a whole book to argue the point. Their “Spiritual Brain” documents many apparent mystical experiences. These authors use the existence of such mental phenomena as intuition, will power, and the medical placebo effect to argue that mind is spiritual, not material. None of this is proof that such experiences have no material basis. Their argument seems specious. They have no clear definition of spirit, and they do not explain how spirit can change neuronal activity or how neuronal activity translates into spirit. They dismiss that the mind can affect the brain because it originates in the brain and can modify and program neural processes because mind itself consists of neural process...By now readers know brains make sense (pun intended). That is, we know enough about the brain to know that conscious mind may someday be explained by science. We already know enough about the nonconscious mind of the brainstem and spinal cord to realize that what we call mind has a material basis that can be explained by science. Science may someday be able to examine what we today call spiritual matters. Consider the possibility that “spirit” is actually some physical property that scientists do not yet understand.

The arguments against materialism about the mind are not primarily to be found in the halls of neuroscience. They are a priori, and at the level of conceptual analysis. Some philosophers have given strong reasons to doubt that a scientific description of phenomenal consciousness is possible at ALL. To get some idea as to what these arguments are, just go over to Maverick Philosopher's Philosophy of Mind section. These arguments may not be unassailable but they are very, very strong. So, no, the advances in brain science give one no reason to be confident that mind as a whole is on the verge of being explained. There are strong reasons to believe it never will be.

The most recent idea I have read is that Shannon’s information theory lies at the heart of QM and can explain how something can emerge from nothing. Information, quantified as “bits” (0 and 1) is inversely proportional to the probability of an occurrence (with probability measured on a logarithmic scale). I always wonder why physical scientists like to express things in inverse relationships. Anyway, the equation says that “information” has only two properties: an event and its probability of happening. The equation applies to any kind of event, from occurrences today to the moment the universe came into being.

See, right here we see the philosophical deprivation of this author. He says something incredibly stupid here. I mean monumentally stupid. He says that information theory as related to quantum physics shows how something can come from nothing. But indeed, it only shows how that can happen GIVEN THE FACT OF QUANTUM PHYSICS. There are a set of physical laws and these physical laws cause 'something' to exist rather than 'nothing'. But that is stupid. Because the 'something' is coming from 'something' else... the physical laws themselves. Physical laws are not nothing, they are something, and so any physical realities they produce, are themselves the results of other physical realities...the laws themselves. How can this guy not see that? If this is physics' answer to the old theologians' question of how something can come from nothing, then it is a poor one, and a contradictory one.

The corollary is that this science seems to suggest that we humans create reality by observation. This point of view is philosophical solipsism, which was championed by Walter Seegers in a book chapter he wrote for an earlier book of mine. Seegers was a pioneer in the discovery of many of the mechanisms of blood clotting. Along the way, he came to the philosophical conclusion that science does not exist except in our own minds. He approvingly quotes Arthur Eddington, “We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And Lo! It is our own.” In the solipsistic view, the conscious sense of self discussed earlier now has a new dimension beyond developing events along the continuum of womb to tomb.

Yea, this is stupid. It falls victim to a vicious regress, which I discuss in detail here:

Mathematically, string theory only works correctly if there are 11 dimensions or “universes.”
ROTFL, O man, did this guy just confuse geometric dimensions with 'universes'? Did that just happen. Someone get me a tissue I'm crying over here.

So this article begins by promising to give us some picture of how science may answer the questions that religion itself traditionally answered. Those questions are, from the writers' point of view, about the ultimate origins of the universe. This writer foolishly thinks that the main religious question is 'how can something come from nothing'. But this question, which the author doesn't even come close to satisfactorily answering, and probably cannot (for philosophical reason), is not the primary religious question. The question about the origin of the mind is better, but just as unanswered.

The real religious question is this: 'is the universe a friendly place?' The real religious question is about the cosmic context of the human moral struggle and the meaning of my life in this world. Science will never be able to answer the central religious questions because science seeks a third-person perspective. It is this perspective that also makes explanation of mind all but impossible for the scientific endeavor. What I want to know is whether I can take my human EXPERIENCE of the world with the utmost seriousness. Does what I do have an eternal significance. The inter-connectedness of all things, as discovered in science, doesn't give any grounds for that confidence. For this is an impersonal fact, a simple law of nature. It doesn't care about me one way or another. The universe discovered in science will always look indifferent, and so fail completely to speak to the human moral encounter with the world. The religious questions are ones of religious experience, and I'm not talking about mysticism. I'm talking about humor, where life is encountered as a place that is essentially joyful, I'm talking about play, where we live life as if it is deathless, I'm talking about moral struggle, where our choices come to us as having eternal consequences, I'm talking about beauty, where we encounter an invitation to believe in forever. These experiences, the human condition, THESE are what religion is about.

Science has shown us something religiously significant... that the world is more like a living thing than a machine, and that we are a part of that living thing. Thus science provides some kind of cosmic context for our lives. But science doesn't tell us what our attitude towards this fact SHOULD be, for science doesn't deal in values but facts. And it is in our attitude towards life that the religious quest lies. For if that organic whole science discovers is indifferent, or evil, then our lives are meaningless indeed, and we are nothing more than ants trampled under by a wild elephant. That elephant, additionally, is not eternal but mortal, and so even the hope for a cosmic context is crushed down by it. Indifference and nothingness are the supreme realities, if this is true. Yet our living into our humanity screams to us that it is NOT true. We are bombarded with information, information we find within our first-person perspective ONLY, that we are living in a world where love is the ultimate truth. The question is whether we can trust those experiences in the face of the indifference that the third-person perspective of science reports and our own personal encounter with suffering and death points to. Is there a place to stand where the totality of our encounter with the world, both personal and public, both subjective and inter-subjective, both scientific and philosophical, can be reconciled into an over-arching view? Religion and to a lesser degree some philosophy, offers such a perspective. Science cannot, and should not, if it is to do what it is supposed to. Certainly, this article gives no hope that it can.

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