Neurotwaddle

An important funding source for neuro-imaging via MRIs will no longer fund studies concerned with showing which parts of the brain light up when certain activities are engaged. The funding source is the James S. McDonnell Foundation.  The reason why it will not longer do so was given thus:

“Proposals proposing to use functional imaging to identify the ‘neural correlates’ of cognitive or behavioral tasks (for example, mapping the parts of the brain that ‘light up’ when different groups of subjects play chess, solve physics problems, or choose apples over oranges) are not funded through this program. In general, JSMF and its expert advisors have taken an unfavorable view of .  .  . functional imaging studies using poorly characterized tasks as proxies for complex behavioral issues involving empathy, moral judgments, or social decision-making.”

The heartland of neuroimaging has decided that areas of the brain lighting up tell us nothing about empathy, judgments, and decision-making. Bravo! Another blow against neurotwaddle.

The most significant critic of neurotwaddle, a man who is himself a physician and an atheist, is Raymond Tallis. Tallis has written several important critiques of materialist reductionism – the “we are nothing but a bunch of neurons” school, in which  Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Crick and their useful idiot Hitchens are to be found.

I found an article of Tallis’ on the same subject in the New Humanist magazine of January 2010. It is worth reading. Tallis finds all talk of neuroimaging techniques identifying “God-spots” in the brain as utter rubbish.

At first sight, it might seem that a humanist atheist like me should welcome the reduction of religious belief to tingles in parts of the brain. It will be evident now why I do not. The idea of God is the greatest, though possibly the most destructive, idea that mankind has ever entertained. The notion that all there is originated from and is controlled by a Maker is a profound and distinctively human response to the amazing fact that the world makes sense. This response is more, not less, extraordinary for the fact that it has no foundation in truth and, indeed, God is a logically impossible object.

How mighty are the works of man and how much more impressive when they are founded on an idea to which nothing corresponds! Cutting this idea down to size, by neurologising and Darwinising it, is to deal not only religion but also humanity a terrible blow. It undermines our uniqueness and denies our ability, shared by no other creature, to distance ourselves from nature. In defending religious belief against neuro-evolutionary reductionism, atheist humanists and theists have a common cause, and in reductive naturalism, a common adversary.

Readers will know I am not an atheist; I find greater truth in belief, and I find works like David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness  Bliss more persuasive than Tallis’ non-materialist humanism. For me, Tallis is on a narrow ledge between materialist reductionsim, which he rightly rejects, and belief in a supernatural ordering Creator, in whom we move and have our being. But that is possibly a matter of taste, and is certainly not a matter for compulsion. His attacks on neurotwaddle are more welcome because he is an atheist.

Here is David Bentley Hart on the issue of reductionism – the school of thought that asserts “we are nothing but _________ neurons, genes, dancing atoms (pick one)”.

 Once more, the physicalist reduction of any phenomenon to purely material forces explains nothing if one cannot then reconstruct the phenomenon from its material basis without invoking any higher causes; but this no computation picture of human thought can ever do. Symbols exist only from above, as it were, in the consciousness looking downward along that path of descent, acting always as a higher cause upon material reality. Looking up from the opposite direction, from below to above, one finds only an intraversible abyss, separating the intentional nullity of matter from the intentional plenitude of mind. It is an absolute error to imagine that the electrical activity in a computer is itself a computation….All computation is ontologically dependent on consciousness.” (p.223)

Ontologically” means “having to do with being itself”, an idea more easily rendered in Greek than English.

A parting shot from Hart:

The mechanical picture of reality, which is the metaphysical frame within which we pursue or conquest of nature, is one that forecloses, arbitrarily and peremptorily , a great number of questions that a rational culture should leave open”.

There are vast questions that should be left open. Raise a ragged cheer for a rational culture!

 

 

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