Thursday, August 7, 2008

Is There a You in You?

This is a neat paraphrase of the central question in contemporary neuroscience. And it's discussed in a long review of five new books on the human brain by Garry Greenberg in the June issue of Harper's. I don't think I'd ever read any of these books, but the review was fascinating nonetheless. Just as in every other field, there's a split among people who study the human brain between the materialists and those who find answers for the really big questions in the transcendent. The issue for the neuroscientists is the nature of the mind. Is it "a set of operations carried out by the brain, much as walking is a set of operations carried out by the legs, except dramatically more complex"? Are our brains us? as is contended by the materialists. Brains that are "fundamentally . . . electrical organ[s] that transmit electrical signals from one nerve cell to the next" or "complex biological organs of great computational capability."

Or are we something more?

It's the age old question between materialism and dualism. The mind/body problem is echoed by the brain/mind problem. I shall content myself here with a few provocative quotes from the review and the observation that I'm not a materialist--I believe there is a you in you (and a me in me.) I don't think we can understand human beings without reference to the spiritual.

"Neuroscientists have not discovered that there is no you in you," writes [Mario Beauregard in The Spiritual Brain]. "They start their work with that assumption. Anything they find is on the basis of that view."

And they can count on the mass media to support them . . . because: "The culture of popular science is one of unidirectional skepticism. . . . It is skeptical of any idea that spirituality corresponds to something outside ourselves, but surprisingly gullible about any reductionist explanation for it."

Other tidbits:
  • If will is an illusion, then what is the basis for personal responsibility?
  • 'If will is an illusion, the very idea of evil is evacuated. . . . What fills the vacuum? Desires and dislikes.' But use your mind to modify its (temporary) home, guiding it with the appropriate teaching, and you have a way not only to reclaim ethics but to bring a muscular brain to bear on your dilemmas.
  • Talk about dualism cannot go very far without running into religion. Indeed the two may be inseparable, at least so long as our choices are spirit and matter. . . . If there is a you in you, it must come from somewhere, and where else could that be but some transcendent realm?
Finally, something that I have known for a long, long time and the real reason I cannot be a materialist:

"There is hardly any point in reiterating that scientists have yet to show that the brain is both the necessary and the sufficient cause of our minds, or that elucidating neural circuitry in all its glorious detail is not the same thing as explaining how that circuitry gives us the strange experience we call consciousness."

Precisely. I'm conscious of being me and of everything that makes me me. How is this? I don't know, but I do know I cannot but believe it's more than just synapses and electrochemical circuitry in my brain.
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