Monday, March 9, 2009

The Next Front in the War on Reason: Neuroscience

If you haven't read the Discovery Institute's Wedge Document, you ought to. It openly states their intention to undermine materialism. That is, to undermine everything good that has happened since the start of the Enlightenment. Separation of church and state, reason- and real world-based morality, things like that.

One interesting thing about the very public creationists is that they have trouble restricting themselves just to biology. They do try - they have to - because it's not in their interest to reveal their real, religiously motivated agenda to on-the-fence Americans. Still, creationists often can't help restricting themselves to evolution - they spill over into criticisms of geology and astronomy - because what they're after is not really a critique of evolution, but a wholesale replacement of the modern understanding of the world with the medieval one. They're not just creationists, they're anti-scientists. You can make creationists squirm the most by a) pointing out their incursions into other disciplines and then b) grilling them. Why NOT reject the germ theory of disease? Or plate tectonics? Or cosmology? Or gravity? Why, exactly, are they keeping some of those and not others - might it have to do with evidence? And if they're really just concerned with "academic freedom", why is it that when they do get airtime, all they ever do is talk about how much they hate evolutionists instead of sharing the brilliant insights of intelligent design? Don't let up. We know the answers to these questions, but they're bad ones for creationists to be asked in public: either they have to claim the world is flat, explain why after umpteen episodes of suppressing science THIS time religion is right, or admit a role for evidence. Bad times!

One discipline which hasn't yet been dragged wholesale into this discussion is neuroscience: the study of the brain, and the philosophy of mind. I have a personal interest (both professional and philosophical) in these matters that I try not to delve into too deeply on this blog. In one way, it's more fun than biology, because it's a young field and there are still competing theories running around, none of them with a clear lock on the truth - like living in the early-to-mid nineteenth century when there was a lot of data, but no one knew what was going on yet, but Hume had taken a stab, and Darwin and Lamarck and Wallace and Mendel were all going at things their own way. What's interesting is that recently, my interest in defending science from medievalists has intersected with my interest in neuroscience. That is, my favorite neuroscience blogs are being increasingly invaded by - not creationists really, because they're not evolution blogs, but anti-scientists. I've started running across scientists who have either been directly attacked by religious nuts (like Steven Novella), or have had to clarify that no, they did not actually support metaphysical Christian nonsense claims (as my personal favorite neurophilosopher David Chalmers). The Discovery Institute has dogs in this fight too, foremost among them Michael Egnor, who appears frequently on Novella's site and whose bad comedy has been highlighted on Pharyngula.

There is good and bad here. First, the good: with the internet, and with the experience of decades of this nonsense, we can sound the alarm, we can get organized, and we can prepare for the attack, as Steven Novella and others are doing. Be on the look-out for woo artists of all stripes making anti-materialist claims about the functioning of the human mind. Second, neuroscience is such a nascent field that it's largely restricted, in the experience of the lay public, to the occasional Business Week writeup or Discovery Channel special. It's not being taught in high school, or frankly even that much to undergraduates. There's just not the opportunity for neuroscience to collide with evangelicals in the public sphere in the same way that there is for evolution.

Now for the bad. Neuroscience's youth means it's still a somewhat scattered field. The very intellectual diversity of its practitioners (biologists, medicinal chemists, physicians, linguists, psychologists, computer programmers) that makes it so fascinating also ensures that it's still someone disconnected. Consequently, political pressure on a linguist in Nebraska might not be felt or noticed by a neural network engineer in Massachusetts. Scientists have been used to dealing with attacks on evolution in the U.S. since 1925; neuroscientists might not have their antenna up. We have to do a better job of presenting a unified front.

But perhaps the biggest Achilles heel, in my view, is that the field is still so young and has one foot in the abstract philosophical world so that it is much more vulnerable to attack than evolutionary science, which has mountains of data to stand on (and is still under assault). As the materialist project advances into the territory of the mind, there are some pretty heavy implications that not everyone might be ready for - even atheists. That is: you, or your parents or grandparents finally got over the idea that we were descended from monkeys. Fine; the zeitgeist-worldview has for most literate people digested this philosophical conclusion. How about the idea that your deepest feelings, thoughts, values and experiences are all the result of chemistry, and nothing else? The way you feel when you hold your infant daughter? Chemistry. That time you were sixteen and swam in a mountain lake and the water was so cold it hurt, then you got out and lost your virginity? Chemistry. The behavior of tissue. Do we understand it all? Of course not. Do we have any reason to think there's a soul involved, or that we're somehow that animate beings are in a special class of objects? Of course not.

I'm going to be putting up a survey to find empirically what atheists' feelings are toward these conclusions, but I predict, based on personal experience, that there are many among us still not comfortable with the idea that mind = brain, period. Granted, we're still scraping at the surface of any understanding of consciousness, and there are (I hope) huge, paradigm-wrecking discoveries to be had in the future. That there are still basic, profound philosophical disagreements between honest theorists suggests strongly that this is so. Linguists since Chomsky have incurred heated critiques against the idea that language is based on biology, even from otherwise full-bore materialists; strong evidence indeed for vestigial resistance to an extension of materialism to an understanding of the mind, even among naturalists. This, and our infantile understanding so far of the material basis of human consciousness, is what makes neuroscience a prime target for the Discovery Institute and its allies. If evolution, with its Everests of evidence, is still under open attack, then we might be concerned as well about the growing assault on neuroscience.

I often consider the irony that the very science and reason which have illuminated the world so much in the last two centuries have also shown that we are not the innately rational animals we thought ourselves to be. Looking at some of the more depressing experiments of the mid- to-late twentieth century psychologists and economists, one might be led to conclude that the Enlightenment has run its course, a blip in history, and now we're returning to the demon-haunted world.

One morning when I was 17, when I understood for the first time in biology class how the same chemical principle that creates soap bubbles is responsible for keeping our cells coherent, I was literally terrified. Then I realized that the principle had worked just fine for the whole of my life to that point, not to mention the three and a half billion years before that, and I had suffered not the slightest inconvenience from it. A shift in perspective can cause momentary vertigo, but I was the same as I ever was - just better informed. That's exactly why an optimist would (I think more defensibly) claim that on the contrary, our improved knowledge of ourselves after all this rigorous investigation puts us in a better position than ever to continue the expansion of happiness and productivity that has occurred during the Enlightenment so far. It was in this spirit that the Salk Institute hosted Beyond Belief, which questioned whether we are in fact at the end of the Enlightenment, or at the beginning of a new one that recognizes the true ends of knowledge in man and womankind itself. In my humble opinion, in neuroscience we're seeing the birth of the discipline closest to this ideal so far. It's time to circle the wagons around yet another area of progress and make sure we are communicating its benefits to the public.

No comments: