Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Discoveries in Neuroscience are not a Problem for Substance Dualists

Modern discoveries in neuroscience are exciting and fascinating. Recent discoveries have given great insight in how the brain works and processes information. Different regions of the brain have been shown to process different emotions and physical stimuli. But introduce these fascinating discoveries into an increasingly materialistic society and one gets interesting metaphysical claims. Many people simply assume that science has put the philosophical stance of substance dualism (aka Cartesian dualism or Platonic dualism, etc) to rest. Look, you can damage the brain and totally change the way a person acts. Or you can stimulate a part of the brain and cause sensations that look like religious experience. Or you can split the brain down the middle and get interesting results. This proves that the brain simply is the mind, or the mind is a phenomena that is purely caused by the physical relations of the neurons and chemicals that make up the brain, doesn't it?

Well no. In fact, this is blatantly fallacious reasoning of the type that John Polkinghorne has called "confused nonsense" (in a response to a question about Daniel Wegner's claims to have disproved dualism and free will here). What we see in neurobiology is correlations between certain states of the brain and certain states of the mind. When a person thinks of a pleasant thought, a certain part of the brain undergoes a chemical reaction. Does this show that that chemical reaction just is the pleasant thought? Well no. Does it show that the chemical reaction is what caused the pleasant thought? No, it actually looks like the pleasant thought caused the chemical reaction.

The problem here is that some have tried to take a correlation between two events, the brain event and the mind event, and equate them. In other words, to say that the brain is identical to the mind. This kind of reasoning can simply never work. Correlation is never enough to show identity or causation. Therefore it is intellectually irresponsible to proudly assert that neurobiology has made mind/body dualism passé. It has done no such thing.

As an aside, this metaphysical confusion has led to other weird reasoning, such as in the field of artificial intelligence. Some people think that at some point we will program a self conscious machine. Get enough electrical connections together in the right configuration and *poof* a new sentient being. While certain theological convictions keep me from thinking this could happen (I think God has an intimate role in crafting the soul and placing it in the body), I also lack any convincing reasoning from strong AI theorists that would entail that configurations of matter are enough to produce conscious, self-introspective, thinking things. The fact that a machine may at some point mimic human behavior doesn't mean that it is experiencing human behavior.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Emotions Within a Rational Christianity

I've been pondering lately what role emotions play in our rational acceptance of Jesus of Nazareth as our Lord and Savior. This is a bit of what I've come up with.

Emotions aren't bad or don't lead to inherent irrationality if they aren't doing our thinking for us. If one is thinking clearly, then emotional reactions may be the most rational thing to come out of the process. If our emotions are the reason we are making decisions, ie if we decide the doctrine of hell is false because it makes us feel icky, then we're reasoning irrationally.

The crucifixion should evoke a very strong emotional reaction in the Christian if they are being rational. It has driven me to tears many times, and it always evokes a sense of great thankfulness and joy in knowing what my God did to resolve my rebellion. It is very rational to react in such a way when a Person who is not just innocent, but morally perfect and worship-worthy, dies a physically and spiritually excruciating death for your crimes. Anything less than an emotional reaction would be irrational.

Likewise anger at ideas and individuals should crop up in the Christian when the One who did this for us is blasphemed, whether through false doctrines or in denying His reality.

Worship should naturally flow from us not just because of what God has done, but also for who He is. He is the creator, the ultimate reality. He is the very source of goodness, and we exist because of Him and for Him.

My final thought in this post is that the Bible constantly records people of God reacting emotionally to different things. People reacted to the gospel with joy (Acts 13:52). Jesus Himself reacted in anger at people defiling the temple (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; John 2:13-22), and He wept when His friend Lazarus died (John 11:35). God created us with emotions to aid in our reasoning. He placed within us the ability to feel joy for His gifts and to become saddened and angry at the state that sin has put the world in. There's nothing wrong with being an emotional person, as long as you're doing so rationally and Biblically.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Is, Ought, and God

I ran across this somewhere on the internet, but I can't find it again to credit the person for it. I thought it was very simple, yet fairly profound. Some wonder how God would solve the is-ought problem in ethics. There are several good answers to this from prominent philosophers of religion, but this one I think is pretty simple and seems so obvious.

God is omniscient, meaning He knows only and all true propositions. This would include propositions about what we ought to do. For instance, the proposition, "you ought to follow Jesus," would be known by God in light of Him being omniscient. Whether we can actually figure out why that proposition is true is separate from the fact that we can know it's true because it was stated by God.

So, we can know what we ought to do if God tells us.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The "New Atheism"

So I just wanted to highlight this comment, which was on a post entirely unrelated to its content, for instructive purposes and for the lulz.

kilo papa said...
Just wondering when you might do a post on how the central doctrine of your religion-the offering of blood from a barbaric human sacrifice up to the invisible man in the sky-is not the single most disgusting,
revolting,sickening,evil,Stone Age,Cro-Magnon,absurd,immoral bunch of lunacy that the human mind has ever concocted in the entire history of mankinds existence on this earth?

Did the multitude of cultures that practiced this inane garbage long before your Jesus appeared have the right idea but just had the wrong guy?

If there is a god somewhere, s/he is surely either astoundingly embarrassed or else laughing her/his ass off at deluded morons like yourself.

Is is truly possible that your deluded mind really doesn't realize how stupefyingly ridiculous that your religious belief is?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bell Hell?

Recently, there has been an intramural evangelical internet flame war (I think that should be the name of a sporting event) regarding Rob Bell's newest promo video and the comments made by some about that video and Bell's fidelity, or lack thereof, to the orthodox teaching on hell, and the comments questioning whether those comments were justified based solely on the promo video, and not on the book the video was promoting (since it hasn't been released yet). Look at what this has done to even me. It's caused me to publish this terrible run-on sentence!

Joking aside, I must say I'm pretty sympathetic to the Calvinists on this one. 1) Bell has given ample reason in the past to doubt his adherence to orthodoxy. 2) He's taught patently bad theology in his Numa videos and basically said that it wouldn't matter if Jesus hadn't really raised from the dead or hadn't really been born of a virgin in one of his books.

To point out this seeming lean toward universalism even before the release of the book isn't necessarily bad. Could the way the rhetoric was formulated have been better? Perhaps a couple of them could have toned it down a bit and been a bit more charitable, saying something like, "watch out because it looks like Bell could be promoting universalism here," or something, instead of condemning him to hell. However, some of the responses haven't been too spiffy either.

Bell has no one more to blame than himself for this situation. As Michael Patton points out, even if he doesn't hold to universalism, he released that silly video that gives the impression that he does. Look at what this dishonesty has done in causing separation among brethren (Jude 18-19). That alone should tell you something about Bell.