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Monday, July 16, 2007

Materialist neuroscience: "The mind is what the brain does! ... ?"

Recently, materialist cognitive scientist Steve Pinker wrote a letter to Commentary magazine, excoriating an article by bioethicist Leon Kass,
This point, the foundation of my field, cognitive science, is one that I have made repeatedly, at length, and with all the expository power I can muster. The mind is not the brain but it is, as I say, “what the brain does” (Mr. Kass’s parsing overlooks the crucial word “does”). By this I mean the brain’s ability to manipulate information in ways that mirror logical, statistical, and other normative principles. As many philosophers have shown, this dissolves the apparent mystery that the brain is a physical object but can traffic in abstract ideas involving meaning and truth.

and making the point that
Mr. Kass is free to use the word “soul” to refer to the software of the brain, but he is mistaken if he thinks that this equation, free of any conception of divine provenance or survival after death, is compatible with the way the vast majority of people use the word. Nor is it clear how invoking a soul illuminates any intellectual problem beyond slapping a label on what we feel we do not understand.

The uselessness of soul-talk is particularly evident in the thriving science of consciousness, the study of “inner states” that Mr. Kass decrees to be impossible. ...


Kass replies,
In the course of my critique of reductionism, I accused Steven Pinker of arrogance and shallowness. I am tempted to say that his letter provides further evidence for the charge, especially as it progresses quickly from science (about which he knows a lot) to philosophy (about which he knows a dangerous little) to the Bible and religion (about which he knows less than the village atheist). But some substantive points should be made.

One of which is,
In my article, I took him to task for the following remarks:
The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God.

I am happy to learn that Mr. Pinker denies saying that the “mind is the brain”—he says instead that "it is what the brain does," a position deftly skewered in Brian Beckman's letter. But one can hardly be blamed for thinking the man a simple materialist. Someone who boasts, even for rhetorical effect, that “the supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife” simply does not see that thought and awareness, like all powers and activities of living things, are immaterial in their essence and therefore cannot be so carved.

Biran Beckman's letter? Regarding the notion that the mind is the software of the brain (implying that it is easily accommodated by materialism), reader Brian Beckman of Newcastle, Washington, notes,
Steven Pinker’s idea that “the mind is what the brain does” is about as useful as saying that “software is what your computer does.” Is your word processor nothing more than a pattern of electrons in transistors? How about the letter from a friend that you read on a computer screen? Much more than a ghost in the machine, software activates the machine; but it is, itself, a purely spiritual thing.

... Software is just the latest example of immaterial but very real things like songs, ideas, emotions, and human souls. It is particularly apt, though, for shocking adherents of scientism because it is embodied in that trophy of science, the computer.

It's good to see Commentary getting into this debate. Read the whole thing and enjoy!

Anyway, there's little doubt about what Steve Pinker thinks about the soul. Here's what he wrote for Time Magazine (January 19, 2007):
Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

[ ... ]

And when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person's consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain.

[ ... ]

And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.

If there were such a thing as oral quotation marks, any time Steve Pinker used the word soul, it would be in oral quotation marks. Of course he is entitled to his opinion, but not to indignation when people take him at his word and doubt his account of reality.

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