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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mind: Current science less and less precise as it approaches the mind?

Mathematician David Berlinski's essay, "On the Origins of the Mind" (Commentary, 2004) is the best I have ever read on that vexed subject. But it is the sort of essay one may need to read twice, to get the point.

That is not Berlinski's fault - he is an exceptionally lucid writer. The problem is that we are so accustomed to hearing sludge - sludge that attempts to efface the difficulties of a materialist understanding of the mind - that we may need some time for the nature of the difficulties to present themselves clearly.

He offers an excellent example: Current science becomes less and less precise as it approaches the mind (when not trying to explain it away). For example, in trying to understand how the mind works, we have

(1) Quantum chemistry: “For a molecule, it is reasonable to split the kinetic energy into two summations—one over the electrons, and one over the nuclei.”

(2) Biochemistry: “Initiation of prokaryotic translation requires a tRNA bearing N-formyl methionne, as well as three initiation factors (IF1,2,3), a 30S ribosomal subunit GTP,” etc.

(3) Molecular biology: “Once the protein binds one site, it reaches the other by crawling along the DNA, thus preserving its knowledge of the orientation of the first site” (emphasis added).

(4) Embryology: “In the embryo, cells divide, migrate, die, stick to each other, send out processes, and form synapses” (emphasis added).

(5) and (6) Developmental genetics: “But genes are simply regulatory elements, molecules that arrange their surrounding environments into an organism” (emphasis added). “Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are the neural pathways and regularities in cognitive development by which the individual mind assembles itself ” (emphasis added).

(7) Developmental biology: “The pattern of neural connections (synapses) enables the human cortex to function as the center for learning, reasoning, and memory, to develop the capacity for symbolic expression, and to produce voluntary responses to interpreted stimuli” (emphasis added).

(8) and (9) Evolutionary psychology: “Genes, of course, do influence human development” (emphasis added).

“[Genes] created us, body and mind” (emphasis added).

Note how we go from a simple mathematical statement in (1) to morea nd more activities that sound like the things humans do, not like the things natural forces do. By (8) we are into vague handwaving and finally we have a statement of religious belief in materialist atheism in (9).

Understanding the mind requires taking it seriously as a real entity. It can be studied, certainly, but not simply as a product of material things.


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