Monday, October 15, 2007

ChristianWeek review of The Spiritual Brain now online

Here's the ChristianWeek review of The Spiritual Brain by Larry Reynolds, Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Manitoba:
Studies of those who have had near death experiences are discussed in some detail and make very interesting reading. People who have had heart attacks, suffered "brain death" and have been successfully resuscitated seem to have similar experiences. Their contact with a loving caring force or light and reunion with deceased friends are often combined with an awareness of activities that happened in the room while they were "dead."
These experiences cannot be explained from a purely materialist viewpoint. However, some scientists, despite their claims to the contrary, are not always reasonable people and can be blinded by their faith in materialism, evolution and relativism. There is little doubt that many of them will reject the evidence presented in this book.

Maybe, but even atheists can have near death experiences.

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So THAT'S why we don't eat Grandma? ... oh, come on!

Rutgers philosopher Jerry Fodor, who has little use for evolutionary psychology (he calls it "Darwinism"*), holds forth again, this time in the London Review of Books, targeting silliness like why we don't eat our forebears (if we don't):
The years after Darwin witnessed a remarkable proliferation of other theories, each seeking to co-opt natural selection for purposes of its own. Evolutionary psychology is currently the salient instance, but examples have been legion. They’re to be found in more or less all of the behavioural sciences, to say nothing of epistemology, semantics, theology, the philosophy of history, ethics, sociology, political theory, eugenics and even aesthetics. What they have in common is that they attempt to explain why we are so-and-so by reference to what being so-and-so buys for us, or what it would have bought for our ancestors. ‘We like telling stories because telling stories exercises the imagination and an imagination would have been a good thing for a hunter-gatherer to have.’ ‘We don’t approve of eating grandmother because having her around to baby-sit was useful in the hunter-gatherer ecology.’ ‘We like music because singing together strengthened the bond between the hunters and the gatherers (and/or between the hunter-gatherer grownups and their hunter-gatherer offspring)’. ‘We talk by making noises and not by waving our hands; that’s because hunter-gatherers lived in the savannah and would have had trouble seeing one another in the tall grass.’ ‘We like to gossip because knowing who has been up to what is important when fitness depends on co-operation in small communities.’ ‘We don’t all talk the same language because that would make us more likely to interbreed with foreigners (which would be bad because it would weaken the ties of hunter-gatherer communities).’ ‘We don’t copulate with our siblings because that would decrease the likelihood of interbreeding with foreigners (which would be bad because, all else being equal, heterogeneity is good for the gene pool).’ I’m not making this up, by the way. Versions of each of these theories can actually be found in the adaptationist literature. But, in point of logic, this sort of explanation has to stop somewhere. Not all of our traits can be explained instrumentally; there must be some that we have simply because that’s the sort of creature we are. And perhaps it’s unnecessary to remark that such explanations are inherently post hoc (Gould called them ‘just so stories’); or that, except for the prestige they borrow from the theory of natural selection, there isn’t much reason to believe that any of them is true.

Fodor goes on to explain why he thinks that the theory of natural selection (survival of the fittest) might be in danger.

The theory of natural selection may well be in danger. I can think of a number of reasons for doubting that natural selection/survival of the fittest explains the progress from mud to mind of the last five billion years. But, quite honestly, I hardly think we need go to that kind of trouble to explain what is wrong with the sort of evolutionary psychology Fodor is dissing here. The main problem is that there is no way whatever to know if it is wrong.

You want to eat Grandma? That's survival of the fittest. You don't, because she might make a babysitter if you ever have kids? Well, that's survival of the fittest too. You don't want to eat Grandma because the thought makes you sick, and you don't care if you NEVER have kids? Well, in that case, your selfish genes have declared that you will help your siblings raise kids instead, and spread your shared genes that way. See what I mean? It's like Dr. Freud pretending to read your unconscious mind.

If there is no way for something to be false, there is also no way for it to be true.

Go here for another entertaining and enlightening Jerry Fodor article, "Headaches don't have themselves," that bears directly on some of our Spiritual Brain topics.

*Note: Strictly speaking, even if Darwinism is wrong, it is a legitimate theory in science about how species form (natural selection acting on random mutations). Serious Darwinists are not to blame for the silliness dreamed up by evolutionary psychologists - unless they are actualy encouraging them. I suspect, however, that sometimes they ARE ... in which case ...

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Can atheists have near death experiences?

They can, apparently, and at least one, A. J. "Freddie" Ayer did .

A reader of The Spiritual Brain, David Rice III, noted that we discuss Ayer's experience, and generously permits me to reprint his own interpretation of Ayer's near death experience, from a Philosophy of Religion assignment:

Phil 613 - Problems in the Philosophy of Religion
Assignment #6

David Rice

Read A. J. Ayer's "What I saw when I was dead"; what, if anything, should Ayer have concluded from his experience?

The late A. J. Ayer reported that he was clinically dead for four minutes after choking on a piece of fish while suffering complications from pneumonia. Ayer, who was a devout atheist, recalled his experience with death to be "very vivid". He describes being encountered by a bright, red light that was painful to behold even when not looking at it directly. In addition, there were other beings in its presence. Two agents were "put in charge of space". Ayer then detects a defect in space itself and attempts to repair it and notify these "two creatures". However, his cries fall upon deaf ears. Ayer then recalls that Einstein gave us a theory of relativity that dictates that space and time are part of one continuum. Realizing this Ayer believes that if there is a problem with space there must be a connected problem with time and thus he attempts to find the defect with time so that it might be repaired. This would presumably restore space to its operational condition. Once again, the ministers of the red light who are supposedly in charge of this very important system do not hear Ayer's voice. They have either gone out to lunch or ignored Dr. Ayer completely. After further desperate attempts to grab the attention of these guards of time and space, Ayer's experience ends and he is brought back to life. All of this in four minutes. Ayer then comments on a similar account given by the mother of one of his friends. She too had confessed of seeing a great red light.

Ayer believes that although his heart had stopped functioning that his brain continued to provide mental experiences. To him this means that the light he was seeing was not real but was an epiphenomenon of brain activity. Further, Ayer says that since we have no real guarantee that we will have a future life that we should therefore not expect one. He also thinks that since one cannot have an identity without a body that one cannot therefore presume a discontinuity between the body and the mind (identity) once death occurs. Thus, if the body dies then the identity (or the continuity of our experiences) will cease as well. In other words, the continuity of experience must take place in the context of one or more bodies. That Ayer does not think that experience is tied to the enduring identity or soul rather than the body, which must be periodically replaced, is illustrative of his naturalistic assumptions.

Ayer seems to be arguing that the identity is coextensive with the body and that our lives consist of "an extended series of experiences". For him these experiences must take place in an embodied soul (if there is one), not a disembodied one. As a logical consequence of this, we should not be surprised that our identity and body really are united beyond the grave. He thinks that it is surprising that Christians are apt to forget that there is a bodily resurrection after death. However, Ayer does not seem to realize that Christianity also tells us that our identity is not coextensive with our bodies. We have souls and the soul resides in the body. Upon death, the soul or identity does not vanish. There can be identity without body. Once the soul is given its final home it will reside in a resurrected body. This body will not be a physical body as we currently understand it.

Ayer notes that simply showing the existence of an afterlife will not prove the existence of a deity. He is right. An afterlife alone will not provide sufficient grounds for such a belief. However, I think that Ayer's particular account, if in fact he was in contact with the afterlife, does provide some ground for belief in a God. In other words, the experience of some sort of afterlife will not prove the existence of God. The experience of a particular kind of afterlife would. Ayer I believed was warned.

The unapproachable red light that he experienced was I believe a vision of God's glory. The scripture speaks of God's pure brilliance and that looking into his face will destroy you. The ministers he witnessed might very well have been angels in God's presence. These angels follow God's commands, not the petitions of Ayer. That Ayer was not much interested in the red light is revealing. Instead of attempting to approach, understand or even glorify the light, he was too busy trying to fix what he considered deficiencies of the created order. He could not seem to get the ministers to listen to his proposals for correcting the glaring mistakes, which the creator somehow was incapable of preventing much less repairing. The angels ignored him and God gave him pains.

The question is whether Ayer really did experience the next world or if he simply experienced his own mental states in a time of temporary cardiac failure. It may be that he experienced a vision of sorts if not a direct encounter with the afterlife. His experience of frustration and despair, I believe, notifies us of something very important. God can use certain events and even visions to reach people. Whether we take heed is another matter.

Any other thoughts on what happened there?

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Spiritual Brain: Mario's and my interview with MercatorNet

In response to MercatorNet’s Michael Cook’s question re our recent book, The Spiritual Brain:
Quite a few widely-publicised articles in leading scientific journals have made astonishing claims about the scope of neuroscience: that God, altruism, morality, and emotions are all figments of the brain. It all sounds very convincing. But how close are these researchers to proving their case?

I reply,
Let me say something first about how such claims arise. The materialism that underlies them is assumed. It is not demonstrated. A materialist explanation is assumed to be better than a non-materialist explanation even if it is silly. All the claims I examined had fallen apart by the time I got to them. But why believe me? The fact that consciousness is referred to in the trade to this day as "the hard problem of consciousness" demonstrates better than I can how far they are from proving any case at all.

Note: If you are not a materialist, consciousness isn’t a problem in the same sense. It is a state that you cannot explore using the tool set and assumptions mandated by materialism. But so? To a non-materialist, that just means developing and working with other tool sets, other assumptions.

And we nosh around further, with Michael asking,
Are there many major neuroscientists who do not accept that all of our mental processes can be reduced to biological processes?

In the journal Nature Neuroscience, some researchers recently argued that American liberals and conservatives think differently because of the way their brains are structured. What are the implications of reducing ideas to circuitry? What comes next?

What indeed? See MercatorNet for my comment.

Michael asks Mario,
Do you think that neuroscientists think much about the ethical implications of their work?

and Mario replies,
No. Most neuroscientists prefer to leave the critical reflection about the ethical implications of their work to theologians and philosophers.

Hey, Mario! Is that how one of them ended up working for the CIA?

I fear so. One can't just park one's conscience at the Park n' Fly in any profession.

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