Friday, May 16, 2008

Does neuroscience leave room for God?

A friend, Angus Menuge, of Concordia University, Wisconsin, offers a PowerPoint called "Does Neuroscience Leave Room for God? And he obviously thinks it does.

Menuge showed this PowerPoint when he was debating PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota (Morris), a frequent critic of non-materialist viewpoints. Menuge comments,
Moving closer to the central issue of the debate, I argued that there is considerable evidence against the materialist contention that the brain reduces to the mind. There is the “hard problem” of consciousness, that subjective awareness is not explained or predicted by impersonally described states of the brain. Then there is the evidence from neuroscientists such as Jeff Schwartz and Mario Beauregard that, in addition to the bottom-up influence of the brain on the mind, the mind has a top-down influence on the brain (cognitive therapies that exploit neuroplasticity) and on health (psychoneuroimmunology). I focused on how these approaches gave hope to patients by showing that their own conscious choices could play a role in their recovery and health. I also mentioned the remarkable studies of Near Death Experiences by Pim van Lommel. I held up and recommended Jeff Schwartz and Sharon Begley’s The Mind and the Brain, and Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’ Leary’s The Spiritual Brain, and said that if someone is a true skeptic, they should be skeptical of materialism as well as of non-materialistic claims.
Dr. Myers held up a large standard volume on neuroscience, and asserted that it was better than Schwartz’s and Beauregard’s books, apparently because it was bigger! He then showed some interesting slides detailing the standard “homunculus” model of the brain, mapping various sensations and bodily functions to parts of the brain. He acknowledged the reality of neuroplasticity, but claimed that this could all be understood in terms of chemical processes in the brain, without appeal to consciousness. Yet, interestingly, he admitted that no-one could explain consciousness. Dr. Myers also mentioned a recent scientific experiment showing that in advance of conscious awareness of decision, there is already a 60% probability of action. (He did not, however, claim that this showed there was no free will*, and since the result was so recent and under-analyzed, I chose not to take the bait.)
Dr. Menuge says he is greatly indebted to Mario Bearegard and me for The Spiritual Brain , which shows how gracious he is. We only pull together what everyone should know, in a way that makes it easy to understand.

*This experiment probably does not have much to do with free will. I will post more on it later, but consider the following example: A woman vows to give up coffee for a week, and donate the proceeds to charity. Around noon on Monday, she finds herself "automatically" heading for the coffee urn at work. Does that mean she has no free will? Of course not. She had free will when she decided to forego coffee for a week, but force of habit suggests habitual routines. Perhaps it was 100% probable that she would start for the coffee urn at noon on the first day. But that doesn't mean she is forced to carry through with her usual habit.