Friday, May 23, 2008

Intelligent design and the reality of the mind

(I published this article on evolutionary psychology in Salvo 4, which mainlly addressed the intelligent design controversy, and I think it's been three months so I am free to republish it here now.)

In 1995, midway through the Decade of the Brain, journalist Michael Lemonick observed in Time Magazine, "Utterly contrary to common sense . . . and to the evidence gathered from our own introspection, consciousness may be nothing more than an evanescent by-product of more mundane, wholly physical processes.”

May be. The working assumption of materialism is that the human mind is an illusion generated by the frantic neurons of the brain. That assumption plays some interesting tricks with the explanations of human behavior that are accepted as reasonable. Consider, for example, evolutionary psychology - the effort to derive laws of human psychology from the behavior that helped our Pleistocene ancestors survive, and is transmitted willy-nilly in our genes. It regularly offers complex, exotic explanations for common human behavior. A recent article in Psychology Today (July/August 2007) avers that men prefer women with big breasts because the man can see whether the woman’s breasts sag, which indicates reduced fertility.

Really? Isn't the general human preference for the anticipated pleasure of abundance over scarcity a better explanation - and a wee bit simpler too? But to think that way is to be out of step with the whole point of evolutionary psychology, which derives from a materialist view of human nature. To say that men prefer abundance to scarcity is to say that they have minds and that - to their minds - abundance seems better than scarcity.

But to an evolutionary psychologist, framing the preference that way is simply not acceptable. Evolutionary psychology looks for a program in the genes that governs what men like. Its practitioners are entirely convinced that such a program exists. The program must exist because the mind does not cause anything to happen. Men do not know what they like until their selfish genes act on their neurons, creating the appropriate buzz. The man himself has no preferences, but his genes do.

The same approach may be observed in much materialist-driven research into religion, reported breathlessly in popular science media over the years. Researchers, we are told, have discovered a God spot, circuit, gene, or module in the brain. They have also discovered that, by putting on a special helmet, you can have mystical visions, and that Darwinian evolution selected cavemen who believed in religion. That is why humans can't help but believe (though the theorist can help it quite easily).

As with evolutionary psychology, the bizarre nature of these explanations for religion through the ages is not intentionally perverse. Not at all. It is rather the outcome of a duty to prefer a materialist explanation, however ill-suited to the case, to a non-materialist explanation, however well-suited. The materialist would use better materialist explanations, if he had them, but he often doesn’t.

How does this relate to the intelligent design controversy? Well, if the universe is intelligently designed, at least one Mind is real. We can then accept the available evidence from cognitive psychology for the reality of our own, lesser minds.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain (HarperOne 2007)

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