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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Atheist bigots: Avoiding serious questions and targeting ignorant religious folk

Antony Flew, the formerly atheist philosopher - who now thinks that there must be a God because of the design of the universe in which we live - has offered some stinging criticisms of the New Atheist movement, calling its best known figure, Richard Dawkins, a "bigot".
The fault of Dawkins as an academic was his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine which he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form. Thus we find in his index five references to Einstein. ... But he makes no mention of Einstein's most relevant report: namely, that the integrated complexity of the world of physics has led him to believe that there must be a Divine Intelligence behind it.
Flew here raises an important point. Anyone can trash a position that is presented in a weak form by an incompetent person. For example, if a questionable popular guru asserts the reality of the mind, anyone can attack his position and declare the reality of the mind refuted.

It is more difficult to refute serious theorists of the mind like Roger Penrose or the non-materialist neuroscientists. Then you must actually study. Flew goes on:

An academic attacking some ideological position which s/he believes to be mistaken must of course attack that position in its strongest form. This Dawkins does not do in the case of Einstein and his failure is the crucial index of his insincerity of academic purpose and therefore warrants me in charging him with having become, what he has probably believed to be an impossibility, a secularist bigot.
Many of us would not consider that an impossibility, actually. Here's an example of just such bigotry. In "Expect 'Religulous' and Bill Maher to raise Oscars hell" (August 20, 2008), Tom O'Neil reports on atheist bigot Bill Maher's documentary Religulous:

In order to catch on widely like religion itself, what atheism has needed for a long time is a popular preacher to rally 'round. Maher just volunteered for the job that's been vacant since Madalyn Murray O'Hair vanished in the 1990s (eventually found murdered in 2001). Richard Dawkins has been a fine temporary stand-in, but not flashy like O'Hair. Bill Maher kicks things up a notch. He's a pop culture hipster who already has a large, anti-establishment flock, and he has a bully pulpit that O'Hair didn't: his own HBO show plus vast presence across all media.
Actually, Dawkins is classy compared to O-'Hair, who was shrill cubed.

You get some idea what you can expect from Maher's attack on Christianity from O'Neil's report:

In "Religulous," you can see lots of shocked faces when Bill Maher mentions casually that none of the people who wrote the Bible — including Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, even St. Paul — ever met Jesus. They're flabbergasted. They can't believe what they're hearing.
Well, if they are flabbergasted, I don't know why - unless they have spent more time watching reality TV than learning about their faith.

Matthew did meet Jesus. He was one of his original disciples, converted from the hated profession of collecting taxes for the Romans. (He must have been delighted that someone would actually be his friend.)

Mark doesn't say he met Jesus, though he was one of the early disciples.

Luke, the "beloved physician," never claims to have met Jesus; he was an associate of Paul, an educated man who sought to provide a coherent account of the remarkable events around the founding of the early Church.

Luke is also considered the author of the Acts of the Apostles, the book in the New Testament that recounts the earliest days of the Church.
There he introduces us to the apostle Paul, and his account makes clear that Paul did not know Jesus, apart from his vision, generally known as the Damascus Road conversion.

John was one of Jesus' original disciples, and part of his inner circle of Peter, James, and John.

As one might expect, the New Testament accounts were not written until the people who had known Jesus were beginning to die off. So if Maher is having a big influence on Christians, they must be Christians who do not know much about the history of their religion.

Apparently, Religulous will premiere in October, to immense hype.

(Note: The image is from Deism.)

A friend writes to add:
The dating of the NT writing used to be a great liberal playground, until the evidence, archaeology and a growing number of scholars began to fight back.

Jesus died around AD30. Paul wrote in AD43. There's no gap. The Gospel wiriters, who people used to plonk off unil the lat 1st century, can be argued to have written in the late 50s-early 60s for Mark (Rome), Matthew (Antioch?) in the 60's, Luke late 60s, early 70s, John in the 70s (as the final, completing Gospel). Eyewitness apostolic Gospel preaching went on into the 70s.

So with that in mind, we've got a little over a decade until Paul; 10 years after that for the First Gospel, and three more in succeesion over the next 20 years.

Today, we've still got living witnesses of World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, and those memories are seared into their souls-- we're not dealing with celebrity gossip news here. If we say Jesus died in 1930, Paul started witing in 1943; Mark wrote in 1958; Matthew in 1965, Luke in 1972, John in 1979, we've got some perspective on timing. We also have to remember the recital and reading and worship-context of the message, and the fact that leaders were in place who knew the story, to prevent error or heresy from pushing out the truth. Were' also dealing with a memory-based society, not a bunch of internet scatterbrains.

The liberals-- or atheists, or libertarian mockers like Mahar-- don't have much wiggle-room in there.