Brain Science and the Soul? As If!

I just came across this piece over at First Things where the author, a R. R. Reno makes the following ludicrous claim,

We often hear that modern science requires us to reject traditional Christian views of the human person. The argument goes something like this: If we can see the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made, then surely we must admit that human beings are nothing more than physical entities. The concept of a soul, so we are told, is irrelevant.

Well, it turns out that science now points us in a different direction…new scientific work on the brain offers an even more interesting and dramatic confirmation of traditional views of the soul. In a recent MRI study, “The Vulcanization of the Human Brain: A Neural Perspective on Interactions Between Cognition and Emotion,” Princeton brain scientist Jonathan D. Cohen has looked at patterns of brain activity while subjects respond to moral dilemmas and make moral decisions. It turns out that the brain patterns related to moral decisions need to be trained. The soul must be disciplined.

There is nothing in Cohen’s work which suggests that materialism is false! Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. What this provides, if anything, is some vindication of Aristotle’s line of thought that the virtues are learned…it tells us nothing about the nature of the soul! It certainly doesn’t show that there is some non-physical aspect to human beings.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Brain Science and the Soul? As If!

  1. I think you’re being a little sloppy yourself; Reno doesn’t say that it proves that materialism is false. Rather, he says that it shows that “the traditional emphasis on moral and spiritual discipline was exactly right”; he’s arguing that people who have rejected such an emphasis on the grounds that “we can see the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made” are mistaken.

  2. Actually it’s you who are being sloppy now. He does say that; or at least it is implied by what he says. In the quote above he gives an argument for materialism and then says “Well, it turns out that science now points us in a different direction.” Did you read the article I linked to? The one where he says “So much for the confident materialists who thought they had the facts on their side”? Did you read what you quoted? The part where he talks about the spirtual discipline being vindicated by these experimental. results? He clearly thinks that these kinds of experimental results show that materialism is false which is plainly absurd.

  3. Actualy after looking back at the piece we may ALL be being sloppy 🙂

    He clearly think that these results show that there is a problem with materialism but he seems to have an inadequate grasp on materialism. He claims that the soul is the pattern of neural firing in the brain and then tells Dan Dennett to look out –as though any materialist would object to this (other than calling this the soul)– what a joke.

  4. 🙂 Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been sloppy, but I still think you’re getting it wrong.

    He doesn’t tell Daniel Dennett to look out because the soul is the pattern of neural firing in the brain; he tells Daniel Dennett to look out (which pretty clearly is intended to be a joke, in a different sense than you mean) because “The human person is pretty much what the Christian tradition has always assumed.” The post doesn’t address the question of materialism, it addresses a conclusion associated with materialists, namely, the one explicitly noted in the first paragraph, “The soul is irrelevant”; the interpretation of this is clarified by the remainder of the article, in which the counterposition, the “opposite direction” in which modern science points is that “the traditional emphasis on moral and spiritual discipline was exactly right” or, alternatively, “virtue depends on the formation of good habits, and they require careful and comprehensive discipline of the soul”. The argument is about views of morality, not metaphysics; it’s explicitly about one particular materialist argument, one which he claims is raised against “traditional Christian views of the human person,” understood as requiring the truth of the claimthat “The soul must be disciplined.”

  5. If the post is ot about metaphysics then why does he saythe following thing?

    As David Brooks observed in a recent column, “The momentum has shifted away from hardcore materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief, and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.”

    Or this

    We’re not just stuff. We’re stuff given life in a very special way: We’re animals with rational souls capable of remarkable change and development

    it addresses a conclusion associated with materialists, namely, the one explicitly noted in the first paragraph, “The soul is irrelevant”; the interpretation of this is clarified by the remainder of the article,

    What he calls the soul is just an inflamatory way of describing what every materialist already accepts so NO materialist would claim that the “soul” –in his sense– is irrelevant. Materialist qua materialist have never been against Aristotle’s views of morality so the point is ridicuslous either way.

  6. Reno isn’t talking about “materialists qua materialist”; he’s explicitly addressing one particular kind of argument, which he claims is (or rather, used to be) common but does not ever claim is universal or intrinsic to materialism, and which on the foundation of materialist metaphysics rejects the moral view Reno associates with Christianity and Aristotle. It responds not by trying to refute materialism but by denying that the evidence the argument recognizes as legitimate allows the purported conclusion to be drawn. That is, it responds not by arguing against the metaphysical premises but by arguing that the moral conclusion cannot be drawn on the basis of the evidence to which materialists appeal. The “We’re not just stuff” passage explicitly addresses this, since it immediately goes on to explicate these claims in moral terms. Likewise, the Brooks quote in context simply notes that views of what the evidence suggests have changed since the argument Reno is criticizing began to take hold.

  7. It responds not by trying to refute materialism but by denying that the evidence the argument recognizes as legitimate allows the purported conclusion to be drawn.

    But this is just my point! The evidence that he cites in no way impunes the conclusion of the materialist line of reasoning that he mentions at the begining of the post. As he says,

    The argument goes something like this: If we can see the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made, then surely we must admit that human beings are nothing more than physical entities.

    There is nothing in Cohen’s work that cast doubt on this line of reasoning.

  8. Hi, Richard,

    Sorry to get back to this so late. You are not quoting the complete argument. The complete argument is this:

    The argument goes something like this: If we can see the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made, then surely we must admit that human beings are nothing more than physical entities. The concept of a soul, so we are told, is irrelevant.

    And the last sentence is glossed morally later in the post. You are assuming that if Reno is objecting to the argument he must be objecting to the premise; but this is false. To rejec t the move from “we can see the physical proces sby which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made” to “surely we must admit that human beings are nothing more than physical entities” to “the concept of a soul is irrelevant”, he simply has to reject one of the links; he is not, as you seem to think, committed to rejecting themboth.

  9. No problem Brandon!

    Huh? Clearly (to me) this paragraph implies that the soul is something more than the physical. Reno then does a bait and switch since the concept of soul that is under consideration is not one which is at odds with materialism. Thus nothing in the article suggest that materlism is wrong or that it rejects the notion of soul under question. That is the problem.

  10. I don’t see the paragraph as implying this; what it implies is that there is (was) an argument by materialists of the following sort:

    (1) We can see (in neuroscience) the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made.
    (2) Therefore, human beings are nothing more than physical entities.
    (3) Therefore, the concept of the soul is irrelevant = modern science requires us to reject traditional Christian views of the human person.

    ‘Traditional Christian views of the human person’ are glossed morally later in the article — “the traditional emphasis on moral and spiritual discipline” as he puts it later. Thus the sense of soul here is the ethical sense, as in ‘the moral state of your soul’, and not metaphysical, and the argument being criticized is the whole argument from neuroscience to materialism to a particular view of moral life. I’ve no doubt that Reno is not a materialist; but he isn’t arguing against materialism in the post — he’s arguing against “modern liberal antinomians” who take neuroscience + materialism to underwrite a particular moral view.

    I would agree that the argument could be stated more clearly, but I think it’s pretty clear that what’s being criticized is not materialism as such, but an argument from neuroscience to a particular view of ethics (by way of materialism), one in which, in Reno’s words, “private hedonists are capable of being effective public servants”.

  11. Well I don’t see how you get that from the article, I wonder if we are reading the same piece…

    Anyway, let’s suppose that that is teh argument that Reno has in mind. It is equally bad. Nothing warrents the move from (2) to (3). Materialists can and should be against lawlessness. there is nothing in materialism or neuroscience that gets you to a rejection of morality…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s