When worldviews collide (Part 4, the end – for now.)

I have been discussing the worldview that declares, “human beings are the product of mindless random events governed entirely, and only by the laws of Physics”. This worldview is alive and well in our culture, usually defended by claiming it is based on Science. Unfortunately, just saying something is Science doesn’t mean it is. Nor is something Science because a “scientist” said it. For something to be Science, it must be based on the scientific method.

Last time I pointed out that the scientific method requires that the researcher accumulate several hypotheses that could explain the question at hand and then work systematically to disprove all of them. The ones that survive are more likely to be true. Forcing us to come up with sub-hypotheses and new experiments to disprove them.

However, this level of rigor is absent from much of what passes for Science these days, to the point that researchers routinely confuse correlation with causation. Why? Because they assume they know the answer already and set out to prove it.

This is, by and large, the fallacy responsible for what Dr. Raymond Tallis has called neuromania: the belief that brain activity, as elucidated, for instance, in functional MRI, is capable of explaining all that humans are and do.

Tallis, who in his practice has seen the immense value of functional MRI imaging of the brain, sees in these claims a complete misuse of the technique. They lead to the conclusion that every aspect of human behavior can be assigned to the activity of a brain circuit beyond our control. Beyond our control because the brain, like all other pieces of living matter in this world, is (according to Darwinian evolution) the result of physical mindless random events. This assertion can then be extended to the ridiculous extreme that when we humans think we make decisions it is all an illusion, an illusion that we acquired because it gave us as humans an evolutionary advantage.

In this worldview, everything humans do is then completely explained by the new sciences of neuro-aesthetics, neuro-economics, neuro-law, neuro-ethics, neuro-theology, and so forth… where it is no surprise that a gene for empathy has been discovered and even a brain region responsible for people’s propensity to taking out sub-prime mortgage loans has been identified. Neuro-jurisprudence, where the criminal’s behavior is not really his responsibility but can be proven to have been out of his control – because a brain circuit “made him do it” – is not far behind.

Seeing the dehumanizing danger of this worldview, Tallis argues well against its excesses, demonstrating that by applying rigorous logic to the claims of neuromania we can expose its fallacies. And, further, that the correct conclusion we reach is what common sense was telling most of us all along: We humans are responsible for the choices we make. And, yes, we are more valuable than the amoeba in that puddle.

The disappointing footnote to reading “Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity” by Raymond Tallis is that when he tries to give us his explanation for the origin of our humanity, he struggles to make it logically robust because he is trying to derive it out of the worldview of Darwinian evolution. Remember: he is an atheist and has no room to believe in a supernatural hypothesis.

Thus, he tries to make the argument that the reason we are different from other animals is that hominids evolved the grasping hand with opposable thumb soon after we evolved to walking in an erect posture. He claims that the ability to grasp and examine an object that is not part of me but that I can use to achieve a purpose, led to us to developing a sense of our selves as separate entities from the manipulable world outside us. He thinks (he hopes) that explains why we of all animals in this world have become self-aware to the ultimate degree.

monkey holding and examining a seed

Unfortunately, this is just an explanation whose only claim to truth is its plausibility. If we accept it as the explanation then we are reverting back to accepting plausibility as proof. But how can it be proven? And where does the mind of the self reside?

If I am not made or determined by the activity of the brain circuits in my brain (which are limited to acting according the material laws of physics), how and where did this ability to manipulate things with our hands create a place (for lack of a better word) for my personality to reside?

This is the problem of dualism, precisely what Tallis claims he is avoiding. Dualism is the proposition that we are not made only of a physical body but that there is in addition a non-physical part of us that makes us who we are: namely, a soul. As philosophers have noticed for a long time, it is very difficult for human beings to think about reality without implicitly thinking that there is a “person” inside this physical body observing and interacting with this reality.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how you could expect Darwinian evolution, which is enslaved to mechanistic physical laws, to ever lead to a product (humanity) that can transcend those laws and become an agent with free will.

Tallis’ hypothesis of the origin of the unique human consciousness cannot be proven to result from the physical mechanism of Darwinian evolution.

But are we asking for too much?

Darwinian evolution cannot be tested in the laboratory because it would take (as is asserted) millions of years of applying selective natural pressures on trillions of experimental subjects (from single celled creatures through primates.) We do not have a laboratory or a budget big enough.

The advocates of this strict materialistic worldview would surely say: “Why should the inability to prove it in the laboratory be an obstacle to believing in it? Isn’t it better to believe in such a plausible explanation than to have to bring in the existence of supernatural entities to whom the laws of physics do not apply? Haven’t you heard of Occam’s razor? Look, you believe in the Big Bang… has anyone proven the Big Bang in the laboratory?”

Ahh… but the problem with that kind of argument is that it forgets the scientific method. Remember: the scientific method is not abut proving hypotheses, it is about disproving them. This is the way it works with mathematical logic: All you have to find is one contradiction to disprove a proposition.

All it takes to disprove the hypothesis of Darwinian evolution is to prove that it contradicts the fundamental laws of this universe, the very physical laws that the materialistic worldview has been counting on. That is precisely what Hubert Yockey’s Information Theory mathematical argument did.

(And this bears repeating: If you think you can prove the Information Theory argument wrong, quick take out a patent and start the bidding with all wireless communication companies and all the governments of the world because everyone would love to get thousands of gigabits of bandwidth at no additional cost. Be advised, though: taking out the patent will take some time because you will be far back in the queue behind all the proponents of free energy that claim they can violate the law of conservation of energy.)

Of rats and men

I want to add one more point to this discussion that doesn’t require the reader to delve into neuroscience, physics, or mathematics. Let me go back to that article I mentioned last time “Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation” that supposedly found the brain circuits that explain altruism.

(I highlighted the word guide in their title because they put it there, even though other places in the abstract and body of the paper they soften the claim to mediate. The word guide carries with it the connotation that your brain somehow has the control, not you.)

As I understand the paper, the way that experiment was set up, all the volunteers were doing was giving the researchers “Yes” or “No” decisions to hypothetical scenarios, albeit under the constraints of 5 possible types of payoff. To repeat: these were hypothetical scenarios with binary answers that did not involve any of the participants’ real monetary assets.

Do you really think the researchers actually detected real altruism in their fMRI scans? How hard is it for you to give money away if it is not your money? How many real-life situations have you found yourself in in which the only two options are yes or no? How real are your answers to a philosophical question regarding whether or not you would give your life to save your friend, when the situation is purely hypothetical?

Clinical Psychologist and Professor, Jordan Peterson, pointed out in his book, “Maps of Meaning”, that the conclusions regarding the ability of rats to learn and solve a maze under laboratory conditions are most probably inapplicable to a real rat. It doesn’t matter how many versions of reward or punishment your experimental protocol tested. The fact remains that as soon as you put a rat in a maze you created a stressed rat. Rats were made to live in the wild not in a maze.

Thus, the conclusions derived from these experiments are about stressed rats not real rats. In the same way, the answers of those 19 test subjects to hypothetical questions about giving or not giving hypothetical money to charities or causes, most likely tell us nothing about real altruism, where the rubber meets the road.

Don’t “follow the Science”

That comment, coming from an applied physicist with over 40 years in Industry and Academia, and author or co-author in about 40 patents, may seem odd. However, it is clear that the worldview I am arguing against, because of its dehumanizing power, has only been able to make inroads into our society because it claims to be scientific.

Science that follows the scientific method has a very good chance of discovering Truth. But scientists are people like everybody else. Just because your profession or my profession qualifies us to the title of scientists doesn’t automatically mean we are truth-speakers. Using my qualification, reputation, or platform as a scientist to claim an opinion of mine is truth doesn’t make it true. You have every right to demand that I prove it using logic and the scientific method. By the same token it is a reasonable expectation on my part that you will actually reason through the arguments I present, whether you like their implications or not.

That phrase “follow the Science”, like everything else in our day can be heavily politicized. And it should not be a surprise that the neuromania Tallis has been talking about should extend to politics. But rather than going there, let me give a reference for the interested reader: a 2015 article by Jan Slaby, “Neuroscience and Politics: Do Not Hold Your Breath”, is an excellent (if long) read.

So, don’t “follow the Science”, instead THIMK. (My sixth-grade science teacher, Mr. Osorio, used to write this in big letters on the blackboard at the beginning of every exam.)

The bottom line

There is a worldview that has been striving for dominance in our world for a long time. It is materialism: the doctrine that there is nothing in reality beyond matter and the physical laws that govern it. By definition, this doctrine denies the existence of God or any other supernatural reality beyond the material universe. To be viable this doctrine must find a materialistic explanation for the two greatest witnesses that humans have of the reality of something beyond matter:

  1. The existence of life.
  2. The existence of our own consciousness.

Life stands above all other processes in this universe because – for a period of time – it actively defies one of the strongest physical laws of this universe: the second Law of thermodynamics. Everything else in the universe is winding down. All forms of energy keep getting reduced to less useful forms every time that energy is exchanged in a physical process until, we know, in the end, the whole universe will be reduced to a thermal bath in equilibrium. All at the same temperature, there will be no way to perform any work, no way to effect any change. This so-called heat-death of the universe has been recognized for a very long time and it proved to scientists (who were open to believe it) that the universe had to have started at some point in the distant past. We now believe that point at which the universe, and even time itself, started is the Big Bang.

Will it ever repeat itself? The most accurate results of measuring the relevant constants of the universe suggests it will never happen again. For a while, some scientists hoped the expansion of the universe was slowing down and therefore that it would reverse itself into a Big Crunch in the distant future and that that would begin the process all over again in a never-ending repetition of cycles. Thus justifying hope that the increase of entropy and the propagation of energy farther and farther away from its sources would be reversible. As best as we can tell, the universe’s expansion is either accelerating or, if slowing down, it is doing so asymptotically; which means, at best, it will reach its maximum size and stop there. Nothing will ever reverse the second law of thermodynamics.

But life co-opts that law, and for a finite time it succeeds in drawing energy and matter from its surroundings to construct more and more ordered systems within its body and its environment. As the physicist Leon Brillouin described it, life increases its own negentropy at the expense of producing entropy in the surrounding world… until it is time to die and its systems break down and the second law takes over. This dynamic effort at keeping the second law at bay is costly and precarious. Many things can go wrong. And in fact, Brillouin used to say that a deadly poison is nothing else but a catalyst, like an enzyme, that has the capability of lowering the potential walls that keep this metastable system in place, thus allowing it to decay to its natural lower energy state called death.

Darwinian evolution is the accepted attempt at silencing this witness. Thanks to Hubert Yockey we know mathematically that life, this most strange of all processes in the universe, could not have possibly arisen from the physical laws at work in this universe; and that therefore evolution cannot give rise to life nor its immense variety; not even in this 14.5-billion-year-old universe.

Our consciousness is the second witness, and it is eminently democratic. Everybody has it. No matter how rich or poor you are, where you were born, the color of your skin, or any of the intricate details of your genetic make-up, you are able to think. You are able to say “I am a person”. And you know what you mean by that. The fact that we all do this, that we have preference for certain types of music, that we make detailed plans far in advance that enable us to accomplish abstract goals… all these things distinguish us completely from every other form of life in this world.

Neuromania and other forms of scientific sounding propaganda are the attempts at silencing this witness. Their goal is to reduce the value of human life to the same level as every other natural process in our world. Thanks to people like Raymond Tallis, the fallacy of those attempts is still being pointed out. And, so, we can conclude that human consciousness, the way we exist, think, and love, transcends the physical processes that make up our bodies and brains.

If so, if the two witnesses cannot be silenced, then the fundamental premise of materialism, that there is nothing beyond physical reality, is unjustified and unproven. And in accordance with the scientific method, we must accept the existence of other competing hypotheses. And one of them is the existence of a supernatural reality and of a God who transcends that reality because He made it.

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