Monday, July 2, 2007

Ken Conner on the Soul: A Festival of Nonsequitors

Over at Townhall, Ken Conner comments on a NY Times article entitled "Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force" by Cornelia Dean. In the NYT piece, the progress scientists are making studying the brain and its function is discussed as it pertains to ancient concepts of a uniquely human soul that many of us were raised with and still carry around. And as has been common with the history of science, as it makes more and more progress explaining a concept held holy and distinct from the material world by many, defenders of the status quo like Conner pop up. Unfortunately, his defense is riddled with poor reasoning, gratuitous assertions, and nonsequitors.

A consistent theme in Conner's writing is that somehow, if our soul/conscience/morals/religions are not divinely granted, then they are meaningless.

"Do as you please. Seize the day! Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die. And forget about that still small voice that we call 'conscience.' It's nothing more than a biological process—sort of like the heartburn you get after eating too much pizza."

OK, but so what? Does my heartburn hurt less knowing it is merely a biological process? Does my conscious bother me less if I do wrong knowing this? Conner never explains this nonsequitor which appears repeatedly in his narrative.

He also does not explain what we are supposed to do even if we do buy his argument. Is he seriously claiming that if the findings of science offend our traditional views we should just ignore reality? Does he think pretending morals and our conscience are divinely granted will produce the same effects even if that is untrue? Alas, those that argue as he does never address these issues. Instead, he falls back on juvenile sarcasm:

"So there you have it, God does not exist. The New York Times said it, so it must be true. There is no soul. There is no God. Moral sense is just a feeling produced by neurons. Religion is a leftover from a more primitive evolutionary stage. Human beings are not really different from animals. Got it?"

This is a gallop Gish would be proud of. Showing the natural derivation of morality doesn't prove the nonexistence of gods. But those whose belief in gods is based on the assumption that gods are necessary for morality, the conscience, etc., must now face the fact that their view is that much less tenable. The rational response to that, as it is with any new information gained, is to revise one's views accordingly, not fly into a snit as Conner does. One can still have gods and a naturally evolved mind. It just gives the gods less to do.

Of course, what conservative screed would be complete without scare words, and the NYT is a convenient boogie man. But its not the word of the NYT, but rather the scientific evidence, that is making people believe these things are so.

So what if our moral sense is naturally produced? That doesn't suddenly make its value less. If it evolved, then it was subjected to the same selection forces that shaped our legs. Are we to conclude that we can no longer trust our legs to properly support us if we accept they were a process of evolution? Why then would Conner ask us to stop trusting our moral sense that guides us so well? Again, it is a question those of Conner's ilk never ask. The reason is simple: Conner is operating from a misconception of what evolution is. He thinks in terms of tornadoes in junkyards making 747's, complete randomness that somehow, magically worked out to be us. So to him, a naturally occurring moral sense would be no more trustworthy than random words strung together. He understands nothing of the power of cumulative selection over time to shape highly effective and complex systems. Thus, his argument is not a challenge to the findings of these neuroscientists in the NYT article. His argument merely reveals his own ignorance of how evolution works.

Are human beings really different from animals Mr. Conner? How? All the old demonstrable traits I learned as a boy in Catholic school have been overturned. Other animals reason, they make and use tools, show empathy, sometimes even for other species. There is nothing left except speculation on the soul. If you and others like you want the rest of us to believe humans are unique in the animal world, then the onus is on you to support that claim with DEMONSTRABLE evidence, not hand-waving speculation. The 97% of us that is identical to chimps awaits with baited breath.

"Many scientists have convinced themselves that nothing exists except the material world. Reality is limited to that which can be objectified, quantified, and verified. For them, if the soul cannot be weighed, it must not exist. Unless God can be measured, he must be fanciful. Unless morality can be quantified, it must be illusion. There is no such thing as metaphysics...all reality is material. Period."

Here again we see Conner's lack of understanding of science. It is the measurement of the EFFECTS of reality, through falsifiable experimentation, for which scientists search. You say X exists? Fine, what measureable effects of X can we expect and under what circumstances? We need to be able to directly measure these effects to have good reason to believe there is such a thing. History is replete with examples such as electrons and nonvisible planets (which Conner ironically mentions), where science had no trouble whatever accepting the existence of things which they could not directly measure. Measuring the effects was sufficient. The same would be true of any other conception, including gods. Without that evidence, science has nothing to say, except that there is no validation of those theories, and therefore no reason to believe.

"Though they are skilled at measuring the material world, scientists do not have the expertise or authority to declare that there is nothing but a material world. The limits of scientific detection do not circumscribe the boundaries of our existence."

Pray tell, who does have the authority to declare whether there is or is not a nonmaterial world? Surely not the gents in pointy hats who have been shuffling to keep up with what the scientists are discovering about the world. This is a red herring for the most part, because this discussion is about scientists disproving contentions about the material world based on assumptions of a nonmaterial one. When the gents in pointy hats confine their statements to the nonmaterial world, I predict they will find the scientific community uniformly disinterested in trying to disprove their proclamations.

"J. B. S. Haldane showed how the limits of materialism make human reason incomprehensible: "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true...and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms." If we are solely material beings as the New York Times is keen to argue, then there is no basis for truly rational thought.

Haldane shows the same ignorance of evolution that Conner has, by assuming that any material arrangement of his brain must be random. This is merely the argument from design in reverse, and it fares no better. Mental processes were shaped by selection processes which are anything but random.

"If the breezily asserted claim that morals are nothing but feelings produced by the brain is true, then clearly, we would no longer be bound by morals. The powerful could impose whatever "morality" they want on the weak."

Clearly by what reasoning? The only person doing the breezy asserting here is Conner. The feelings don't go away because we find out their source is different. And maybe Conner needs to look around the world a bit - the powerful impose whatever morality they want on the weak all the time now. Does he think a divinely deposited morality somehow unloads guns?

You know someone's case is weak when they say something as absurd as this:

"And what if human beings are not fundamentally different from animals, as the article also asserts? Does that mean the local butcher is a murderer, or does it mean murderers are no less immoral than the butcher?"

Anyone who has had a dog and disciplined it knows how ridiculous this is. Soul or not, animals, and people, respond to feedback.

And finally, Conner finishes with this ignorant flourish:

"We may not all have Ph.D.'s in neuroscience or evolutionary biology, but that doesn't mean that we are stupid. Notwithstanding what some members of the scientific community may think, scientists are not all knowing and the field of science is not competent to unravel all of the mysteries of human existence."

Gee, you think? Not having a PhD doesn't mean you are stupid? A PhD doesn't make you all-knowing? Well, knock me over with a feather. How about dealing with the reality Mr. Conner: that having a PhD in neuroscience or evolutionary biology means you know a good deal more about those subjects than your average columnist. After all, your ignorant screed provides excellent evidence, if you care about such things.

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