The Material Brain

15 10 2007 has a great interview with Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein in which they discuss, among other things, the idea of consciousness going beyond the physical mechanics of the brain.

Virtually all religious believers think the mind cannot be reduced to the physical mechanics of the brain. Of course, many believe the mind is what communicates with God. Would you agree that the mind-brain question is one of the key issues in the “science and religion” debate?

PINKER: I think so. It’s a very deep intuition that people are more than their bodies and their brains, that when someone dies, their consciousness doesn’t go out of existence, that some part of us can be up and about in the world while our body stays in one place, that we can’t just be a bunch of molecules in motion. It’s one that naturally taps into religious beliefs. And the challenge to that deep-seated belief from neuroscience, evolutionary biology and cognitive science has put religion and science on the public stage. I think it’s one of the reasons you have a renewed assault on religious beliefs from people like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

The neuroscientific worldview — the idea that the mind is what the brain does — has kicked away one of the intuitive supports of religion. So even if you accepted all of the previous scientific challenges to religion — the earth revolving around the sun, animals evolving and so on — the immaterial soul was always one last thing that you could keep as being in the province of religion. With the advance of neuroscience, that idea has been challenged.

This question has always been fascinating to me, partly because I know a lot of progressive people who see the hypocrisy of religion, and the brilliance of scientific thinking, and yet have such a hard time with the idea that everything you think and feel can be reduced down to material mechanisms in the brain.  Some are even offended by the notion that feelings such as love don’t have some sort of extra-physical existence.


To me, complexity does not mean that we need to step out of the realm of the physical to attempt to explain something.  The brain is truly a remarkable organ, and every day we learn more and more how remarkable it is.  People have always turned to religion, to spirituality, to explain what they could not understand – and the workings of the brain are perhaps the last refuge for these people.  It’s the last pillar of religious belief to fall.




8 responses

18 10 2007

First of all thank you for posting this great article in WoS.

I think we want to feel special no matter what. This has been a subject of discussion for ages, Copernico, Darwin, Freud, Etc… all batled against this notion and were rejected by the same reason.

A big supporter of this notion has been the Church! For them it is vital that humans feel this way, because this way they can still be usefull. If one question has no answer the Church will find it.

“It’s the last pillar of religious belief to fall”
They will have always a pillar to hold on. Our search for explanation lead us always to the trap of “Cause-effect” way of thinking. By trap I mean that this process leads to an infinitive search, since the “Cause” is an “effect” and has to have a “Cause” to be explained (the beginning of the Universe is a good example).
So, Religion will always have unanswered question to hold on to!.

19 10 2007

We cannot assume that the ignorance of today will always exist. cause and effect, as a mode of thought, is also on its way out.

19 10 2007

Have you thought of a different way of thinking?

19 10 2007

Alright, I am not sure what I meant by that. Or rather, I know what I meant but phrased it poorly. The cause is something that is ready to be discovered. But in some greater sense, it is useless to (at this point) consider the cause of the cause of the cause, etc. For many people the only answer for this ‘ultimeate cause’ is god – a creator. But that raises the same redundant question, who created the creator. If we buy the theory of cause and effect, than we fall into an endless loop of finding the cause of the cause of the cause, and thus there was never ‘a begining’ because cause and effect dictates that something does not come from nothing.
Science may, one day, show how something can and must, in at least one instance, come from nothing – at this point that is not a question we can answer.
but religion can’t really claim this in their favor, becuase they ultimatly run up against the same problem – who or what created the universe, who or what created god? Better to go with the course that is open to new discoveries, willing to change its mind with the presentation of new evidence. the book on creation, as far as the religious mind is concerned, has already been written.

21 10 2007

It is funny I came across this post because just last night I purchased “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the evolution of human intelligence” by Carl Sagan. He is a great scientist and author. He has a wonderful way of breaking down thoughts for the lay person, even tho I am sure I will find quite a bit of information that I disagree with.

Rather quickly I would like to touch on Mitchells comment on the clice statement of “who created the creator.” I believe it how Thomas Acquanis simply put it “God is the uncaused first cause.” Another ancient philosopher (whom I cannot remember at the moment) once said that you believe in this chain of one ball hits another ball to move, then you come back to how did the first ball orriginally move? It would make since that it moved for a purpose.

I would like to leave my comments with this “Either you believe everything was created by nothing, or something created everything”. When you think about it, we are all made of star dust, its pretty amazing how far we have came (theist or athiest). Now I seriously need to finish homework haha

22 10 2007

“who or what created the universe, who or what created god?”
For them it is easy since they answer this question with dogma. God is eternal and thus has no beginning! For science it is difficult not to fall on that trap ince our thought are shaped in that way. It is going to be very difficult to go out of that process but that is no trouble since I don’t think we will solve the universe puzzle in our life time.

For instance the Big Bang theory has that flaw, but if you imagine that the Universe is an infinite state of Big Bang and Big Crunch you loose the necessity to a beginning…

26 12 2007

Whether it be God or Big Bang/Big Bounce, I do think something infinite comes to play. Whether it is an infinite cycle or infinite universes or infinite god, infinity comes to play, so the who created god or who created infinite universes can always be asked on both sides of the argument. I simple just stick with God is the universe(s) and the universe(s) is God

27 12 2007

so Brandon are you taking the einsteinian view of ‘god’ as a term to describe the wonders of nature or do you actually believe in a personal god?

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