Many are questioning the philosophical naturalism of some neuroscientists:
One major field of study over the past half century has been that of neuroscience or brain science: the study of the brain and the nervous system. This has been spurred on by new technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This discipline looks at what is the brain and how individual neurons operate.
It is a huge and complex field of study, and there are many ways of approaching it: scientific, psychological, philosophical, anthropological and theological. And related intellectual pursuits such as evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, AI, and transhumanism also come into play here.
Issues addressed include the long-standing mind/body problem, the relationship between the brain and the mind, the issue of consciousness, the nature/nurture debate, what it means to be human, and related topics. As mentioned, it is a very large and multi-levelled area of investigation and study.
But briefly stated, it can be pointed out that a large part of this movement involves those who have a philosophical and theological axe to grind. That is, many atheists and agnostics are claiming neuroscience as their own, seeking to make the case for philosophical naturalism, for anti-supernaturalism, and for a reductionistic view of persons and of reality itself.
Some go so far as to say that the mind is fully reducible to the brain, and that immaterial things like the mind, consciousness, the soul, the spirit, and the like do not in fact exist. Man is just a slab of meat. These are hardcore materialists who often want to use neuroscience to support their anti-God and anti-metaphysical agendas. Three examples – of many – can be offered here:
Back in 2007 Time Magazine ran an article by the well-known atheist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker titled “The Mystery of Consciousness”. Pinker explained things such as consciousness from a purely materialistic understanding: all acts of consciousness can ultimately be reduced to neural activity. He admitted that this does not go down well with most folks, because it suggests that there really is no self, no free will, no real “I” behind things. They are in fact illusions, and should instead be understood simply as physical activities.
Neuroscientist Francis Crick said this back in 1994: “The astonishing hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
And Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson wrote this in 1998: “All tangible phenomena, from the birth of the stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and torturous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”
Not everyone who is into neuroscience and the like takes such a hardcore stance, and there are many differing positions that people can hold to here. But anyone who has sought to defend their faith will have come across such folks who want to argue that there is no soul or spirit or mind or God, and we have no hard evidence for their existence.
But of course they will NEVER find such evidence if they have have glibly ruled it out a priori. If they have embraced a reductionistic worldview that the mind is fully reducible to the brain, and that only matter matters, then of course they will never find the evidence. Then again, they will never find “evidence” for other non-material realities, such as love, justice, beauty, and so on
With entire libraries now appearing on all this, an article like this can only be a bare introduction to the issues involved. Indeed, many pieces will need to be penned, so I am limiting myself to just two things in this two-part article. Here I offer a number of quotes from all sorts of folks – atheists, agnostics, theists, and Christians – who are opposed to reductionist materialism and the narrow secular take on the neurosciences.
In Part Two, I offer list 70 quite worthwhile books to take all this further, also written by those who do not buy the ideological naturalism of the atheists and agnostics. Hopefully the quotes presented here and the books mentioned there will spur you on to further study.
The quotes here are representative of a large group of experts – scientists, philosophers, academics, scholars, theologians, and others – who reject the ‘matter is all that matters’ creed, scientism, anti-supernaturalism, and rugged materialism. Many argue that the mind certainly does exist, and that it is not fully reducible to activities of the brain. Here are 14 such quotes:
“Earlier materialists argued that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena, because mental phenomena are identical with brain states. More recent materialists argue that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena because they are not identical with brain states. I find the pattern very revealing, and what it reveals is an urge to get rid of mental phenomena at any cost.” Atheist philosopher John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind
“So long as the mental is irreducible to the physical, the appearance of conscious physical organisms is left unexplained by a naturalistic account of the familiar type. On a purely materialist understanding of biology, consciousness would have to be regarded as a tremendous and inexplicable extra brute fact about the world.” Atheist philosopher John Nagel, Mind and Cosmos
“Is it in fact likely that consciousness, the unique attribute of the brain, that appears to endow its ensemble of atoms with self-awareness, will ever be explained? … [The search for a ‘molecular’ explanation of consciousness] is a waste of time”. American molecular biologist Gunther Stent, The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress
“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.” British scientist and evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds
“If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us- like the colour of our hair. If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our own conviction that Nature is uniform.” Oxford and Cambridge academic C. S. Lewis, Miracles
“Just as systems biology is pushing aside the reductionism of the modern synthesis, some neuroscientists and philosophers are re-thinking the mind-body problem and pushing back at the ‘you are your brain’ paradigm.” The key metaphysical question here is: What is the ontology of consciousness, thought, and the self? It would surely be unwise to assume without further reflection that it will be the same as the ontology of the material universe, since what we are now purporting to study is the very thing that does the studying. … Our answer to this question will depend, not so much on whether we are scientists or not, but on our worldview.” Oxford mathematician John Lennox, Cosmic Chemistry
“Since conscious states are not physical states, neuroscience is inept at discovering their nature. By contrast, neuroscience is good at discovering which brain states cause which conscious states (and vice versa). If we want to know how conscious states relate to and are dependent on the brain (and some brain states are dependent on conscious states, e.g., if you change your thinking habits, it will rewire your brain grooves), neuroscience is critical and extremely helpful. But it is of little or no value in discovering the very nature of mental states in the first place.” Philosopher J. P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism
“Science is powerless to answer questions such as ‘Why did the universe come into being?’ ‘What is the meaning of human existence?’ ‘What happens after we die?’” Director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, The Language of God
“The reductionist programme in the end subverts itself. Ultimately it is suicidal. Not only does it relegate our experiences of beauty, moral obligation, and religious encounter to the epiphenomenal scrap-heap. It also destroys rationality. Thought is replaced by electro-chemical natural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen. If our mental life is nothing but the humming activity of an immensely complexly-connected computer-like brain, who is to say whether the programme running on the intricate machine is correct or not?” English theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne, One World
“An electrical engineer could give a complete and accurate description of an advertising display in terms of electric circuit theory, explaining exactly why and how each light is flashing. Yet the claim that the advertising display is therefore nothing but electrical pulses in a complex circuit is absurd.” Physicist Paul Davies, God and the New Physics
“‘Am I just my brain?’ asks a philosophical question about human identity. Neuroscience alone is unable to answer these kinds of questions. Neuroscience describes what is going on in the brain in beautiful detail, and it is the obvious go-to discipline to answer questions like, ‘What is a brain?’ and ‘How does the brain work?’ But the question ‘What is a person?’ is very different. It reaches beyond the scientific method into philosophy, ethics and, many would argue, theology.” Sharon Dirckx (who has a PhD in Brain Imaging from Cambridge), Am I Just My Brain?
“As a Harvard neurosurgeon and an agnostic, Eben Alexander believed we are just our brains, nothing more. … Then came November 10, 2008, when a rare brain infection crashed his entire neocortex, the part of the brain that makes us human. ‘During my coma my brain wasn’t working improperly – it wasn’t working at all,’ he would say later … ‘My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave’.” Lee Strobel, The Case for Heaven: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for Life After Death
“The discipline of neuroscience today is materialist. … In this book, we intend to show you that your mind does exist, that it is not merely your brain. Your thoughts and feelings cannot be dismissed or explained away by firing synapses and physical phenomena alone. In a solely material world, ‘will power’ or ‘mind over matter’ are illusions, there is no such thing as purpose or meaning, there is no room for God, Yet many people have experience of these things, and we present evidence that these experiences are real.” Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, The Spiritual Brain
“The case for the mind is strong; it is the most reasonable explanation for the phenomena we commonly experience as conscious creatures. But the mind cannot be explained from ‘inside the room.’ It forces us to look for a nonphysical nonmaterial explanation ‘outside the room,’ beyond the material limits of the physical universe.” Former atheist J. Warner Wallace, God’s Crime Scene
There would be so many more quotes like this that could be offered, but I must cut things short. For a lengthy list of books on these matters, see Part Two of this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/10/28/mind-matter-consciousness-and-the-brain-part-two/