June 19, 2006

Religion's last stand: The brain

As almost everyone is aware, the science-religion wars have focused largely on the opposition of some Christian groups to the teaching of evolution. The religious objections to Darwin's theory of natural selection have been based on the fact that if the universe and the diversity of life that we see around us could have come about without the guidance of a conscious intelligence like god (even operating under the pseudonym of 'intelligent designer'), then what need would we have for believing in a god?

But while evolution has been the main focus of attention, I see that as more of a preliminary skirmish to the real final battle battleground for religion, which involves the brain.

The crucial question for the sustaining of religious beliefs is the relationship of the mind to the brain. Is the mind purely a creature of the brain, and our thoughts and decisions merely the result of the neurons firing in our neuronal networks? If so, the mind is essentially a material thing. We may have ideas and thoughts and a sense of consciousness and free will that seem to be nonmaterial, but that is an illusion. All these things are purely the products of interactions of matter in our brains. In this model, the mind is entirely the product of the physical brain. This premise underlies the articles selected for the website

Or is the mind a separate (and non-material) entity, that exists independently of the brain and is indeed superior to it, since it is the agent that can cause the neurons in our brain to fire in certain ways and thus enable the brain to think and feel and make decisions? In this model, the 'mind' is who 'I' really am, and the material body 'I' possess is merely the vehicle through which 'I' am manifested. In this model, the mind is synonymous with the soul.

If we are to preserve the need for god, then it seems that one must adopt the second model, that human beings (at the very least among animals) are not merely machines operating according to physical laws. We need to possess minds that enable us to think and make decisions and tell our bodies how to act. Most importantly, our minds are supposed to have the capacity of free-will. After all, what would be the value of an act of 'faith' if the mind were purely driven by mechanical forces in the brain?

It should be immediately obvious why the nature of the mind is a far more disturbing question for religion than evolution is or ever will be. With evolution, the question centers around whether the mechanism of natural selection (and its corollary principles) is sufficient to explain the diversity of life and changes over time. As such, the debate boils down to the question of weighing the evidence for and against and determining whether which is more plausible.

But plausibility lies in the eye of the beholder and we have seen in a previous posting how the desire to preserve beliefs one holds dear leads people to adopt intellectual strategies that enable them to do so.

Tim van Gelder, writing in the article Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science (College Teaching, Winter 2005, vol. 53, No. 1, p. 41-46) says that the strategies adopted are: "1. We seek evidence that supports what we believe and do not seek and avoid or ignore evidence that goes against it. . . 2. We rate evidence as good or bad depending on whether it supports or conflicts with our belief. That is, the belief dictates our evaluation of the evidence, rather than our evaluation of the evidence determining what we should believe. . . 3. We stick with our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence as long as we can find at least some support, no matter how slender."

In the discussions about evolution, people who wish to preserve a role for god have plenty of viable options at their disposal. They can point to features that seem to have a low probability of occurring without the intervention of an external, willful, and intelligent guidance (aka god). These are the so-called 'irreducibly complex' systems touted by intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates. Or they can point to the seeming absence of transitional fossils between species. Or they can point to seemingly miraculous events or spiritual experiences in their lives.

Scientists argue that none of these arguments are valid, that plausible naturalistic explanations exist for all these things, and that the overwhelming evidence supports evolution by natural selection as sufficient to explain things, without any need for any supernatural being.

But in one sense, that argument misses the point. As long as the debate is centered on weighing the merits of competing evidence and arriving at a judgment, van Gelder's point is that it does not matter if the balance of evidence tilts overwhelmingly to one side. People who strongly want to believe in something will take the existence of even the slenderest evidence as sufficient for them. And it seems likely that the evolution debate, seeing as it involves complex systems and long and subtle chains of inferential arguments, will always provide some room to enable believers to retain their beliefs.

But the mind/brain debate is far more dangerous for religion because it involves the weighing of the plausibility of competing concepts, not of evidence. The fundamental question is quite simple and easily understood: Is the brain all there is and the mind subordinate to it, a product of its workings? Or is the mind an independently existing entity with the brain subordinate to it?

This is not a question that scientific data and evidence has much hope of answering in the near future. Eliminating the mind as an independently existing entity has all the problems associated with proving a negative, and is similar to trying to prove that god does not exist.

But since the mind, unlike god, is identified with each individual and is not necessarily directly linked to god, discussing its nature carries with it less religious baggage, and its nature can be examined more clinically

Next: Descartes gets the ball rolling on the mind and the brain.

POST SCRIPT: Choosing god

I came across this story (thanks to onegoodmove) that illustrates the point that I was trying to make on the way people choose what kind of god to believe in. I have no idea if the events actually occurred, though, or if the story has been embellished to make the point.

The subject was philosophy. Nietzsche, a philosopher well known for his dislike of Christianity and famous for his statement that 'god is dead', was the topic. Professor Hagen was lecturing and outside a thunderstorm was raging. It was a good one. Flashes of lightning were followed closely by ominous claps of thunder. Every time the professor would describe one of Nietzsche's anti-Christian views the thunder seemingly echoed his remarks.

At the high point of the lecture a bolt of lightning struck the ground near the classroom followed by a deafening clap of thunder. The professor, non-plussed, walked to the window, opened it, and starting jabbing at the sky with his umbrella. He yelled, "You senile son of a bitch, your aim is getting worse!"

Suffice it to say that some students were offended by his irreverent remark and brought it to the attention of the Department Head. The Department Head in turn took it to the Dean of Humanities who called the professor in for a meeting. The Dean reminded the professor that the students pay a lot of tuition and that he shouldn't unnecessarily insult their beliefs.

"Oh," says the professor, "and what beliefs are those?"

"Well, you know" the Dean says, "most students attending this University are Christians. We can't have you blaspheming during class."

"Surely" says the professor, "the merciful God of Christianity wouldn't throw lightning bolts. It's Zeus who throws lightning bolts."

Later the Dean spoke with the Department Head, and said, "The next time you have a problem with that professor, you handle it, and let him make an ass out of you instead."


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"Is the brain all there is and the mind subordinate to it, a product of its workings? Or is the mind an independently existing entity with the brain subordinate to it?"

I think the following evidence strongly supports the premise that the brain is all there is, and the mind is subordinate to it: When the brain is injured--due to stroke, surgery, or an age-related illness such as Alzheimers--the mind is compromised as well.

Posted by Norm on June 19, 2006 01:04 PM

An advanced practioner of zen meditation (and mindfulness practice) is able to observe the workings of the physical brain. Can a brain observe itself?
I would think that which is observed is subordinate to that which is oberving.

Posted by Mary on June 19, 2006 04:22 PM


Playing the devil's advocate for a minute, why cannot I argue that the mind/soul is not compromised by such things but since it acts through the brain, it is its ability to demonstrate its abilities that is impaired. So in this model, the 'I' is still there unchanged in the ill person, but cannot tell us that.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 19, 2006 04:23 PM


The kind of thing you describe, along with so-called "out-of-body" experiences where you see yourself as if you were an outside observer, can both be seen as creatures of the brain, like dreams and hallucinations.

I was just listening to a Fresh Air interview with author Reynolds Price who insisted that he had had a vision of Jesus. He said that Jesus looked just like the way he is portrayed popularly.

It seems to me that that is an indication that Price was creating a vision out of the stored images in the brain. After all, people in the middle east don't look like the blue-eyed, golden-haired Jesus you see in most images of him.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 20, 2006 09:19 AM

Most importantly, our minds are supposed to have the capacity of free-will. After all, what would be the value of an act of 'faith' if the mind were purely driven by mechanical forces in the brain?

Most people would probably not distinguish between “mechanistic” and “deterministic”, seeing them as excluding free will. But can we have it both ways? Could quantum uncertainty/wavefunction collapse within the brain provide a mechanistic, but nondeterministic, basis for free will? In other words, could it be that a materialistic mind implies that materialism is not as limited as we thought, instead of implying that the mind is more limited than we thought?

This is not a question that scientific data and evidence has much hope of answering in the near future.

I'd expect research in artificial intelligence to provide evidence eventually. If we can design and create intelligence at our own level by mechanistic means, then it would be reasonable to suppose that our own intelligence is similarly mechanistic. But as you say, this may not happen in the near future.

Posted by Paul Jarc on June 20, 2006 11:56 AM

That's an interesting argument, Mano. But what about subtle degrees of impairment in which the unfortunate victim is able to both feel--and describe to others--his loss of brain function? A stroke victim may no longer be able to speak, but he may still be able to write about what his lost ability feels like.

I know an old woman who is suffering from age-related dimentia. It's an odd thing, because she realizes that her mind is going, and can often describe how it feels.

For that matter, consider the experience of being drunk: The brain is physically (chemically) impaired, but we also--internally--*feel* the impairment.

Posted by Norm on June 20, 2006 12:10 PM


I am planning to write about the implications of quantum mechanics later this week. That may address part of your question.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 20, 2006 01:07 PM


Even in this case, couldn't we argue that it is the physical brain that is damaged by the stroke (or by being drunk) and that the mind is unaffected? The slurry speech and the slow reflexes caused by drunkeness could be argued as being due to the part of the brain that drives these motor functions being damaged.

The case you describe of someone who can feel her mind going and can describe how she feels is more convincing. When I say that I feel my mind is "going", I wonder how that works. Am I comparing what I can do now with my memory of what I could do before? Suppose I try to do a math problem that I know I could do before and find that I just cannnot do it now, that could be sign that the mind cannot be an independent entity.

But perhaps the counter argument is that there is a part of the brain that does math and that is damaged but the mind is ok.

Again, like evolution, I think there may be enough wiggle room for those who want to believe in an independent mind/soul to base their beliefs on. As long as we can shift all external actions to the workings of the physical brain, the idea of an independent mind may be rescued from refutation, implausible though it may be.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 20, 2006 01:20 PM

Mano, I don't think I was referring to "out of body" or hallucinational experience, nothing that extra-ordinary. I was speaking more of consciousness, awareness/observation of how one's brain works, which is a very "in the body" experience. For example, when one can slow down the chemical circuits of the brain to such a degree that the pathways of individual thought can be seen/identified, (awareness of the onset of a thought and the path that thought will travel), i.e. the specific initiation of other thought, emotion, memory, physical sensation.  And to even consiously be able to re-circuit these pathways in one's brain chemistry. And to see the mental arena beyond thought. Is this just a reflective aspect of the physical brain?

Posted by Mary on June 20, 2006 05:02 PM

I guess we should distinguish between the outward effects of brain impairment (as viewed by others) and the internal "feeling," or "knowing," of impairment. I agree that it is possible for a drunk's slurry speech and slow reflexes to mask an unimpaired mind within an impaired brain. But what if the person who is drunk *feels* impaired, and tells you so? Yes, such a person must be using his memory, comparing what he can (or can't) do now with what he could do before.

The old woman about whom I spoke earlier sounds to me very much like HAL, from the film, "2001: A Space Odyssey," as he was being disconnected. The woman has a strange awarness of her mental decline--denies it is happening; compensates brilliantly--while at the same time occasionally admitting that her mental faculties are drifting away. Ultimately, the loss becomes so great that even awareness--and the awarness of loss--is lost as well.

Posted by Norm on June 20, 2006 05:48 PM


I think the argument is circular. Those who see the mind/soul as independent will think that they are actually seeing their brain's working.

Those who see the mind as the product of the brain will see this as an illusion of self-perception.

I don't know that there is any way to really distinguish the two views until we have better brain scanning techniques.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 21, 2006 12:32 PM


Your example shows why brain studies are so fascinating. It reminds me of the brain pathologies Oliver Sacks writes about in An anthropologist on Mars and The man who mistook his wife for a hat, all dealing with the effects of different kinds of brain trauma and illness on behavior.

As far as I can tell, all those events are consistent with the mind/brain being a single physical entity.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 21, 2006 12:36 PM