Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An example of some pathetically bad Christian reasoning

The general election season angst has made this a slow month for political blogging for me. Fortunately, there are still some apolitical "easy targets" floating around to center a blog post on. The one that caught my eye this week was a post on a Christian web site discussing some new neurological research. The author's big point is that (my emphasis):
We often hear that modern science requires us to reject traditional Christian views of the human person. The argument goes something like this: If we can see the physical process by which ideas are associated or feelings felt or decisions made, then surely we must admit that human beings are nothing more than physical entities. The concept of a soul, so we are told, is irrelevant.

Well, it turns out that science now points us in a different direction. These days, cognitive scientists are doing experiments that use MRI technology to visualize the brain while subjects undergo experiences, solve problems, and make decisions. This approach allows scientists to see and theorize about the significance and sources of patterns in our brains, patterns that shape the way we respond to the world. We are learning about the highway system of neurological movement, which turns out to be decisive for the way our minds work.

The new emphasis on patterns of neural activity suggests an important support for the traditional Christian understanding of the soul. The cutting edge of brain science makes it clear that it is as foolish to say that our brains are just neurons as it is to say that highways are just concrete and asphalt. After all, what matters to the motorist is the way in which the concrete is organized to create an interlocking system of usable roads. The same holds for the gray matter inside our heads.
The author seems to think that this is some kind of special Christian position that materialists reject, but in reality, he conceeds the basic materialist position that the Christian conception of a soul has only metaphysical content. In other words, the author and materialism presumably agree that it is the eletro-chemical-mechanical operation of the brain that is responsible for the mind. That the author chooses to call any particular aspect of the brain a soul is purely a matter of personal discretion as far as basic materialism is concerned.

The author and materialists are therefore entirely in accord on the physical facts. The author obstinately refuses to admit this, so he spends part of the post tweaking the noses of his materialist opponents. For example, he wrote:
So much for the confident materialists who thought they had the facts on their side. Today’s science seems to confute yesterday’s scientific propagandists. As David Brooks observed in a recent column, “The momentum has shifted away from hardcore materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief, and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.”
This is as sloppy as reasoning gets. Materialists believe that the mind is a result of the physical operation of the brain. It is hard-core artificial intelligence proponents who believe that the mind is a result of an algorithm being processed by the brain. It is entirely possible to be a hardcore materialist and to not believe in the possibility of artificial intelligence.

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