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P.Z. Myers' Neurons Give Talk to Minnesota Atheists on Non-Existence of the Soul


Materialist neuroscientist and blogger P.Z. Myers gave a talk Sunday to the Minnesota Atheists entitled: "There Are No Ghosts in Your Brain: Materialist Explanations for the Mind and Religious Belief". I wish I could have been there! Hopefully P.Z. will post a transcript, or put up the Powerpoint file. The program looks like it was a treat. Quoting Myers:

We've made great strides in the past century towards understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that drive brain function, and I will briefly present an overview of some of the major conclusions of that work. In short, though, what we have are sophisticated molecular regulators and sensors and effectors and modulators that generate patterned impulses in pathways throughout the brain, and the mind is ultimately reducible to highly organized chemistry--there's no room for ghosts, souls, or spirits, and no need for them, either.

"Recently, researchers have made progress in identifying the neural substrates of higher level patterns of thought. This work is much more tentative, and we have to be aware of the limitations of our interpretations, which is a consequence of the complexity of the data. I will discuss one narrow aspect of this research, the neural basis of religious belief, and explanations for its evolution. Religious belief is an emergent consequence of much broader genetically determined properties of the brain; I will make the argument that there is no "god gene", no specific hard-coding of religion into human brains, and that religion itself is a kind of conceptual parasite that takes advantage of other desirable and even "virtuous" intrinsic qualities of the brain."

I presume it went well, but I would like to suggest some strategies to P.Z. for future materialist neuroscience talks to atheist organizations:

1) Avoid going into too much detail about actual materialistic theories of the mind. Avoid discussing Behaviorism, which was the materialist vogue in the early and mid-20th century (remember Skinner's box?) Don't remind the audience that Behaviorists actually believe that internal mental processes are irrelevant to the study of psychology, and all that matters in psychology is what you can observe. And especially don't mention the Eliminative Materialists, like Paul and Patricia Churchland, you know, the real materialists of the mind! They assert that the mind doesn't even exist, and that our perception of subjective existence and internal mental processes are illusions (how someone can have an illusion without having real subjective experience is an uncomfortable question that you want to avoid). Disclosure of what materialist philosophers of the mind actually think (or whatever they call mental processes) would be indiscreet. A tactical error. If they ask you anything specific about materialist theories of the mind, pretend you're having trouble with the microphone.

2) Especially, avoid Daniel Dennett's 'multiple drafts' theory that the mind is simply an emergent property of the massive parallel processing in the brain. It leads to the uncomfortable observation that the paradigm Dennett uses to explain the brain (i.e. the computer) is an intricate piece of manufactured hardware run by software that is written by programmers. The computer is a beautiful model of intelligently designed dualism. If anyone in your atheist audience picks up on this, things could get nasty. Even tacit endorsements of I.D. or of dualism are unwise in front of an atheist audience. Atheists seem like an amiable lot, but, as the history of the 20th century attests, they can get a bit...testy. Play it safe.

3) Avoid any reference to the self-refuting nature of materialist neuroscience. If your mind is merely an emergent property of your brain, then your opinions are completely determined by your neurophysiology. But neurophysiology is determined by physics and chemistry. Can physics and chemistry ascertain truth? Don't remind your audience that by the very act of asserting your theory you inherently stake a claim to credibility not normally accorded to meat.

4) Be delicate about the assertion that religious belief is explained by evolution. Although you can't expect a whole lot of real skepticism from atheist 'skeptics', there may be a few in the audience who aren't gullible enough to accept the assertion that 'religion is an evolved adaptation' without noting the obvious corollary: 'atheism is an evolved adaptation'. Since your real goal is to discredit religious belief by telling a story about the pedestrian manner in which it supposedly arose (see the Genetic Fallacy), a couple of the less credulous skeptics in your audience might notice that the same fallacy can be applied to atheism, materialism, Darwinism, etc. Be careful of this.

5) Your argument that "religion itself is a kind of conceptual parasite" is brilliant! After all, ideas copy themselves and spread from organism to organism. You've got variation, natural selection, the whole Darwinian package! Why not call it a 'meme' or something. But you have to be careful here, too. An astute atheist might say: 'how can natural selection apply to ideas, just like it applies to genes? Ideas and genes are completely different things. If natural selection works on both of them, then natural selection is true regardless of the substrate on which it acts. Doesn't that imply that natural selection is a tautology?' Bad denouement. Don't push the gene-meme thing too far. People do just fine studying ideas without recourse to 'natural selection'. They might see that they can do just fine studying biology without recourse to 'natural selection'.

6) Because you are promulgating 19th century materialist ideology, avoid any reference to quantum entanglement and the 'observer effect' in quantum mechanics. Material reality at the quantum level only sharpens into focus when it is observed by a mind. The implication is that the mind, in an important and fundamental way, is distinct from matter, and in fact is a prerequisite for discrete physical reality at the quantum level. The observer effect in quantum mechanics adds credence to the dualist theory of the mind. Don't remind the audience.

7) Especially avoid pointing out that the assertion that neuroscience proves the non-existence of the soul is inconsistent with the Darwinist assertion that 'I.D. isn't science'. If science can adjudicate the existence or non-existence of the soul, it obviously can adjudicate the existence or non-existence of design in living things. Disproof of transcendence presupposes the capacity to prove transcendence. If 'soul detection' is science, 'I.D. detection' is science. Oops.

8) By all means, use neuroscientific jargon. The only way you could even hope to convince a room full of thoughtful people (or even conscious people) that their minds are merely the secretion of a couple of pounds of meat is to cloak the assertion in jargon. Assert confidently that 'phase locked oscillations in neurons in the hippocampal CA1 region and the subinculum give rise to sophisticated molecular regulators and sensors and effectors and modulators that generate highly organized chemistry and patterned impulses in pathways throughout the brain yielding states of arousal we that interpret as consciousness ...,' or something like that. Dress your ideology up, or it won't sell, even to atheists.

9) Above all, be assertive! Drive home how neuroscience proves that materialism is the only respectable view for 'Brights'. Avoid gratuitous reticence. Your audience might realize that the "limitations of our interpretations" are due less to the "complexity of the data" than to the 'inadequacy of the ideology'. Don't reveal too much.

All this aside, I'm sure Myers did fine. He had a very receptive audience, and I'm sure my conundrums listed above never occurred to any of them. Cognitive dissonance isn't a big problem for materialists.

I'm sure the chemistry was just right.