Is Neuroscience the Next Battleground? - Evolution News & Views

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Is Neuroscience the Next Battleground?

The subject of neuroscience is -- for tragic reasons, obviously -- in the news since last week's events in Aurora, Colorado. (The suspect was a PhD student in the field, though I emphasize that we currently know nothing at all about his motivations or state of mind in acting as he did.) Meanwhile ENV reflected yesterday on what an unusual thing it was to see a review in Science that resists a reductionist view equating the mind with a mere epiphenomenon of the physical brain.

In this context, a friend sends along an interesting clip from a conference at Stanford in May, discussing "Science and Religion in the Classroom: Edwards v. Aguillard at 25."

At 30:00 minutes in, Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who specializes in issues related to neuroscience, discusses the question of whether neuroscience could prove to be the next battleground over scientific materialism, in the mold of the current fight over evolution. He says his personal opinion is that it probably won't -- not least because it's an advanced subject that isn't taught in high schools -- while others, like Alan Leshner, neuroscientist and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are much more concerned.

However, Greely briefly and articulately summarizes the reasons that the study of neuroscience as currently practiced might raise red flags much as Darwinism does. His talk with worth watching. Basically, if the science here is taken at face value it could give us a picture of human beings as puppets of a purely material universe without soul or meaning:

I work, among other areas, on ethical, legal and social issues arising out of neuroscience. I work with a lot of neuroscientists and some of them are worried that neuroscience may become the next evolution-creationism fight.

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The crux of the concern here is that neuroscience will say things about determinism, free will and the soul that some religious traditions may find deeply uncomfortable in ways that may lead to a similar kind of conflict.

From a scientific perspective the key issue here is determinism. Not all but almost all scientists believe that our minds are determined by physical changes in our brains and that if you knew enough, which they don't believe they do and few believe they will ever know enough, but if you knew enough you could tell what the brain state will be at time T1 by knowing what the brain state was at time T0 and what else happened in between. And from knowing that brain state, if you knew enough, you'd be able to deduce the mental state. And that all of our thoughts and actions in that sense are determined by the physical state of our brain which is determined by physical issues in the universe. That I think almost all neuroscientists believe.

[...]

On the issue of the soul, I don't think the scientists have very much to say, frankly, other than that -- as Laplace said supposedly in response to Napoleon -- "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Greely doesn't at all sound like a critic of materialism but he does a good job of crystalizing what could be, hypothetically, the heart of a debate that I can imagine attracting no little passion on both sides of the materialist/anti-materialist divide.