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Darwin's "Horrid Doubt": The Mind

Charles_Darwin_by_Barraud_c1881-crop.jpgMany people in their forties today grew up with science as the business end of naturalist atheism. In their view, a "scientific" explanation is one that describes a universe devoid of meaning, value, or purpose. That is how we know it is a scientific explanation.

Science wasn't always understood that way, and the new approach has consequences. It means, for example, that multiverse cosmology can consist entirely of evidence-free assumptions. Yet only a few question whether it is science.

Indeed, physicist Carlo Rovelli sounds distinctly old-fashioned when he says, "Science does not advance by guessing." That depends on what you count as an advance. If science means projects such as ruling out the Big Bang and fine-tuning of the universe -- irrespective of evidence, because they smack of theism -- then guessing is an accepted and acceptable strategy.

Similarly, origin-of-life studies are "scientific" to the extent that they seek an origin without any intelligent cause. A century and a half of dead ends prompts no rethink; neither would a millennium. Even if probability theorists can show, beyond reasonable doubt, that an intelligent cause is required, their correct explanation would be rejected because it is not "scientific."

Science-Fictions-square.gifAnd in studies of human evolution, the starting point is that "humans are evolved primates, an unexceptional twig on the tree of life, though like other twigs, we are accidental outliers." Again, no one seeks to demonstrate that proposition. And no finding that doesn't support that interpretation can be considered "science." Any thesis that does support it, even that humans are chimp-pig hybrids, may be considered science.

So the "scientific" approach to that least material of entities, the human mind, means interpreting it in a naturalist and materialist way.

Darwin had doubts about how the Cambrian period fitted his theory. But his "horrid doubt" concerned the human mind:

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

In future articles, we will look at the "hard problem" of consciousness and the conundrums that free will, altruism, and religion create for naturalism. Plus a side trip into naturalism's pop culture expressions: "evolutionary" claims about psychology, politics, business, and art. These claims are often taken seriously by opinion leaders. After all, however exotic, they need only be fully naturalist to qualify, at least potentially, as science.

Most partial or whole explanations of the human mind propose one of the following models:

  • The brain randomly generates illusions that self-organize as a "mind." Behavior is thus better accounted for by the study of neurons (neuroscience) than the study of the illusory "mind."
  • Our hominoid ancestors passed on hypothetical genes via natural selection acting on random mutation. These claimed (not demonstrated) genes result in our attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavior -- mistakenly seen as the outcome of thought processes (evolutionary psychology).
  • Identified genes determine behavior in the present day, the way a light switch controls a circuit. These include the "bad driver" gene, the infidelity gene, and the liberal gene, for starters. Whether or not such claims correspond to how genes work, the pop science media deems them plausible because they are naturalist. They bypass widespread illusions such as moral and intellectual choice.
  • Our primate cousins' behavior can explain ours, because we are 98 percent chimpanzee. Naturalism means never having to ask commonsense questions like: If chimps' behavior explains ours, why didn't they develop as we did? Naturalism simply does not process such questions. It is true without evidence, and cannot be confuted by evidentiary failures.
  • Artificial intelligence enthusiasts hope to create conscious machines with superior intelligence, in short, a material mind. 2020 is the current apocalypse year according to some. We'll swing by that approach, if only because so many people take it seriously. Again, however preposterous, if it is naturalist, it is science.

Ironically, while Darwin may have doubted the fully naturalized mind and felt horrid about it, most of his latter-day supporters believe and feel good. And, on its own terms, their faith cannot be disconfirmed.

My "Science Fictions" series on cosmology is here, origin of life is here, and human evolution is here.

Image source: Wikicommons.