Can humans be reduced to atoms and electro-chemical processes?

August 4th, 2022 in clues. Tags: , , , , , ,
Diagram of brain

We experience the world and other people through our own minds and consciousness. It is a rich experience of colour, sound, words, smells, touch and taste, of relationships, beauty, love, hope and pain.

Yet neuroscientists tend to treat our minds as nothing more than our experience of electrical and chemical proceses in our brains. Our consciousness is, to them, an illusion that cannot be explained.

The two views seem incompatible, and the neuroscience view seems inhuman and unlivable. What can we make of it?

Not all neuroscientists

I recently came across a 2 year old article, “Nothing but…” Reductionism is Not Good Science: Why I as a neuroscientist reject reductionism, by Professor Patrick McNamara, that argued for a different understanding.

Prof McNamara has expertise in psycholoogy and neuroscience, and has specialised (among other things) in the neuroscience of religious belief.

In this article he points out that neuroscience is commonly reductionist, that is, reducing “higher” thought processes to “lower” brain chemistry. He argues that “nothing but” statements, like “the mind and consciousness are nothing but brain activity”, go beyond what science can demonstrate. Rather, he says, we can only conclude that certain brain activity is correlated with certain types of thinking, but we cannot say that “the regional brain activity pattern in question explains everything you need to know about that cognitive process.”

The whole is often more than the sum of its parts, he says. It is essential we study the parts, the physical processes, but we shouldn’t assume that will explain everything.

He uses music as an example. It is possible to artificially activate certain neurons in the brain to trigger an experience of music. This music may have an emotional effect on the person that has nothing to do with the neurons that were triggered.

If we want to understand human mental phenomena and predict behaviours and treatments, we need to treat mental events as real events which may influence other real events. We won’t, he says, be able to predict and treat behaviours simply be examining chemical processes in the brain.

What I learn from this

Prof McNamara examines how neuroscience research must study both physical processes and mental states and the connections between them.

But my interest is more in what his arguments say about naturalism vs theism. If naturalism is true, there is nothing else but the physical or the natural. Most naturalistic neuroscientists believe that we don’t have genuine free will, because there is nothing outside the natural brain processes following natural laws to make any change. A further implication is that we are not persuaded by mental (logic) processes but by brain processes that may or may not be logical.

If naturalism leads to a reductionist approach to the mind, and if that approach cannot fully explain what we all experience and what psychologists observe, then it must throw doubt on naturalism. It is interesting to me that, as far as I can tell as an outsider, neuroscientists focus on brain states which don’t allow free will, but psychiatrists focus on mental states that involve freewill.

So granted all this, it seems to me that neuroscience and psychology make theism that little bit more probable than naturalism.

Main graphic taken from the article I review here: “Nothing but…” Reductionism is Not Good Science: Why I as a neuroscientist reject reductionism. Patrick McNamara, Society of Catholic Scientists, 2020.

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26 Comments

  1. It goes far beyond the physical perception of our consciousness
    Atoms are not physical
    Protons neutrons electrons are not physical
    Leptons muons bosons are not physical
    They are all just a perception of our consciousness. Subatomic electromagnetic energy waves
    I think therefore I am.. just thoughts
    Firing synapses 100110011
    Expressing our existence as a singularity consciousness (1) in universe
    of nothingness (0)
    Sounds decibels vibrating energy
    Sights angstroms vibrating energy
    Thoughts consciousness vibrating energy
    We are just energy conscious of its existence
    THE BIG BANG was not of a physical or chemical reaction.
    It was an explosion of unanswerable questions that resulted from the realization that we are self aware. WHAT? WHEN? HOW. WHERE? WHY DO I KNOW I EXIST…
    What is the PURPOSE of my existence
    Yes I have the answers to all those questions.
    We created the god that created us in an attempt to answer those unanswerable questions. God did it. Who created god? We did.
    Circular reasoning a paradox a conundrum?
    But no one will discuss the fact that we do not exist because we are all using a concept called “suspension of disbelief” to create a more enjoyable experience than being a bored lonely singularity consciousness (1) in universe of nothingness (0) vibrating to try and create a meaning and purpose for our existence…
    The only purpose of our existence is to make it as enjoyable as possible because energy cannot be created or destroyed and we are going to be here for a very very very long time.

  2. “If naturalism is true, there is nothing else but the physical or the natural.”

    It makes no sense to say that naturalism is true. “Naturalism” is not a description.

    If one goes with naturalism, then when we see lightning we say that it is natural. If one prefers theism, we might say that it is an act of God. But it is the same lightning either way. Naturalism is a stance toward nature. It is not a description. It does not make sense to apply “true” or “false” to naturalism.

    “If naturalism leads to a reductionist approach to the mind, …”

    I guess I take a naturalist stance. But I am not a reductionist. I don’t see that naturalism leads to reductionism.

  3. Only now ever exists as an ever changing ever expanding universe of action reaction…
    The past does not exist anymore
    The future does not exist yet.
    Only now will ever exist. Now after now after now…
    A singularity consciousness (1) in a universe of nothingness (0) vibrating 1001111000
    And creating this moment after moment after forever because energy cannot be created or destroyed.

  4. Pay attention atheists..
    FOREMOST EVIDENCE:
    1: I think therefore I am.
    2:If I exist, something created me,
    the dictionary defines the word GOD. As that creator.
    3: even if I am just a self aware consciousness. I EXIST.
    4 My best hypothesis is We created the God that created us in order to explain our existence.
    A singularity consciousness (1) in a universe of nothingness (0) creating and communicating our existence 1001100011
    Trying to make our existence a more enjoyable experience

  5. Hi Neil,

    “It makes no sense to say that naturalism is true. “Naturalism” is not a description.”

    There are differences between naturalism, materialism and physicalism, but they aren’t great in practice, as far as I can see. Most people who are one of those are all three. So I was using naturalism in that sense – what is physical, what can be assessed by science. And in that sense, if there is nothing more than the physical/natural/material then we have reduced the mind to something totally explainable by the physical brain. Which means that what most people understand by free will isn’t possible, even if some philosophical abstraction like compatibilism may be possible. Do you agree?

  6. All of us are all three.
    Physical perception of reality (subatomic electromagnetic energy waves)
    Intellectual perception of reality (I therefore I am)
    Combining to create a quantum perception of realty called consciousness. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. E=mc2
    physical (m) = energy divided by the speed of light.. neither of which is physical.
    Physical is just a perception of vibrating energy…. Consciousness firing synapses vibrating energy
    …. Sight Angstroms vibrating energy
    … Sounds Decibels vibrating energy
    Everything we think say hear and do is simply an expression of vibrating energy.
    10011100
    (1) consciousness in universe of nothingness
    (0) vibrating to create
    I THINK therefore I AM
    Just a bored lonely singularity in a universe of nothingness creating a more enjoyable existence.

  7. “So I was using naturalism in that sense – what is physical, what can be assessed by science.”

    What can be assessed by science is that for which there is evidence. I don’t see any necessity that this requires naturalism.

    From my perspective it is the other way around. We look for evidence, and use that in science. And then we likely describe what we found as natural.

    I hope you can see the difference. We do not start with what is natural and only look at that. Rather, we start with what is evidenced. And then, as an afterthought, we describe that as natural.

    “Which means that what most people understand by free will isn’t possible, even if some philosophical abstraction like compatibilism may be possible.”

    I happen to believe that we have some sort of free will, though I cannot precisely define what that is. We are able to make choices in ways that are not available to AI systems. The arguments against free will do not seem at all compelling to me. Those arguments seem to depend on a misunderstanding of science.

  8. Let me try to explain free will IMHO

    The only evidence from personal observation and experience is that “I AM” everything else is a product of my consciousness.
    One (1) consciousness vibrating in a universe of nothingness (0). Maybe you recognize the binary system of which every thought is a creation of.
    100111001.
    I think therefore I am.
    Colours are just vibrations we call angstroms
    Sounds are just vibrations called decibels
    Consciousness is just vibrations called firing synapses.
    Our consciousness (God?) creates these colours and sounds and thoughts to make its lonely boring existence as a singularity consciousness in a universe of nothingness a more enjoyable experience.
    Any questions because I have many answers based on evidence logic and reason.

  9. Free will is simply choosing between 1 and 0.
    Oops that’s not free will is it?
    Or is it?
    We all know the same truth. But we have the choice of accepting it (1) or rejecting it (0).
    10011000
    I suppose what we choose to think creates our perception of our existence.
    A singularity consciousness (1) in a universe of nothingness (0) vibrating to create anything and everything you imagine.
    Think about it .. pun intended..

  10. Hi Neil, thanks for replying. I’d like to continue the discussion if you are willing.

    “We do not start with what is natural and only look at that. Rather, we start with what is evidenced.”

    Many people feel or believe they have a relationship with personal God. Most people feel they are more than just a physical body; some would say they have a soul, others would express it differently. How would you suggest science test these feeling?

    “I happen to believe that we have some sort of free will, though I cannot precisely define what that is.”

    Do you think that the physical world is governed or described by physical laws, and is therefore in principle predictable? i.e. if a certain situation is repeated, the laws will lead to the same outcome (e.g. a ball dropped from a height or two chemical brought together under certain conditions)?

    If so, if the same brain states recur, won’t the outcome will be the same? What is there in the brain that can make it different?

    I think these two questions help to understand what freewill may or may not be.

  11. Of course the physical perception of reality is bound by laws we give it like,
    Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Laws of gravity etc, or we could not create anything.
    Our consciousness uses vibrating energy to create colours, angstroms, sounds, decibels, thoughts firing synapses, all just vibrating energy a PERCEPTION AN ILLUSION created to make our existence a more enjoyable experience.

  12. “How would you suggest science test these feeling?”

    I don’t think there’s a good way to test feelings.

    I tend to look at a person as a bundle of behaviours. So I see the physical body as an implementation detail.

    “Do you think that the physical world is governed or described by physical laws, and is therefore in principle predictable?”

    No. If anything, QM shows us that the world is not predictable.

    My take is that physical laws govern the behavior of physicists. They define how physics should be done. But things in the world are not required to check with the physics books to decide what to do. The laws of physics govern the physicists but they do not govern the world.

    If we could time travel back to the past and ask Aristotle, then I would expect Aristotle to say that Newton’s laws were obviously false. Under Aristotle’s view of motion, things slowed down by their own nature.

    What Newton’s laws did for us, was to completely reconcepualize motion. Using f=ma, whenever we see an object accelerating, we should say that there is a force. In some sense, Newton’s idea of force is an invention, as part of his explanatory framework.

    If we can invent forces in this way, then we are using some sort of free will. And our ability to do science depends on this free will.

  13. Reductionism is Pure Logic and Reason , based on the Evidence.
    Follow the reasoning.
    Everything physical is composed entirely of ATOMS.. which are a combination of subatomic particles, leptons quarks bosons etc
    Subatomic particles are actually a perception of Subatomic electromagnetic energy waves
    I THINK therefore I AM. Just thoughts consciousness (1) in a universe of nothingness (0) vibrating 1001100011 to create
    Angstroms colours vibrating energy
    Decibels sound vibrating energy
    Thoughts perception vibrating energy
    There is nothing physical, we only think there is… pun intended.

  14. Hi Neil,

    “I don’t think there’s a good way to test feelings.”
    I’ll rephrase my question. How would you test the reality of the claims that (1) there is a personal God, and (2) people are more than just a physical body, i.e. we have a non-physical soul?

    “No. If anything, QM shows us that the world is not predictable.”
    I don’t see how that claim is sustainable. Yes, at the quantum level we are unable to predict some things (while other things are quite predictable). But at the level we all live at and are conscious of, we are well able to predict many things – the path of a missile, the fact that eating will reduce our hunger, the likely effects of a bullet to the brain, even apparently random things like the outcome of a hundred coin tosses. You and I couldn’t have this conversation if the internet wasn’t highly ordered and predictable.

    “The laws of physics govern the physicists but they do not govern the world.”
    I am not a physicist, and I think you may not be either – I think you may have said you are a mathematician – is that right? Yet we are having this conversation. When I press “Post Comment” it will begin a highly reliable (though not 100%) and predictable transfer of information via electronic signals across thousands of kilometres of wires and cables. That all happens because the laws of physics describe the behaviour of the internet components with such precision that we can say they govern them.

    “we are using some sort of free will”
    My challenge is how to describe an explain how this happens. What in our brain allows us to change the brain processes that are just as much described by laws as the internet is?

  15. Just because our puny individual consciousness can not deal with trillions of 1001100 unwary expressions and their relation to each other does not mean the universe is anything more than just that one observation that I AM. (1)
    The questions are unanswerable (0)
    What are we as a consciousness
    I am not a physicist or mathematician … Scue
    Where are we
    How did we come to exist?
    On close examination we discover everything is a construct of atoms
    A construct of protons neutrons electrons
    A construct of leptons quarks bosons
    A perception of subatomic electromagnetic energy waves.. like the forces that repel and attract two magnets… we are all analogous to those magnets.
    Upon the realization of our existence, we exploded into that BIG BANG explosion of unanswerable questions.
    And that is the perception on the physical level of our existence…. The metaphysical level of our consciousness… based on evidence logic and reason, is we do not physically in any way shape or form… we just think we do.. pun intended….
    I am not a physicist or mathematician.
    I am just a person searching for truth .
    Religion is a fairytale that some God created the universe… WHO CREATED GOD?
    Evolution is a fairytale that we evolved from primordial ooze…
    WHERE DID THAT OOZE COME FROM?
    My LOGICAL conclusion based on the EVIDENCE says it is REASONABLE to conclude since energy cannot be created (or destroyed) that … WE DO NOT EXIST…We just think we do…..
    Do you have any SPECIFIC unanswered questions I can try to come to a reasonable logical conclusion based on the evidence? The only evidence can be reduced to non physical subatomic electromagnetic energy waves…

  16. We do not have a physical anything.
    Atoms are made of subatomic “particles “
    Leptons quarks bosons are actually just electromagnetic energy waves…
    There is only vibrating energy
    Angstroms what you call seeing
    Decibels what you call hearing
    Firing synapses what you call thinking
    —— Are all just vibrating energy our consciousness uses to create a PERCEPTION of a physical ..
    As Descartes said “I think therefore I AM.”
    just thoughts consciousness….
    Subatomic electromagnetic energy waves
    Sight sound physical subatomic electromagnetic energy… none of it is physical.. all of it is just a creation of our consciousness.

  17. I unfortunately don’t have much to add to this, other than to say that as far as I can see….if the mind is immaterial, in that it exists and yet is not made of matter, then that to me would be an extremely compelling argument (but not an decisive one) to the idea of the soul. Of course I have also found that the term “soul” can mean something inherently different to different people. I tend to find both the “ghost in the machine” dualist idea of the soul as well as the physicist “we’re just meat computers” wanting. I haven’t decided yet on which school of thought I belong too in philosophy of mind, but I certainly admit I hope I’m more than my brain. I’m currently exploring alternatives to duelist and physicalist approaches, I’ve noticed more and more scientific, theological and philosophical figures seem to be doing the same. I’ve read about panpsychism, but find it a tad bit hard to believe.

    What’s your stance on mind Eric? Or do you try to avoid a camp on the matter?

    I read this article two years ago, did you find it on the SOCS website? I personally can’t remember where I read it.

    Wishing you a happy August!

    Aaron

  18. Here is how I figure it. Rene Descartes said
    “I Think therefore I AM”
    The bible god said
    “Tell them I AM has sent you”
    All we know is we exist.
    Where. when ? How? WHY? Etc can not be known.. The fact is we do not exist physically.
    Atoms are made of subatomic particles leptons muons quarks.. are actually subatomic electromagnetic energy waves..consciousness. I think therefore I am.
    God was a bored lonely singularity consciousness in a universe of nothingness.
    God vibrated to create this beautiful perception of a physical universe.
    Sight- angstroms vibrating energy
    Sound – decibels vibrating energy
    Thoughts consciousness vibrating energy.
    We cannot live or die according to science because… ENERGY CANNOT BE CREATED OR DESTROYED …
    Any questions? I have answers

  19. Hi Aaron,

    Yes, I think “soul” can mean many things. Even in the Greek of the NT, it seems to mean something closer to “life” than the idea of an immortal soul that lives on after the body dies. So I tend to avoid the word.

    I have read a little on panpsychism and idealism (see this post) but I don’t think they provide any answers. Even if it was true that everything is mental, within that there are still things that appear to be physical and others that appear not to be, so we end up with the same questions we started with.

    I think I am pretty much a dualist. Our brains are obviously physical, but that alone cannot explain the common human experience of consciousness, freewill and rationality. So either we call all those things illusions (which many neuroscientists do, but that results in all sorts of inconsistencies) or we say there is something more than the physical. (Some call this “dual aspect monism” but I think that is just words.)

    I am a theistic dualist, but there are non-theistic dualists, or something close to that – David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel for example.

    I found this article when I followed the link you sent me on cosmic fine-tuning.

    Have a good week!

  20. Our brains are not physical
    They are atoms
    Atoms are protons electrons neutrons
    Atoms are subatomic “particles” NOT
    because anything subatomic is electromagnetic energy waves forces
    NOT PHYSICAL… also physical is just a perception of vibrating e
    Angstroms sight vibrating energy
    Decibels sounds vibrating energy
    Thoughts consciousness vibrating energy.
    I THINK..therefore..I AM , just thoughts
    Who shall I say sent me?
    “Tell them I AM has sent you”
    Try understanding that METAPHORS are. It mean to be taken literally.
    I won’t expect any reply’s because you people STILL think that there is a physical reality..

  21. “How would you test the reality of the claims that (1) there is a personal God, and (2) people are more than just a physical body, i.e. we have a non-physical soul?”

    The question of a personal God is subjective (because it is personal). So we cannot expect an objective test.

    Of course we are more than a physical body. We are complex thermodynamic processes. However, I don’t find the term “soul” to be helpful.

    “Yes, at the quantum level we are unable to predict some things”

    That’s already enough to show that the world is not predictable.

    “You and I couldn’t have this conversation if the internet wasn’t highly ordered and predictable.”

    A web site that I often use was down yesterday morning. The internet is not completely predictable. Yes, we make pretty good statistical predictions, but with no guarantee of perfection. The argument against free will requires more than that — it require perfect predictability.

    “When I press “Post Comment” it will begin a highly reliable (though not 100%) and predictable transfer of information via electronic signals across thousands of kilometres of wires and cables. That all happens because the laws of physics describe the behaviour of the internet components with such precision that we can say they govern them.”

    This is wrong. We presume that the same laws of physics were in effect at the time of Aristotle. But Aristotle could not just press “Post Comment”. So there is a lot more going on than just the laws of physics. Yet you conveniently ignore all of that other stuff.

    If I asked you to fire a rocket to the moon, using only the laws of physics, you would not be able to do it. You would also need lots of measurements so that you could aim your rocket. It is those measurements that describe the world. The laws of physics provide an interpretive framework for those measurements, but the laws themselves do not describe the world.

    And if you then fired the rocket, it would probably miss the moon. When NASA was sending rockets to the moon, those rockets were equipped with monitoring equipment to measure progress, and to fire small auxiliary rockets to adjust the path. That’s what allowed the rockets to successfully reach the target. That system of measurement and path corrections is what governs the path of the rocket. The laws of physics, by themselves, don’t govern anything (except the behavior of the physicists and engineers).

    Your example of the internet is similar. What makes it work reasonably reliably, is that there is a system of continuous measurement and error correction that keeps your messages on track to their intended destination.

  22. Hi Neil,

    I think our conversation has drifted away from the point of this post, so I am going to try to move back.

    It seems we agree that “Of course we are more than a physical body.” The example you give is “We are complex thermodynamic processes.” But thermodynamic processes are physical processes. So I am interested, what do you think are “more than physical” aspects of human beings? And how do these give rise to free will and consciousness.

    I have one other question. You say “The question of a personal God is subjective”. But is that statement an objective statement? i.e. is it true, or is it just an opinion that could easily be mistaken? Or put it another way, is God’s existence in your view an objective fact – either God exists or God doesn’t – or is it just an opinion like our preference for food or colours?

  23. Of course God is a personal God.
    God said “Tell them I AM has sent you “
    Rene Descartes said “I Think therefore I AM “
    I know from personal experience and observation that I AM.. but everything else is just a product of MY consciousness.
    We create and communicate the entire universe in our consciousness.
    Sounds decibels vibrating energy
    Sight angstroms vibrating energy
    Consciousness firing synapses vibrating energy.
    I think therefore I am…ANY QUESTIONS?

  24. You need to ask yourself what “free will”, is.
    As a singularity consciousness, creator/god, we had to explode in that BIG BANG explosion of unanswerable questions, in order to experience our creation not just observe it from outside .
    “ 15 For we do not have a high priest gwho is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been dtempted as we are, hyet without sin.” but Jesus had to sin to truly understand us and he did when he cried out “MY GOD WHY HAS THOU FORSAKEN ME”… that was the sin of faithlessness. God/Jesus had to KNOW how it felt to lose faith … then IT WAS FINISHED and God became like us. Knowing fear and doubt and shame and anger….
    Does anyone even understand let alone care about the true context of the bible?
    Truth? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! or can you?….

  25. Thermodynamics is just vibrating energy
    Consciousness is just vibrating energy
    Sight sound all vibrating energy created in this consciousness to make our existence as a bored lonely singularity a more enjoyable experience . We created the god that created us in order to explain our existence.

  26. You show a picture of a brain… it does not exist.
    It is actually subatomic electromagnetic energy waves that we perceive as subatomic “particles “… there are no particles. E=mc2
    mass is not physical, it is a perception of ENERGY..in relation to VELOCITY… neither of which has any physical properties…. Except in the imagination of physicists… who are not intelligent or honest enough to admit their ignorance of the true nature of QUANTUM PHYSICS… or should I say quantum NON physics?

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