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.