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The Chilling Worldview of Science?
September 24, 2008, 5:13 pm
Filed under: Atheism, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophical Anthropology, Science | Tags: ,

I came across this recently:


I can imagine how disturbed they [religious people] will feel in the future, when at last scientists learn how to understand human behavior in terms of the chemistry and physics of the brain, and nothing is left that needs to be explained by our having an immaterial soul…

…Worse, the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years.


There is something very wrong with this.  Chemistry and physics can be no more than the boundary conditions of the brain’s functioning. 


Think of a car engine.  Physics and chemistry are the boundary conditions of the engine.  But the proper functioning of the engine will be based upon higher principles that emerge on top of these boundary conditions.  Talk to the engineers about these higher principles.  If the chemistry of the engine breaks down—if it gets rusty—the higher principles of the engine’s functioning will be compromised. 


But a description of the engine on the level of pure chemistry or physics wouldn’t tell us anything about how the engine works–except for its boundary conditions.  That’s something, but it’s not nearly enough.  We also need to know what the engine’s parts are, how they work together and towards what ends.  Knowledge of the machine, as a machine, requires us to rise up to meet the higher principles which emerge on top of the boundary conditions of physics and chemistry.


In the same way, human behavior can NEVER, in principle, be understood merely in terms of the chemistry and physics of the brain, or in terms of chemistry and physics generally.


But what about the higher principles of human life which emerge on top of our physics and chemistry?  Engineers deal with car engine design and the knowledge of how engines work, right?  Couldn’t we become engineers of the brain and human life more generally?


Think of our knowledge of how ordinary sight works.  Evidently we can’t see without the functioning of our eyes, nervous system and brain.  The proper function of these systems has physical/chemical boundary conditions, just like car engines do.  And, as with engines, higher principles of proper function emerge on top.  Cut out my eyes, or a part of my brain, and I’ll go blind.


In this sense we can say that biological life is mechanical, or analogous to the mechanical.  But all life?  All aspects of all life?


My love for my wife has physical/chemical boundary conditions.  Punch me hard in the face and you’ll knock me out.  When I’m knocked out, my love for her will be temporally absent.  Still, once I wake up, it will return.  We’ve always known this, and didn’t need to wait around for brain science to tell us this.   My systems need to be properly functioning and their physical/chemical boundary conditions need to be in good order–even when it comes to love.


But it seems to me that my love for her rises above mere animal instinct or biological drive.  I admit that it does have animal boundary conditions, and these animal boundary conditions themselves emerges on top of physical/chemical boundary conditions   But my love for her, if it really is what it seems to be, transcends these animal boundary conditions.  It doesn’t always do this, and it doesn’t do this often enough.  But my love for her, at its best, rises to the level of a deep commitment to her good for her good.  Please notice that believing this doesn’t require me to deny the existence of the animal boundary conditions of my love for her. 


These sorts of animal desires have been well known for thousands of years.  We didn’t need to wait around for Darwin and brain science to tell us about them.  We’ve always known that it is the essence of the moral life to rise about mere animals passions and to fashion a higher kind of life.  


And as animal consciousness rises above rocks, so human consciousness rises above the animal.  A human self, a soul if you will, simply cannot be reduced to physics/chemistry.  Neither can it be reduce to the merely animal.  We might choose to live like beasts, but the beasts can’t help but live like beasts.


The mistake we moderns sometimes make is in thinking that higher principles can be reduced to their boundary conditions.  But this is as much a mistake with car engines as it is with humans.  Still, to reject reductionism is not to deny the reality of lower boundary conditions.  


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