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Inconstant Gyri

Daniel Dennett was right, in a way. Scientific naturalism, like Darwinism, is a corrosive acid, eroding every crevice of our society. It’s now seeped into our sulci.

Jeffrey Rosen, in a March 11th New York Times Magazine essay “The Brain on the Stand; how neuroscience is transforming the legal system,” tells of the influence of neuroscience on legal concepts of culpability. He quotes Harvard neuroscientist Joshua Greene: “To a neuroscientist, you are your brain; nothing causes your behavior other than the operations of your brain. If that’s right, it radically changes the way we think about the law.” And, of course, it changes the way we think about everything. It isn’t surprising that a leading neuroscientist would cloak a philosophical assertion in a scientific assertion. It’s the currency of scientific naturalism.

There are many problems with scientific naturalism in neuroscience. Philosophers of the mind refer to the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems of consciousness. ‘Easy’ problems of consciousness are the problems studied by neuroscientists. They are such things as arousal, alertness, and MRI correlates of our thoughts and actions. The easy problems of consciousness aren’t easy, really, but they’re tractable and can be studied by scientists. They can be reduced to matter in motion.

The hard problem is different. It is this: how we are subjects, as well as objects? Why do we experience things, and not just react to them? The hard problem is not tractable by science, and there is no reason to think that it ever will be. The neuroscientists who claim that subjective experience is merely an emergent property of neurons are asserting a belief, not proposing a scientific theory. The assertion that subjectivity arises from matter in motion is not an assertion science can test. Matter in no way presupposes subjectivity.

There is a deeper problem, an old one, raised in recent times by C.S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga. If our brains are mere matter in motion, why should we trust human judgment? If people who violate the law aren’t culpable because of their cerebral physiology, how are neuroscientists culpable for their theories of cerebral physiology? Perhaps the theory that our thoughts are wholly determined by our neurochemistry is caused by poor blood flow in Steven Pinker’s temporal lobe. How can we assert that neuroscience itself isn’t just a byproduct of neurons, without using our own inconstant gyri?

One suspects that the only transcendent truth claimed by scientific naturalists is their transcendently obvious eligibility for NIH funding.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.