Wednesday, December 21, 2005

What Comes After Creationism?

The history of science has, for centuries, involved its conflict with religion. Yes, apologists on both sides have said -- and still say -- that there is no inherent conflict. They are wrong, as the history books, newspapers and professional prognosticators can attest.

Religion espouses magic. Science espouses empiricism. As long as religion stakes a claim to the material world, there will be conflict. The ruling in Dover is a long way from ending the Christian right's attempt to roll back the clock to before Darwin opened the door for modern biology. But we are no longer in an era when only one monument of science, one advance in human understanding, will face the full wrath and malice of fundamentalist religion. Once, we got one Copernicus or Galileo or Darwin or Scopes per century. That won't be the case any more. Two battles are just over the horizon. One of them will likely remain at a negotiable, unchallenging detente for, um, god knows how long.

And that is the origin of the universe. I'm not up on my astronomy, or my astrophysics, let alone my quantum physics. But for a few decades now we've been in a period where scientific advances -- such as the Big Bang and theories I'm not even passingly familiar with about heat and light and such -- will seem poetically consonant with some of the metaphorical interpretations of Genesis. And that'll keep the Christian right at bay for a while.

That's not the real battle. The origin of the universe has nowhere near the immediate impact of the real battle. And it's real not only because it will fundamentally challenge how we think about ourselves, but it's also real because the factual arsenal that will come into play will be much more accessible to lay people than will discussion of heat-whatever and 11 dimensions and super-string theory and whatever else lies at the heart of universe creationism.

The real battle -- and you can already hear the weaponers at work -- will be over your soul. Literally.

The mainstream media, and national culture, haven't paid too much attention, but behavioral/evolutionary psychology have pretty much done away with Freudian thinking. And as the understanding grows of how the mind/brain works, the line between those two will vanish and the resultant understanding of human mental phenomena will not only leave no room for the concept of a soul, it will specifically, directly contradict it.

It's not instantly intuitive how this could be so. The soul, after all, is defined by its intangibility, its non-ness. It is by its very nature something outside the material realm. How could science, the study of material things, measurable, physical things, have anything to say about the soul? Let alone disprove its existence?

All true enough. But Christianity does make one material claim about the soul -- its necessary interaction with the mind. And the mind's status as an existential thing is dwindling rapidly. What happens when everything that happens in the mind is something understandable as something that happens in the brain? What happens when we can know the physical and electro-chemical causes of any given thought, any dream, any artistic inspiration? Where will that leave the soul?

And what about the soul's irreducibility? We are supposed to believe that a human soul is eternal somehow. Well, does that mean the everlasting human soul is a snapshot of our final mental state? Our first mental state? Some intrinsically, essentially unchangeable mental state? Well, the more we come to understand about the brain, the more apparent it is becoming that no "golden nugget" known as an intrinsic self resides within the brain. Our understanding of mental phenomena is becoming increasingly atomistic, which is decidedly not what souls are all about.

Consider commissurotomies. This procedure -- developed, if I remember my Philosophy of the Mind class, as a way to halt the spread of electrical seizures in epileptics -- involves severing the nerves that connect the two hemispheres of the brain. What researchers have found is that one of the "selves" residing in that severed brain can know things and even communicate things that the other "self" does not know. Literally. Sometimes, whether the person knows something depends entirely on how the knowledge was presented, and how information about that knowledge is queried. For instance, I forget exactly how hand/eye/mouth/speech/sight functions line up, but this example I'm creating isn't too far off:

I show a picture of a cat to someone who's had a commissurotomy. I ask him to tell me what he sees. He tells me, "cat." But if I ask him to write down what he sees, he gets it wrong, makes it up, or writes nothing. Why? Because the part of his brain that controls writing can't communicate with the same part that sees the card (again, I'm making up the specifics and may be getting them wrong, but the point of the example holds) and therefore legitimately does not know.

So, does this person's soul see a cat?

In the light of new understanding about the mind/brain, just asking the question becomes ludicrous. But the consequences of clinging to "the soul" are not. For our society to advance -- in education, social progress, crime prevention, medical treatment, psychological treatement, the war on terror -- we need to understand better how the mind/brain works. You think religion has taken a toll on society because of how its objections have impeded the progress of biology and medicine? Wait until the battlefield moves from our physical selves to our mental non-selves. You think creationism is bad? Wait until the Christian right has to fight a battle to defend its very soul.

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