June 27th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Peter Costello calls it a day

EDITORIAL: New South Wales puts Australian firms first

VICTORIA: The threats to Victoria's electricity and water

GENERAL MOTORS: Restructured GM won't thrive without new mindset

UNITED STATES I: Obama's celebrity-style media spectacle

UNITED STATES II: Cairo speech impressed Western media, not Islamic world

IRAN: US conciliatory approach to Tehran backfires

ASIA/PACIFIC REGION: East Timor consolidates stable democratic government

UNITED STATES: Husband and wife spied for communist Cuba

SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY: How science can diminish humanity

EUTHANASIA: The perils of euthanasia "with safeguards"

MEN AND IDEAS: Bob Santamaria's role in Australia's culture wars

OPINION: The Japanese threat facing Australia in 1942

Failure of stimulus packages (letter)

Russia's population crisis (letter)

IPCC's political agenda (letter)

MEDIA: ABC Chaser's war on common decency

CINEMA: Hollywood morality for an audience of fools - State of Play

BOOKS: SHAKESPEARE'S SHATTERED YOUTH: Laming or Elixir? by Lucy Sullivan

BOOKS: CROSSING HITLER: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand, by Benjamin C. Hett

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How science can diminish humanity

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, June 27, 2009
Some scientists and thinkers are prepared to use the latest advances in neuroscience as a justification to deny the existence
of the human mind, consciousness and soul.

Bill Muehlenberg warns that this misguided thinking, if left unchallenged, will inevitably lead to a dehumanised world.

The march of science and the outworking of Enlightenment thinking have been a mixed bag. There have been both progress and regress during the past few centuries. Science and technology have made life a lot easier in recent times, but it has also a downside to it. Indeed, unchecked science, coupled with philosophical naturalism, has led to all manner of negative consequences.

A number of prophetic voices last century sought to warn the West about where an increasingly secular age and an increasingly technological society would take us. Several Christian thinkers can be mentioned here. They all wrote about where modern society was heading, warning about the dehumanisation and increasing statism which invariably followed this path.

Technological tyranny

French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) wrote much about technology and its impact. His 1954 work, The Technological Society (translated into English in 1964), is perhaps his best-known volume in which he warned about "technological tyranny".

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) also wrote much about a secularised world where unfettered science runs rampant. His The Abolition of Man (1947), as well as the third volume of his science-fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1946), were primarily centred on such themes.

He wrote often about various reductionist philosophies. About naturalism, for example, he said: "But if naturalism were true, then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore, naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts its own throat."

Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) also had much to say about where modern technological man was headed. For example, in his 1972 volume, Back to Freedom and Dignity, he challenged the reductionist determinism of American psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Needless to say, their concerns were spot on. If anything, things may have deteriorated even further than what they warned about. Certainly, the push for reductionistic naturalism continues unabated. Many intellectuals are seeking to explain all of reality in terms of naturalism.

Many examples can be mentioned here. The burgeoning field of neuroscience is certainly one of them. The attempt is being made to describe all mental states and activities purely in terms of matter - that is, in terms of the brain alone. Thus all thoughts, ideas, emotions, aesthetic and religious experiences, and consciousness itself, are said to be purely the outworking of brain activities.

Many want to deny mind, consciousness and the soul altogether. Thus the area of neuroscience has become just one part of the larger philosophical battle between theism and idealism on the one hand, and atheism and materialism on the other.

But not all neuroscientists have been happy with the materialist reductionism of their colleagues. For example, Mario Beauregard and Denise O'Leary wrote The Spiritual Brain (HarperOne, 2007) in which they argued against the naturalism and materialism so rampant in their field, and argued that the soul and religious experiences have objective reality.

Another thinker who has recently expressed concerns about where the neurosciences are going is philosophy lecturer Jane O'Grady. She argues that confusing the mind with the brain leads to real problems, including dehumanisation. Her recent lengthy article, "Can a machine change your mind?", in Open Democracy (May 25, 2009), is worth reading in its entirety, but a few quotations can here be provided.

Squashing down human beings

She says: "The most irritating (to us lay people) aspect of philosophical and scientific attempts to reduce the mental to the neural, and to squash down human beings into being on all fours with other physical things, is that their proponents nearly always say that actually they are just putting the truth about consciousness more clearly and taking nothing away from our experience. Like politicians deviously withdrawing privileges, they expect us to be quite happy about this.

"Some developments of identity theory, however, are more upfront. They force consciousness into equivalence with lightning and water by impugning the ignorance of us ordinary people. The way we talk about sensations, memories and beliefs is, say eliminative materialists, hopelessly antiquated, a form of 'folk psychology' as hidebound and superstition-laden as talk about witches, or about epileptics being possessed by devils. 'Folk psychology' is a theory about how humans function, they say, that is pathetically inadequate in both describing and predicting. In time, a more scientifically sophisticated vocabulary will replace it.

"Really? So we were wrong all the time about our memories and our passions? What sort of a world, I wonder, do these eliminative materialists envisage with their revised vocabulary about mental (or rather neural states). What exactly would we be doing?

"What would be the point of training ourselves, or being trained, to report on our brain states?"

Her conclusion is also worth repeating here: "The new neuro-social-sciences are the latest of many attempts to naturalise the human - to make every aspect of our lives and selves comprehensible merely as subjects of scientific explanation.

"The social consequences of the naturalistic program make it especially important to understand its philosophical limits. Not only do we become experimental subjects, but we very easily become subjected - to the particular types of control that scientific understanding invites, especially the 'medical model' of the expert which offers the 'patient' diagnosis, prophylaxis, prognosis and cure.

"This may produce wonderful results in the right context, but should be tightly confined within the world of atoms; in the world of meanings, its essentially metaphorical status needs to be always understood. A naturalised, rather than thoughtful and deliberative politics, is not only creepy, it is incoherent. Ironically, it substitutes a medical metaphor for meaningful argument.

"Hard-line identity theorists, and eliminativists above all, don't appreciate how much they would change things if indeed we could come to believe and implement their theories. Our world would increasingly be leeched of meaning, morality, dignity and freedom, and if we rejected folk psychology in favour of scientific terminology about brain states, not only would we know less, not more, about ourselves; we would also have less to know about, because we would be less."

Quite so. I have written elsewhere about the flatlands of reductionism. The dehumanisation of mankind - whether deliberate or not - must always be resisted.

Fortunately, not everyone in the scientific and philosophical communities is willing to allow this dehumanisation to proceed without a fight.

- Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy.
His website CultureWatch is at:

Jane O'Grady, "Can a machine change your mind?", Open Democracy, May 25, 2009.
URL: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/can-a-machine-change-your-mind

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