Friday, March 01, 2013

Christian Materialism, Neuroscience and Personal Identity

I have been reading various works on consciousness, from both the substance dualist and materialist perspective. Psychology usually teaches us that consciousness is simply awareness: it involves awareness of one's thought and feelings. Consciousness involves visual awareness, auditory awareness, gustatory awareness, olfactory and tactile awareness.

Charles G. Morris (Understanding Psychology) defines consciousness as the human awareness of mental processes such as making decisions, remembering, daydreaming, concentrating, reflecting, sleeping, and dreaming. It is also good to remember that consciousness evidently obtains on a graded continuum such that a person in a vegetative state or a young newborn may be aware, even though both entities experience awareness at different places on the graded continuum.

There are also two books I'd like to mention that you might find interesting. One is Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are by Joseph LeDoux. This work is very challenging to read because LeDoux writes in a somewhat technical manner at times. However, he makes a profound point about the "self" in the opening portion of his work.

LeDoux does not deny that an aesthetic, moral or social self possibly exists. However, he contends that one's feeling of self-awareness or one's ability to reason morally is rooted in the neural or synaptic self. In his own words, "My notion of personality is pretty simple: it's that your 'self,' the essence of who you are, reflects patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in your brain . . . Given the importance of synaptic transmission in brain function,
it should practically be a truism to say that the self is synaptic" (LeDoux, Synaptic Self, page 2).

The other book I have in mind is The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul written by Francis Crick. This book is even more difficult to read because of its demanding content. Nevertheless, it is of interest that Crick believes the notion of a "soul" (an immaterial aspect of humans) which gives us a sense of self-awareness or feeling of subjectivity is superfluous, redundant or pleonastic. Most scientists now think that the brain takes care of all things that were once attributed to the soul. Crick thus maintains:

"The Astonishing Hypothesis is that 'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules" (The Astonishing Hypothesis, page 3).

Yes, it seems that experiences, heredity and memories make us what we are. Long-term memories probably are coded and stored in the hippocampal area of the brain. Other parts of the brain play their role in storing and retrieving memory. Nurture and nature wire our synapses; our synapses, in turn, make us who we are.

But does the foregoing mean that the same brain must be placed in an individual, who is deemed worthy of the resurrection? In view of what we now believe as Jehovah's Witnesses, the answer cannot be in the affirmative. Firstly, those who receive an earthly resurrection will have new bodies, including presumably different brains. Yet, we believe that resurrected Job (supplied with a different body) will be the same PERSON that we read about in the OT book bearing his name. And what about those who will be granted immortal and incorruptible life in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1-2). Once again, they will have or already have different bodies of a spiritual nature. But it seems reasonable to suppose that Paul, Peter, and John are the same persons they were in the first century. Hence, restoring personhood to S1 or S2 (with S representing a subject/person) does not appear to be dependent on providing S1 or S2 with their original brains. What seems most important in this case is the memory of God rather than man. Even if God gives someone a different body or brain, he can still bring it about that the same person rises from the dead on the "last day." Nancey Murphy skillfully explains how personal identity is fulfilled by a various number of distinct criteria. In other words, not just one criterion determines personal identity or the persistence conditions for human personhood.


Nathan said...

Hi Edgar,

Great post!

One of the issues that bedevils folks like Murphy, Inwagen, and Nagel is how determinism can be eschewed on a materialist account of mind, other than that we simply must accept that the sophistication between synaptic pathways must literally defy any and all intelligent discussion of them. Intentional states of mind seemingly originate within the mind, but the causal origin of such intentions seems baffling – at least from our limited perspective. How does matter choose to react to other matter in different ways and at different times? The problem of reconciling non-compatibilism with matter has become a siren call for the dualist and a mystery to the materialist.

I guess we need to be content with the scriptural account of the soul and just accept that some things will forever be beyond our grasp.

Hope you're feeling better.



aservantofJehovah said...

Christian materialiasm,some may view that as a bit of an oxymoron.
The bible does seem to show however that man(and indeed the lower creatures)are animated by some kind of spirit see ecclesiastes3:19,20.How would you explain the nature of this spirit to an enquirer?

Edgar Foster said...

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for your contribution. I agree that from the standpoint of neuroscience and the philosophy of mind, it seems hard to understand how physicalism (i.e. materialism) avoids determinism. Murphy makes her case for free will (despite being a "Christian materialist") in her work "Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?") and van Inwagen argues for free will in "Metaphysics"). But, at the end of the day, natural reason or science are limited by human finitude. ^There is a sense in which I think KAnt was right about his famous antinomies where speculative reason is concerned. We have much to learn about the "mystery of matter. Your points are well taken. And I am doing much better now. Thanks to some modern medicine and the kindness of Jehovah. :-)

Good hearing from you!

Edgar Foster said...

Hi brother aservantofJehovah,

Good question. I can understans how the expression Christian materialism might seem oxymoronic. I usually call it "anthropological physicalism" but Christian physicalism/materialism appears to have stuck.

I believe that Eccl 3:19-20 is a good text to use in order to debunk the notion of "spirit" meaning something ethereal (in this sense) or something otherworldly (i.e. an immortal aspect of man's existence).

My preferred approach would be to look at the semantics of the Hebrew term for "spirit" and to see how it's used in the Tanakh. For example, see Psalm 146:3-4 and Eccl. 11:5. The WT literature has often explained the human spirit as "life force"--that which animates our cells or gives them their spark. But I see no good reason why this "spirit" (which is really an Englishing of the Hebrew) might not be reducible to the laws of physics.

Edgar Foster said...

Here's something I once sent to a friend:

Spirit can refer to
one's life force (Ps 146:3-4); one's dominant mental
attitude (Gen 26:35) or to the basic constitution of a
being (Ps 104:4). In English, as Joseph Ledoux writes,
people converse about the psychological, moral,
aesthetic or spiritual "self" and equate it with the
human "spirit." Ledoux himself believes that the
"self," however is "neural" and that it is only
through the neural self that our other "selves" are
realized. Another writer identifies the "self" with
one's identity as a person. I too could agree that the
"self" is what we are (not a part of us), but the word
"spirit" needs to be nuanced before any real progress
can be made in understanding how the human spirit is
possibly analogous to God's spirit. In the sentence,
"My spirit is soaring today," you could be referring
to your dominant mental disposition or you could mean
that your whole being (i.e. what you are as a person)
is euphoric. Alternatively, when we read that God's
spirit empowered the ancient Israelite Judges or
caused 120 persons to speak in tongues. God also refers to his spirit in Genesis 6.