Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Mind, the Brain and Intelligent Design

An Evolution News and Views blog entry entitled The Spiritual Brain: An Argument Against Materialism brings up an area of research that impacts consideration of Intelligent Design. Quotes from the linked article appear in red. My comments are in blue type.

"Canadian neuroscientist Mario Beauregard notes at the beginning of his book The Spiritual Brain, co-authored with journalist Denyse O’Leary, that he belongs to a small minority of nonmaterialist neuroscientists. He is upfront about the fact that he “went into neuroscience in part because [he] knew experientially that such things [religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences (RSME)] can indeed happen.” Driven by his curiosity about what is happening to the brain during RSME, Beauregard and his colleague studied the spiritual experiences of Carmelite nuns, coming to the conclusion that it is more likely that these mystics are directly experiencing a reality outside of themselves."

If Beauregard's view is correct then how is the case for Intelligent Design affected? One effect would be to strengthen the position that life itself resulted from an intelligently directed process. While science may not be able to empirically document a source of intelligence that pre-existed the advent of life on earth, empirical evidence favoring the view that the mind is not something reducible to brain matter makes increasingly plausible the view that advanced intelligence is not unique to humans.

"This response of taking the nuns and their spiritual experiences seriously is not the norm in neuroscience, to put it mildly. Here Dr. Beauregard, aided by O’Leary, offers a unique perspective. Unlike his materialist counterparts, his philosophy does not force him to reject, deny, explain away, or treat these religious experiences as problems simply because they deny materialism. The book contains an entertaining if disturbing look at the ridiculous explanation materialists must resort to when confronted with the Numinous, a serious problem for their monistic philosophy. Taking the reader through uninspired arguments such as the “God gene,” the “God spot” in the brain,” and the eminently mockable “God helmet,” The Spiritual Brain reviews current evolutionary explanations for RSMEs and finds them severely lacking."

The author correctly identifies a materialist bias in neuroscience that leads some to couch explanations strictly in terms of genes and evolution. Intelligent Design advocates likewise fight a materialist bias that discounts non-human intelligently directed processes a priori. But chinks to a materialist bias in one area would provide an expectation that similar phenomenon could be found outside neuroscience.

"The power of nonmaterialist neuroscience is not that it has answered these questions already, but that it frees the scientist to study the question at hand, opening doors for new investigations into how the mind works. The Spiritual Brain has the opposite effect of the many materialist screeds which attempt to explain religion. Rather than dulling curiosity with useless theories about God spots and God genes, Beauregard and O’Leary incite a hunger for more knowledge and excitement for the future of neuroscience research."

This is an ironic twist to an anti-ID cliche. It is sometimes said that ID is a science stopper. But that appears to be the role of explanations attributing complex neural activities to an evolutionary process. No doubt, specific genes are involved in particular neural phenomenon. However, existing studies pointing to genes and an evolutionary process tend to oversimplfy matters rather than aid our understanding.

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