The Unbelieving Brain
by Dr. Benjamin Wiker
Professional skeptic Michael Shermer’s new book The Believing Brain is typical of the mind=brain, thoughts=chemistry genre. The approach is, of course, not new, but goes back to the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes who declared that all human thought was the result of a chain of mechanical reactions that begins in the sense organs, runs through the nerves, and finally makes its way “inwards to the Brain, and Heart.” Shermer’s book adds new ammunition from the latest neuroscience to this centuries old argument. If there is a great load of ammunition from the latest “brain science” supporting the materialist, reductionist position that our thoughts are merely neuro-chemistry, shouldn’t we give the palm of victory to the likes of Hobbes and Shermer?
No. And the reasons for it being “no” are inadvertently given by Shermer himself (as they were by Hobbes). The first reason is that every materialist argument about thoughts and beliefs being reducible to chemistry would itself be reducible to chemistry. There would no longer be truth as we understand it, just chemistry.
The second, related reason is that the materialist, reductionist position of Hobbes and Shermer is not the result of science; it is their starting point, their paradigm, their fundamental unquestioned belief that defines and determines their view of science.
Let’s look at Shermer’s argument and see how the materialist position undermines itself (and ultimately the existence of the very materialist who puts it forth).
“For a materialist such as myself,” declares Shermer, “there is no such thing as ‘mind.’ It ultimately reduces down to neurons firing and neurochemical transmitter substances flowing across synaptic gaps between neurons, combining in complex patterns to produce something we call mind but is actually just brain.” This account accords with what he calls “the principle of reductionism,” which Shermer declares “is such an integral part of science.”
Note. Shermer assumes the principle of reductionism. The reductionist assumption then determines what he means by science. Reductionism therefore declares that there is no such thing as mind, for the mind is the brain. And the brain, in Shermer’s words, “is a belief engine.”
A belief engine? Precisely. Just as Hobbes declared over four centuries ago, Shermer asserts that it all begins with sensory data flowing in. The brain “looks” for patterns in the data, but as it turns out, the brain seeks only what it wants to find. What it wants to find is caused by “subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological” factors derived from “the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large,” and of course, from the DNA handed to us by evolution—all of these determine how the circuitry of our brains are “wired” for particular beliefs…
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