A recent (6-17-13) piece by David Brooks in the NYTimes captures some of the reductive thinking among leading scientists as well as the reservations many observers have about the prominence of neuroscience.
Here's the rub: laypeople like me (and Brooks) find something disturbing in what we pick up in our reading: the belief of many scientists that understanding the brain is the key to all wisdom about who we are as people. Exciting and important as neuroscience is, it, too, has its limits.
Extremism pops up in every field. In the world of neuroscience, apparently, it is commonplace to conclude that human beings are nothing but neurons and that, once we understand the brain fully, we will see that all behaviors like addictions are merely brain diseases. We will, as Brooks says, deny that human beings have free will: our actions are caused by material processes, and so neurobiology will replace psychology and philosophy. (He is reacting to a recent book by Satel and Lilienfeld, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, a title that suggests its own agenda.)
The key point, as Brooks wisely responds, is that the brain is not the mind. Can we understand our desires, hopes, dreams and feelings by studying brain activity? I don't think so. The mind, according to my dictionary, is hard to define: it is a combination of "cognitive faculties," i.e., consciousness, perception, reason, memory, and judgment; it is what allows us to have self-awareness. Its depths are immeasurable, as anyone who has explored poetry, art or music knows. The brain is the physical driving force of something that involves the non-material, and the connection between mind and body may never be fully understood.
This indeterminacy makes many nervous, but it need not if you have a broad, spiritual perspective that is open, as Einstein ways, to mystery.
Brooks objects, rightly, to those scientists who reduce the complexity of human existence to measurable, quantifiable elements. No wonder there have been books by Richard Dawkins and others attacking the idea of God as idiotic since, as the Victorians thought they had discovered, science has all the answers. Freedom is an illusion; everything has a material explanation.
This is an old battle that was fought throughout the 20th century; yet many battles, like civil wars, never really end.
I recall a statement by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner more than thirty years ago: "The goal of science is the destruction of mystery." How sad, I thought, to want to destroy the mystery and wonder of nature and the cosmos. The point that Teilhard de Chardin and others since his time have tried to do is reconcile the mystical and the scientific while holding on to the essential mystery in creation.
This brings me back to God. Mark O'Connell in Slate (6-7-13) goes after Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and the approach of other New Atheists in having the narrowest understanding of religious experience, as if they never read William James, much less Thomas Aquinas; they have such a mindset because they follow an ideology that says that science is the only legitimate approach to the truth.
O'Connell discusses the work of Curtis White, not a theist, but a thinker opposed to "scientism." He believes that the demotion of the humanities (now less and less popular in many universities) is a demotion of humanity. Students can bypass philosophy, poetry, fiction, art--all those "soft" fields that can't produce quantifiable data.
White is correct is being concerned by the approach of neuroscience, which sees personhood and consciousness as things that can be mapped, explained in terms of "wiring." The mind is not a computer. It will always be, in the words of Hopkins, "no-man-fathomed." This is not to say that we have no more to learn from neuroscience or any other science, only that extremism in intellectual circles is as dangerous as fundamentalism in religion.
And to those who say, simplistically, that religion has been the cause of more harm in history than good, White counters by reminding readers not to ignore the role that rationality has played in human suffering.
It does not seem that the New Atheists have anything new to say except that religion and spirituality are for dummies since science has all the answers. It sad to see in the academic world that this kind of fundamentalism in science, or scientism, has taken the place of philosophy, theology, and the humanities.
(I have noted with pleasure in recent weeks, in reading the biographies of several prominent younger judges and government officials, how many of them majored in English, which remains at the core of a liberal education.)
Let us hope that some of our liberal arts colleges live up to their mission and feed the souls of their students as well as their minds, reminding them of the limits of scientific facts and the role of wonder at the mystery of life.