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“Brain Wars” and Heresy May 3, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations, Religion & Theology.

I just finished reading a fascinating new book, Brain Wars, by Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the University of Montreal who has studied the distinctions between mind, brain, and consciousness for almost 30 years. Brain Wars is a careful and comprehensive examination of the state of scientific research in all subjects related to the mind and to consciousness (rather than “merely” the brain). To anyone who approaches Beauregard’s topic with an open mind, Brain Wars is enlightening and exciting.

Ah, but that “open mind”! That is something else again. Early in Brain Wars, Dr. Beauregard lists the three unquestioned and therefore unquestionable axioms of modern science:

  • Only matter and energy exist. Science is not only forbidden to consider that anything other than matter and energy exists; it may not consider even the possibility that something more exists. Life, consciousness, sentience, and the human senses of purpose and meaning are all accidents. If a concept cannot be explained through the laws of physics, it does not exist. (Physicalism)
  • Any complex system is nothing more than the sum of its smaller components. Dissection is the only acceptable technique of scientific inquiry. Any scientific inquiry that fails to limit itself to reductio ad infinitum is by definition fraud, crackpot, or fundamentally malignant. When you see words and phrases like “nothing more than,” “merely,” “simply,” “just,” or “little but,” you can see the reductionist mindset at work. (Reductionism)
  • Reality exists independent of the observer, and to hell with Heisenberg and anyone who thinks Heisenberg had a point. Quantum mechanics? Pshaw! Scientists may only consider empirically verifiable facts and may use only the scientific method. (Objectivism)

(Let us refer to these sacred axioms of modern science, Physicalism, Reductionism, and Objectivism, as PRO. Let us remark in passing that without PRO, you would not be reading these words; without PRO, we’d still be stuck in 1600 or so. Which, the glories of the Elizabethan era aside, may not be anyone’s favorite era of cultural development.)

A blogger named P.Z. Myers (a self-avowed “godless liberal” who according to Wikipedia is “widely regarded as a confrontationalist”), read a partial excerpt of one chapter of Brain Wars online and instantly proclaimed the entire book “nonsense,” “tripe,” “baffling piffle,” “unsupportable fantasies,” “very silly,” and “full of woo”; this is only to be expected, said Myers, since an earlier scientific text by Dr. Beauregard is “one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived, books I’ve ever read.” (That is one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived sentences I’ve read in months!)

In other words: Not having read either the current book or any of the meticulously structured and conducted research that Brain Wars summarizes, cephalopod researcher P.Z. Myers condemned both the book and its author with full-throated loathing. All scientific research of which this priest of PROism disapproves is reduced to nothing more than “feeble anecdotes” based on “flawed reasonings,” “confabulation,” and “confirmation bias.”

Apparently unprepared to receive an online assault made within moments of the publication of his new book, Dr. Beauregard made the mistake of responding to Myers’s attack in kind. His proofs that Myers had assailed the new book without actually reading it, or any of the dozens of research studies it reviews, were fine; his repetition-with-enlargement of his original point, obfuscated by Myers, was acceptable. BUT, Beauregard made the huge mistake of responding to Myers’s ad hominem attacks on Beauregard with similar ad hominem attacks on Myers. (It does not help Beauregard’s cause that English appears to be his second language, or that Beauregard’s feelings appear to have been hurt by Myers’s ad hominem viciousness.)

Responding to flung poop with poop-flinging was a bad mistake. To coin a phrase, “You can’t use Rush to flush Rush.” My advice to authors who receive knee-jerk attacks from jerks with knees: Pretend your attacker is your most fervent admirer. “I am so happy that blogger P.Z. Myers considers me an incompetent idiot,” Beauregard ought to have written. “I am even happier that the committees that confer major international awards in my speciality, such as the Joel F. Lubar Award for distinguished achievement in neurotherapy, all disagree with Dr. Myers. I am sure that Dr. Myers is highly qualified to teach introductory biology to college freshmen in his small town in Minnesota. And he writes a cute little blog, too! If only *I* could squeeze in the time to write a blog! — but my num­ber­less peer-reviewed research studies keep taking up my time. In future years I will look forward to seeing whether Dr. Myers shows himself capable of publishing at my level. His blog, Pharyngula, is certainly full of interesting information on zebrafish and ceph­a­lo­pods, and I know that much of it must be factual.”

Naturally, Myers reacted to Beauregard’s clumsy attempt to give Myers a taste of his own medicine as positive proof that every word Myers has ever published is God’s sacred truth and every word that Beauregard has ever published is “unaware of [the] basic concepts of science.” Myers’s second attack on Brain Wars — which Myers still appears not to have read — is even more savage and even less founded on the scientific rationality that Myers claims to prize.

Beauregard’s second mistake was trying to defend his work for what it is, a comprehensive review of up-to-date scientific research, when P.Z. Myers’s attacks have been on the heresy Beauregard displays toward Myers’s religion.

Yes; I said it; P.Z. Myers is not in fact a “godless liberal.” P.Z. Myers is a high priest of scientific orthodoxy, a Torquemada of Truthiness, a “Joey the Rat” Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith in Orthodox PROism. The real scientists are the real seekers of truth; anyone who even wonders whether a distinction can be made between brain and mind is a heretic. Evil. A “charlatan” with “some very, very strange beliefs.”

Most religious believers appear to consider atheism a belief system comparable to a religion. This is absurd, rather like considering abstinence a form of sexuality, or refraining from drinking alcohol a form of drunkenness.

But consider what happens to a scientist who offends against the religion of “PRO”: attacks on the scientist’s methodology, reasoning, past work, and character. Being informed by the scientific es­tab­lish­ment what research is fit to be pursued and what research “contra­dicts the laws of nature.” Having discoveries suppressed, mocked, dismissed, or explained away. Being accused of sloppiness, fraud, mental illness, incompetence, foolishness, and ideological bias. Being ridiculed. “All too often,” says Rochus Boerner, “scientific truth is determined by the authority of experts and textbooks, not by logic and reason.”

I consider myself a “freelance theologian,” although probably “phil­os­opher of religion” would be more accurate. Although I contribute my time, talent, and treasure to the Christian denomination I joined when I married my Christian husband, and although I follow the real-world teacher of wisdom on whom the myth of Jesus is based, I no longer follow Paul of Tarsus. “Christians” who preach hate, judgment, con­dem­na­tion, and exclusion in the holy name of Jesus would no doubt consider me an atheist.

I mention this not because I consider myself a great big huge expert on God: You know exactly as much about God as I do and as anyone else in the world does, virtually nothing. I mention it because I see the words of religious believers every day of the week, and many times on Sundays. Brain Wars is a comprehensive and impartial review of where modern science stands on issues that True Believers con­sider crackpottery: spiritual belief, hypnotism, mysticism, near-death experiences, telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. The attacks on Brain Wars leveled by P.Z. Myers are religious anathema at its finest: “Die, heretic, die!”

Solely because P.Z. Myers declared The Spiritual Brain to be the “worst,” most incompetent, most idiotic book he had ever read, I rushed right over to Amazon and bought a copy. In hardcover. If the Torquemada of Truthiness hates it that much, the book must be chock-full of insights that scare the priesthood of PRO silly.


1. woody - May 3, 2012

I guess P.Z.hit a nerve. I have not read “Brain Wars” but will soon. I have read Myers blog and find it , ummm, interesting. and I do know as much about god as you, which is also nothing. Bring a atheist that works for me. Until I read the book I will refrain from comment about it’s content. But, and this is a BIG but, as a mere biologist who until retirement taught biology at a small private college, I urge restraint on the sarcastic lumping of all of us into one very small room. Some of us actually do have an intellect in addition to a passion for teaching undergrads.

Mary W. Matthews - May 4, 2012

“Woody’s World” is fascinating! (I think there’s no groundswell of outrage at the dumbing-down of modern society because we’ve already been dumbed down so far no one knows what a groundswell is any more!) (Ah, yes, the famous flash mob of outrage….)

I used to be an atheist, until I realized it wasn’t the concept of Ultimate Reality I objected to (that which “contains” the proton so the electron can whirl around it), it’s the angry old white man with a long white beard who lives in the sky, except for when he’s putting on a man-suit to be Jesus, and who loves you so passionately he’ll condemn you to ETERNAL agony for not saying “Jesus is Lord” — even if you’re a 5-year-old African or Eskimo who never even heard the word “Jesus,” and especially if, like me, you DON’T believe that “Jesus is Lord.” I believe in a force or state of existence that humans call the Tao, or Cosmic Consciousness, or the Divine Matrix, or Ultimate Reality, or possibly Higgs-Boson, but I believe in the “Christian” version of God as much as I believe that “Bambi” was a documentary.

I spent seven years as director of publications at a prep school for the daughters of the wealthy. There is no one I admire more than someone who chooses to teach undergrads, rather than seeing the calling as a stepping-stone to something “better.” (Myself, I’m in the “once is enough” school of crappy teachers. “You don’t remember what I said once in the second 15 minutes of day 2? Tough!”) I was trying to be snotty in my imagined response to P.K. Myers because I perceived P.K. Myers as having been supremely, Sheldon-Cooper-level snotty to Mario Beauregard, but poor Mario doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to defend himself. (You’d think after umpty-ump decades of being attacked by materialists he’d GET a clue!) I had a crack in my first draft about how young Myers is, but he’s 55. (Which is entirely too flipping young, any more, but HE might not see it that way. Yet.) He writes as if he’s mentally about 15, which probably means only that he spends more time in the classroom than with age-peers.

But really — not just nasty but hyperbolically nasty, to an expert on neuroscience about a book on neuroscience, from a blogger in a totally unrelated field who almost certainly didn’t bother to read more than the excerpt he attacked. That’s as severe a case of Sheldon Cooper-itis as I’ve encountered off the TV screen. In my lay opinion, P.K. Myers’s attacks on Beauregard represent a theologian defending his religion, NOT a scientist who is open to testing and if necessary discarding or adapting hypotheses.

2. woody - May 8, 2012

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Addressing your first paragraph, I would just say if you think “Woody’s World” (the blog) is fascinating, you should live in my head. That is really a trip!!!
Second, I began life as a believer, no choice really and gradually came to see that reality and science trumped mystical rubbish. It was a hard thing to let go of, though, and in some company I still revert to some mild subterfuges to avoid the inevitable confrontations when someone asks “and what church to YOU go to?” as if were there business anyway. You know the “Well, I am not a Christian, so I don’t actually go to a church.” Usually followed by an “Oh” and they suddenly get interested in someone across the room. Every time I see “Jesus is Lord” on a business I say out loud “not mine”, and drive on by. I figure they don’t want my business or my type in their space.
I once flirted with the idea of joining a “secularist” group to find some like-minded folks, but was really turned off by the militancy of “NO, don’t let them say prayers at the Thanksgiving table. Tell them it offends you!!” and such. In fact I cannot demonstrate the non-existence of any kind of god, so I don’t feel particularly good radically denying any of them. Personally, I am as sure as I can be about anything that the entire universe and all in it are natural and can be explained and understood rationally. No deus ex machina needed. I also doubt that we will last long enough to prove it.
Mary, keep on with your wonderful and thoughtful essays. I look forward to reading them, and, as you know occasionally responding. Would be nice to do that over a cup of coffee in a nice quiet shop somewhere, but cyberspace will work. Have a great day/week/year/life. Woody.

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