“Brain Wars” and Heresy May 3, 2012Posted 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.