Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reductive Materialism in the Crosshairs

I had a lot to choose from to write on this evening.  First, I was tempted to write on the benefits of humor, then there was the lesson on civility (or lack thereof) we might all learn from an Amtrak passenger named Lakeysha Beard, or my letter to the latest misguided spiritual prognosticator, Harold Camping, but I finally decided to pursue a more cerebral discussion this evening.

I'm nearly done with two books I'm reading, more or less, simultaneously: Dinesh D'Souza's Life After Death, The Evidence and Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven.  In case you think this reading strategy is a strange habit, I'd probably have to agree.  I'd also have to disclose, though, that there are other books, too.  I think a good rule for me is to avoid picking-up a new book until I've finished two--but I digress.

I've already mentioned Bernd Heinrich's fine book in an earlier blog entry titled "The Cougar and The Raven...and Science," so I need to preface tonight's comments by sharing some thoughts on Dinish D'Souza's book.  First, I have to admit I had perhaps unrealistically high hopes with regards to this book when I began reading, but I still have greatly enjoyed it.  As someone who has helped save a life, it was my hope that this book would address some areas with a bit more depth--life after death accounts, for instance.  Its strength is really the distillation of complex concepts and beliefs into much more easily understood terms; he simplifies things to a point that most anyone can grasp where he's going fairly easily.  Strangely enough, an argument might be made that this is also perhaps one of the book's weaknesses.

That is, there's a tendency within the book towards over simplification at times.  This bothered me less, though, than the author's repeated paraphrasing of his opponents' positions, sometimes coming fairly close to the debater's error referred to as the "straw man argument."  That is, he seems to articulate his opponents' in such a way that they are more easily refuted.  While I agree with his arguments for the most part, I think it might have been better to include more text quoted from his opponents.  Still, in all fairness, perhaps it's not easy obtaining permissions in these circumstances?

At any rate, both books are very good.  It just so happened as I began reading this evening that an intriguing thing happened.  I realized that both books (on entirely different subjects) were discussing the source and nature of human consciousness.  D'Souza's book was discussing it in terms of suggesting that one's brain and one's mind cannot be the same, and that our consciousness rests in the more mysterious mind, separate from the biological neuron network of our brains.  This powerfully illustrates one dimension of the fallacy of reductive materialism.  That is, the reductive materialist says everything can be explained by breaking it down to component parts, taking it apart.  Of course, we can stare all day at someone's brain, and that's not going to give us any insight into his thoughts or mental state.

From the philosophical perspective, Mind of the Raven takes the reader on a more biologically-centered journey.  The author's position is that consciousness is simply an evolutionary outgrowth required for intelligent living beings to make decisions.  His emphasis is on consciousness as simply necessary to enable the animal to test different courses of action in its mind before choosing one action over the other.  For example, raven behavior is often very complicated, posing a challenge to those trying to decipher the birds' choices--e.g. to cache food, or not, or to bond with predators such as wolves in the creation of unlikely alliances.

While I wouldn't describe the latter author as a reductive materialist, he certainly seems uninclined to recognize the deeper meaning of what he has spent his life studying.  Ravens, after all, mate for life, demonstrate great care in the raising of their young, and display a level of intelligence in play and work hard to reconcile with simple evolution.  Hawks are wonderful hunters, for instance, but the raven's brain is far superior.  Has this made it a better hunter than the hawk?  Not necessarily.  

This also touches on the false idea many of us may have heard in our youth concerning the supposed inability of animals to really feel pain or emotion.  We're not engaging in anthropomorphic fancies to reject this simplistic view of God's creation.  

In short, our very consciousness and awareness of who and what we are testifies to the glory of God just as do the other marvelous works of His creation--spiders excluded, of course. 

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