In edited version. Perhaps you'll understand why I was tentative to send it out.
The Creationist's Atlas is being sent to scientists around the country.
Read about it here.
What is most troubling to me is that the general reaction isn't outrage or upset of any kind, it's "Well, we're used to this. It happens all the time." If we get used to people who think that intelligent design or creationism is valid, if we get used to people who invent invalid problems in the theory of evolution, if we don't fight against every single one of them, in a way, they win. The point is that the theory of evolution has corrolaries that are testable and have stood up to being tested, that we can see E. Coli evolving in jars, that there is no scientifically valid opposing theory. To say anything less than that - even if it is "People with certain religious views might not believe in the theory of Evolution and this is okay" - is just plain wrong, and for a scientist to accept the creationist view as something that isn't outrageous strikes me as, well, strikingly unscientific.
I don't really know how to explain my next point without probably offending a lot of my friends. I've purposely stayed away from talking about this side of neurobiology because I know it's contentious and when I have brought it up even with other atheist friends it has sometimes led to heated arguments. So maybe I should just stay away. But the segue is perfect and it's something I've been thinking about a lot. So, take this as a disclaimer: the following is my opinion, and I do not pretend to be an expert in neurophysiology. Also, even if I disagree with you, it doesn't mean I don't respect you as a person in every way possible. That being said, here goes nothing.
In what has become one of my favorite studies, (I should really find and read the paper), patients were wired up to a machine and told to wiggle their finger, basically, when they felt like it. The researchers saw something very interesting, because something like two hundred milliseconds before the subject moved their finger or decided to move their finger, every time the subject moved their finger, there was a specific impulse (called a readiness potential). However, the subject was not concious of any delay between when they willed moving their fingers and in fact moved their fingers; on the contrary, just as in normal life, one's decision to move his fingers happens nicely simultaneously with moving them - otherwise typing this blog post would be tediously slow.
In any case, it appeared that the biological determinant to moving one's finger happened two hundred milliseconds before the conscious choice to move one's finger. In other words, the decision to move the finger happened unconsciously (or perhaps subconsciously or aconsciously), before the conscious choice was made. Hence, the conscious choice to move one's finger could not have caused the motion. Instead, something else entirely had to be causing both the movement of the finger as well as the "conscious choice" to do so.
The way I look at it, there are a couple ways to interpret this study without simply throwing it out the window as faulty or ignoring it:
1) Since "conscious choice" cannot do what we think it does; it is an illusion and an artifact. In reality, our actions are caused by the sloshing about of chemicals in our brains, and we are, at base, automata. I think this is what Megan's boyfriend John believes, although I have not had a discussion with him so I am not certain.
2) Our idea of "conscious agency" is flawed, since the conscious choice does not determine the action. Instead, consciousness is a complex system designed to differentiate self from other - if an action is conscious, it was motivated by your self. If it is not conscious, it was motivated by some other. Hence, when I "consciously choose" to move my arm, it really is me - although it must be some deeper, unconscious me - that is moving my arm. However, when my arm moves because someone pulls on it, and I am not conscious of that choice, someone else is doing it. If my arm were ever to move without my "conscious choice" and without external impetus, something would be very wrong and I would go to see a doctor - which is an understandable safety mechanism for an organism. This is the view I espouse.
All of which is, I think, well and good and will offend few people, if any. The problem arises, mainly, from what I view as implications of this. The first, and most important, is the following: If consciousness does not cause our action, then it is unclear to me how our actions are different from the so-called instinctual actions of an animal. Indeed, a group of researchers recently looked at fly neurology when they were tethered, searching for "free will" in flies, and reports that even animals as distantly related to us as flies contain the ability to "be spontaneous" -- to take actions that are not direct, predictable responses to environmental stimuli (see a review here). If flies have a hard-wired spontaneity circuit in their brain, how much more likely is it that our "free will" is similar or identical to a homologous construct in the brains of mice, or cats, or dogs, or monkeys? Rats can be "altruistic" as I pointed out before in this blog. (Here is the link again, for those of you too lazy to confused to scroll down). I often get frustrated when watching the Discovery channel for anthropomorphising animals, but perhaps it is warranted. Maybe the same things that motivate us motivate them.
I have no problem owning my actions even if they cannot be described as "consciously willed." If the point of consciousness is to identify self versus other, then obviously the actions that are tagged as conscious are those that I chose to do - and conscious or not, it is still my organism. This is probably because I have, at base, absolutely no problem with a purely physical self. I am my atoms, I am my muscle and blood and bone etcetera etcetera etcetera, and that is all that I am. It is in some ways miraculous to me that consciousness could evolve, that neurons firing electrically could create the complex combination of sensory perceptions, emotions, and thoughts that I experience every day. That is wondrous and wonderful. It makes me almost giddy to think about. And, as it turns out, we are continually getting closer and closer to a point where we can begin to understand how that works. That is truly miraculous.
The problem, as I am sure some of you have realized by now, is that if the self is purely physical, there can be no soul. There is no "real" agency or free will. We're all animals, and the difference between myself and a chimp is even less than I ever thought it was.
Which brings me back to my initial point of the arguments about Evolution. I would love to argue that consciousness, and whatever it is that we have been referring to for so long as "the soul", evolved out of neuronal networks and the complex relations between them, that there is no bright line in the sand between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom and that in terms of consciousness and ensoulledness, there is a long continuum. However, that is a discussion that I simply cannot have. The evolution of physical traits is being questioned; if I cannot trust that my interlocutor agrees, at least, that evolution is the source for diversity in life on Earth, how can I even begin to talk to them about the new physical bases for consciousness, the revolution in neurophysiology?
Moreover, the idea of the duality between mind and body isn't just a religious notion. It is one that has inundated our thought for as long as western thought has been around, it seems. We are in the process of breaking that wall down. This is massive paradigm shift. This is a new world view. This is stuff on the level of "The earth revolves around the sun"!
It's the stuff scientists dream about. Or at least, scientists who have read Thomas Kuhn. The very way we look at the world around us is changing. The very kinds of questions that can be addressed are changing. The world is changing before our eyes.
And America is being left in the dust, because we cannot face down a bunch of idiots who still cling to creationism in the face of data; who still take pot shots at evolution because they aren't secure enough in their own humanity to not freak out at "being related to a monkey". Because they can't see that all living organisms are one part of the same thing, and that is more beautiful and miraculous than any special creation.
At least, in my opinion.
I hope you see why I've been editing and re-editing this post. I know, at base, that talking about the data that I've read about won't convince any religious person to abandon the notions of the soul and God. I don't honestly expect them/you to. I know that it's a personal thing, that it's Faith and the idea that His ways are not for us to comprehend. But I feel a little bit like I spend a lot of time toning down or holding in my views on stem cell research, abortion, ethics, and evolution because I know that at times they rankle my friends who disagree. And I guess this post is a resolution: I won't be offensive (or I'll try not to be offensive) and I will respect my friends, but that does not mean that I have to treat your beliefs with kid gloves, or stifle my own. I need to get over the fear of saying, point blank, "I disagree."