Monday, July 27, 2009

An interesting article

Scripts are running, and although this afternoon is "Bench Organization Time (TM)", for the present I'm just waiting for results to filter through the server (hurry, computer, hurry!). Which means checking on the progress (line 1277 of 4648) rather obsessively, and reading NYTimes articles on teh intarwebs.

And I found Sam Harris' critique of Obama's nomination of Francis Collins as head of the NIH very interesting, which got me thinking about something sort of tangentially related. (Find it here -- he says it much better than I could.)

The basic gist: Collins is a wonderful choice because he has found an intersection between devout faith and modern science, but his belief that people are endowed with an immortal soul/moral law which can never and will never be explained or explainable by science is at odds with recent advances in neuroscience.

There's a bit of Ivan Karamazov there, too: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil.” (Which is a discussion for another time...)

It's interesting to me because what is being argued is not, in fact, whether it is possible to do good (great, brilliant, world-changing) research while holding these views. Because that would be an incredibly stupid argument. It is self-evident and obvious that it is entirely possible to do good (great, brilliant, world-changing) research, in biomedical fields, while holding these views. Period. The question that is being asked, instead, is whether or not there exists worthwhile biomedical research that is inherently counter to these views, and as such, whether such views are desirable in someone who will be controlling the direction of a huge portion of the funding for biomedical research not simply in the United States but worldwide.

And so the question becomes: are we capable of addressing the development of and action of the human mind, the sense of ethics, and altruism in a molecular scientific fashion, in an evolutionary fashion, and in a fashion which (here's where I might step on some toes) abnegates the hand-of-God in the origin and continued existence of said characters? (And second, will Collins' belief that such questions are unanswerable without the hand of God effect his decisions on which research to support?, but that's not particularly interesting on a philosophical level.)

I would posit that at this point in time, the question 'Can we come to an understanding of the human mind through molecular, and evolutionary, means?' can no longer simply be answered 'no'. Advances in brain imaging techniques, in our understanding of neurological signals and circuitry, in our understanding of cellular memory and feedback mechanisms, in computation, and in many other fields have combined to allow us to study the mind, and model the mind, with heretofore impossible capacity.

An example to illustrate the point: there is an artificial brain that is being built in a supercomputer (my mother pointed me to a description here). The idea that we could build, out of purely material things, a human brain, would have seemed patently ridiculous (to the point of being horrifying) to most people at most times. (To the point that one character describes building a mind out of aluminum cans in Stoppard's "Rock And Roll", to the eventual point that for her there has to be something more, not that that's particularly relevant, but still.) However, here they are, trying to build a mind out of transistors and wires and circuits. And to those of you who think that this is just a brain, and not a mind, the last line is particularly relevant: "Is it really possible to put a ghost into a machine? "When I say everything, I mean everything," he says, and a mischievous smile spreads across his face."

For a more molecular/cellular/basic scientist (as opposed to engineer?) approach to it, I would suggest reading just about anything by V.S. Ramachandran. But there are tons of neuroscience books for laypeople that are being published, which is evidence in and of itself that neuroscience is going through a rather significant paradigm shift at the moment.

In the end, no one is going to prove (or disprove) the existence of God. Even evidence for a center in the brain that, when activated in epileptic patients, causes intense religious/spiritual experiences, is neither proof of nor evidence against Him. And I think that Ramachandran also rings a bell when he says (in this interview) that science enriches the spiritual experience and spirituality enriches the scientific experience. But spirituality, in my mind, is not any given formalized religion.

Which is I think where the concern about Collins comes in. What it comes down to is, basically, that any specific line you draw in the sand to corroborate a strict religious tradition with science will, eventually, be torn down. Galileo did that, Darwin did that, and many others along the way. And so whenever someone draws a line in the sand, and says "Science can explain this, and this, and all of this, but not that, because that is special," it raises a red flag. Instead, it seems easier, and truer, to say that there will always be mystery in the world, and spirituality and science will always offer ways of understanding, and investigating, that mystery.


I find this article from nature interesting in a similar way. I find the conclusion nicely worded -- "Perhaps it just takes a rare person to advance a scientific career while balancing belief and bioscience — without corrupting either." It's not impossible, just difficult to balance?


Ryan said...

I find it odd that people find such specific things to draw those lines in the sand about. We (and, in particular, the exclusive we of non-scientists) have no idea what science may/will be able to explain in the future, and why wouldn't we expect there to be a scientific account of how/why most things happen?

It's interesting to contrast the current sentiments on the topic with the ancient Jewish wisdom tradition, which insisted that there was a consistent, rule-based way that the universe works. It wasn't scientific in modern terms, but the idea was that God created a consistent world, and though of course he can intervene in it in particular instances, almost all of the time things happen according to the patterns he created. (Some of the documents from the Bible are written in this wisdom tradition.) To say that something is necessarily beyond the ability of science to explain (in whatever way science explains things) would be antithetical to this. Though not everyone, or all Jews/Christians, have to agree with this particular tradition. But I think it's nicely consistent with the Judeo-Christianly prevalent idea that God created out of chaos (and into some order).

Of course, there's always the possibility that an individual person has a specific worldview and way of understanding that can be messed with by science, and this can create pretty negative effects for that individual. And those individuals can feel like everything that forms the fundament of how they look at the world is stripped away, sometimes. But this happens to religious, non-religious and spiritual-but-not-religious types alike, and probably to some scientists as well, who may cling to a paradigm that ultimately gets shown to be wrong or inferior. And in these cases, most of the other things that person thinks are probably pretty workable within the newer scientific framework.

But the religious person, in assuming to be able to account for all of the things that science can explain and delimit other things that it cannot, seems to take on a God-like knowledge of how the world works, or at least a God-like outline of what is 'explainable by science' and what isn't. This makes little sense to me, as well, and is pretty inconsistent with the biblical witness about the limits of human understanding. (Which might be what the religious detractors from science are leaning on in their position, as well--but they make the mistake of thinking they know specifics about what it is we can and cannot know.)

But as for the God-and-science thing, I really don't think theological views need get in the way of earnest and in-depth scientific inquiry, even on things like a physical account of our sense of ethics. The way I see it, if God created us, he created us whether out of mud a la Genesis or whether that story is a metaphor and we really evolved--God still put all that in place for the evolution to happen. Similarly, if God is in some sense the origin of a sense of ethics, that could happen either by a sort of direct implantation of 'ethics' into our minds, or it could happen by God's creating a mechanism to produce a particular result, the process of which can be scientifically explained. Either way, God can be seen as behind it, and there's no reason I can see to hinder scientific inquiry.

Of course, Collins might think he has particular answers to some questions, and so might find other avenues of research more worthwhile--but, short of his barring funding altogether from the avenues he disprefers, how is that different from anyone else, who will be more sympathetic to some research projects than others?

Elizabeth said...

Ryan -- I agree with just about all of your points, which is why I tried to focus on a question of why any line in the sand is problematic as a world-view, instead of why or why not Collins in particular will do a good job. You are entirely right to say that every director of the NIH will be acting on a personal, as well as an administrational and a scientific agenda. There are a lot of issues tied up in that, centered around the question of what the director of the NIH's job is really supposed to be (foster all research? Direct research to worthwhile avenues? Stamp down on unethical research? Each one of these is problematic in its own way).

I also like the wisdom tradition you reference. Sometimes it feels like ideas in that line are painfully new-age spiritual back-bending; they're twisting the religion until it fits with a 'modern world'. On the other hand, I suppose it's possible (likely?) that most new-age mumbo jumbo starts with contextless ancient beliefs and rituals. Dunno where that line of thought is going.