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?