Friday, May 20, 2011

The Ghost Behind the Mask

If you say, show me your God, I should like to answer you, show me the man who is in you Theophilus of Antioch (A.D. 180)

Science has largely dispelled, in the common mind, the notion that the hand of God rather than blind natural forces are behind observable events such as thunder and lighting, so terrifying to the pre-moderns. The Ancients most commonly attributed such things as earthquakes to God’s wrath. We now understand plate tectonics and continental drift. The question ultimately becomes just where is God acting? Science, we might gather, looks throughout the universe and provides us with empirical answers for seemingly every question.

Thus with the explanatory power of science God no longer explains the world for us. God becomes relegated to a feeling or disposition, something merely personal. God is killed as an active agent in the world so to speak. Some are content with that conclusion and see belief as a dangerous myth. Let me say I don’t think they fully understand the implications. Science is making one surprising step further.

If science can demonstrate it kills God, then most surprisingly science kills “YOU” too. When I say “YOU” this is the commonly held understanding that the “ME” or self, we sense and of which are aware, is a certain concrete reality. Virtually everyone will argue to the contrary, that the “Me” they experience does indubitably exist. Modern brain science has put that assumption to question.


Fundamentally, science has made great strides in understanding brain function. What science has found are interworking parts rather than a unified whole. Science has mapped out the brain and different sections have various operations. There are areas for eye movement, voluntary motor functions, sensory areas, vision, and language comprehension, as well areas for higher mental functions, of course, and for smell and coordination.

Studies of the brain show it working something like a component system. For example damage to what is called the Broca area leads to loss of ability to use words properly. Those affected can use nouns but no verbs, when asked to describe a scene. On the other hand, damage in another related area of brain, Wernicke’s, allows for use of nouns and verbs and proper grammar and intonation but they have lost understanding and when they speak, it’s gibberish. The link between thought and language is lost. The Broca area is not damaged so they can speak with proper intonation and facial expression and such but the area that translates thought to words is broken, thus the nonsense.

Speaking is a very complex process: thoughts are meant to become words, then sounds, finally to become muscle movements to produce them as ordered by the motor area of the brain. Broca’s area controls speech but Wernicke’s area maintains comprehension, where thought translates to language. Language involves the working of several areas of the brain.

Another disease of the brain puts in question how much our imagined integrated SELF can truly control. Huntington disease destroys our ability to control facial expressions, resulting in abnormal involuntary writhing movements. It’s caused by the absence of production of a protein that results in damage in specific areas of the brain. This also calls into question outside brain chemistry, what exactly is the “YOU”?

A further example, the damage of connections from Limbic area, seat of emotions, to Frontal lobe can cause debilitating indecision; we’ve lost emotional guidance.

Most profoundly science sees no center of consciousness. That is Science can find no Inner theatre; no projection screen of the brain; there’s no tiny guy (homunculus) inside our heads as some ancients speculated in the past. And this analogy of the projection screen of the brain breaks down completely when considering sound, smells and touch. All these functions seemed to take place in diverse parts of the brain.

What we experience as consciousness is a very hard thing indeed to grasp. It’s not continuous. We seem to go in an out of consciousness throughout the day. Have you ever driven down the expressway and then realized you weren’t truly conscious of driving for a few seconds? Or maybe you were daydreaming. You were on auto pilot so to speak, as you drove down the road. When you sleep walk, and are unconscious yet alive, we can be zombie like. We sleep and lose consciousness, and yet we hold ourselves to be sentient beings.

Common sense tells us we have free will and we seem to censor our urges and reflect before we act. Science tells us part of our brain, the frontal lobe, does much to monitor our behavior. A classic example is an injury to the frontal lobe of the brain. Phineas Gage in the mid-1850s was injured in a railroad accident by an iron rod through the skull; his frontal lobe was damaged. He exhibited radical personality change. Formerly a model worker, he became irreverent, fitful, profane, impatient, and obstinate; a marked change from his former conscientious self. So despite claims we have a Self that commands us, science shows us that that Self is really a contraption, intermittently present, composed of many working parts.

The argument that we are products of a function brain seems compelling. We can use an illustration. If we destroy part of the automobile, the brakes for instance, an automobile fails to function properly; it can’t stop. The question becomes, apart from the working components, is there an automobile “spirit”, apart from functioning parts, that remains? Probably not we’d guess. Under this analysis the “YOU” appears to be a production of a functioning brain, when it stops working it disappears.

Of course it’s not really that simple. Flexibility of the brain, nonetheless, belies locality of brain function, the automobile parts model. If one area is damaged then the brain can train other areas to do the work. For example the Broca area of the brain, a language area, can actually retrain itself to use another area of brain to process language.

This raises all manner of questions. Who’s doing the retraining? Which part of the brain decides to retrain the other? Since for many scientists we are fully products of evolution, which adaptive mutation of which neuron, would have made this, since evolution needs to work on specific gene mutation. This is markedly different than the component model of the brain. No automobile can reprogram itself to change the functions of other parts.

Science seems to think it might find conscious “YOU” under such devices as MRI that detects various “brain states”. Brain states are detected by such devices as MRI. A particular area of brain will “light up” denoting various brain states, operations of the brain such as speech, hearing, etc. Some scientists say they have even found “God” in these brain states. Distinct areas vividly light up in the brains of nuns and monks, during what might be reported as otherworldly episodes. But a connection between a particular thought and recorded brain activity has not been established.

Is the science on brain function and consciousness settled? No, but the underlying premise, just as is the notion that science dispels God, remains that science is the tool we use to discover ultimate answers, not observable events.

In other words, “all knowing” Science hasn’t found what is commonly known as consciousness. The presumption is that it just doesn’t exist as a separate entity.

In other words where is that integrated personal reality you commonly understand as “ YOU”? Science can’t seem to find it. Science concludes it doesn’t exist or only as an illusion. Frankly, I prefer not to draw that conclusion.

The Turing Test, named after the scientist who conceived it, aims to prove there might not be any difference between you and a computer. The effort is to make a computer sufficiently responsive to inquiries such that a normal human being couldn’t tell the difference between the computer and a human response. The conclusion that’s meant to be drawn once again is that our mental processes are no different than a machine’s.

Steve Speilberg’s movie Artificial Intelligence showed us how sophisticated robots might take on human characteristics. The obverse view is implied as well, that humans are simply electro-mechanical evolutionary generated biological robots.

The prowess of computing was demonstrated with IBM’s Big Blue defeating Kasparov, the chess master. Another that is about to challenge champions from the trivia game show, Jeopardy. And in this writing we find out that Watson, the IBM computers, indeed beat the unbeatable human champion, who had been victorious in more than 200 straight wins on the show.

What does it meant, when your SELF only exits as a mistaken illusion? One scientist puts it: just as they once believed in witches, captive to demonic spirits, who needed to be burned, we can no longer believe in a dualistic partition of the brain: a “Me” and my body. Mental processes that lead us to believe we have a SELF are as mistaken as fairies and witches and such.

And carried to its logical conclusion, just as in the case of the denial of the existence of God, if it can’t be demonstrated scientifically, then that YOU, common sense seems to tell you exits, simply doesn’t exist or exists simply as a part of a functioning apparatus like any machine like an automobile for example.

And science will tell us that we can’t always rely on what common sense tells me; the earth looks flat, but science demonstrates otherwise. Integrated consciousness is an illusion; just as there’s no evil spirits causing the schizophrenic to act crazy.

Science’s most profound challenge remains; how can immaterial, “YOU”, cause things to happen in your body, that are demonstrated to be a function of brain chemistry? For example when I, the integrated “ME”, desires to raise my arm, how does that lead to my arm raising? The YOU outside of brain states and neural electro-chemistry is scientifically very illusive.


Death of “YOU” does it matter? The prospect of human dignity being degraded to a zombie or computer-like status should alarm you. Ideas are powerful. The construction of the socialist utopia, in Russia and China, was based on the idea that nothing existed beyond the material world. Socialist man was a composition entirely material and whose consciousness was extinguished upon death. The demise of a few, or as it turned out countless millions, in the construction of a socialist paradise was considered expedient, in contrast to the grand socialist society that was being scientifically engineered. Enemies of the State were simply eliminated not murdered. Their suffering and death was not a crime against any innate human dignity. The shining results of a modern society would speak for themselves.

Much could be said in the same vein about the NAZI’s idea of man and his place in the Germanic Folk, and the absence of value of those outside their group. Society was defined by its people’s evolutionary struggle, not individual worthiness.

Conclusion: in regards of the heroic, the sainted, and the caregivers: science has little to offer in explanation. I believe in them.

Science ultimately can only offer questions. The singularity of the Big Bang, which is the incredible idea the entire universe, arose from an infinitesimally tiny speck spontaneously. This belies the given assumption that the cause of the effect must be greater than the effect. A whole universe can’t arise out of nothing unless we believe pink rabbits can suddenly appear on our office desk like magic. What is the ultimate cause and purpose of the universe? Science can only throw up its hands and offer silly multiple universe scenarios.

Or consider the astounding world of quantum universe, more like Alice in Wonderland with its maze of virtual particles and “spooky” action at a distance. “Action at a distance” is the fantastic circumstance where two photons or electrons, initially linked at the atomic level, will act in complementarity no matter how distant from each other, violating the “laws of physics”, if you will. This behavior has been proven by rock solid experimental science; Einstein spent the last several decades of his life trying to disprove this phenomenon without success.

Science futilely grasps at the fundamentals, the Ultimate Ground, but ground continues to move farther away with each discovery. Great effort and billions of dollars are being expended to locate the Fundamental substance. An explanation for the zoo of sub-atomic particles has been devised with quarks and such, yet there’s no end in sight to arrive at the scientific Shangri-la of this fundamental substance; the pre-Socratic philosophers, more than 2500 years ago, thought the fundamental elements were earth, fire, water and air, silly fools not having any understanding of sub-atomic particle psychics like we do. The funny thing is: Science is still looking for that fundamental substance.

I believe a Jewish Rabbi who was One with God rose from the dead two thousand years ago. Revivifying a corpse is a whole lot more plausible than believing there’s trillions of other worlds out “there” one of which just popped into existence… puff! as current science purports.

Truth is revelation. And this revealed story reconciles our fallen world with eternity. I believe in an Other World; it’s a spiritual realm ordered by God, but I don’t need science to prove it. I have the testimony of the Saints and my God given reason to convince me.

How will I be convinced to behave more humanely to my fellow man by theories that deny our fundamental value? Only when values are based on the existence of a Loving Supreme Being whose creation is deemed good, and who created an individual in His likeness, flawed but with dignity and inner worth.

Science gives us no ultimate answers as I’ve stated previously. As to what is happening in the brain, I would hazard to guess its much more like a quantum event than any digital computer would be. Under quantum physics a tree falling in the woods doesn’t make a sound unless there’s someone to hear it; only when it’s observed does the quantum wave function “collapse” and become observable.

I’m guessing that the immaterial “YOU” participates in a quantum event at the level of the brain synapse. This is no more mysterious than a universe that pops into existence or quantum’s “spooky action” at a distance: two particles inexplicably connected to each other. This is how the spirit can “move” the body.

Nonetheless, the story of faith is not meant to explain the observable universe but to provide a framework or context to explain the mystery of life and how we are to act in it and act towards others. Just because science provides many answers about the world around us doesn’t give it authority to provide the story.