Universal Humanity, Religious Particularity, and Scientific Reductionism

What makes a human a human? It's the fundamental three part relationship of self, world, and God. Unfortunately, some scientists and philosophers want to take away the self and God, leaving only the world. Yuck!

An explanatory gap has opened up between human consciousness, mind, and selfhood, on the one hand, and materialist attempts to reduce all scientific explanations to physical and chemical causation, on the other hand. This is the complaint raised by Ted Peters' chapter, "Universal Humanity, Religious Particularity, and Scientific Reductionism," in a comprehensive new textbook on human nature edited by the distinguished presidential medal winning scientist, Francisco J. Ayala and colleagues, On Human Nature: Biology, Psychology, Ethics, Politics, and Religion.

Those who wish to wish away self and God are called reductionists, because they reduce self and God to the material world. Contemporary reductionists in three fields--neurophilosophy, sociobiology, and Big History--are looking for the underlying unity of human experience not in the transcendental claims of spiritual seers, but rather in the human brain produced by allegedly material evolution alone.

First, the neurophilosophers and their friends, the neuropsychologists. Brain scientists who actually do the laboratory research tend not to be reductionistic; they simply investigate how the human brain works. But, philosophers and psychologists who borrow the results of neuroscientists for their own purposes tend to reduce the mind to the brain to startle the public. The mind is only the brain, they contend. This means that no human self exists, at least a self with a mind who deliberates, makes decisions, and acts freely. Rather, what we experience as a self acting freely is a delusion created by the neuronal firings in our physical brain.

One of the mantras repeatedly chanted by those who meditate on advances in neuroscientific research is this: the brain-as-automatic-pilot has taken care of matters even before we become aware of it. Or, to say it another way: the brain is the hardware and the mind is the software. Or, to say it still another way, the mind is indistinguishable from the brain.

"The mind is the brain,” is what we hear neurophilosophers saying. What such a philosopher has done prematurely is to fill in a gap, an explanatory gap not yet bridged by actual laboratory research. What appears to be non-material, our mind, is actually material after all. Thus speaketh the materialist reductionist.

Back in the laboratory, brain researchers confront an explanatory gap between what we experience subjectively in consciousness and materialist attempts to explain this experience. No matter how deeply we probe into the physical structure of neurons and the chemical transactions which occur when they fire, no matter how much objective information we come to acquire, we still seem to be left with something that we cannot explain, namely, why and how such-and-such objective, physical changes, whatever they might be, generate so-and-so subjective feeling, or any subjective feeling at all, according to Michael Tye writing on "Qualia" for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rather than simply admit that science cannot explain the human mind or self, too many neurophilosophers rush in to fill the gap with materialist assumptions. They contend that objective explanations will eventually reduce subjective experience to that of a delusion.

Non-reductionists respond with cautious demure. While not denying the influence of the brain on the mind, objectors contend that the mind is not reducible to the brain. Experience may arise from the physical, but it is not entailed by the physical. What you and I experience on an everyday basis is that each of us is a self with a mind who deliberates, evaluates, makes decisions, and takes free actions. The task of neuroscience should be to explain this, not explain it away.

Turning to the sociobiologists, secondly, the human self is similarly non-existent. The self is a delusion fopped off on consciousness to persuade us to make babies. The central dogma of sociobiology and its heirs such as evolutionary psychology is that reproductive fitness--making lots of babies--is the genome's way of making replicas of itself over evolutionary time.

The genes, according to sociobiologists, have led the human brain to invent belief in gods as a way of persuading human families to make more babies that will carry on their parents' genomes. In short, organized religion is an expression of tribalism organized eusocially around creation myths that maintain tribal identity and guarantee reproductive fitness. The result is that no human self exists, because the self is only a puppet dancing to genetic strings. No divine being exists either, because the image of a divine being is a delusion created by the DNA to make more DNA. What we end up with is a material world governed by genes with no selves nor gods.

The third school of reductionism is Big History. The Big History movement in higher education incorporates the history of human civilizations into a larger story of nature where evolution in both its biological and cosmic form is the protagonist. According to the International Big History Association, Big History "seeks to understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, using the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods." The concept of evolution unites what were previously separate: natural history and human history. Big historians tend to believe without critical question what neurophilosophers and sociobiologists say.

Big historians close the door on both self and God, a door re-opened by the new Peters book, God in Cosmic History. The point: like the neuroscientists, big historians should confront with more honesty the explanatory gap.

Will the conflation of natural history with human history have meaning? With the question of history's meaning in mind, we must pose a postmodern question: who's history is Big History? A paradoxical metanarrative among the deconstructionist postmodernists is that there should be no metanarrative. There is no value-neutral or meaning-neutral stance, say these postmodernists. Therefore, every metanarrative is perspectival whether its projectors recognize their perspective or not. Every metanarrative comes from some place and reflects somebody's social location, tradition, and vested interests. Every metanarraive is the product of somebody's subjective consciousness. In other words, we cannot have history of any kind without a human self in a human context. To eliminate the self as one does in neurophilosophy or sociobiology would render meaningful history non-existent. It seems that big historians are committing intellectual suicide.

Big History is a metanarrative. It must be if it is to be big. It must be if it is to be history. Now, I approve of such a metanarrative. I do not belong to the skeptical school of deconstructionist postmodernism. Yet, the question remains: who's subjective perspective determines the meaning of Big History? What is the vested interest of the big historian? What might be the ideology through which the big historian will interpret the cosmic and human past?

Our culture, like every coherent and enduring culture, requires a metanarrative if it is to enjoy meaning, if it is to understand itself. Yet, if big historians adopt a strictly scientific perspective without incorporating the subjective dimensions of our distinctively human reality, it will be difficult to acknowledge the perspective of the big historian and even more difficult to appreciate the history of human subjectivity which makes historical meaning possible. If big historians incorporate the materialism and reductionism we see in neurophilosophy and sociobiology into their method, then certain voices will be silenced: the voices of consciousness, mind, self, and God.

How did we end up with this conundrum? Because those who imbibe science have also imbibed scientism. Science is the pursuit of reliable knowledge about the natural world, whereas scientism is an ideology which declares that only scientific knowledge counts as knowledge. If science cannot by its methods know either the human self or God, then neither the self nor God exist. Simple, eh.

What is happening? We must grant that an explanatory gap has opened up between what brain researchers, evolutionary biologists, and big historians observe, on the one hand, and our fundamental human experience with self, world, and God, on the other. What honesty requires is that we thank science for its study of the world and admit that certain phenomena--self and God--are simply not subject to scientific analysis. Honesty! What a delightful idea!

Such honesty is a problem only for those ideologues who demand against the evidence that scientific knowing should be able to explain everything without remainder.

I kinda like my self-world-God relationship. It would be nice to explain it scientifically, although even without an explanation I certainly can live with it. What I object to are attempts for ideological reasons to explain it away.

For you who do not regularly read my blog, I am a fictional character in the thriller, For God and Country. I am a former CIA operative currently serving as a Lutheran pastor on the south side of Chicago. My doctorate from Michigan State University is in astrobiology and I give special attention to Society, Science, and Spirit.

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