Friday, February 29, 2008

Peter Gomes and being human

I said a while ago that I wished everyone could have the privilege of hearing Peter Gomes, Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, speak. Well, today is your lucky day. The website big think now has 19 videos of nothing but Gomes talking.

One of them is particularly relevant to my last post, so I'll share it. (It's less than two minutes long, so go ahead and watch it.)

Key quote: "It seems to me that science can never explain such things as joy, or happiness, or sorrow, even though they try to find the little nodes in the brain in which these emotions are alleged to reside."

Contrast Gomes's thoughts with another quote from Pinker:

"I don’t believe there’s such a thing as free will in the sense of a ghost in the machine, a spirit or soul that somehow reads the TV screen of the senses and pushes buttons and pulls the levers of behavior. There’s no sense that we can make of that. I think we are . . . Our behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain. On the other hand, when you have a brain that consists of a hundred billion neurons connected by a hundred trillion synapses, there is a vast amount of complexity that means that human choices will not be predictable in any simple way from the stimuli that have impinged on it beforehand."

Elevating rhetoric.

Of course, if you conceptualize the soul as an anthropomorphic creature pushing buttons and pulling levers (which Pinker helpfully mimes in the video), the idea of the soul or of free will is going to sound silly and nonsensical. But an argument from parody isn't very convincing or, as Pinker would say, rational.

Does Pinker really believe that saying "there is a vast amount of complexity that means that human choices will not be predictable in any simple way from the stimuli that have impinged on it beforehand" really gets to the heart of what it means to be human? When you start talking like that with respect to one of the fundamental mysteries of human existence, I've got to wonder whether Pinker is human.

I don't wish to denigrate scientific advances or the mind-boggling complexity of the human brain. Science is a wonderful tool for understanding the natural world, and the human brain is without a doubt the most amazing physical specimen our universe has to offer. But all the scientists in all the world could study the human brain for the rest of time, until they had discovered literally everything there was to know about the brain, and they would still be no closer to understanding love, or laughter, or mourning, or mercy -- in short, all the things that make us human. You can trot out all the evolutionary, psychological, sociological, anthropological, and neuroscientific explanations you want, and they may be quite rational, but they're also always going to fall just a bit short, because they're always going to sound, to the normal person, just a little bit inhuman.

Say all our "behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain," which are simply the result of external stimuli. Say free will is an illusion. Fine. But everyone (with the exception of university professors) knows that we have free will. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to know it. You don't have to do laboratory studies to prove it. It's what we live, every moment of our lives. We know that there is more to us than our physical bodies. We know that we are not just parcels of matter unfolding inevitably in time. We know that we have souls.

And to miss that, because you're too caught up in your own materialistic explanations of human behavior, is to miss the whole point of what it means to be human.


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