Bucking the systems: two scientists in defense of the human spirit

In their unusual book, ``The Wonder of Being Human: Our Brain and Our Mind'' (New York, The Free Press), two prominent scientists, Sir John Eccles and Daniel N. Robinson, take exact aim at some of the central belief systems (``isms'' and ``folk philosophies'' they call them) of our age, and they fire away with moral and intellectual force. Sir John is a Nobel Laureate in medicine and a leading brain scientist, and Professor Robinson is an often-published psychologist at Georgetown University. Their targets, stated in the first chapter, are: ``scientism,'' or the belief that only what the scientific method has validated can be defended; ``relativism,'' or the conviction that such things as morality and justice, since they are not ``facts'' that can be scrutinized by the scientific method, are culturally relative; ``materialism,'' or the claim that human life is exclusively material, since science has identified only matter and energy in the universe; ``evolutionism,'' or the belief that humanity is but the product of genetic mutation and the fierce necessity of sheer survival; ``environmentalism,'' or the argument that mankind, as a higher form of animal, can survive only by conforming behavior to the demands of the environment.

``We reject materialism,'' they say, ``because . . . it doesn't explain our [transcendent] concepts but denies them.'' These are respected, prominent intellectuals who know exactly what many of their peers will think of such views. And, after discussion with people in the field, it is evident that their little book has provoked thought.

The authors base their arguments, in part, on an attempt to resolve an ancient ontological problem -- the relationship between matter (brain) and mind. The latest brain research, they believe, leads to the conclusion that the mind is separate from the brain. Speaking of consciousness, they say that ``its emergence is not reconcilable with the natural laws as at present understood.'' Some poets and divines through the ages have taken such positions, but the significance of this book is that respected modern scientists are speaking.

Actually, their viewpoint on the brain-mind problem is not really isolated in the scientific community, although it is a minority view. They cite, for example, Sir Charles Sherrington, the English physiologist, who shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1932. Sir Charles wrote, ``We have to regard the relation of mind to brain as not merely unsolved, but devoid of a basis for its beginning.'' They also cite Wilder G. Penfield, a famous American neurosurgeon, who operated on the brains of over a thousand conscious patients (he revived them after opening their skulls) starting in the 1930s. He was able to explore the brain extensively during the operations with a small electrode, discovering he could trigger swallowing, memory flashbacks, involuntary speech and temporary speech loss, involuntary movements of parts of the body, illusions, and the sensation that visible objects are growing larger. He finally concluded, since the awakened patients observed all these events objectively, even with aloofness, that ``the patient's mind . . . can only be something quite apart from neuronal reflex action. . . .'' He also wrote, it is ``more reasonable to suggest . . . that the mind may be a distinct and different essence'' from the body.

Although the authors don't cite his work, George Wald of Harvard University, who won the Nobel Prize in 1967 for physiology or medicine, believes that the question of consciousness is ``rooted in science but unassimilable as science.'' Professor Wald's philosophical views, however, are quite different than the present authors as to the origin of consciousness.

Their view is that the mind -- the realm of values, culture, and spirituality -- has a divine origin. They refer to ``a Divine Providence operating over and above the materialistic happenings of biological evolution. . . . We attribute the uniqueness of the psyche . . . to a . . . spiritual creation.''

The authors do maintain that this invisible dimension is dependent on the brain for manifestation in present human experience. They also say in a discussion of freedom, ``Matter doesn't think it is [free], for matter doesn't think.'' They use the ``simple metaphor . . . that our conscious self is in the driver's seat.'' Hence their position that man needn't be slave to any kind of determinism.

They arrive at these remarkable positions through cogent moral and logical arguments, but also through a fascinating interpretation of brain research done over the last few years relative to ``mental acts of intention.'' The research, done by three different teams, indicates, the authors feel, that ``mental acts of intention'' (such as the will to move one's arm) initiate electrical discharges of nerve cells in the supplementary motor area of the brain. There is no other source for this discharge, the authors indicate. So they conclude that these ``mental acts of intention'' cause ``information'' to pass from mind to brain, but that this is not a ``flow of [material] energy.''

This transfer of information shows, they argue, that the physicists' world of energy and matter is not ``closed.'' This conclusion, if it can ever be accepted as proven, would most certainly blow apart the theory of materialism much more effectively than any current speculations regarding the implications of quantum mechanics.

The authors' views on the mind-brain relationship remain speculative, however. What they want to explain is how mind directs the brain. And at this particular part of the book a certain aura of mystery enters the discussion, reminiscent in a way of the discussions in the last century about whether or not hypnotism, or animal magnetism, involves some kind of a fluid that acts on the nerves. That debate helped uncover the impressionability of the human mind. Since the authors feel that information can flow mentally and without the agency of electricity, their position might be said to be higher than the old ``fluid-nerve'' argument. But so far as the question of the apparent animation of matter is concerned, the ontology in the book is not yet convincing, since they also appear to place so much dependency on the brain itself.

The fundamental challenge of the brain-mind problem seems to remain this: The apparent brain-mind connection presents itself much like some optical illusions do, with one aspect of the puzzle (the mind) coming ``forward'' at one glance, the other and opposite aspect (the brain) at the second or third glance. Which is which? The scientific method, dealing only with visible phenomena and theories (however beautiful and useful some of these are), has no way to examine such illusions.

Also, the theory of intervention by a creator through the material realm isn't exactly new in the world, although Western learning since the Renaissance has tended to want to put down this idea in favor of the scientific method.

The authors' discussion of the brain-mind question, however, is not theological, and it is of great interest. In fact, all of their discussions of science are highly informative, especially what they say about artificial intelligence (they neatly debunk its more extravagant advocates), the uniqueness of human language (decades of trying to teach monkeys to talk has yielded, largely, more and more requests for bananas), and about evolution.

They are understandably concerned that the ``creationists'' will take some of their conclusions about evolution out of context and use them for their own purposes. These authors, however, make it clear that they do credit Darwin's scientific research and his conclusions regarding the evolution of the human species. Where they differ with Darwin is in his psychological conclusions (published later than his evolutionary findings) regarding the mental nature of mankind. Darwin apparently believed that man had, in effect, an advanced animal consciousness. The authors criticize this view effectively, identifying well some of the spiritual aspects of human consciousness. And they seem to have done their homework in the history of science well, from which their whole discussion profits greatly. They beard behaviorism and sociobiology in their dens, for example.

The truly remarkable power of the book, then, flows mostly from what could be called its religious humanism. Of course, the authors are scientists of distinction. But their concerns reach into all aspects of culture. Most fundamental is the authors' belief that individuals and societies have the power to think and act, to choose good and do it. Thus they enter the large and often untidy realm called humanism -- a realm in which mankind tries to decide why and how to think and act.

We forget sometimes, in the flood of modernism, that this tradition of examining all of human experience -- including the sciences -- in the light of the best ideals and religious standards of one's age reaches back to Plato and includes Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Erasmus, Luther, as well as John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many other moderns. The age seems to be demanding, as this book shows, that science, theology, and medicine learn how to deal with each other -- intelligently, and with respect!

And thank heavens the question of how idealism and religion affect society isn't open only to religious fundamentalists. We can be especially grateful today when authors such as these prove this to be so.

The writing in ``The Wonder of Being Human'' attains eloquence and beauty from the authors' deep concern about the disarray of values today, caused, they feel, by rampant materialism that would view man as hardly, if at all, above the apes. They write, ``Man has lost his way ideologically in this age.'' Of special note is their caring for the rights of every individual to enjoy freedom and a concomitant moral responsibility. Their warnings of how modern trends -- the media's addiction to evil and violence, for example -- can sow widespread destruction are sharp and needed.

Add one more characteristic to the list that qualifies this book as a solid piece of modern religious humanism. It has great courage. The authors chide intellectual leaders today for being arrogant ``in their self-sufficiency.'' They say that we all should remember the many unknowns of human life, and because of this spiritual ignorance ``we should be much more humble.''

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