In a discussion with Mike Gerow at Metacrock's blog, he made a comment that I thought was worthy of more than a com-box reply. Mike comes across a an intelligent person, but he still has a woefully uninformed understanding of topics in science that he brings into his own arguments. In this comment, Mike reveals some serious misunderstandings about what science tells us regarding the concept of self and about evolution. These failings are driven, at least in part, by his religious training, and deeply ingrained bias toward religious explanations whenever they come into conflict with scientific explanations. Here is what he said:
Or, to put my objection another way, the scientist experiences his or herself as a free subject objectively observing results and making judgements. But ironically, THE SCIENCE ITSELF (takng the form of neuroscience) denies this rather vehemently, and makes the claim, that there is no free-standing "self" capable of an objective viewpoint like that, but only a brain, which is only another part of the universe not so different from any other, and really just a sort of combinatorial machine designed by evolution to achieve evolution's goals.
And there is no reason to believe "learning the truth" is one of those goals of evolution. As best we can tell, evolutionary drives only program us to pursue things like comfort, plenty, security, and propagation -for a set of behaviours collectively called "the 4 F's" sometimes - and not for truth-seeking.Let's start with his claim that neuroscience denies any concept of self-hood. In the first place, I think Mike is confusing neuroscience with philosophical physicalism. Physicalism is the idea that everything in the world is physical. It denies the existence of any non-physical things, especially souls and gods and the like. Neuroscience deals specifically with the structure and function of the brain. If you think that the "self" is equivalent to the soul, then it is probably physicalism that you take issue with. Neuroscience is a physical science, and as such, it tends to be consistent with all other physical sciences in its rejection of supernatural explanations. But that's not to say that there is no natural explanation for things that religionists tend to place in the realm of the immaterial.
So, this shows what someone called the anthropocentric bias of scientism....? - Mike Gerow
The concept of the "self" is certainly not denied by neuroscience, even if the unscientific concept of an immaterial soul is. It is regarded as a natural part of the human psyche, and explained as a representation of our own thought processes and mental states that is partly overlapped with, and partly distinct from that of other people. This cognitive model is a necessary part of our social interaction. Here is a brief but informative paper that describes it. The point is that if you, as a theist, think that "self" is equivalent to soul, or that it is something that can only be imparted to us by God, that's fine, but you should understand that science still has the ability to recognize the existence of this part of the human psyche and understand it from an empirical perspective. To claim that neuroscience denies any "self" is just ignorance of neuroscience, and it's easy enough to correct that ignorance, if you care to look.
The other serious claim that Mike makes is that evolution gives us no inclination for "learning the truth". I've heard this trope many times from religionists like Alvin Plantinga, in his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. But Plantinga's argument is based on sheer ignorance of the science of evolution. He assumes a simplistic behavioral model of evolution in which cognition plays no significant role. According to this model, beliefs are selected by evolution based not on their truth value, but by their consequences for survival. But this simplistic model ignores both neuroscience and the fundamental mechanism of evolution itself. In general, evolution doesn't select for beliefs at all. It selects for ability to survive and pass on the genome. The means by which different creatures survive is extremely varied.
And one of the key genetic traits of the human species is our capacity to form complex cognitive models that enhance our problem-solving capabilities. A better (and more realistic or truer) cognitive model of our world gives us more opportunities to overcome the problems of surviving in the real world. The human intellect does indeed improve our chances for survival. That's what evolution selects for. Outside the cloistered halls of religious philosophy, Plantinga's ignorance of evolution is laughable. And anyone who buys his EAAN without first attempting to understand what evolution theory actually tells us is equally guilty of sharing in Plantinga's abject ignorance.
Finally, Mike clarifies what he means by "the anthropocentric bias of scientism". In a later comment, he says:
evolutionistically, our brains are designed to help us pursue pleasures, safety, have lotsa food &!lotsa offspring, and basically engage in the kinds of behaviours known collectively as the 4 F's, rather than for detached "understandings" of our greater surroundings. ... But where, in evolutionary theory, do you see how we would have developed the capacity to step back, be objective, and "understand the universe" in the first place? - Mike GerowActually, I think it would make more sense if he said "the anthropocentric bias of naturalism". At any rate, this is really an extension of Plantinga's argument that evolution doesn't give us the kind of cognitive function that would lead to anything more than the immediate satisfaction of our base desires - the "4 F's", as he calls it. I think I have already made a start in addressing this. We are certainly more than just hedonistic meat machines. Despite Plantinga;s ignorant claims, evolution has given us intellect. Plantinga does make one point that happens to be true. Evolution does not select for true beliefs. In the case of humans, at least, it has selected for generally improved cognitive function, which often corresponds to true beliefs. This improved cognitive function is what leads us to inquire about our world and to try to understand it. And insofar as that greater cognitive function that does correlate with true beliefs has allowed us to solve many problems of survival, it has served us well.
But the picture is somewhat more complicated than that. We are complex social creatures, but we don't enjoy anything like perfection in our cognitive models. We are not immune from false beliefs. For example, we may gain in social interaction at the cost of certain false beliefs. Shared religious beliefs and associated rituals, in particular, may play a role in improving our social bonding. But at the same time, they can hinder the development of more improved cognitive models of reality. As it is, our cognitive models have been good enough to vastly improve our survival, up to this point in our evolutionary history. But now we are facing new environmental problems, many of which are of our own making. The big question in my mind is will we be able to overcome those false beliefs and find a way to fix the problems we have created, to help ensure our long-term survival?