Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Brain-As-Receiver Concept

Christians can come up with some really wacky ideas in defense of their religious dogmas that fly in the face of logic and science.  When defending literal the truth of biblical stories that directly contradict each other, for example, they might make the claim that "three days and three nights" really means a period of as little as 38 hours.  If one book says Jesus was buried on a Friday afternoon, and rose from the dead on Sunday morning, and another book claims it was three days and three nights later, what should Christians think?  Surely not that either of those stories could be wrong.  They need to find some way to make those two things seem to be in agreement.  If Friday is the first day, Sunday is the third day, so you might be able to get away with saying three days had passed, but three nights?  I don't think so.  This is just a case of Christians groping for any excuse at all to justify their belief that the bible tells the truth, and the fact that their hand-waving explanations don't make logical sense is simply ignored in favor of the dogma.  Their dogma says those two accounts are telling the same story, and the good Christian is obliged to believe it.

One of the biggest examples of Christian dogma coming into conflict with science is the idea that the immaterial soul is the seat of mind.  Part of this theistic dogma maintains that it is not only conscious awareness that resides in the soul, but memories, logic and reasoning, the perception of qualia, and the will of the individual.  All of these things are components of the intellect that lives in the soul, and the soul must survive death in order to carry the lessons of life forward into the eternal afterlife, where the Christian will either reap the reward of a life well lived or suffer the consequences of his failure.  Intellect and consciousness must therefore be immaterial, according to Christian dogma.  But this dogma seems to be flatly contradicted by empirical science, which gives us every reason to believe that consciousness is a purely physical phenomenon that resides in the brain, and no reason whatsoever to think that any immaterial entity is involved.  This presents a quandary for the Christian, who can't abandon his dogma under any circumstances.

Belief in the eternal soul is so fundamental to Christian belief that its denial would be tantamount to denial of Christianity itself.  While one traditional Christian dogma after another has fallen by the wayside as science advances inexorably toward an understanding of reality that sheds the light of undeniable reason on those ancient beliefs, the dogma of the eternal soul continues to stand on its last legs, badly beaten and teetering on the precipice.  Modern science has all but declared final victory.  Take for example, the recent findings about the physical seat of consciousness in the brain.   It is one more brick in a wall consisting of many such bricks, that forms a solid scientific basis for belief that the Christian dogma of the immaterial soul has no more basis in reality than the old geocentric model of the cosmos.  But that doesn't stop Christians from trying to find some way to avoid the inevitable truth, and cling to their dogma.

One of the more amusing examples of their attempts to explain away scientific reality is the idea of the brain as a kind of receiver of mental signals from the soul, analogous to a television that receives a programming signal from outside, and decodes the signal to make it intelligible and visible to the observer as a coherent stream of programming that does not originate within the television set itself.  Christians can't deny the scientific reality that the physical brain is essential for consciousness, memory, language, and all cognitive function.  They are well aware that impairment of the brain has a direct impact on cognitive function.  So how do they reconcile these facts with their dogma of the soul?  At least some of them postulate that the brain is nothing more than an instrument for receiving the signals of the intellectual material that actually originate from the soul, and is oblivious to the intellectual content of those signals.
the bran damage argument proves only that brain is essential to accessing consciousness, not that consciousness is reducible to brain function.  The access argument can be illustrated with the following analogies. We can destroy computer hardware such as the monitor and that eliminates or blocks our access to soft ware but it doesn’t’ mean that soft ware is hardware or that software is erased by the damage of hardware. The logic of the brain damage argument can be applied to prove that television programs are not broadcast through the air waves but originate in the tv box. After all if we damage the box, take out parts or what have you, we don’t get the picture or the sound or the program. By the logic of the brain damage argument proves that he signal originates in the box. - Hinman
I'm sure this argument sounds good to a third-grader, but it just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  A television receiver works by decoding the input signal into its components, and processing those components separately.  It separates audio from video.  It breaks down the audio into sub-channels (as stereo components, for example), and the video into separate color signals.  And each of those individual elements is processed independently from the rest, all the way through to the final output.  So if a fault occurs in the early part of of the signal processing (before separation of the components), the entire program will be lost to the viewer.  But if a fault occurs closer to the output end, one specific component will be lost (such as the left speaker), while the rest come through as normal, without being affected by the lost component, and without changing the meaning or intellectual content of the program.

But as we know from science, the brain doesn't work like that at all.  Consciousness is a synthesis of various inputs from different sources.  The loss of one of those sources causes an impairment of function at a cognitive level, which can then have an impact on the coherency of the output in the conscious view.  For example, a lesion in one specific part of the brain can cause a person to lose cognitive competence in a very narrow area, such as subtracting small numbers, without affecting any other arithmetic skills.  He may know that he has a problem with subtracting, but he can't explain exactly why he is unable to produce the correct result.  In this example, the loss of coherence is not related to the physical function of some part of the body, such as the ability to speak, as would fit the analogy with the receiver/signal processor (or brain-as-receiver) model.  It is only specific to a particular cognitive function.

So we have two very different models of brain functionality.  The receiver/signal processor model takes a coherent input and breaks it down into components for presentation to the viewer, and the cognitive synthesis model takes separate inputs from different parts of the brain and stitches them together to make a coherent whole, which is then presented for conscious awareness.  Only the latter is consistent with empirical observation of brain function.  I can see the objection of the theist:  One specific piece of the brain is responsible for handling any subtraction statements received from the external source of intellectual content.  But with a little thought, it quickly becomes apparent how absurd this is.  Because in order to take a single input and break it down into conceptual or cognitive components that are then directed to different pieces of the brain, it would require some kind of cognitive processing, to distinguish subtraction from other arithmetic operations, for example.  And that implies that this cognitive ability must reside in the brain.  In other words, the brain can't be oblivious to the intellectual content of those external signals.

And it isn't just the ability to distinguish arithmetic operations.  It's all kinds of cognitive functions.  If there are separate pieces of the brain that perform various different cognitive functions, as science clearly demonstrates, then under the brain-as-receiver model, there must be a cognitive capability in the brain to break down the signal from the soul into its individual cognitive components and direct them each to their separate piece of the brain for some kind of processing.  This requires a native understanding of intellectual content within the brain.  And what kind of processing would be needed in the first place, if the intellectual content of the signal from the soul has already been determined before it is received by the brain?  Why would the brain need to handle different kinds of cognitive functions differently if it doesn't actually have to actually perform those functions itself?

In truth, the brain-as-receiver model doesn't make any sense at all.  And that's exactly why it is perfectly consistent with the whole body of Christian intellectual endeavors.  None of it makes any sense.  Not their stories about Jesus dying for our sins, not their lame attempts to harmonize the discrepancies and contradictions in the bible, and certainly not their unscientific views of the soul as the seat of intellect.  The Christian narrative is just intellectually vapid.


  1. The objection that Elizabeth, Princess of Bohemia had with Descartes dualism is equally valid for the brain as receiver version: how can the immaterial cause material to do something different than what the material was going to do anyway?

    In order for a neuron to fire it has to interact with something, an electrical jolt, or a neurotransmitter molecule from another neuron, something. There simply is no 'something' with a 'soul'.

  2. how can the immaterial cause material to do something different than what the material was going to do anyway?

    That's the big question that they can never answer. And of course, I didn't bother asking. If there's any structure connected to the brain that can be regarded as something like an antenna that serves to receive these signals, it would be the sensory organs. And they don't detect souls.