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Mind transcending matter

INTELLIGENT DESIGN: For a time, cognitive neurophysiology attempted to reduce the mind to brain function. Such a materialist reduction of mind to brain can no longer (in 2025) be reasonably maintained. We've learned that we can control our minds and act responsibly

Issue: "Darwin's meltdown," April 3, 2004

LOOKING BACK, IT SEEMS INEVITABLE that advances in brain science during the 20th century led almost all people esteemed as "scientifically literate" to believe that eventually all aspects of the human mind would be explained in material terms. After all, in an era when the unquestioned cultural assumption was "for science all causes are material causes," how could one be expected to think differently? What's more, tremendous advances in brain-imaging technologies during the last two decades of that most materialist of centuries enabled scientists to investigate the inner workings of the living human brain. This certainly seemed to further buttress the generally unexamined and often smugly held belief that the deep mysteries of the brain, and the "laws" through which it created and ruled all aspects of the human mind, would someday be revealed.

Thus arose the then virtually hegemonic belief that human beings and everything they do are, like all other aspects of the world of nature, the results of material causes-by which the elites of the time simply meant results of material forces interacting with each other. While primitive, uneducated, and painfully unsophisticated people might be beguiled into believing that they had minds and wills capable of exerting effort and rising above the realm of the merely material, this was just-as Daniel Dennett, a widely respected philosopher of the day, delighted in putting it-an example of a "user illusion": that is, the quaint fantasy of those who failed to realize, due to educational deficiencies or plain thick-headedness, that "a brain was always going to do what it was caused to do by local mechanical disturbances." Were you one of the rubes who believed that people are capable of making free and genuinely moral decisions? Then of course haughty contempt, or at best pity, was the only appropriate demeanor a member of the intellectual elite could possibly direct your way.

On a societal and cultural level the damage such spurious and unwarranted elite opinions wreaked on the world at large was immense. For if everything people do results solely from their brains, and everything the brain does results solely from material causes, then people are no different than any other complicated machine and the brain is no different in principle than any very complex computer. If matter determines all, everything is passive and no one ever really does anything, or to be more precise, no one is really responsible for anything they think, say, or do.

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What's more, if anything they think, say, or do causes problems for them or society at large, then, the sophisticates of that thankfully bygone era believed, the ultimate way to solve the problem would be to make the required changes in the brain that would make it work the way a properly functioning machine is supposed to. This naturally led to the widespread use of drugs as a primary means of treating what generally came to be called "behavioral problems."

After all, if the brain is the final cause of everything a person thinks, says, and does, why bother with old-fashioned and outdated notions like "self-control" or even "making your best effort" to solve a problem? If the brain is the ultimate cause underlying all the problems, then the sophisticated thing to do to rectify things is to give a chemical (or even place an electrode!) that gets right in there and fixes things. "God helps those who help themselves?" Not in the real world, where science knows all the answers, sneered the elites of the time.

Happily for the future of humanity, in the early years of the 21st century this all started to change. The reasons why, on a scientific level, grew out of the coming together of some changes in perspective that had occurred in physics and neuroscience during the last decades of the previous century. Specifically, the theory of physics called quantum mechanics was seen to be closely related, especially in humans, to the discovery in brain science called neuroplasticity: the fact that throughout the lifespan the brain is capable of being rewired, and that in humans at least, this rewiring could be caused directly by the action of the mind.

Work using new brain-imaging technologies of that era to study people with a condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) played a key role in this development. OCD is a medical condition in which people suffer from very bothersome and intrusive thoughts and feelings that give them the sense that "something is wrong" in their immediate surroundings-usually the thought or feeling that something is dirty or contaminated or needs to be checked because it isn't quite right.


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