Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I have this theory

Since I don't believe in a metaphysical plane of existent, in a human soul, or in anything divine, I am often asked by my theist friends how I explain consciousness. When I tell them that consciousness is just a biochemical process, well... they tend to laugh. What we are, who we are, and who we become, can all be traced to the processes that reside in our brain. When the brain is altered, we are altered, when the brain stops working, we are dead. My evidence for this is unscientific, but I think it makes sense. It comes down to what can happen to a person when their brain is damaged by injury, disease, or chemicals.

I know from experience that certain memories that I should have, are missing. I suffered a sever brain injury as a young man, and poof, about a four months of my life are gone. Plus, the three years previous to the injury are scrambled. I actually remember my freshmen year in High School well, but the next three are a jumble. I can't even remember the face of an old girlfriend. This injury is analogous to damaged sectors on a computer's hard drive. Something physically damaged the section of my brain which stored memories, just like something damaged the section of my hard drive that held my installation of Chess Master. If who we are can be taken away with a hammer... I don't see the hand of god, only biology.

The process becomes more complex with disease. People can change behavior. Who they are one day, can change to somebody entirely new the next. Take this parasitic infection for example:

A common parasite can increase a women's attractiveness to the opposite sex but also make men more stupid, an Australian researcher says.

Source: Parasite turns women into 'sex kittens' - Breaking News - National - Breaking News

If a parasite can change a woman's behavior, and the woman has no self awareness of the change, it follows that our concept of self and free will is essentially dependent on a biochemical process. The conclusion I draw from this is simple. We are the product of an incredibly complex biochemical process, and nothing more.

For more on this, read Modern neuroscience is eroding the idea of free will.

My theist friends find this thought appalling. They cannot grasp that we are not divinely chosen, but instead the product of evolutionary forces which have developed our brains to the point of self awareness. I find the thought comforting. It shows we are special, and fortunate. We should not take or intelligence for granted, it is not gift. We earned it.

I also hold that intelligence can be leaned, this too unscientific, but again I fall back on experience to help guide me. I attended university late in life. I did not even start the process until I was in my late 30s. In my undergrad and graduate programs, I leaned two new skills, writing and critical thinking. Both have dramatically improved my problem solving capabilities, and by extension, by intelligence (at least I think so, I still cannot spell).

One Man Hacking has a post on this concept:

If I remember correctly, it was in one of Edward de Bono's books that I first encountered the idea that thinking might actually be a skill, and thus learnable (and improvable by practice).

Over the years, this belief has been re inforced and I was forced to pull it all together yesterday when a friend asked me "How can I improve the quality of my thinking"?

Source: One Man Hacking - Thinking as a learnable Skill

What does this mean for Joe Atheist? We don't need the divine to explain who we are, what we are, or where we are going when we die. We need reason and science. We don't need Jesus to define a moral code. We are capable of reasoning it out for ourselves. We don't need James Dobson to tell us how to live and who to love. We intuitively know his message is evil. We don't need the mystical-all-knowing-one to explain the meaning of life. We are the meaning of life.

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Anonymous said...

Very inciteful and yet polarized away from the religious right, as well this should be, Dobson rarely deals with reality well.

I find great pleasure in living life and opening my mind to try new things and equate logic to what I see, hear and experience. Just the fact that I attempt to reconcile these experiences, to improve my understanding, biases my perceptions and levels of potential or possible beliefs.

Perhaps this is one article to submit to conjecture as I alter my mind through a cloud and a sip into the darkness. 2F

Greg said...

Great post. Free will (being an uncaused cause) is something that many tend to take for granted but something that I don't see any evidence for. There is no shame in being caused naturally.

Lexcen said...

When computers become self-aware,
then the debate will become redundant.

aidan said...

Very true, except that mind isn't fixed or limited. Outside of mutually understood experience ... agreements based on logic and conceptual constructs etc ... mind is capable of other modes of understanding.

I wouldn't bring "God" into it either, but I do believe we have the capacity to alter our condition of mind and experience our environment more vividly. I still see that as a function of mind though - not intervention by some higher power.