Thursday, July 29, 2010

320. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 4

If you thought explaining organs such as the heart, kidneys, eyes, etc. presented a challenge to Darwinian evolution, consider the brain. Le Fanu dwells on two aspects of the problem: first, the extraordinary complexity of the brain, which goes far beyond anything else we might want to consider; and second, the apparent paradox presented by the relation of the brain to things like consciousness, personal identity, imagination, free will and the capacity for language -- in short, the problem posed by what we usually refer to as "the mind."

The most interesting feature of Le Fanu's brain chapter ("The Unfathomable Brain") is his methodical review of some truly fascinating research by neurologists and cognitive scientists delving into the workings of the brain, and its relation to things like vision, memory, emotion, etc. According to Le Fanu, the deeper they have delved, the more anomalies they have discovered, until we reach the provocative heading to be found on p. 222: "2000 and Onwards: the Rediscovery of the Soul."
[T]he most striking feature of the neurosciences, 'unparalleled' in any other field of scientific enquiry, is how each of the phases of the progressive unravelling of the secrets of the brain has been marked by a further deepening of the perplexity of its links with the spiritual mind (223).
For example:
[T]he 'Big Science' of neuroscience observing the brain in action has revealed processes that defy all imagining: how every detailed nuance of the three-dimensional world is generated from within the dark recesses of our skulls, deconstructed and reconstructed within a fraction of a second; or how the brain categorises our memories into different 'baskets', shifts them from one to the other and somehow maintains them as a permanent record in those ever-changing neural circuits; or how, contrary to every known law of nature, non-material thoughts and emotions directly influence the physical structure of the brain.

Hence the paradox where the more we have learned from that great unravelling of the brain, the more elusive any general theory of its relation to the mind has become (223-224).
On the one hand, Le Fanu is making the point that the most thorough and up-to-date research on the workings of the brain is taking us farther and farther away from any scientific theory that might hope to explain it; on the other hand, he is simply restating, in more modern language, one of the oldest paradoxes in the history of Western thought: mind-body duality.

Before continuing, it's important to make the point that there is nothing in Darwinian evolution that pretends to explain either the workings of the brain or any other organ, nor the precise manner in which natural selection works to produce any of its effects. What Darwin (and Wallace) recognized was that 1. multiple variations are produced in all species due to essentially random effects (what we now call "mutations," though Darwin had no way of knowing about that); 2. while the great majority of such variations are transient, some persist due to the process of "natural selection," i.e., adaptation of the organisim and/or population to the environment; and 3. it is the meaningful process of progressive adaptation (as opposed to the random production of meaningless variation), that produces the "miracles" we find in nature, such as the wings of birds, the evasive maneuvers of insects, the workings of the cell, and the design of the most complex organs, such as the heart, liver, eye and, yes, the brain.

Le Fanu argues, for one thing, as though evolutionsists explain all such "miracles" as purely the result of random processes. That is most definitely not the case. It's the progressive selection of the results of random processes over considerable lengths of time that works to fine tune the population to its environment in such a way as to produce organisms and organs so perfectly adapted to the world around them. If they were not so perfectly adapted, they would not have survived in the face of competition from better adapted organisms. For another thing, Le Fanu assumes that the viability of Darwinian principles is dependent on the ability of modern science to fully explain exactly how they produce their effects in all cases. In short, he has taken what amounts to a program for future scientific research and turned it into a standard by which the underlying theory must live or die, based on his own convictions regarding what can reasonably be explained and what cannot.

Consider a simple magic trick. A street magician claims he can bring the dead back to life. To demonstrate, he points to a dead fly sitting on a window sill, cups it carefully in his hands, breathes on it, and -- lo and behold -- it ruffles its wings a bit and flies away. I've seen this trick done myself. By Le Fanu's standards, this event can either be explained scientifically or it cannot. And if it cannot, then thousands of years of scientific research can safely be tossed out the window, in view of the "miracle" that all present have just witnessed -- which "proves" that certain people have supernatural powers beyond the ability of science to explain. In fact very experienced scientists have been totally baffled by magic tricks and in some cases even felt forced to admit that certain individuals are endowed with "paranormal" powers.

In the next installment I'll explain how this trick works, which will give you an idea of how absurd Le Fanu's demands actually are. I'll then move on to the real problem at the heart of his book, to which he returns ad nauseum: the ancient, but nevertheless profound, problem of mind-body dualism.

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