why study neurology?

Nick Medford nick at hermit0.demon.co.uk
Tue Jan 15 03:18:16 EST 2002

In article <43525ce3.0201130558.320c3832 at posting.google.com>, mat
<mats_trash at hotmail.com> writes
>> Would you, for example, deny the existence of love? If you are prepared
>> to believe it exists, then how would you go about proving that
>> scientifically?? How would you "scientifically" advise a friend who was
>> unsure whether to marry a particular woman?
>I did not say proving.  Developing coherent and succesful scientific
>theories to demonstrate the untenable position of religious beliefs is
>all you can hope for. 

I still find this a curious assertion: you yourself have provided the
arguments which show why this cannot really be the case. Religious
thought is endlessly adaptive. There will always be unknowns and
mysteries, so there can always be appeals to the non-material world for
answers to those mysteries. 
>As to the second question I think you make an
>error.  I would not deny the existence of love at all.  It is a
>sucessful evolutionary strategy to promote species survival. 

What a romantic fellow you are!

To be serious,  this is not really my point. Even if love is merely an
evolutionary strategy, this doesn't alter the fact that it is an unquantifiable
subjective experience. My point is that the scientific method is not well
suited to investigating first-person subjective experience, yet even the
most devout scientist would not deny that such experiences exist.

So this is another reason why religious/spiritual experiences cannot be
explained away by scientific reasoning, even though we may be able to
generate rationally-based theories about them. 

> You make
>the assumption that becuase science as yet cannot describe even the
>simplest operations of the brain

Actually, I think we can already describe quite a few operations of the

> that it will never be able to
>describe the higher level functions such as love.

You misread me: I make no such assumption. The point I am trying to
make- indeed the reason I got involved with this thread- is rather more
subtle. Even if some biochemical marker for "being in love" were to be
discovered tomorrow, this would not "describe" or "explain" the
experiential phenomenon of love. I do not object to the idea that such
experiences require a biological, neural substrate. I think it is highly
unlikely that we can experience anything without such a substrate!

Consider this:

Suppose you have a table in your room, which has various properties:

- it's a table
- it is made of oak
- it is useful to you, because you use it to store things i.e. it has a function
- it has a sentimental value because it was a present  
- it is antique and worth a lot of money 

etc, etc. In short it has a whole range of meanings and properties.

Now someone who has never seen a table comes to visit you. They are
intrigued by this strange phenomenon, this "table", and its many functions
and properties as described above. They seek to understand it, so they
take a tiny piece of it and examine it under an electron microscope. 

This enables them to gain a detailed view of the ultrastructure of the
wood. They then return to your room and  proudly announce that they
have now "explained" your table and all its various functions, meanings
and properties.

You would, I imagine, find this claim absurd. Yet for some reason when
people do exactly this with the human brain and human experience, many
scientists don't bat an eyelid. 
>> It is a fundamental philosophical error to state that all human experience
>> can be reduced to electrochemical activity. Yes, such activity may be the
>> biological substrate for experience- but it is not identical with the
>> experience. Things work at more than one level. 
>Maybe its a philosophical error but that does not equate to scientific
>error at all. What you say has connotations of dualism.  

Hopefully you will see from the above example that one does not need to
be a dualist to take this position.

> No one is asking you to have faith in
>Quantum Mechanics on the basis of no proof whatsoever.  Parts of
>Quatum mechanics are the most succesful theories ever created to
>explain real-world phenomena.  However religion asks you simply to
>have faith on the basis that you just should.

I don't know, I am not religious. But people who are state that their
subjective experience affords them some kind of "proof", or at least
support, for their beliefs. The fact that it cannot be quantified or
measured means it is not scientific but it doesn't mean it's not "true",
even if only true for them.  

>  We ridicule and pity those sects who believe in such
>things as aliens in spaceships hiding behind comets and if they commit
>suicide they'll be taken with them.  However, how much different are
>many of the beliefs of the popular religions? 

I think it depends on the religion, and on the practitioner. 

Nick Medford

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