Saturday, November 28, 2009

Interesting Thought About The Brain

Lately I've been reading a few books about raising kids, specifically about the father's role. One of the many common themes in them is that you must teach your kids not only by verbal instruction and correction, but also by example. They all stress that even if we are not active in any of those three, we are still teaching. Our children watch us intently and learn from everything we do and don't do, whether we intend to teach or not. This kind of behavior by children is recognized all over the psychological community. Kids do because we do, even though they may not have a deeper reason.

I remember in my Philosophy 101 class several years ago that we had debates about whether we are born tabula rasa (latin: blank slate- knowing nothing, having no instincts) or not. Modern psychology has definitely established that a "blank slate" is in the brain. I was having a hard time deciding which side I fell on because I knew that I could be taught, but I also knew that I had some instinctual behaviors that would nullify the idea of a blank slate. Little did I realize at the time that the professor had actually proposed a "false dichotomy" (the insistence that only two options exist when others are actually available). This was proposed because of the "nature vs. nurture" debate among philosophers and psychologists. It was a fun exercise. I remember defending both positions. The professor was ambiguous in his statements about where I was leading the class. So I wasn't sure at the time if I was on the right track or not.

I was reading Thrilled to Death by psychologist Dr. Archibald Hart the other day (my review). I came across an interesting observation. As we all know from junior high science, the brain has many parts. Dr. Hart stated that the outer layer (cortex) is what is the "blank slate" when we are born. I place "blank slate" in quotes because it is recognized that the cortex is preprogrammed with many things. The quotes are specifically because the cortex acts as a blank slate- it is highly teachable and programmable. This programmability has the power to override any instinctual behavior or preprogramming that might be present anywhere in the brain. I found this quite the fascinating statement. It vindicates my confusion at my philosophy professor's proposition. Our brain contains a foundational set of behaviors and beliefs, but they may be overridden by "teaching" the cortex.

I have heard some philosophers use this to explain an interesting behavior in the adherents to certain worldviews. Theists hold that behaviors and beliefs can be described as morally right or wrong at the objective and absolute level (behaviors and beliefs can be classified as being right or wrong whether or not humans existed to classify them as such). Theists argue that absolute, objective morals are grounded in God. Since atheism is by definition god-less, theists argue that atheism is incompatible with absolute, objective morality. Yet atheists constantly try to show why they feel obligated to act morally right, and many do act morally right. Theists do not believe that atheism requires morally wrong behavior; they believe that there is no difference between morally right behavior and morally wrong behavior in atheism. The atheist is able to define morality as he sees fit (he can use whatever arguments he wants to support his decision, but another atheist could use whatever arguments to support the opposite, and neither would be more valid than the other).

Theists explain the behavior of trying to make atheism compatible with objective, absolute morality by pointing to the brain's preprogramming. Theists believe that God preprogrammed the brain to know that there is an objective, absolute moral law. Theists also believe that God preprogrammed the brain to know that consistency must exist in a belief system if it is to be claimed to accurately reflect reality (in other words, to be true).

I want to point out that many atheists have abandoned objective, absolute morality because that abandonment is required to maintain consistency. However, I would like to point out that atheists are required to give up either absolute, objective morality or consistency in order to maintain their atheistic belief. Which brings up another problem for the atheists. If they have to give up something that has been preprogrammed in their brains by natural processes (random mutation) because it is false, how can they trust that anything their brain produces, including the conclusion, that one of the preprogrammed notions is false, is true?

Now before someone tries to tell me that atheists can establish objective, absolute morality and consistency without preprogramming of the brain, let me point to a couple things. Whether or not these two notions are preprogrammed or obtained (learned) by observation does not really matter. I agree that Atheists can establish that the populace agrees on what is morally right. However, agreement does not determine truth. So they can establish, at the most, absolute moral neutrality with basic majority agreement of which behaviors are beneficial to the considered community in the short term. I agree that the Atheist can establish consistency- but only consistency in the physical world (the world of empirical observation)- they cannot establish that the physical world and the world of thoughts and ideas must be consistent with one another. Atheists can get out of that last statement by saying that thoughts and ideas are part of the physical world, but they can't really establish that because of natural selection's castration of their epistemology (how we know what we know is true) described above.

To bring this to a close, atheists cannot explain their drive for finding consistency between what they know to be true intuitively and what they find to be true by their observations. Not only that, since natural selection operates based on survivability (vs. truth) they cannot establish that what they know to be true intuitively or what they observe to be true, are even true, themselves. Theists can explain all this without stretching their worldview one iota.

Other posts related to this one:
Consistency Among Disciplines
What's Important About Consistency?
Atheism and Morality
Can You Trust Your Senses or Your Logic?
Nature Vs. Scripture

Recommended Books:
Thrilled to Death by Dr. Archibald Hart
Come, Let Us Reason by Dr. Norman Geisler
Relativism by Greg Koukl
A World of Difference by Kenneth Samples

Recommended Podcasts:
Just Thinking
Let My People Think
Straight Thinking
Stand to Reason