This is the second of a two part series on human reality.
Neuroscience – the latest fashion
What’s fashionable now? How about neuroscience? Brain-scanning technology is now advanced enough to allow scientists to observe changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain under varying conditions. So it would be rather easy to suppose that we can identify mind and consciousness with brain functioning. However, this can take us from science to “scientism”, as retired physician and clinical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis writes in a recent article in NewStatesman:
“The republic of letters is in thrall to an unprecedented scientism. The word is out that human consciousness – from the most elementary tingle of sensation to the most sophisticated sense of self – is identical with neural activity in the human brain and that this extraordinary metaphysical discovery is underpinned by the latest findings in neuroscience. Given that the brain is an evolved organ, and, as the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, the neural explanation of human consciousness demands a Darwinian interpretation of our behaviour. The differences between human life in the library or the operating theatre and animal life in the jungle or the savannah are more apparent than real: at the most, matters of degree rather than kind.
“These beliefs are based on elementary errors. Just because neural activity is a necessary condition of consciousness, it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition of consciousness, still less that it is identical with it. And Darwinising human life confuses the organism Homo sapiens with the human person, biological roots with cultural leaves.” [Emphasis added.]
As important as such scientific advances are, this kind of reductionism cannot begin to account for what it means to be human in the kinds of ways that we humans would recognize as being truly ‘us’.
For a start, reductionism fails to engage with the centrality for human beings of meaning.
Meaning and humanity
Influential Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel homes in on just how central meaning is to the human condition:
“Human being is never sheer being; it is always involved in meaning. The dimension of meaning is as indigenous to his being human as the dimension of space is to stars and stones.” (Heschel, A. J., Who is Man? Stanford University Press, 1963, p. 51)
Heschel explains that we need to look at the totality of man and that this cannot be accomplished by scientific study only of aspects of human life:
“We are concerned with the totality of man’s existence, not only or primarily with some of its aspects. Vast scientific efforts are devoted to the exploration of various aspects of human life… Yet any specialized study of man treating each function and drive in isolation tends to look upon the totality of the person from the point of view of a particular function or drive. Such procedures have, indeed, resulted in an increasing atomization of our knowledge of man…” (p. 4)
Self-knowledge, says Heschel, is an inseparable part of our being. We cannot be without that knowledge. Not to know is to know falsely, says Heschel.
“Ignorance about man is not lack of knowledge but false knowledge” (p. 6)
And man’s authentic existence “goes on in an inner space” (p. 7), a dictum that reminds one immediately of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s statement that:
“The reality of man is his thought.” (Paris Talks, p. 17)
None of this is to say that the scientific study of humans and our humanity is unimportant. Far from it, as Heschel points out when he says that there is “no substitute for the work done by the various sciences dealing with man.” (p. 8)
“Yet there is an urgent need for an approach seeking to identify what is unique about the humanity of man, a task beyond the scope of the sciences mentioned above.” (pp. 8–9)
But the risk in the reductive, positivist approach to scientific studies of human functioning is what Heschel refers to as “empirical intemperance, the desire to be exact, to attend to ‘hard’ facts which are subject to measurement.” (p. 9). This, Heschel claims:
“…may defeat its own end. It makes us blind to the fact behind the facts – that what makes a human being human is not just mechanical, biological, and psychological functioning, but the ability to make decisions constantly….
“A human behavior pattern is not a monument to a life that is gone, but a drama full of life. It is a system as well as a groping, a wavering, a striking forth; solidity as well as outburst, deviation, inconsistency; not a final order but a process, conditioned, manipulated, questioned, challenged, and guided by a variety of factors.” (pp. 9–10)
Meaning and the rational soul
The human spirit, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá teaches, “distinguishes man from the animal” (Some Answered Questions, p. 208). It is the “rational soul”, that part of us which, according to Socrates, perceives the world in a spiritual manner and sees the essence of things. Self-knowledge is a precondition for knowing the world in this way. Hence the Socratic injunction to “know thyself”, to know who you truly are.
And who we truly are must encompass the rational soul, that part of us which, says ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
“…discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings.” (SAQ, p. 208)
But, says ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
“The human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities. It is like a mirror which, although clear, polished and brilliant, is still in need of light. Until a ray of the sun reflects upon it, it cannot discover the heavenly secrets.” (SAQ, p. 208–9)
The mechanistic philosophy underlying much 19th century and aspects of 20th century science – what One Common Faith (Bahá’í World Centre, 2005) refers to as “the iron dogma of scientific materialism” – has given us access to important knowledge about our parts. But it omits what is most important about our humanity: our conscious self-awareness, our capacity for reflection, our need for meaning, our yearning for transcendence – precisely the areas addressed by religions and spiritual traditions over the millennia.
But, when mechanism slides from being a useful framework for science to being an “iron dogma” about human reality, science and religion part company.
Reality is one
‘Abdu’l-Bahá teaches that reality is one. What we have dichotomized in our Cartesian way as body and mind, matter and spirit, are reflections of a single reality. To understand this one reality in all its diversity – indeed, to understand the reality of our humanity – we need both science and religion.
The elements of my grandson’s learning of language can be studied and accounted for by neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists. But what counts for him and those around him is that language empowers him to examine the realities of all things, to search for meaning, to connect with the transcendent realm, to become fully human.
This is second part of the 10th in a series of blogs on the unity of science and religion and its applications by Barney Leith, a member of the UK Bahá’í community and its National Spiritual Assembly. For more of his blogs, see http://barneyleith.com on Posterous.