Neuroscience and the Human Spirit

William J. Bennett

Explanations of man's behavior advance, but science doesn't and can't have all the answers.

Mr. Bennett is the author, most recently, of The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals (Free Press). This article is adapted from a speech to a conference of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

FOR more than three decades, Tom Wolfe has been an astute observer of the rise and fall of contemporary fashions, heroes, and mores. In the 1970s, he wrote about hippies. In the 1980s, he wrote about Wall Street stockbrokers. In the 1990s, though, he has written about neuroscientists.

Neuroscience is "hot." Even Larry King recently called the Nineties "the decade of the brain." Are neuroscientists the new Masters of the Universe? They certainly enjoy great prestige, and for many good reasons. Their research has led to dramatic and more humane treatments of persons suffering from mental disease, depression, and physical injury to the brain and nervous system. Alzheimer's disease may be cured within the next decade. Paralysis as the result of trauma to the spinal chord has been made less common. As I learned in my work as President Bush's drug czar, neuroscience has taught us a great deal about addiction; about, for example, the effects of cocaine on dopamine neurotransmission; of LSD on serotonin; and of chronic inhalant abuse on myelin. This knowledge has helped us take useful action against the scourge of drug abuse.

Not surprisingly, the reputation of scientists is at an all-time high. In a recent poll, a majority of Americans said they trust the scientific community more than almost anyone, including the Supreme Court, organized religion, Congress, teachers, and the U.S. military. (Only doctors-viewed by the public as a subset of scientists-have more prestige.) Scientific advances are leading us to dream of a better world, leading us to imagine a world free of disease, pain, suffering, anxiety, and even unhappiness.

Science looks especially good in comparison with its seeming competitors. It remains a preserve of what is best in the American university. While too many seminars in religion, literature, history, and philosophy chase trends, discard the search for knowledge, and marginalize the idea of objectivity, the sciences by and large remain devoted to their methods and to the search for truth.

The accomplishments of science are legion. Can the humanities make that boast today? The view of many opinionmakers is that, at best, the contributions of religion and philosophy are fuzzy; at worst, they have inflamed passions and incited extremist political movements, genocide, and world wars. Having subverted their own claim to authority by all too often trading intellectual integrity for political correctness, the humanities now face the attack and even mockery of an ever more confident science.

While religion or philosophy or literature once held the promise of answering man's deepest questions, now science seems to have taken the reins. And so the claim has arisen that science will be able to replace the humanities and unify all knowledge, will answer all the meaningful questions. One prominent scientist tells us that beliefs in souls and spirits arose as crude "hypotheses intended to explain certain data that stymie our everyday theories." He assures us that we are now more blessed, for, he argues, "modern science has come up with a better theory of shadows and reflections."

The Materialist Temptation

Recall the great questions of philosophy: What is man? What am I to do? What am I to hope for? A number of scientists, and their fans, seem to consider these questions-perhaps the clearest manifestations of the human spirit- products of our nescient childhood. Now that we are scientists, we can put away childish things-including the concepts of God, the human soul, and moral responsibility.

One advocate of this view, M.I.T. Professor Steven Pinker, argues that science is itself an evolutionary development of the brain. The mind, he claims, evolved to provide just such empirical accounts of the world. Pinker further asserts that, given this evolutionary history, the mind is unsuited to any other task than inquiry. While he admits that man has always asked questions about the meaning of the world and human existence, these questions of religion and philosophy are not truly meaningful ones. For religion and philosophy are but the primitive responses to the unknown. Once we have developed our scientific understanding-that is, once evolution has proceeded, once we have ascended from our delusional, pre-scientific caves- we can explain these responses as adaptive mechanisms for our earlier ignorance.

This sort of argument isn't new under the sun. In the nineteenth century, Napoleon said to Laplace: "You have written this huge book [Celestial Mechanics] without once mentioning the Author of the universe," to which Laplace replied, "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace's book turned out to be wrong. Quantum physics has shown that we simply cannot know the position and direction of every particle in the universe, a hypothesis that Laplace's declarations depended on.)

Today's scientists may approach these kinds of broad, deterministic claims with more caution than did Laplace. But the fact is that some highly regarded, well-respected, influential scientists sound like Laplace. Tom Wolfe writes: "[T]he new generation of neuroscientists are not cautious for a second. In private conversations, the bull sessions, as it were, that create the mental atmosphere of any hot new science . . . they express an uncompromising determinism."

Harvard professor E. O. Wilson, for instance, has recently written a book called Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. According to the scientifically based consilient worldview, it explains, "All tangible phenomena from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and torturous, to the laws of physics" (emphasis added). God is dead, because He never was alive.

If the Laplacian view is not new, neither are the reasons for its current appeal. People have always sought simplicity and unity. Throughout the history of science and philosophy, intelligent men have often made the claim that there was only one principle that accounts for reality. It started with a philosopher named Thales, who thought that all that was, was water. Water, the original source and ultimate substance of the universe, explained everything. (For the record, Aristotle called Thales "lisping and childish.")

Another reason for the prominence of this view is that science has succeeded in so many fields. Science has explained things that had gone unexplained for ages. People predict-they trust-that this success will go on, through all areas of human inquiry, forever. The claim has power because the claimants have prestige.

Finally, this view is appealing to some from a moral perspective. If we can give up religion, the spirit, and the soul, we can give up their demands, too. People are not morally responsible if they are wholly controlled by laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. Recall Edmund in King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune-often the surfeit of our own behaviour,-we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

Beyond Science

For all its attractions, the deterministic argument is untenable. Take the notion that science is itself an evolutionary development of the brain. For one thing, there is the breath-taking circularity of the argument. Science exists. But where does it come from? It comes from the brain. How? By the brain's evolutionary development. How do we know? Because science exists, and that's the only way it could have developed.

Let's say that we are hard-wired; that all we do is explicable by biological and physical processes; that we are programmed, just like a robot. Who wrote the program for the robot? Did the program arise spontaneously? Who or what explains the spontaneity? And if there is a programmer-what we used to call God-that programmer, if He wished, could have granted us free will. We simply do not know which it is. The assertion that there is no God is, at root, just an assertion.

Keep in mind that there are many scientists of note who accept all that science has proven, but who still believe in God and human freedom. Why? Because materialistic determinism ultimately relies on a philosophical claim. The claim that science encompasses and accounts for all of reality is a claim that cannot be verified by the scientific method itself. Similarly, science, in the end, cannot account for itself.

Albert Einstein understood that his desire to do physics originated from somewhere else besides quantum-physics equations. He said "the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest driving force behind science." He also said, echoing Kant, that "science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind." Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Prize evolutionary biologist, recently told Science magazine: "Nothing so far disproves the divine. What is incontrovertible is that a religious impulse guides our motive in sustaining scientific inquiry."

My quarrel, I hope it is clear, is not with science per se: not with developments in brain-imaging, or depression medications, or I.Q. studies. My quarrel is with a philosophical claim dressing itself up as a "value- neutral" scientific claim. The issue here is not whether what science tells us is true, important, or meaningful. Rather, the issue is whether it is the only truth, the only meaningful account of human activity.

Jeremy Bernstein, author of Quantum Profiles, recently observed of E. O. Wilson and various other sociobiologists that they think that all phenomena are to be explained in terms ultimately reductionist; that a "bewildering array of data is a set of units obeying laws that often display a remarkable mathematical elegance. In physics, the reduction goes down to the quark, which is the modern physicists' atom. In evolutionary biology, it goes down to the gene and its component molecules."

But biology is not readily reducible to physics. As Bernstein notes, electrons don't have biographies; genes (and people) do. Critical to understanding the evolution of genes is knowing something of that evolutionary story, and such story-telling is not a part of a physicist's account of the ultimate particles and forces.

Even more storytelling is necessary to account for human life. I may know my biological makeup; I may know a great deal about how that makeup evolved; I may even see that I am "hard-wired" to a certain degree. But are these accounts all there is to what I am? Is that all there is? I may know that the brain processes the "booming buzzing confusion" of the senses, but what matters to me as well is whether I should pursue the kind of life I have; whether I should marry, whether I should raise children, whether I should devote my life to God, whether I should sacrifice my life for these or those ideals. However popular, however exciting, however flattering to us, the scientific materialist account falls short. It provides an account of human life. But it does not, and never will, provide a full account.

A group of neuroscientists recently compared the brains of sixteen healthy 10- to 18-year-olds with those of healthy adults. They found that young people had much greater activity in the part of the brain that plays a key role in instinctual reaction, the amygdala, than in the frontal lobe, the part involved in rational thought. The comments from the researchers, reported in the Washington Post, are instructive: "'These results . . . show age-related physiological changes in the brains of adolescents which may help explain the emotionally turbulent years,' says Professor Yurelun-Todd."

So according to this account, science has found that adolescents react more with emotion than rationality. It has said it understands "emotional turbulence." Well . . . well done. We have learned something here, obviously. But, again, is that all there is? Is that the best there is?

We learn quite a bit-we learn more-about the souls of human teenagers (and yes, they exist) from Romeo and Juliet. Act II, Scene 6: Romeo comes to Friar Lawrence's cell to meet Juliet and be married by the Good Friar. Here's Romeo:

But come what sorrow can,

It cannot countervail the exchange of joy

That one short minute give me in her sight.

Do thou but close our hands with holy words,

Then love-devouring death do what he dare-

It is enough I may but call her mine.

To which, Friar Lawrence responds:

These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,

Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey

Is loathsome in his own deliciousness

And in the taste confounds the appetite.

Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;

Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Amygdala? Frontal lobe? Okay. But Shakespeare, too, is knowing and worth knowing.

Open Mind over Matter

Saul Bellow, in his 1976 Nobel Prize Address, observes that the reductive pictures of man in the age of science "no more resemble us than we resemble the reconstructed reptiles and other monsters in a museum of paleontology. We are much more limber, versatile, better articulated, there is much more to us-we all feel it." We have, he goes on to say, "an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for."

It is this quest for a "more flexible, more comprehensive account" of ourselves that defines the human condition. And it is one that demands of us an openness to the many dimensions of human experience. By ruling out a priori those accounts not expressible in the causal theories of science, we truncate inquiry-just as we would if we failed to pursue scientific knowledge out of fear that our basic religious beliefs would be threatened. Both block inquiry, both block man-his spirit, his mind, his work.

I believe man is best pictured in the theistic traditions. The world is a created world. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo expresses not a scientific causal assertion but a view of the human world that affirms our striving. It is both an affirmation of our hopes and a reminder of our fears.

Those hopes cannot be fulfilled, as those fears cannot be answered, by science alone. The questions that must be asked are hard. But as the American philosopher Josiah Royce reminds us, asking such questions does have its point: "It is difficult to wrestle with angels, but there are some blessings that can't be won in any other way."

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