Sunday, November 7, 2010

Book Review of "Why Us?" Part 4

In my final installment of this book review, I'll discuss ch 8 in which Le Fanu addresses neuroscience. His primary question about the brain is this: "How to reconcile what the brain is from what the brain does?" He answers his own question by stating "they cannot be reconciled, and the dissonance between the unprepossessing, homogeneous brain and the spiritual mind to which it gives rise was for thousands of years the most persuasive evidence for the 'dual' nature of reality consisting of both a material and a non-material realm." He spends the rest of the chapter arguing that neuroscience research supports this dual nature of reality, by inadvertently confirming "the reality of the soul."

Le Fanu describes scientists' attempts to understand the mind as if they were children chasing a rainbow. No matter how much is learned about the structure or function of the brain, understanding it's inner workings continues to be an elusive task. He describes 5 areas in which the brain continues to remain a mystery:

1. Subjective Awareness
2. Free Will
3. Richness and Accessibility of Memory
4. Human Reason and Imagination
5. Sense of Self

He summarizes his view of these limits to science by stating "These may be 'mysteries' to science, but they are certainly not to ourselves. Indeed there is nothing we can be more certain of than the reality of our sense of self and our everyday perceptions of the world around us, our thoughts and memories. The paradoxical legacy of the Decade of the Brain, then, is to bring to our attention in the most forcible manner how the human mind, like the Double Helix, fails the test of scientific knowability not just once but twice over. First, science, for all it has revealed about the 'without' workings of the brain, can tell us not an iota about the 'within' of the non-material mind, no how it imposes 'the order of understanding' by bridging that gap between those perceptions, thoughts and memories as we know them to be and the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of the brain as they are known to science."

I think Le Fanu does an excellent job of highlighting the unknowns of science. However, I'm not sure that this necessarily translates into an authoritative assertion that these areas will remain unknown. He gives a great deal of weight to our internal experience of ourselves as evidence for the non material. He boldly declares: "When the most certain thing I know is the reality of my non material self as a unique, distinct, structured spiritual entity, then there is every reason to believe it to be so. And when I have the impression of myself as an autonomous being 'free to choose', then that is how it is, regardless of whether the ability of my non material, freely chosen thoughts to influence my actions contradicts the laws of science." Whether this is right or wrong, I think it reflects a typical human response. In discussions with people about their belief or lack of a belief in God, I've observed that it almost always comes down to their experience or lack thereof with what they perceive to be the metaphysical. What have you observed to be the case?


  1. Hi,
    I think our personal experiences are important especially when dealing with issues of spirituality. We, I think, want so much proof, and evidence that what we believe and are doing with our lives is right; and often the only place we can get validation for any of this is our own experience. I think it may come down to "is my experience trustworthy." If not, why? If so, why? We trust what we see; putting hypotheses to the test to see if they are true; in my mind life experience, or God experience, is a very similar concept. Maybe the only way to discern anything in the spiritual realm is by one's own experience. I'm sure others disagree... I'd be interested to know...

  2. Anonymous,
    Your question "is my experience trustworhty" is a good one. On the one hand, we have to rely on our experiences to a great extent to make it on a daily basis in this world. On the other hand, there's plenty of evidence that our perceptions and sensations and reasoning do often fail us. I think our experiences are trustworthy enough to help us make it through life. Whether or not they are adequate to the task of discerning the spiritual realm is another question. And I really don't have the answer.

  3. "In discussions with people about their belief or lack of a belief in God, I've observed that it almost always comes down to their experience or lack thereof with what they perceive to be the metaphysical. What have you observed to be the case?" Honestly, my experience is that most people just don't think and analyze to the point that I do...thus, one's faith is entirely dependent on what you were exposed to as a child. I agree with some of Le fanu's discussion about he unknowns, although I'm not as negative as he is. The one thing I've noticed is that nowadays, knowledge has become so much segmental...people miss the grand picture with all the distractions of life (TV, kids, money, etc). As I read some quotes and works from generations long ago, I am struck with how much more time they had to "think and wonder"...and in some ways, I think our generation is "less intelligent" than those before, and in danger of not making more improvements in the way we think about the brain and psychology.