Gary Patterson: a few thoughts on Philosophical Realism

In order to think critically about the world in which we live, we need to adopt a philosophical stance. Most people do not do this consciously, but they do have a worldview! Serious thinkers must explicitly choose the framework within which they will consider the meaning of reality.

Scientists normally adopt a view of observable reality that attributes persistent existence to the objects of study. (They exist independently of the observer.) Scientific theories often invoke entities that cannot be observed directly, at least during the era when the theory is promulgated. One example from Chemistry is the chemical atom. While the so-called corpuscular theory of matter had been adopted by some scientists for a long time (Boyle, Newton, Boscovich etc.), Dalton proposed that each chemical element was characterized by a unique and different entity known as a chemical atom. Every school child today has heard of the chemical elements, but in the 19th century, even famous chemists remained skeptical of the notion. (Physicists were even more skeptical, especially because Dalton was a chemist and a Quaker.) Some chemists adopted a view that while chemical atoms were useful constructs, they had no physical existence. This philosophical stance has been given many names, but in the 19th century it was called Positivism. Another common name in philosophical circles is Empiricism, since no entity was considered real unless it could be observed directly. Chemical atoms can now be observed “directly” and the issue is over, but it took a great deal of evidence to convince some scientists that this was the case. Many died as agnostic about chemical atoms.

It has been known for a long time that inside the human skull there was a complicated object composed of many different kinds of tissue. This area was supplied with blood vessels. For most of human history the brain was supposed to be an air conditioner, since it gave off so much heat! The seat of thinking was assigned to other places within the body or to an immaterial substrate. The anatomical and physiological function of the brain is now known with exquisite, but far from complete, detail. The brain is connected to a large number of sensory organs and detects light, sound, heat flow, mechanical pressure, etc. These functions appear in all primates and many things have been learned from animal experiments. But, there is only one animal with true language skills and only one who can reason logically from observation to explanation. In spite of this evidence, the experimental psychology community was very slow to adopt a view of human cognition that was a form of mental realism. That time has now come! Our thoughts are now believed to be more than just an epiphenomenon.

Since thoughts are now considered real things, it is possible to construct a phenomenological science of thought. One of the most interesting areas of physical psychology is the phenomenon of illusions. Everyone has personally experienced such situations, and the catalog of perceptual illusions is now huge. Another common phenomenon is the existence of false memories. People will assert with some passion that they experienced something which would have been impossible. Discounting outright fakery, these people are sincere, but quite mistaken. The research literature in phenomenological mind science is huge, and must be taken into account at all times.

It is now extremely fashionable to explore the detailed functioning of the brain. It can be observed with x-rays, positrons, microwaves, radio waves (MRI), electrical waves and magnetic waves. Both spatial and temporal information can be gained. This field of functional brain science is now highly developed. The brain is composed of an enormous number of functional capacities. Some of these abilities are localized, while some of them seem to be distributed in space. There is a lot more to learn, but the current state of the description of the biological brain is very sophisticated.

One of the most important facts about the brain established in the last 25 years is that most of what goes on in the brain is not under conscious control. And when the unconscious brain needs input from the conscious brain, it initiates the conversation. One functionality of the left brain is called the interpreter. It tries to make sense of what the brain is currently experiencing. It does the best it can, but is not a particularly reliable guide. The “eye witness” paradox is due to the fact that each person’s interpreter constructs a different story of an event. Our interpreter “sees” a picture that may differ substantially from the excitation of our retina! The fact that we remember a highly modulated version of external reality should warn us about our human limitations. We are a lot better than lower animals at certain things, but they cannot afford to be conned by their brain: it must work or they will either starve or become nothing but food for another animal.

For Christians we believe in the spiritual world and hence must adopt a philosophical position of spiritual realism. We believe that prayer is a meaningful activity and that there is someone “listening” to our prayers. Some “liberal” theologians just reject the whole notion of spiritual realism, while others adopt a position that, while there is no such thing as a spiritual world, it is still useful to pray since it changes us! People who pray often give money to religious organizations!

The Christian Scientific Society is fully committed to a stance of spiritual realism. Communication between God and man happens and we can experience it. Explaining exactly how this occurs in biological terms is not likely, but recalling verses like: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” emboldens us to embrace spiritual realism. No functional MRI is likely to prove such a stance, but personal experience does confirm the “voice of the Spirit.” On the other hand, providing a biological explanation for how our mind relates to our brain does not invalidate our spiritual experiences. (If there was no evidence at all of spiritual phenomena, it would take great faith to assume such a stance.) Conflating the scientific activity of studying the brain and the mind with an attempt to invalidate spiritual realism is misguided. The fact that some scientists go well beyond science to try to assert atheism does not invalidate all science. Now is a good time to engage with the cognitive neuroscience community. The more we know about how our brain and mind works, the better we will be able to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus here on earth.

Gary Patterson is Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie-Mellon University and a member of the CSS

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