Tuesday, August 11, 2015

J. P. Moreland Thinks He Understands the Brain

I absolutely love this video by J. P. Moreland, a fourth-rate philosopher and ID advocate who teaches at a fifth-rate Bible college (Biola University, which gets its name from "Bible Institute of Los Angeles", the more honest name they used for many years).

I can't think of a better example of the intellectual bankruptcy of the kind of "Christian thought" that gave us both intelligent design and the "evolutionary argument against naturalism". Biola also hosted the conference that resulted in Mere Creation, a volume that included one of the most laughable mathematical articles ever, written by (you guessed it) David Berlinski.

As you watch the video, keep in mind that "Biola holds to the key doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, the idea that the original writings of the Bible were without error with regard to both theological and non-theological matters. As a final guarantee of strict adherence to its theological worldview, the university requires every faculty member, when first hired and again upon application for tenure, to submit their understanding of and complete agreement with each item of the doctrinal and teaching statements to the Talbot School of Theology for evaluation." [wikipedia]

Moreland seems to think that philosophy, and specifically Christian philosophy, holds the key to understanding the mind.

In this short video, how many misunderstandings and silly assertions can you find? Here is a brief list:

  1. incoherence and untestability of his definition of "soul": "an immaterial substance that contains consciousness and animates the body"
  2. no definition of "consciousness"
  3. "consciousness actually resides in the brain" (all those sensory organs we have are, I suppose, completely irrelevant to consciousness)
  4. "Darwin admitted when he came up with his theory of evolution that it could not explain the origin of mind" (as if modern evolutionary theory depends on what Darwin thought in the 1800's)
  5. "the problem for the atheist is how you can get mind from matter" (as if computers or brains are not made of matter)
  6. "if I'm just a body and a brain, then probably at the end of the day drugs ... and things of that sort will be the ultimate tools to help change people" (as if, for example, if you want to reprogram a computer, then offering new data to that computer can have no effect at all on that computer's behavior)
  7. "consciousness is immaterial"
  8. "if you start with matter from the Big Bang, and all you do is rearrange it according to the laws of chemistry and physics, you're not going to be able to get a conscious rabbit out of that material hat" (as if bodies and brains are not rearrangements of matter and energy)
At the end, Moreland reveals his real agenda. He's not really interested in understanding the brain at all. What he wants is to "generate ideas that will be useful to the spread of the Gospel and the promotion of the kingdom of god". When that's the real goal, it's not surprising at all that the ideas generated are so completely incoherent and uninformed by science.


lukebarnes said...

A chance to expand on a few of your thoughts ...

1. What do mean when you say that a definition is untestable? I assume you mean that the existence of the soul is untestable.
2. Are you alleging that this is an oversight, or that consciousness cannot be meaningfully defined?
3. "All those sensory organs we have are, I suppose, completely irrelevant to consciousness". I could go blind, deaf, etc and still be conscious. The organs that provide sense data are one thing; the *whatever* that has conscious experiences is quite another.
4. Spot on.
5. Assuming that consciousness is a feature of minds, could a computer be conscious? Could a brain be unconscious i.e. a philosophical zombie? If not, why not? Which arrangements of matter are conscious? Which solutions of the Schrodinger equation? Which turing machines? This is hardly a solved problem.
6. Yep. Conclusion doesn't follow.
7. To be proved: to be anything is to be composed of matter. Proof: ...
8. See 5.

We don't all think about brains and consciousness in the same way that, say, an expert on automata theory does ...

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Ah! So Biola stands for "Bible Institute of Los Angeles". Thank you for pointing this out! When I wrote about John Lennox having received the infamous Philip Johnson award by Biola University I didn't catch the meaning of the term; it's not on their site, at least it's not easy to find it there.

Steve Watson said...

I'll agree with #7. Perhaps it's a semantic quibble, but consciousness is a process, not a substance. However (unlike Moreland, I expect) I think that all evidence shows that it takes place in, and depends on, the brain as a physical substrate. (Just as the process "flow of a river" takes place in a substrate of water and topography).

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Luke: people mean many different things when they use the word "consciousness". If it means "awareness and able to respond to the environment", then sense organs such as sight and hearing are crucially a part of the process. If it means "self-awareness", then we need a model of the environment sufficiently complicated to include ourselves, so it evidently requires sensory organs and some computation. For both these definitions, it is obvious that a computer could be conscious.

I do not think "consciousness" and "conscious experience" are the same thing. All this points to the crucial fact that one needs to define one's terms as carefully as possible, because our "folk understanding" of them are not up to the task.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

"We don't all think about brains and consciousness in the same way that, say, an expert on automata theory does": you're right. But I'd contend that if you want to make progress about brains, minds, and consciousness you need to know two things really well: first, neuroscience, and second, the theory of computation. I'd be willing to bet any amount of money that when the answers come, they will arise from a computational point of view. And philosophers (and especially Christian philosophers like Moreland) will have contributed absolutely nothing to the solution.

MNb said...

"an immaterial substance that contains consciousness"
"consciousness actually resides in the brain"
I love this! Apparently to this BIOLA (I would like to make a joke about ebola, but that would offend the victims of that terrible disease) expert the brain is immaterial. This is confirmed by 7.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

The claim that there is an immaterial soul that animates our body is flatly refuted by particle physics. Thus nutjob is effectively claiming that the matter in your brain is being made to act in ways that doesn't result from the laws of physics and chemistry, that in the absense of an immaterial soul, the matter in our brains would be doing something else.

This implies that any action we take should in principle be traceable back through a line of physical interactions that somehow stops in the brain where it no longer follows from physical law. Basically he's asserting that sodium and carbon atoms somewhere in the brain are being supernaturally forced to move. This would also violate the laws of thermodynamics as I understand them, since it implies information and energy is being supernaturally created so as to move atoms around in our brains.

EVERYTHING WE KNOW TELLS US THIS ISN'T TRUE. Why don't religious people take particle physics seriously? Why don't they actually catch up and deal with these facts? I have not ever seen even an attempt to address this argument and it's not just me making it. Sean Carroll has made a similar argument before about us knowing basically everything there is to know about the physics of matter at the scale of atoms, molecules and cells in the brain.

Watch this video: Physicist Sean Carroll - Emperor Has No Clothes Award Acceptance Speech. Truly the emperor has no clothes. The conclusion is in, there is no immaterial human soul. Get over it.

Aron said...


Help me understand Carroll's argument. He's saying we have a complete picture of how particles behave, and so we know exactly what the particles in our brains would do ABSENT supernatural intervention via an immaterial soul. Ok, fine. But how does the fact that we know what particles do absent supernatural intervention show that supernatural intervention isn't happening? Has anyone ever done an experiment in which the particles in someone's brain are monitored and verified that their brain particulars are following the expected laws? If so, this would be a decisive refutation of substance dualism and libertarian free will. Has any such experiment been conducted?

Champion Debater said...


You're assuming the supernatural exist. Has any experiment ever validated the supernatural (whatever that is)?