What’s the Matter with Matter?

          I have been intrigued for some time by the nature vs. nurture controversy and have read numerous books and articles that take one side or the other, or that try to find a compromise between the two.  The debate seems to date back at least to the time of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-originators of the modern theory of evolution, though in different costume the question probably goes back much further, to the origin myths of ancient peoples.  For example, the doctrine of original sin posits that humans are evil because of a terrible sin committed by Adam and Eve which passed on to all their descendents.  That original sin was to defy God’s will concerning man’s correct, designated place in Creation; Adam and Eve aspired to be as the gods.  (In this regard it is interesting to reflect on a stained-glass window in the cathedral of Milan that depicts Adam and Eve before the fall as having hairy bodies, which suggests that they were more akin to animals than to gods or angels.)  In Greek myth, of course, there is the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the people, thus enabling civilization.  These and other ancient stories articulate the sense that early people had of being something more than animals yet something less than gods, an acknowledged conflicted condition that generated questions such as what is human nature (“What is man that thou art mindful of him?”) and do men have any degree of freedom or are we condemned to the irrational and incomprehensible turnings of the wheel of fortune.  In Christian terms, given the fatefulness of original sin, do we have free will, and if we do, to what extent?

          I suspect that this latter question especially grew out of human awareness of the degree to which we can consciously think about our fate while so often not being able to do much about it, especially mortality.  I think it likely that no other animal, regardless of how intelligent or trainable, devotes so much time not only to thinking about death but in trying to make death meaningful.  It is deep philosophical questions of human thought, human consciousness, that lie at the bottom of the debates over nature vs. nurture (one might add free will to this list, but free will can exist only in a consciously thinking being).  For millennia, at least in the Western world, the problem was seemingly solved by ascribing thought to the soul.  In the Phaedo, for example, Plato has Socrates complain that being in a body impedes his pursuit of philosophy and that after his bodily death his soul will be able to know Truth because his soul will be free of the distractions of material existence.  Christian thought developed this idea fully, but ideas of soul or spirit have not been limited to the West.  The soul not only animates the body, is not only eternal rather than temporary, but is also consciousness itself.

It was the question of the soul that ultimately divided Darwin and Wallace.  Darwin knew that his theory of evolution through natural selection did away with any need for God as an explanation for the origins of life and of human beings; Wallace knew that, too, but could not bear the idea that human thought and consciousness could be nothing more than the product of a hunk of meat that thinks.  In that way, as well as in some others, Wallace predates the Intelligent Design movement of today.  But even earlier, during the enlightenment, brilliant minds could take a mechanistic view of the universe and of animal life, even to the point of believing animals were mere machines without consciousness or feeling, but could not accept a purely material, mechanistic view of the human mind.  There had to be something else, something ineffable or immaterial, to account for mind.  Thus the mind vs. matter dichotomy was a continuation of the soul vs. body dichotomy.

Although often disguised in language that does not reveal their pedigree, today’s nature vs. nurture debates are a continuation of the ancient soul/body, mind/matter distinction.  And despite the continuing appeal of religion in many people’s lives (although for many of these people religion lacks a coherent narrative), it appears that science has settled the question in favor of the naturist view—or at least, the large number of books arguing so creates the impression that it has.[i]  It is also interesting that those who argue for a nurturist position just don’t get the same press attention.

It is not my purpose here to engage in the debate directly.  As I discovered at a recent conference on consciousness, both sides are dug into their positions and can engage in point-counterpoint arguments well past the official end time of a seminar.  What interests me more is why the debate seems to have taken such a sharp turn in the direction of naturism in the last few decades.  There have been important discoveries in neuroscience—though we are still far from fully understanding how the brain works.  There are appealing new metaphors, such as computers and software, and theories of artificial intelligence, that provide seemingly new ways of talking about mind.  And our increasing knowledge of genetics appears to provide considerable evidence for the innateness of human behaviors and the role of instinct in determining everything from shyness to how likely we are to commit violent crimes.  Most importantly, naturists claim that human free will is an illusion and that consciousness does not decide our actions but provides a post hoc rationale for actions we have already taken.  In his exhaustive attack on the nurturist view in his 2002 book The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker, the most popular of the popularizers, states that “cognitive neuroscience is showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems” and that “The conscious mind—the self or soul—is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.”

Well, to assert that the self, consciousness, the soul, is just another network of brain systems does indeed topple the little man from his throne.  To be “just” something is to be diminished.  There is no self, there is no soul, there is no consciousness.  We are all hallucinating.  (Never mind the question of who it is that is hallucinating.)  To denigrate the self in the context of arguing against the nurturist view indicates that there is something deeply troubling about that view, and indeed Pinker spends a great deal of time dispatching not scientific foes (at least not on their science—see his attacks on Lewontin, a much better scientist than Pinker is) but ideological, political ones.  Among the targets are social constructionists, feminists, anthropologists, psychologists and, of course, communists.  Notice that all of these tend to be on the liberal or left side of the liberal vs. conservative spectrum.  This anti-left bias may be explained by the recent historical link between social constructivism (either rightly or wrongly construed) and Stalinism.  Social constructivism, and nurturism in general, can be seen as having led, in communist hands, to more than one massive imposition of totalitarianism on a nation (Russia and its East European satellites; Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, North Korea).  Communism from Lenin on engaged in a massive experiment in re-shaping human beings according to ideology and disregarded, discarded, any concern with individual human dignity or rights, any expression of personhood or selfhood over against, if I may coin a term, socialhood.  In the Communist view, there is no human nature, there is only history, and the party and the great leader in their wisdom will accelerate history and bring about a new material and moral paradise.  The results of which are a matter of historical record.

The naturist view, which is fundamentally an anti-nurturist view, is a strong rejection of any attempt to impose one man’s or one party’s ideology on all human individuals.  In the process, it throws the baby out with the bathwater; it denies the very thing it is trying to save.  By reducing human thought, consciousness, free will, the self, to “just another network of brain systems” without explaining the fact that we are conscious, that we have or are selves, that we have, even if limited, free will, they deny individual human dignity just as thoroughly as did the Stalinists.  And the results of such a denial are just as bad, when carried into practice by men too vulgar to understand the nuances of their arguments.  Let us not forget that while Stalinists were extreme nurturists, the Nazis were extreme naturists—their ideology, such as it was, hinged on race: the racial purity of the Aryans and the racial decay of the inferior races; blood (i.e., inheritance, genetic ancestry) trumped all other values, as testified to by the fact that even when it was clear that Germany was losing the war and that train transport for troops and materiel was badly needed, the Nazi leadership continued to commandeer trains to carry Jews to the death camps.

So then the question is that with which I began this essay, the problem of soul vs. body, mind vs. matter.  The naturist view has not escaped the grip of this ancient, and I will now assert outdated, dichotomy.  To assert that the self is just another brain network is to continue to engage in this paradox rather than to escape from it; it is to continue to believe that, if there is no soul there is no self, no thought, no free will.  It is to assert by implication that matter is inert and requires an animating élan vital to bring it to genuine life.  In achieving their goal of discarding the ghost in the machine, naturists are left with nothing but the machine.  By denying the self, they actually cede the argument to the nurturists, for very few people are going to accept that they are not thinking selves.  The experience of being a self, of the manifest difference between being conscious and not conscious, of thought and reflection, trumps all of the supposed evidence to the contrary.  But there is no reason to abandon the self (etc.) for there is no reason to suppose that matter cannot think.  Indeed, the evidence of experience (as contained in history and literature as well as it is lived) tells us that matter can think.  If all is matter (if there is no “spirit”), and if human beings are matter, and if human beings can think, then it follows that matter can think.  The soul or homunculus or whatever simply isn’t necessary as an explanation.  The workings of matter are sufficient.  We may not have worked out exactly how it is that matter organized in a certain way (the brain) can think, have a self, etc., and we may never work it out.  The lack of an adequate, let alone thorough, explanation does not mean that the phenomenon does not exist.

This non-ghost, this conscious thinking self, is subject to limitations.  As the product of a physical organ, one among many that constitute the human body, it is constrained by capacity, disease, and mortality.  Yet it is capable of new ideas, reflections, and material creations, and joined by language to other minds, creates cultures which in turn inform the thoughts of other minds both in the present and over time.  The ideas I hold, including the ideas I have expressed in this essay, are not the result of instinct, nor of pure independent thought, but are those plus my position in a culture, my education and reading, my conversations and teaching.  I have been nurtured, for better or worse, by my culture.  That I am composed of matter does not mean I am a machine.


[i] I have reviewed some recent examples of such books elsewhere on this blog.

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