This blog started out as a companion piece to my book, Musings from the Christian Left (excerpts of which can be found in the July 2004 link) and to support a planned radio show. Now, its simply a long term writing project from a Christian Left Libertarian perspective (meaning I often argue for liberty within the (Catholic) Church, rather than liberty because the church takes care of a conservative view of morality.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The mind, neuroscience and the beginning of life

Tomorrow at noon, if you are a C-SPAN BookTV watcher, be sure to catch a rebroadcast of Afterwords with Sally Satel, "Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience," hosted by Dan Vergano, USA Today Science Reporter.  It contrasts nicely with a few of the episodes of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman on the Science Channel, which talk about when life begins as well as what we have found out about the mind from neuroscience.  Both of these also relate to How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed by Ray Kurzweil.

I confess I have not read Dr. Satel's book, but can relate from the broadcast that she regards neuroscientists making conclusions about metaphysics as going a bridge too far.  This is the concluding chapter, however both the book and the C-SPAN program are worth watching and reading.  I would agree and disagree with her on this.  The finding that the actions of the brain occur before the reflections of consciousness have profound metaphysical impact - just not the impact that most neuroscientists, programmers or indeed ethicists have in mind. 

Both Morgan Freeman and Ray Kurzweil talk a bit about the beginning of life as well, with Morgan showing a few options, including life as beginning at conception, life beginning at the ability to be conscious and personhood beginning at about age five, when children become morally conscious.  He also talks about learning machines.  Kurzweil addresses the issue of the begining of life and abortion with the options of conception and the ability to be conscious.  Usually those who are pro abortion (not just pro choice) believe that consciousness in the womb is when life begins, while the pro lifers belive that fertilization is when life begins.  Kurzweil repeats this point.  

Kurzweil's main thrust is to describe the inevitability of machine intelligence which can be used to both supplement human intelligence and become conscious in its own right.  The book is also well worth reading, but take it in small chunks.  As an aside, in his Epilogue, he talks about the destiny of mankind in injecting human intelligence into the larger universe as an inevitability, especially if we can enhance ourselves with AI.  As a fan of Star Trek, it sounds to me like he is proposing we become the Borg.  I'm not sure I like that idea.  However, I don't think this will happen.  Let me explain why.

What neuroscience seems to show is that consciousness is not what it is cracked up to be.  Rather then being sentience itself, it is merely the experience of being sentient.  By sentience, I mean the ability to make moral choices, including the ability to choose evil.  In the world of artificial intelligence, I am fairly sure we don't want to give computers or the Web the ability to make such choices for us, which is why some of what Kurzweil and Freeman say will never happen.

Sentience happens in the brain.  Some would call such a contention materialistic.  I beg to differ.  The metaphysical implication is that the body and spirit are entirely intertwined - and not just in the brain.  Rather, the soul is the life force that stops the cells from entropy.  Once that soul is gone, entropy proceeds, starting with the brain (some organs life longer, so transplant surgery is possible).  
The beginning of life, then, would be that point where the life force begins to organize the human being - and that point is gastrulation.  Before that time, you can cut an embryo in two and make two people.  During the time between fertilization and gastrulation the maternal DNA (and therefore the maternal soul) entirely control the development of the child.  After gastrulation, the genes of both parents are equally responsible for development.  Until gastrulation, it is not possible to know whether the DNA from both parents is even compatible in that zygote, which is why most blastocysts die at this point.  Unless Heaven is populated with bad blastocysts, life cannot begin at conception.

This conclusion is both a defeat for the pro-life side and would be considered a victory if adopted - although it will only be a moral victory.  There is more to ending abortion than simply proving that post-gastrulation embryos have a soul.  Starting life at that point would turn each miscarriage into a public event - and that will never be allowed to happen in this country.  If abortion is to be decreased, the answer is economic - however that is the subject of a different column. 

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