Recent Activities: Neuroscience and Robin Le Poidevin

So, I hope you’ve all had a good Christmas! Just thought I’d share what I’m currently working on at the moment.

My main concern at the moment is getting back on course with university – as some of you may know, I broke my leg last term/semester and so (for various subsequent reasons) fell behind quite a lot on work. I’m therefore revising plenty of Neuroscience (my main examination topic), as well as working on my research project and extended essay. For my research, I’m doing a neuroimaging project, quite similar to the work of Libet in the 1980s. Libet was the person who did the famous work on free will, where he – in some people’s view – demonstrated that our free decisions are made before we are consciously aware of them. I’m doing similar work, using magnetoencephalography to look at the difference in brain activity between movements made freely (the subject can choose which hand to use and whenever to move it) and those dictated by an external stimulus. I’ve done all the scans and have moved onto data analysis, so will hopefully come up with something good! I’ll perhaps share some of the eventual results and discussion here, for those who are more interested in that kind of thing. In any case, it’s been interesting to see the apologetic and theological implications of this area of research – and will hopefully allow me to be one of the more informed participants in discussions about whether neurology has gotten rid of the idea of a soul!

For my essay, I’m covering the slightly unusual topic of sex and the brain. I haven’t come up with a more specific subject area yet, but I’m roughly hoping to look at the neurobiology of love, relationships and the rest. This will have obvious apologetic implications too, which are potentially broad (thinking about reductionism, relationship with God, unembodied mind, as well as pastoral issues). The problem is that the field has expanded so rapidly that it’s hard to pick a particular area to focus on. People have looked at genetics, neurotransmitters, similarities with diseases, and sociological/evolutionary studies to look into this area, which has generated some Google searches you might not expect to find on a Christian’s computer (‘chimpanzee sex’, for example). For those interested in this issue further, do feel free to get in contact. The main areas of current exploration seem to be to do with vasopressin, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, differing levels and dispersion of these and their receptors having enormous effects on both romantic relationship and general social function. After several rodent studies showed dramatic changes in paternal and mating behaviour after vasopressin changes, for example, the most interesting finding in humans recently is that humans with a particular variant of a vasopressin receptor are substantially more likely to have marital problems than those with the normal variant. Implications abound!

In terms of direct apologetics, philosophy and theology, my recent aims have been to develop as rigorous a natural theology as possible, particularly in light of potential debates I have coming up this year (details to be confirmed – keep watching). In particular, I’m currently trying to get through some of the most cogent defences of atheism around, so received several books on the subject for Christmas. One was Robin Le Poidevin’s “Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. I got this on the recommendation of Luke Muehlhauser from Common Sense Atheism, who I consider to be a fair and honest person when it comes to the Philosophy of Religion. This book was included in the “Advanced” section of his recommended books on atheism.

Le Poidevin comes across as a fair and honest philosopher; there is nothing here suggesting any particular antipathy against religion. Indeed, there are hints of Don Cupitt’s ‘religious atheism’ (Cupitt being his doctoral supervisor) in the book. I have no doubt that Le Poidevin is attempting a balanced and sincere critique of natural theology. Having got about halfway through, however, I’m both disappointed and encouraged by this book: disappointed by the weakness of its objections, and encouraged that one of the apparently foremost defenders of atheism in academic philosophy has not really come up with anything remotely detrimental to the project of natural theology.

There are good points, of course, and I do not mean any of this as an attack on Le Poidevin. Indeed, he is a very good teacher, and he does a good job of linking and narrating the Philosophy of Religion. Rather than attacking blatant caricatures from medieval theology, he at least tries to do justice to recent formulations of arguments, giving some space to both William Lane Craig in the cosmological argument and Alvin Plantinga in the ontological argument. His discussion of the ontological argument, in particular, is both clear and interesting, and he does a good job in demonstrating what proponents of the modal version of the argument must do to clarify their proposal. He calls on the defender of the ontological argument to make clear what is meant by necessity, and whether this is the same as analyticity. Four options are given, under two main groups: necessity being the same as analyticity or the two being different. If they are the same, there are three options: (1) “God exists” is an analytic truth. If this is what is being defended, however, the ontological argument is redundant – If what is meant by “God” includes the clause “that he exists”, there is no need to argue for the conclusion that he exists, and so no real need for the ontological argument. Position (2) is that “God exists” is analytically false. Obviously, proponents of the argument will not want to defend this. (3) is that God’s existence is neither analytically true nor analytically false. If this is true, however, the main premise, “If it is possible that God exists, then necessarily, God exists”, is false. The 4th option is the rejection of necessity being the same, in this argument, as analytic truth. This, I think, is what most proponents of the ontological argument would want to defend. But in this case, Le Poidevin argues, we have no reason to prefer the premise, “It is possible that God exists” over the premise, “It is possible that God does not exist”. The modal atheistic argument is then just as convincing, and demonstrates that God’s existence is impossible. Whether or not Le Poidevin refutes the ontological argument in his chapter I am not so sure (I am not persuaded that he does), but he does call, importantly, for advocates to give a clearer notion of necessity than is typically done.

In contrast, his treatments of the cosmological and teleological arguments are surprisingly weak. After giving the “basic” cosmological argument, that everything that exists has a cause of its existence, that nothing can be the cause of its own existence and that the universe exists, Le Poidevin modifies these to give arguments that someone might sanely make: the first premise can say that whatever begins to exist has a cause (à la Craig), or that anything whose existence is contingent has a cause of its own existence (à la Leibniz).

I do not know how Le Poidevin views science so cannot accuse him of hypocrisy, but his main criticism of the “temporal” version (known to most as kalam) is astoundingly weak. After noting that, according to the Big Bang theory, the universe did begin to exist, he argues: “Can we be confident about [the premise that the universe began to exist], however? Suppose that the Big Bang theory is false – not an unreasonable supposition since, after all, cosmological theories are highly controversial, and even if there were universal agreement among physicists on this question – which is not the case, such agreement would not make the theory true. For all we know, the universe may not have had a beginning. This suggests two possibilities: (i) The universe extends infinitely far into the past; (ii) The universe is temporally closed: i.e., it is finite yet has neither a beginning nor an end.”

This is simply puzzling. Aside from the exclusion of the metaphysical arguments for the past’s being finite from discussion, Le Poidevin chooses, apparently arbitrarily, to simply reject physics on this point. It is stated that “such agreement [among physicists] would not make the theory true”, as if theists had ever suggested that the agreement among physicists on this point causes the universe to have a finite past. Creationists might as well argue that, just because evolutionary biologists agree on evolution, does not mean that evolution is true. Well, of course not, but that doesn’t mean that we have good reason to cast doubt on it, or that there isn’t an enormous amount of evidence for its truth which causes the scientists in question to agree on it. This makes Le Poidevin’s subsequent assertion that, “For all we know, the universe may not have had a beginning” especially baffling. For all we know? Is he seriously suggesting that we have just as much evidence for all three of these theories, that physicists have made a significant, axiomatic, foundational change in their belief about the finitude of the past on the basis of sheer whim? This is hard to sustain. Until a few decades ago (up to a century), the overwhelming majority of physicists followed the foundational axiom that the universe has always existed, from eternity. While there is not time here to lay out the evidence for the beginning of the universe, it is incredibly troubling to see how Le Poidevin has suggested that there is nothing really substantive behind this revolution in physics, the evidence for which prompted Stephen Hawking to say that the beginning of the past was probably “the most remarkable discovery of modern cosmology”. That Le Poidevin puts this down to whimsical conjecture seems to me to be remarkable, especially considering that this is held to be one of the most cogent philosophical defences of atheism in contemporary academia (even if it is an introduction for students). If anything, this treatment of the cosmological argument has made me more certain of its soundness than before – not a result I imagine Le Poidevin would have wanted!

There is, of course, more to be said. I will offer some more thoughts in due course, but for now I hope this has given you a little taster of my recent activity. See you soon!

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