Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Gift of Physics

I'm going to go a bit philosophical now, just to warn you.

Today I heard a very brave and smart man speak about spirituality to a group of neuroscientists. We invited him to speak, knowing that what he had to say would be difficult to accept, much less understand. He knew this too - we are a group of skeptics who have different beliefs - and this is why I call him brave (though you could see that he was nervous). He spoke of a mind and a soul where most in the room believe that the mind is just another word for brain and that human existance can be reduced to neural impulses in the brain. His arguements were interesting, if a bit poorly supported by our standards. I loved his lecture and I have never seen someone generate so much discussion even after he left the room. It was an automatic reaction by the majority of listeners to devalue what he had said and find the holes in his theories so that they could go on with their beliefs (there were some holes but perhaps they were not as critical as his general message of communciation). But the amazing thing is that it meshed perfectly with the book I am reading right now - and even more amazing - with the chapter I am reading. The book is Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain: Why Medicine is Not Enough by Elio Frattaroli, M.D.

I bought the book out of an interest about why my current mode of depression treatment is working as well as a traditional antidepressant therapy (which I had been using for at least 8 years). What concerns me is not that I was treated with drugs but that I didn't even know that there were other options. These options were likely not presented to me because of a lack of research (as opposed to a lack of efficacy as I now see) which is another matter that pisses me off - that there is no funding for alternative treatments because there is no money in treating people with vitamin C - no patent is possible. But the book isn't what I expected - it is a lot about psychotherapy and Freudian techniques, which I am highly skeptical about. I am a hard core scientist - we are among the most skeptical people you will meet. But dispite feeling that I was reading mumbo jumbo I have continued reading the book - if only to force myself to see a different view (another supposed quality of the majority of scientists: an open mind - not that all of us have this quality...). But in reading the book I find that some parts are speaking to me about life and how we approach problems.

Frattaroli speaks about how "the end is in the beginning". By this he means, if I understand correctly, that what we see in the end depends on how we approach the problem. An example he uses that is outside of psychotherapy is a physics problem (the gift of physics to humanity). It is the phenomenon of light. Depending on how we choose to observe it, light can appear to be made of particles or it can appear to be made of waves. If we only studied light in one manner we would only see one quality of light - perhaps that it is made of waves. If having studied it this way we are presented with the opinion that light is made of particles we would then reject the opinion because of course light is not made of particles, it is made of waves and we know that. So by looking at neuron firing in the brain we see what we expect to see - that the brain is the foundation of conciousness and that there is no internal world - there is nothing that cannot be explained by neuronal firing. But what if the problem is that we are looking at the brain and seeing the light waves when there are also light particles in the brain? What if we see the physical part of existence and not the spiritual (not necessairly religious though) part of existence. If you think about it neuroscientists have not proven that the brain is all that there is, but they use the arguement that we can't see or measure spirtuality - there is no proof that it is there thus it isn't there. Well that is a false presumption if I ever heard one. And in the end we may not be able to measure it now but in the future we might. Before microscopes we didn't see cells - now no one doubts that cells exist.

I hope that I am more than neural firing in a highly evolved moist sack. And I am religious, so I feel that there is more. This can't be all that there is. But perhaps that is just the neural firings in my brain telling me that. This is another point that Frattaroli makes, and perhaps where I will end today with my psychological philosophical ramblings, if neuroscientists can dismiss religion as a shadow of neural firings, what is to say that science is not a shadow of neural firings. If we cannot trust the shadows of one, why should we trust the shadows of the other? I trust them both, I think. But what we need is communication between and within departments - more guest lectures - to open our minds. Just because what we research is easier to measure doesn't mean that the other research is not as good or worthless.

It is a hard position to be in. I am surrounded by people who were trying to be open to the presentation but who reacted at least a little defensively. And I feel torn between what I know and what I feel. What I have proof for and what I don't have proof for. You don't talk about God to the majority of neuroscientists - it is unscientific. So there is this dichotomy of what I show people at work everyday and what I generally keep to myself because I don't have explanations for the latter.

I liked the presentation and wanted to thank the guy personally but he left very quickly after the question period. After he spoke my brain was sore, the stretchings have given me a lot to think about. Any comments on todays post?

PS: I have been knitting I will tell you about it another time with pictures. But breifly, I have blocked the two scarfs for Christmas knitting. Knit a Calorimetry and a Palindrome hat and have started another Jayne Cobb hat for Cory because the last one is too big and so is going to a friend that has a larger head than Cory. I will write to you soon I hope.

1 comment:

BC said...

What if God is defined more by what we do not know? We can pursue knowledge but there will always be something beyond our grasping questions. Unless we humble ourselves before our limitations, we can't hope to learn more. What if believing in God is about humility and being open?

I don't think there is a contradiction between pursuit of scientific knowledge and belief in God. It can help you be more open to the directions your research may take you.