Quantum of Science
Marilynne Robinson [“Humanism,” Nov. 9] seems to misunderstand what scientists do. Unanswerable questions are the province of philosophy and religion; science is limited to answerable questions, in the sense that reasonable people can eventually agree that experiments favor one answer over another. Obviously, both types of question are important to people. (Which category the untestable theories of modern cosmology fall into is debatable.) Whether the soul, or nonphysical “self,” is real is an unanswerable question, but Robinson wants neuroscientists to address it. That is not their job.
Sometimes scientists replace a difficult question with an easier one; this is called “reductionism.” For Robinson, this is tantamount to genocide, but for most of us it is simply a strategy for approaching difficult problems. Deferring the difficult parts is not the same as denial. Trying to understand an average brain before Shakespeare’s is merely common sense.
At least since the 1944 publication of Schrödinger’s book What Is Life?, people have considered the possibility that quantum mechanics may be important for understanding brain function (Schrödinger thought not)—but, thus far, this has not been a productive line of inquiry. Classical physics often provides useful insights into things as small as molecules and atoms, so the need for neuroscientists to use quantum mechanics is not at all obvious.
Neuroscientists use the working assumption that the “self” can be understood as a by-product of brain function. This may turn out to be wrong (or right), but it is the most viable scientific approach. When neuroscientists finally devise a precise neural definition of the self (which I don’t expect anytime soon), then we can judge whether it enhances our self-understanding or falls short of the mark, and whether it reduces us to soulless automata or raises automata to the level of humanity.
white plains, n.y.
“I am content to place humankind at the center of Creation,” writes Marilynne Robinson. Six paragraphs later, she finally comes out with it: “I am a theist”—the real climax of the tale, as artfully cadenced as only a fiction writer of Robinson’s skill can do. “It seems science may never find a way to confirm or reject the idea of multiple universes,” she continues, “or to arrive at a satisfactory definition of time or gravity.” Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Give science time, Marilynne Robinson, give it time.