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Sunday, January 28, 2007



This post was pitch perfect. My Brother and I were discussing Mr. Pinker a couple of evenings ago and I wished I would have read this before our discussion.

Carl Olson

Stealing from Van Morrison: "Rave on, Mark Brumley..."

I like your rants. And I'd say that even if you weren't my boss. Now, about that raise...

But, seriously, the talk of "gift" on the part of avowed materialists is both humorous and annoying. Like "American Idol," but slightly more important.

Cristina A. Montes

Pinkers' reasoning gets dizzy; I think I'm going to lose my consciousness if I read him to often.

SEriously, though: So by Pinkers reasoning, if I backbite someone who's comatose, I'm not doing anything wrong because he won't find out about it anyway and he won't feel hurt?


Exactly: gift from whom!!!! You nailed it. Great post. Is this what is sometimes called "scientism"?

PS..Carl deserves the raise. The blog not only elevates my consciousness, it provides me a dandy wish list.

darice harmon

I just happened to be re-reading Wolfhart Pannenberg (First Things/1998) and found some interesting ideas that address the issues raised in Pinker's article.

Thanks for giving me another clunker to add to my growing collection of what folks will believe when they ditch an ultimate moral authority (God) and search their wish lists for something - anything to fill the vacuum.

Max Horkheimer, Marxist philosopher, declared that, at least in the West, everything related to morals is ultimately traceable to theology.

I vote for the raise too!


I too find most of Pinker meandering to be confusing.

here he says:

[T]he biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It's not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings--the core of morality.

But in an interview with Reason referring to the Ghost in Machine myth he says:

The doctrine of the ghost in the machine is that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus of free will and choice and which can't be reduced to a function of the brain. The ghost in the machine [idea] lies behind the religious and cultural right--literally in the case of people who want to couch the stem cell debate in terms of when ensoulment occurs.

In other words his entire notion of morality applies to people because
they specifically have brains (and this is what convinces him that they can suffer)
but he is not concerned at all about human beings without brains
(presummably at the early stages of development)
BTW I think the question of ensoulment is a non-sequitor.

So we clearly see the way in which post modern man argues.
He decides what it is he wishes morality to be and then he defines
certain classes (the unborn) as being deficient(see also Peter Singer)
and is then capable of denying their human status while at the same
time making claims about his superior form of morality.

Christopher Malloy

Perhaps this Pinkers makes one sensible point but construes it wrongly and too widely. It is the relation between hope in another life and responsibility in this life.

When, because of religion, supposedly "intra mundane" ethical responsibilities are divorced from the perfecting end of the individual, we have a religion hostile to human society. Such a divorce is quite rich in Gnostic religions (See Hans Jonas: THe Gnostic Religion).

However, whether some given religion indeed holds such a divorce is another matter. I would imagine one would want to consult the authentic recipients of a religion and not fanatics, whatever the religion. (Of course, what does "authentic" mean?).

In any case, authentic Christianity indeed does not make such a divorce, for without love one is a noisy gong, and no one can love God while hating his neighbor. Christianity does JUSTICE to the intra-mundane and yet transcends the world with a hope in the gift from above, a gift that obliges one to just the opposite of "negligence" of one's neighbor's need. And all of this, grounded in the Jewish Revelation: Deut 6:4f.

Brian John Schuettler

"So we clearly see the way in which post modern man argues.He decides what it is he wishes morality to be and then he defines certain classes (the unborn) as being deficient(see also Peter Singer)and is then capable of denying their human status while at the same time making claims about his superior form of morality."

You stated that very well, padraighh , and it is along the same lines as the other post about Pelosi and her capacity to call herself a devout Catholic while simultaneously supporting abortion rights and gay marriage. There exists now a secular vernacular that accomodates itself to the expression of meaning-less-ness, an absurd disconnect from a universally understood definition. Perhaps that is why, as Carl stated, they live in a seemingly "parallel reality".

Brian John Schuettler

"I would imagine one would want to consult the authentic recipients of a religion and not fanatics, whatever the religion. (Of course, what does "authentic" mean?)."

And what, for that matter, does "fanatic" mean? Aren't some Christians martyrs fanatics?

Jennifer F.

Good for him that his "life is short" and "there's no afterlife" worldview leads him to do nice things. But that is not the only conclusion one could come to from that perspective. You could also decide, "life is short, there's no afterlife, nothing really matters, therefore I'm going to go murder that enemy, steal some nice stuff, and just do whatever I feel like doing at any particular moment regardless of the consequences, because...why not?"

I've noticed that very often when people blithely throw out statements like "there's no soul" or "there's no afterlife" or "there's no God", etc., they're so busy trying to look smart and enlightened that they don't notice the elephant in the room that, if their conclusions are true, *nothing* matters. It's a heavy, awful realization when you really think through and internalize what that means. And when you do, you don't feel like writing pithy little essays about it.

Brian John Schuettler

If there is no god then all is permitted...Dostoyevsky



Am leaving a link for anyone who might be interested:



Steven Pinker is working hard and furious to disprove the
notion of an intellegent designer, but I say that you can not prove that
God does not exist by demonstrating the existence of one fool,
you must show that all men are fools.


Some thoughts:
1. Typical of many materialists, Pinker thinks that when one speaks of body and soul one has to be a dualist. The Thomistic version of the soul is as a unity of substance, not a separate existence of 2 substances.
2. Also, the immortality of the soul is not the point of departure for Catholic Ethics. The point of departure is a human nature that seeks ends/goals. Granted, the understanding of a human nature includes something that is capable of surviving death, a soul, but the person is more than a soul. There are plenty of philosophers writing within the Christian that do not use the immortality of the soul to ground their ethical thought. Alasdair MacIntyre uses concepts such as tradition, virtue and dependence within a metaphysical biology. Jean Vanier uses the notion of shared humanity. Even Thomas starts his ethics with the idea that we all seek happiness, again the soul is not the ground of his thought.
3. Pinker's mental materialism must assume these presuppositions: 1) That there is an orderliness to the contingent world, 2) We have an ability to know and quantify this orderliness. Here, one must stand outside of science to judge both the validity of Pinker's argument these presuppositions. And, science can prove neither of them, only philosophy can.
4. To state that science can disprove the immateriality of the soul is to say that science is like saying science can disprove the existence of God. But, science is only as good as what it can quantify/measure. Only things that have material existence can be quantified. So, if science cannot quantify/measure, it has no explanatory power. And, by definition that which is immaterial cannot be quantified. So, any scientific statements about the immaterial soul are essentially meaningless.
5. I think that great German Thomist, Josef Pieper says it best in his Death and Immortality:
The philosopher Josef Piper puts it this way: Because the human soul is capable of apprehending truth as such (the immaterial ability to conceptualize and form truth such as math, law, aesthetics, do science); because it is capable of this act which be its essence goes beyond every conceivable material process and remains independent of it; because thus understood; it is capable of an operation independent of matter it must possess an existence independent of it, it must be an entity that persists through the dissolution of the body and beyond death.

From what has been stated, modern neuroscience will never be able to disprove the immortality of the soul unless it can quantify the non-quantifiable, and this is logically impossible.

Caryl Johnston

Hi Mark -
You should not apologize at all for rants. Ranting is good. Ranting means you are alive. Ranting means your emotions are connecting with your intellect, which is more than you can say for the flimflam oozing from the pores of Ivy League nitwits. The absence in the Pinker piece of any grounding in philosophy, history, literature, or common sense, is certainly shocking. But even more shocking than this, is the evident absence of any sense of real life. Neurology is a pursuit for narcissists. My advice: take your rant to the editor of Time Magazine, and demand to know why this kind of fashionable pabulum is being promoted in a magazine that once had some degree of intellectual repectability.

El Perro

"Only if there is a moral ought--a category of thought not reducible to the biology of consciousness--can the fact that others suffer have any moral significance for me."

Really? So you have the inability to feel empathy for others and to which to decrease their suffering unless you have a diety, and absolute authority telling you that you must have empathy?

That tells me all I need to know about you.


I still haven't got past asking why Pinker (or El Perro for that matter) wants a morality in the first place.

Isn't that about right and wrong, and antiquated notions like that?

Mark Brumley

El Perro: Before reaching conclusions about me, you would be well served to read what I wrote and try to understand what you quoted from it. Clearly, you have not done so. Or else you are deliberately misrepresenting what you quote.

If you want seriously to participate in a discussion at this website, then you must behave yourself and participate respectfully. Some of your previous contributions to this site make me doubtful that you will behave appropriately. Please prove me wrong in that regard.

Mark Brumley

One implication of the idea of natural law, as it has generally been understood by Catholic philosophers and theologians, and others, is that one needn't explicitly affirm the existence of God in order to perceive moral norms. Whether a rationally consistent moral philosophy requires an affirmation of the Supreme Being is another matter. But sheer recognition of "oughts" doesn't require asserting that God exists.

The issue of whether a strict materialist can reasonably affirm genuine moral norms is also a different question. It is difficult to see how he could. Of course that wouldn't mean a strict materialist is necessarily personally immoral or that he does not perceive moral norms. It would mean only that if he is personally moral, or if he does recognize genuine moral categories, his morality or his recognition of moral principles, exists despite his philosophical materialism.


Mark, many Catholic proponents of natural law seems to understand that value proceeds from fact, moral oughts proceed from truths regarding human nature. If this is the case, even an atheistic materialist could no good and evil in an objective sense. Christian non-reductive materialists, like Nancey Murphy, do affirm moral norms. I suppose a materialist could argue for a connection between is and ought based on a strictly materialistic (biological-a shared humanity rooted in our common biological nature)conception of human nature. Or maybe not, because it seems impossible to avoid metaphysics because the conception of such a system itself could not be proven to be strictly materialistic in nature. As Stanley Jaki states the only way to avoid metaphysics is to say nothing. I wonder how Pinker could "prove" scientifically that the concept "matter" is made of matter? Here is where the materialist winds in an ontological conundrum: In trying to prove the existence of materialism as the only reality, the materialist digs himself into a metaphysical hole. And, the more he appeals to materialism, the deeper he gets. The only way out of the hole is via metaphysics. So, it appears we back to where we started. A strictly materialist account of morality is impossible because it must appeal to an ontology which itself cannot be proven to be material.


One important thing, based on the fact that I can't type (is), I ought to proofread my posts (the moral imperative). Sorry for the typos!


Postmodernist drivel. A good line from Anthony Esolen's intro to his translation of Dante's Inferno (speaking of the modern reader):

"It is not that medieval Christian cosmos, necessarily, which excites his interest, although it may and indeed should - it is surely far nobler than our lazy relativist world, wherein every man creates his own moral order (that is, until he suspects he has been overcharged by his auto mechanic)."

Mark Brumley

Whether value proceeds from fact--and a Catholic philosopher must hold that in at least some sense that is true, because God is, so to speak, the Supreme Fact--it does not follow from the sheer biological fact that others have brains that I am morally obliged to care for them. One must accept certain preceding metaphysical premises about being and the good that a sheer materialist does not accept.


Mark, I agree. The fact that humans have brains places no moral obligation whatsoever between them. This is a view that Peter Singer and others would hold. I would think that for Pinker, Singer and others of their ilk it is the ability to use the brain in a rational way brain that places moral obligation, and for those unable he in essence tragically declares them to be sub-human. One can see the inherent problems associated with such a view, humanity becomes reduced to the Cartesian notion of a thinking thing. All one has to do is start with one bad idea, like the materialist dictum "matter is the only reality". From that unprovable assumption, Pinker and Singer reach their (il)logical conclusions. Their conclusions follow from their premises, but if their first premise that assumes matter is the only reality is flawed or unprovable, then their arguments cannot be valid. The materialist blindly denies metaphysics, but without it his arguments cannot even get off the ground.

Christopher Malloy


Good point, and well taken, yet I thought it would have been understood as not denied, given the spirit in which I have tried to write. In any case, agreed - whereas some see martyrs as fanatics others won't. Still, that does not void the category altogether as utterly unapplicable to any religion in any way.

Christopher Malloy

The Wall Street Journal had a piece on mind and matter all of a couple weeks ago.

The question was raised, "Can 'mind' affect brain or is it only the other way round?" The question was the Dali Lama's (whom few publicly rebuff). He raised the question in the 1980's, and the brain surgeon whom he queried only scoffed (I said "few"). Yet, recent studies, by scientists, ON the brain patterns of the Lama's own monks have been showing up - IN QUANTIFIABLE WAYS - phenomena that seem to defy the "one-way causality" of brain to "(what materialists might call) so-called mind." That is, it appears that "volitional efforts at directing attention" can indeed affect the actual structure of the brain. Indeed, habitual perfection of attention (meditation, that is) can yield "habitual or stable" changes in brain. THis is, indeed, puzzling, if one is a materialist. It is events such as this, matierially quantifiable, which do not seem causally traceable to other "quantifiable events" (as it were) that ought at least raise a question even from the very proceedings of science itself, about the possibility of something perhaps greater than - or formally other than - the subject itself of that science.

Now, if indeed such studies are repeatable and come to be repeated, all due scientific standards being scrupulously observed, then the question that the phenomena raises cannot be ruled out. To proceed in this manner - to follow up on the very "problems" that science itself uncovers - is in some way to follow MacIntyre's suggestions about dialogue of approaches. It may echo, in a way, the approach of some patristics, who used rational puzzles to point out the "mirabilia" in ordinary things, in order to defend the possibility at least of other mirabilia, those of the true religion!

I might note, as well, that a number of practitioners of "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy" would not be utterly surprised at the findings in this study. Indeed, the WSJ mentions this very form of psychological treatment. Some of its fruits are quantifiable, and these are indeed measurably greater than other treatments, including (not infrequently) chemical treatment!


I must certainly give neuroscience its proper due for helping us understand the human brain, and no doubt that what it quantifies in its studies leads to a deeper understanding of "mind". After reading Damasio's Descartes Error, I was fascinated by the way he explained and demonstrated the reason and emotion interact in the brain. I thought that angle was remarkably similar to the Thomistic account of their interaction. But, Damasio's work, and I think to some extent Newberg's as well, tends to fall into the materialist trap. Somehow, they collapse "mind" into "brain". Damasio states,

“The biological foundation for the sense of self can be found in those brain devices that represent moment by moment, the continuity of the same individual is probably safe to say that by 2050 sufficient knowledge of biological phenomena will have wiped out the traditional dualistic separations of brain/body, body/mind and brain/mind.”

I think that we could add another: body/soul, at least this appears to be Pinker’s assumption. Cognitive science may well “wipe out the traditional dualistic separations of brain/body, body/mind and brain/mind”. Though, I spent a semester in grad school reading post-Wittgenstein Phil. of Mind only to learn that sensation and perception are 2 things and can be described under a multiplicity of venues, mostly all materialistic in nature. As far as I know, this problem has still not been solved. I believe the heart of the matter to be this: Science will continually tell us much about the material aspects of the world and the person via quantification. But, the minute it stops quantifying and still tries to explain reality, such as denying the existence of the soul, its stops being science (at least in the modern sense) and becomes philosophy. If a paradigm should be established where science points beyond quantification, it will owe both traditional metaphysics and theology an apology. The physicist Robert Jastrow says it best in God and the Astronomers

“This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth... [But] for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; [and] as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Mrs. V.

Thank you for that quote, RickP. I loved it. From my simple stand-point in this debate, I've learned just to "judge a tree by it's fruit." Follow the thought of the truly happy people and one won't find himself trailing after the materialists and atheists.

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