Beyond Reason

The Source of Language

Posted in Faith by Abigail on January 15, 2007

The last post briefly touched on “the scientific assault on free will.” This issue appears extremely similar to one I heard on NPR recently (The Infinite Mind – 11:00 on Sundays). They interviewed some scientists attempting to locate the source of language in the brain. And, a substantial group of theologians had trouble with this endeavor. It appears that these theologians believe that if you locate the source of language in the human brain you’ve reduced a human to the mere physical – that you’ve eliminated his soul (since language is so unique to humans). Obviously this would be a problem for Christianity (and most religions). But, the fact is, it’s been believed for years that my “thinking” occurs in that upper part of my body we usually call the “head.” Why has that concept not been a problem? Since I have a head, does that mean I have no mind? I think we could explain everything (physically) and have explained nothing (metaphysically). By definition, the physical and the non-physical are separate (this pretty much goes without saying). So to find a physical cause for something that we’ve always known is at least partly physical – the various aspects of a human – seems to add no new difficulty to the current set of difficulties. It still leaves those who have the faith that a mind and soul exist to continue relying on that faith – science doesn’t address the metaphysical.

But this answer seems too obvious (meaning, why wouldn’t that NPR broadcast have run into theologians who understood this concept?). Am I missing something? Anyway, it’s the argument that I’ve heard for a long time and it currently – to me – seems impervious to assault (I just really wanted to use that overly dramatic phrase). Perhaps I am missing something? Any thoughts?


3 Responses to 'The Source of Language'

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  1. Brad said,

    Sorry this reply is late in coming, but I haven’t checked here recently. This is an important issue, but I wouldn’t call it a watershed issue for human consciousness. Language is humanity’s most easily identifiable and measurable difference, in terms of consciousness, from other mammals. I think that any scientist is going to have an extremely difficult time avoiding some kind of reductionist fallacy with brain activity and behavior (especially a behavior as complex as language.)
    Reductionism (reducing all effects to their measurable physical causes no questions asked) is gaining new steam after it was found to be bankrupt in the middle part of the last century. Does anyone not see all of the question begging going on in most of these scientific studies? Even if we can see infrared and electrical measurements on a brain graph and say part a of the brain is activated during activity t – where is the causality? Does anyone learn the post hoc fallacy (after this therefore because of this) in college anymore?
    The more important issue is whether or not the metaphysical has any traces left for the scientist to follow. It is a debate whose questions have not even been formed (No thanks to Immanuel Kant). Please be careful with the phrase “…the physical and non-physical are separate…” This is really only a small step removed from saying “there is no such thing as the non-physical.” I think this line of thinking is why we have such ridiculous things as the flying spaghetti monster. What is reality composed of? Being and non-being? Actual and potential states of being? These are ancient Philosophical questions that still have bearing on the discussion. I would really like to get into this one a little deeper, but it would take forever.

  2. amandalaine said,

    Hey Brad!

    So glad to see you posted again! Always glad to hear what you have to say!

    This is a somewhat new issue for me although I’ve been aware of it for a while. This issue seems to be all over the place (primarily because we’re such a science obsessed culture). It is fascinating.

    “…the physical and non-physical are separate…” Good point. I was a bit uncomfortable with that statement after I posted it. I realized it could be taken various ways – for example I could be implying that the two never intersect. And I certainly don’t mean that! I just meant that you can’t tell anything definitively about the non-physical by studying the physical. You either assume, or don’t assume, that it exists.

    Time magazine has a very interesting article on consciousness in its latest edition. I’ll probably post about that later. (The irony of the topic, though, is hilarious. I just can’t stop thinking about that. This could lead to 5000 jokes. I’ll stop here.)

    If you’ve anything more to say, I’m listening! Consciousness is generally throwing me for a great big loop (kind of like free will did for a while). At minimum, it’s interesting.

  3. Brad said,

    Consciousness is probably the most powerful argument for Theism (or at least against strict materialism) amongst the Intellectual elite. I understand that “Mysterious Flame” is a great book on the subject (though I have yet to read it). It comes from a non-theists point of view so be careful if you decide to try it out. He comes to a conclusion that not many non-theists do. We may not ever be able to understand what consciousness is.

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