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Bill Newsome | Neuroscience, Faith & Free Will

Jim is joined by Stanford neuroscientist Bill Newsome to discuss his work on vision and how he understands faith and free will in light of his field.


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scientific model of a brain

Jim is joined by Stanford neuroscientist Bill Newsome to discuss his work on vision and how he understands faith and free will in light of his field.

Description

In this conversation with acclaimed Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Bill Newsome, we hear about his journey to becoming a neuroscientist, how hundreds of millions of neurons enable the fantastic emergence of a unified visual world, and how free will might operate in relation to the seemingly infinite causal chains which bring us all to this moment. Along the way, Dr. Newsome shares his own experiences with science and faith and why biological explanations should not be seen as weapons beating back the claims of Christianity.

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  • Originally aired on May 27, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Newsome:

I spent about the first half of my career roughly on vision. I wanted to know how it is that the activity of tens of millions of neurons or hundreds of millions of neurons in the back of our brains where the visual areas are located. How it is that the electrochemical activity of those hundreds of millions of neurons give rise to this wonderful, immediate sensation of a unified visual world that all of us see in front of ourselves right now. How does that kind of conscious perception emerge from the activity of millions of neurons? That, to me, seems nearly miraculous.

I’m Bill Newsome. I’m professor of neurobiology at Stanford University and I am the Director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford. 

Stump: 

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. I’m a philosopher by trade, and always get excited when conversations with our guests on the podcast wade a little further out into deeper philosophical waters, and particularly when the guest has a really important perspective to bring on those topics. In that respect, I’m pleased to share this episode with you. 

Bill Newsome runs a prestigious neuroscience institute at Stanford University, and he’s also been a Christian all his life. That combination leads to some really interesting insights and questions. Bill tells about his work on the remarkable process of human visual perception, and I can’t help pushing a little bit on the reality or non-reality of colors and how we know our perceptions are accurate. Then we really get into it about the notoriously frustrating questions of free will in a brain that’s just made up of matter. While some of the discussion gets a little technical, we also hear about his experiences growing up in North Florida—an important geographical distinction, as it turns out. Bill is at the top of his field, but I think you’ll find his expertise allows him to break down difficult areas of thought in an intelligible and accurate fashion. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump: 

Bill Newsome. Thanks for joining us.

Newsome: 

Pleasure to be here, Jim.

Stump: 

So you are a neuroscientist and a Christian. And I’d like to start our conversation by hearing a little bit about how both of those things came about in your life. So maybe start with your scientific career. When did you know you wanted to be a scientist and maybe even more specifically a neuroscientist?

Newsome: 

Yeah. Well, how long do you have, Jim?

Stump: 

We don’t need a minute by minute account. Just hit the high high points.

Newsome: 

No, it’s interesting. I grew up in North Florida. I’m actually a fifth generation already in North Florida is the South culturally and politically, right South Florida’s the North. I was the son and the grandson of Southern Baptist ministers. So I come by religion, you know, naturally, it was part of my life growing up like my mother’s milk, like eating, sleeping, breathing. I became interested in science seriously, when I was in what we would call ninth grade today, sort of junior high school, we called it then. And I took a biology class that just really wowed me. But I remember distinctly the very first time I looked at what appeared to my naked eye to be a clear drop of water under a microscope, and saw all these little microorganisms swimming around in there. And I was kind of hooked from that point on. I wanted to be a scientist, I wanted to do research all through high school. 

I actually participated in the National Science Foundation program at the University of Florida for bright high school kids one summer, it was fantastic. And they actually convinced me that I wanted to major in physics as an undergrad. Because with a physics undergrad, you could do anything you wanted to do in graduate school. For as if you locked yourself into biology as an undergrad, you limit your options. And that made good sense to me. So I went to a small liberal arts college down in Florida that at the time, was affiliated with the Florida Baptist Convention, where I studied physics, but also took a lot of religion and philosophy courses and started trying to integrate these different ways of looking at the world. 

And I think that’s one of the reasons I wound up studying neuroscience as a graduate student. It just seemed to me like, you know, the brain held so many of the secrets to how I experience life in the pew of a church or in a laboratory or in a relationship with friends. And I just wanted to study the brain. I sort of got to the end of undergraduate and it seemed to me I knew I wanted to go do graduate school in biology, but there were three questions that I had in mind as a 20 year old that seemed really worth studying in graduate school, and they were, how do brains work, how do genes work, and what is the origin of life? Those were my three questions.

Stump: 

And have you felt like those have been satisfactorily answered throughout your career?

Newsome: 

Well, let’s say they’ve been satisfactorily challenging, but have been making progress on and I’m glad I chose the one that I did. Let’s just put it that way. I jumped from this tiny little liberal arts college, Stetson University in Florida, where I got a good education by the way, and went to one of the citadels of modern American science, which was the California Institute of Technology down in Pasadena. And I really wasn’t smart enough to realize how big of a jump that was, how intimidated I should have been. And I had some intimidating moments later on during graduate school, but overall it went well and here I am, you know, 40 years later coming toward the end of a career with it at least in sight, still enjoying it, but with the end, at least in sight, and it’s been a great ride. And I’ve remained a person of faith all of that time. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t, that doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts from time.

Stump: 

Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about that, particularly still, when you’re growing up here. Was there any resistance to you pursuing a career in science because of the faith community you came from?

Newsome: 

That’s a good question. And the answer is no, which in retrospect, is somewhat remarkable to me. I remember my father, you know, the pastor of the church, teaching teachers on Wednesday evenings, who were preparing to teach Sunday school themselves on Sunday morning, and he would work through the lesson with them. And I remember him telling, talking about creation and saying, some people interpret the first couple of chapters of Genesis this way, some interpret it this way, some interpret it this way in light of modern science and such, and all of these can be legitimate. And we all need to be aware of them and need to pick the ones that seem most spiritually true to us. And so he didn’t, he didn’t take a big stance, but he didn’t take creation, for example, and evolution to be any obstacle to faith. I hunted fossils with my father when I was a kid. We would take some of our best specimens, and we found some really, really good one. So we would take them to the University Museum at the University of Florida and paleontologists would help date them and identify them.

Stump: 

And what were they fossils of?

Newsome: 

Well, you know, that’s an interesting story. When I was a child, they were digging the road bed for the interstate highway, Interstate 75, through Penns Prairie south of Gainesville, Florida, which had been an old lake bed for millennia. And they started turning up these fossils, and my father and brothers and I would go out there on Saturday mornings in the Florida heat, and walk a mile and back across this roadway, and we found saber tooth tiger fossils there in North Florida, we found teeth from mammoths, we found miniature horses, you know, horses that were no bigger than our waist size. We found fossilized shark’s teeth, all kinds of really cool things. I have one of them left, I still have a mammoth molar sitting in my living room, which I treasure. So no, no big obstacle. I mean, you know, we had to deal with things in Scripture, things about miracles and such. But I remember that being handled in a very reasonable way too, and talking about the apostolic era, and its uniqueness and how some people experience miracles today, while others did not. But I think it was never a big, it was never a big obstacle, which I think is exactly the way it should be. I think that science should inform faith. And it does inform my faith, but I also think that faith informs my perspective on science. So I think that they go kind of both ways here. And I think it’s a tragic mistake, actually, when inquiring kids are put in a situation of being forced to choose between their Christian faith and belief in science and a high regard for scientific results. It’s, it’s just unnecessary, and it does so much damage in my opinion.

Stump: 

So I like a line from one of the articles by you that I read. In your “Life of Science, Life of Faith”, you said “as Richard Dawkins observed, the emergence of the theory of evolution in the 19th century made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”, but you go on to say “it had relatively little effect, I think, on the possibility of being an intellectually fulfilled theist.” So you consider yourself an intellectually fulfilled theist, do you think it’s also possible to be intellectually fulfilled in other ways? Or is that some necessary component of being intellectually fulfilled? 

Newsome: 

I think for me, it’s, I would say it’s necessary just because I haven’t found a better alternative and now 68 years of searching in this life, so you know, if I’ve been reading widely been attuned to different cross currents of modern thought, and been paying attention and willing to have some detachment and critical stance on my own culture, my own family, my own milieu that I grew up in, and I haven’t yet found a better alternative then that’s getting close to being necessary. You know, the faith view of life, the theological, the Christian anthropological view, is the one that makes the most sense to me of my life as I experienced it from the laboratory to the church pew. It’s a broader enterprise than science. I mean, science is by far the best way to go to learn things about the age of the earth and how life appeared on earth, and how to send people to the moon and ultimately, maybe to Mars. But there’s just so many questions that science cannot answer. Those are actually the questions that are most important to us in life.

Stump: 

Give us some examples of those that you think. 

Newsome: 

Yeah, I think I think most people would agree that it’s an important question that many people are asking right now, is it better to live or to die? And I think that many people listening to this podcast may have been there at one point or the other in their lives, and certainly, you know, people for whom that’s been a live issue. So I think its importance is obvious. And yet, I can’t think of a program of experimental work, you go into a scientific laboratory and do to get an answer to that question. Yeah, that’s undeniably important. And all of us need to all of us humans, theists, non theists alike need to pull on extra-scientific sources of wisdom and knowledge, and belief to address questions like that. I think another simple one that faces most people at one time or the other in their lives is should I marry this person? Do we have what it takes to create a lifelong bond and a lifelong, sort of collaborative life together? And if you wait for scientific evidence to answer a question like that, before you’re willing to take the step, you’re gonna be waiting a long, long time to get married. 

Stump: 

I think I know a few people who have tried to subject that decision to scientific analysis, and I don’t think it went so well for them.

Newsome: 

I agree, I think, Jim, for us to say, doesn’t, when you’re making decisions like this, that doesn’t mean you check your brain at the door, right? You better not check your brain at the door before making a decision like that. There are many, many sources of wisdom, many sources of evidence, many words of advice, that we can consult before making a weighty decision like that. But in the end, it does not amount to scientific proof, which means you should jump or not jump and in the end, it takes some knowledge and, and belief in a cognitive sense. And it takes some intuition. And it takes some sheer hope and faith and you have to jump and make a commitment and live out the life in the absence of certainty about the answer. And I think that sums up in a nutshell what the human condition is in the most important decisions we face in our lives. And I would point out that that’s exactly what the religious quest is like. I often say that I think religious belief is about a third cognitive assent and about a third intuition, and about a third sheer unadulterated hope. And I’m comfortable with that characterization. Just because I think it’s where we are as humans, it’s just the nature of things. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a theist or a non-theist, you’ve got to come to grips with that central nature of what it is to be human. 

Stump: 

Interesting. Well, let’s shift gears here a little bit. And tell us a little bit more about your scientific work. What are the areas specifically that you got into and the kinds of questions you’ve tried answering there?

Newsome: 

Yeah, I work in an area that’s called systems neuroscience, or sometimes these days, it’s called cognitive neuroscience. So neuroscience is a big sprawling area that goes all the way from the study of the molecules that give neurons, that is nerve cells, their unique electrochemical signaling properties, and moves up to how groups of neurons work together in circuits to compute various things, and moves on up to how circuits of circuits interact with each other to produce processing of information and output to a motor system that comprises adaptive behavior. And that’s ultimately what the nervous system is about; nervous systems evolved to produce behavior. They didn’t ultimately evolve to produce interesting molecules they evolved to produce behavior. And that interface there between neurophysiology the functioning of an intact nervous system and adaptive or intelligent behavior. That’s the interface that I’ve spent my life exploring. Mostly that’s been done in animals because there are ways you can study the nervous system in animals that you simply cannot do in humans for ethical reasons. But some have been done. I’ve had occasional collaborative projects and with humans as well, I spent about the first half of my career roughly on vision. I wanted to know how it is that the activity of tens of millions of neurons or hundreds of millions of neurons and the back of our brains where the visual areas are located. How it is that the electrochemical activity of those hundreds of millions of neurons give rise to this wonderful, immediate sensation of a unified visual world that all of us see in front of ourselves right now. How does that kind of conscious perception emerge from the activity of millions of neurons? That to me seems nearly miraculous.

Stump: 

What can you tell us about that, then in layman’s terms? Because that has always fascinated me to try to understand that.

Newsome: 

Yeah, I can tell you quite a bit in layman’s terms. First of all, there’s a hierarchy of visual processing. The retina in your eye is actually a pretty sophisticated circuit itself and does a lot of what I would call pre-processing. It absorbs the light coming into the eye, it converts that light into electrical activity, and it does some pre-processing, and then sends that pre-processed information into the brain. In the first stages of processing in the brain, meaningful features are extracted from that pre-processed sort of image representation. And when I talk about meaningful features, I’m talking about things that are important behaviorally to organisms, things like motion, the direction and speed of motion of an object, things like oriented edges, the locations of little edges that make up the boundaries of things we see like the computer screen in front of me or the coffee cup sitting here to my left, early computations are done that compute the depth the distance of an object from the viewer, and that’s done by virtue of the fact that we have two eyes, two looks at the world. And those two looks are compared to compute depth. All of these elementary things are extracted, things about color signals are extracted in those early stages. And then you get to these mysterious higher stages, visual areas in the human and primate cortex that really comprise about, you know, 10 to 20 different visual areas, depending upon whether you’re a lumper or splitter, how finely you split these things up. 

And really remarkable things happened up there. Things like there’s a, it’s known now, I mean, the pathway that I spent half of my career working on is a motion pathway. Because it seemed to me that motion was simpler and easier to understand than object recognition. And we had quite a bit of success in the lab, identifying this pathway, and really testing it and showing beyond a doubt that perception of motion in primates depends on activity of microcircuits in this pathway. Other people, more adventurous and probably smarter than me, worked on form and object vision and we now know one of the greatest discoveries, in my opinion, in my lifetime in neuroscience is the discovery of a pathway that selectively, in primates at least, processes face information. So there’s this whole circuit selectively devoted to faces, and it’s remarkably complicated, it unfolds in stages. This work has been done most beautifully by Doris Tsao and Winrich Freiwald and Margaret Livingstone, colleagues of mine, and it’s just a breathtaking story. There are many, many things we do not understand yet. We do not understand how you see, for example, a yellow Porsche, or a green set of dishes at home. We don’t have dedicated pathways for dishes or for cars, I don’t think. We didn’t evolve in that kind of world, whereas human faces have always been very important to primates.

Stump: 

So let me ask you a little more about color. Because I’ve always been a little troubled by my color, I don’t myself have a very big color vocabulary for distinguishing to begin with. And then the blues and greens for me blend together in ways that they don’t for most people, evidently. But more than that, I think what troubles me is just this feeling that the more we know about how vision works, the less it seems like colors are really part of the world. Is that correct? How would you describe the reality of color, as opposed to how we experience it?

Newsome: 

That’s an interesting question. And let me just ask you about your color vision. Do you have any kind of colorblindness at all?

Stump: 

Well, this blue-green colorblindness runs in my family a bit and I think it’s mostly in the females on my mom’s side of the family. And it’s not so absolute, but in low light situations, if we’re playing a card game that has greens and blues in it, if the light isn’t good, I can’t tell which one’s which.

Newsome: 

So yeah, you could probably get a good diagnosis, you probably have some issue with one of the cone types and your retina. Though color blindness is usually male trait not a female trait. This goes down on that Y chromosome. But let’s go back to your question, does it add its color property of the things out there in the world? Or is it something that’s in some sense kind of made up in our brain? And the answer is a little bit of both. So what’s real out there in the world is the properties of objects as they reflect light that comes and bounces off of them back out into the world. And so these are properties of a surface that we refer to generally as reflectants. And some wavelengths of light are absorbed by different objects, whereas some are reflected back into the world. And that’s simply a property of the atoms and molecules that comprise that particular object. Now that’s real. We know about reflectance, we can make hard-core measurements about reflectance. And those are real properties of objects out there in the environment. 

And when that when those signals are absorbed by the cones in our retinas and passed on to the cortex, you know, one of the one of the interesting things is, I mean, what you really want to do, the brain really wants to do, it wants to be in touch with the object out there wants to know about the light reflecting off the object, but the light reflecting off that object can be very different at different times of day. So in the morning, when most of all incoming light is yellow, you get a pattern of reflectance off. And at high noon, when you have bright white illumination, you get another pattern of light coming off the same surface. And just by changing a light bulb in a room, you can have more bluish light or more yellow light. And what the brain actually has to do, it’s not so much interested in color, per se, as it’s interested in learning about that surface and that object and identifying that object. So the brain is actually quite fluid in how it processes these color signals, in order to get accurate information about those surfaces. So you want to be able to pick an apple, a ripe apple out of a green tree, you know, regardless of what kind of illumination you’re in, whether it’s a blue day, you know, with clouds, storm clouds and such, or whether it’s a bright, sunlit yellow day. 

So color is kind of fluid in our brains. And there are many color illusions that psychologists are very good at showing us how we can trick our brains into thinking that things are out there in different colors than they really are. And that’s not just color, there are illusions of motion as well. There are illusions of depth. There are illusions of brightness, the visual system is just remarkable. But you have to keep in mind always that the visual system is adaptive. It evolved, it was built to give us accurate information about things that are there in the environment and their properties so that we can survive and get around well in the world. I don’t want any kind of illusion that this door behind me in my office here is actually a wall or that the wall is a door. If I had that illusion, I would hurt myself badly many times during the day. So the visual system evolved to give us accurate information about the world, even though our subjective experience of the world can be inaccurate at times. Does that help at all?

Stump: 

Yeah, let me push it a little bit further, if I may. So I used to teach modern philosophy beginning with Descartes. And for that we always started with this question that he brought to our attention. And he claimed to have solved this question. But everybody after him thought he didn’t really solve it. But they kept the question and that question was, how do we know that the ideas of things we have in our minds are accurate representations of the way those things really are in the world? Maybe there’s a better neuroscientific way to ask that question now. But you just made the claim that these systems evolved to give us accurate information. But isn’t it more accurate to say they evolved for adaptive reasons that produced fitness and that maybe accuracy wasn’t the chief goal of those adaptations?

Newsome: 

Certainly adaptations to give us fitness is, that’s what evolution acts on. That’s the selective principle and, and any adaptation that gives us fitness is going to be selected for. I would argue that an adaptation that gives us fitness has to capture some aspect of the world accurately. Because if it doesn’t capture the world, at least somewhat accurately, it’s not going to be adaptive. You’re going to be running into walls, and you’re going to be avoiding doors and you’re going to be mistaking one animal for another animal. So there’s got to be some tethering to the real world or else vision is useless for us, it is not adaptive at all.

Stump: 

So isn’t the response to that, though that, particularly if somebody were like a reductive materialist, who thinks the truth of the world is best described just in the laws of physics, and that our, like our folk psychology is useful, but literally wrong, wouldn’t they say that? Or take the example of religion. Many people think that religion evolved for a useful adaptive trait, but isn’t really true. Right? So I’m not saying I’m in that camp. But isn’t that the kind of response people often give to tethering accuracy and fitness too closely together? 

Newsome: 

Yeah, absolutely. And as I said, you know, the visual system is subject to many illusions. So the simple one for my line of work in motion vision is the what we call the waterfall effect, the waterfall illusion. So if you go to Yosemite or any waterfall, and stare at the waterfall, just keep your eyes locked on it for 60 seconds, or even 30 seconds. And then you move your eyes off the waterfall and you look at the cliff next to it or you just look at a tree. What you see is that the tree or the cliff face appear to move upward. So we call that the motion after effect. 

But it’s, you know, it’s funny, because you see that tree or that cliff face moving up, and cognitively, you know, really well that that cliff face is not moving. And yet visually, you see it moving, it’s just undeniable, right? And that means that motion can be computed independently of our cognitive beliefs about an object. And, we can see things that aren’t there. So you know, that our motion system has evolved mostly to be adaptive. And we couldn’t hunt food, we couldn’t drive cars, we couldn’t catch balls, if we didn’t have accurate calculations and computations about the motion. And yet, our visual systems are not a perfect veridical representation of what’s out there in the world, because our visual systems can be fooled. And I don’t see the problem here and holding those two facts together. 

So in a similar vein, Jim, you raised the question a few minutes ago about, about religion, and the fact that religious, plus sense of transcendence, a sense of religious observance, and practice seems to be deeply embedded in our human brains and our human evolution, and therefore adaptive, it’s not there for no reason whatsoever. And a key question for deciding, you know, is the theistic or atheistic view of the universe best? Is whether it can be cast in those same terms that you talked about vision. Is it adaptive but does not really correspond to the way things are in the world? Or does it really correspond to the way things are? Is there something, a reality at the heart of the universe that is intelligent, that is loving, that is responsive, that cares about our destinies and the destinies of other creatures in our world and those some planets in this universe that we don’t even know about yet? And I think that’s the core religious question right there. It’s that sense of what kind of world we live in. Do we live in a world ultimately, that’s pointless and meaningless and it just brute force is? Or do we live in a world that has meaning, and that has purpose and that has an end goal for creatures like us? And I believe it’s the latter and I believe that the religious sense in us evolved to be in touch with that reality. Can I prove that? I cannot prove that. That is one of these things like, you know, that’s that religious faith statement. It’s about a third cognitive, it’s about a third intuition, it’s about a third sheer hope. 

And I’m reminded of a phrase that comes from one of my favorite Christian authors, Frederick Buechner, who many of your listeners will be very familiar with. But Buechner titled one of his little books, he entitled it Wishful Thinking. It has a little essay in there on wishful thinking and says that all of this religious, heavy religious and deeply intimate religious interpretation of his life and our lives together, might simply be wishful thinking. And he acknowledges that and then he says, says that a core Christian belief is that it’s the truth that sets us wishing in the first place. So that in some sense, if we’re created to have these intimations of immortality and transcendence, to quote another author, that it’s very reasonable that this would be implanted in us as a species and as individuals by the truth that we’re wishing for. So he turns it on its head, you know, you hear that religion dismissed so many times is wishful thinking and Buechner leans into that, right? He says, it is wishful thinking, it absolutely is wishful, hopeful thinking. And our conviction is that it’s the truth of the core of the universe that sets us wishing.

Midroll

Hey listeners. I’m just here with a quick plug for the BioLogos forum, a place filled with active discussions about many of the topics covered in this podcast. In fact, each episode of the podcast has a specific thread where you can discuss what you’ve heard. The forum is a place where questions are welcome and where conversation is civil and gracious, even when topics are controversial. Bring your questions or share your story with a community filled with experts and other curious learners from a variety of viewpoints.You can find a link to the forum at the top of any page on the biologos website, biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump: 

Well, let me have you talk a bit here too, about free will, which is a notoriously thorny issue for philosophers and neuroscientists, and theologians. And I’d like to have you describe the problem a bit, perhaps by reacting to this pretty well known passage from the beginning of a book by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA. He wrote in The Astonishing Hypothesis, “your joys, and your sorrows, your memories, your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules, who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.” How does that make you feel?

Newsome: 

It seems very naive to me, in one sense, but true in another sense. So, my real negative reaction to sentences like that, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s about the brain or whether it’s about an airplane. It’s the nothing buttery part, right? It’s nothing but such and such and such and such, that is such a misleading way to frame understanding of complex systems. So even with an airplane, you can say with equal conviction that it’s nothing but a bunch of wires and pieces of cloth and metal; it is nothing but that. And that’s true. It is true, there’s not a ghost inside the airplane, making it fly. In the end, in a material sense it is nothing but those things. But that just begs so many questions, it begs the question of how it came to be assembled in the first place? Why is it up there flying? Where is it going? What is its purpose? All of these questions that are critical to understanding airplanes, they are not answered triumphantly by saying that it’s nothing but a pile of copper and upholstery and plastics, and you know, whatever else. Same thing when Francis says that about the brain that is nothing but a pack of neurons, it just begs so many questions, and it doesn’t get to the deepest truths and the things we most deeply want to understand about brains. So I really, really dislike that way of framing these issues. And that happens over and over again. So many neuroscientists, you know, fall into that trap. 

Now, to be fair to Francis, and other neuroscientists, you know, what Francis is doing there, he’s being polemical. And he’s being polemical to argue against an understanding that, basically the Cartesian understanding of the nature of mind and brain, which is that the mind exists in some space, independently of the brain, and all of the really higher functions of our minds and our spirits and our appreciation of beauty, our ability to be rational and do mathematics, that all exists out there in the mind. And then somehow the mind has to come in and interact with the brain so that the mind can deploy the result of its thinking, to direct actions of the body, right? This is serious dualism. And this wasn’t just Descartes. I mean, John Eccles, who was a famous neurophysiologist in the middle of the 20th century, who was Catholic, he was a dualist. And he made no bones about that. You go read his books, and he’s a dualist. I heard him give a talk when I was a young neuroscientist, and he was doing what Descartes was doing, he was trying to identify the neurological structures in the brain where the mind would interact with the brain. And Descartes chose the pineal gland. And John Eccles chose these ascending bundles of axons that go up through the cortex to the surface of the cortex, he called them sycons. And you know, everything inside of me, as a neuroscientist said, this is absurd. You know, the mind, everything about the mind is related to neural processing inside the brain is inextricably linked. And we shouldn’t be looking for little structures that the mind uses as a magic entry point to get into the brain. But that just struck me as just way down the wrong path. And I think that’s what Francis why Francis Crick is being so polemical, I mean, frankly, he’s a smart guy, Francis knows that the brain is much more than just a pack of neurons, but he’s arguing it gets the the dualism that’s I think that’s what he’s really doing there.

Stump: 

So let me give voice to some people’s concerns about that quick of a rejection of dualism, and they often come from Christians, or not exclusively, but for people that have concerns about things like free will or even personal identity and the immortality of the soul. I mean, if all of my particles deteriorate after I die, how is it possible that I, this person, Jim Stump, might live again? So I think there’s been a push to say there are too many of those things that we can’t make sense of on a purely materialistic basis. And so we posit that there must be some other part to me, then. So how do you as a Christian, then even respond to some of those concerns that are rooted in a kind of view of the world where we don’t quite see how the material itself can, can do all of those things we think are important. 

Newsome: 

A couple of things Jim come to mind here. First of all, I would say that I’m a materialist. But I’m what Nancy Murphy, who I believe you probably know, who’s a professor of Christian philosophy emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, what Nancy calls non-reductive physicalism. And that’s the notion that in a complex system, like the brain, you have layer upon layer hierarchy upon hierarchy of mechanisms that are involved in any psychological function, whether it’s perception, whether it’s spatial navigation, whether it’s decision making, and that causal reality, causal relevance lies at every level of that hierarchy. So, I have been a reductive neuroscientist, a reductionist neuroscientist in practice in terms of what I do in the laboratory every day for decades. But I am not an ideological reductionist. By discovering the parts that are part of the whole and whose interactions comprise a mechanism to produce some interesting behavior, to my mind, that doesn’t mean you’ve got no more fundamental reality and now we can throw away the folk psychological interpretation of finding a car in a crowded parking lot. Finding a car in a crowded parking lot is a real problem, and a lot hangs on it. And it doesn’t do any good to find your car, it doesn’t help you find your car to know that there are neural mechanisms in the hippocampus and with synaptic plasticity that underlie it. It’s beautiful to know that and the more we know about mechanisms, the more we can treat the brain when things go wrong. The brain’s like any other tissue, things go wrong with it in disease as well as in health and we want that reductionist understanding. And besides, it’s just plain beautiful when some of this stuff clicks at times and you see aha that’s what’s going on. That’s why you can remember this and not that. 

So I’m a reductionist by methodology, but not by ideology. I think that souls or self identity are high level states of organization of the brain. I think that when I have a belief that the world is round, that’s a high level state of organization of the brain. When I have an aspiration to follow Christ and be a loving member of a Christian community that is higher order states of the brain. And I think that the critical thing is not the molecules, it’s not the carbon and the nitrogen and the hydrogen and the oxygen, those obviously, were critical for our being here in this world in the first place. But what’s critical to my identity is not so much those molecules as it is those higher states of organization, that actually make those molecules, in some sense, come alive and come sentient and become purposeful. So I would say that if you could take that organization, and you could instantiate it in some other physical system, that I would still be substantially me. So I don’t think it’s crazy to think about immortality and to think about continued existence after a bodily death here on this planet. And as you say, is that pile of molecules kinds of rots, and becomes recycled to other plants and animals out there. Who knows how many generations of humans one particular carbon atom goes through? Could be a whole lot. Who does it belong to? Which one does it belong to? So this business about this functionalist understanding of cognition and embodiment, this has credibility, even among atheists, right? You hear a lot of talk now about legacy humans that you would meet, by the way, Jim, we’re legacy, the legacy human, that there will be this singularity, right? And, we’re going to have human machine interfaces, and ultimately, intelligence will take on very different forms than it has now.

Stump: 

So let me go back to free will then, in this regard, because I think this is really interesting. When we talk about these higher level states of the brain, the question and I think this might get pushing into the wonky territory that philosophers are more interested in. But I think many of my friends thinking about this would say, well, are those higher states themselves determined by the lower states? Or is there something that genuinely emerges that is able to have what we intuitively think free will really is? That I’m not being determined by something else?

Newsome: 

Yeah. So Jim, this calls for some parsing, right? So the boogeyman there is that all these narratives that we tell ourselves about our lives and the meaning of our lives, and why we make the choices that we do, that all of that narrative is just epiphenomenal, right? That it’s like froth on top of a wave.

Stump: 

And that’s what we’re worried about.

Newsome: 

And so, first of all, let me say that if we define free will as being an uncaused action, then I don’t believe in free will. Okay, I believe in causes for actions. I think the critical question for all of us is what counts as a cause? If the things that count as a cause are only the forces of physics, you know, the four fundamental forces of physics in the end gravitation, electricity, magnetism and weak and strong nuclear forces, though I was reading something in a newspaper report about a fifth possible fundamental force of physics. But if those are the only real causes in the world, then free will is an illusion in the epiphenomenal sense. But I don’t believe that. As I was kind of alluding to, I think that there’s many levels of hierarchical organization in the nervous system, and the most complex and all encompassing are things that comprise our values, our goals, our aspirations, our memories, our sense of purpose, and that those high level states of organization have real causal efficacy over the whole. And I would not say that the lower causes, the grinding of the gears that the neuronal action potentials of neuro chemicals, I would by no mean say that those are irrelevant. But I would say that in order to understand the human organism and to treat it responsibly in a medical fashion, you have to acknowledge both of those levels of reality. Both of those levels are, and in fact not just both, about a dozen of them, and they are real, they’re causally relevant and you have to take them into account. 

So let me give you a simple example here. I was really startled back in 2006 or so when one of the Lasker prizes, which is sort of an American biomedical set of pre-Nobel prizes, was given to Aaron Beck a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania. And it was given to Aaron Beck for the invention of cognitive behavioral therapy, you know, which is broadly practiced now around the world and is widely recognized to be probably the most effective form of talk therapy. And he was given this Lasker Award because accumulating scientific evidence, which I think is still really, really strong, is that you can take groups of severely depressed patients, you can treat some of them with serotonergic drugs, serotonin reuptake inhibitors are classic antidepressants right now, you can treat another group with cognitive behavioral therapy, and you can treat a third group with both combined. And these outcomes can be evaluated of course, by professionals who are double blinded, which test group subject is in. And it seems very clear now in both adolescents and adults that you get better results with cognitive behavioral therapy and the pharmacology combined than you get with either alone. Either alone will help some people to some extent, but you get better results on average, with both combined. Now to me, that tells us something really, really important about the nature of us human animals. It’s something important that was recognized by the Lasker Award, you have to remember that the serotonergic pharmacological approach is a classic bottom up manipulation of the gears of human behavior and human emotion. The psychiatrist who writes that prescription doesn’t really care whether you’re fulfilled in your job and doesn’t really care about this relationship or that other relationship that you have. That psychiatrist cares about the amount of serotonin in your synaptic clefts, okay? On the other hand, the CBT practitioner, the cognitive behavioral therapy practitioner, doesn’t really in the end care about the amount of serotonin in your synapses. Aaron Beck said that cognitive behavioral therapy is about restructuring the patient’s beliefs, okay? And the knob that Beck is turning is that the level of beliefs. This is one of these higher level organization of the nervous system. And what modern medicine seems to be teaching us is that if you throw all of your eggs into one of these baskets or the other and neglect the other one, you’re doing your patients a disservice as a physician. And I think as philosophers and neuroscientists, we are doing ourselves a disservice in trying to understand the nature of the human being and the human condition. So I think, again, that causal relevance is distributed all through the hierarchy of the system. And by causal relevance, I don’t mean something airy fairy, that has to be defined in philosophical terms, what you would call wonky Jim. I’m just talking about a knob that we can turn and get changes in the behavior of the organism.

Stump: 

And so you’re counting beliefs, values, these higher level things, these can be causes. But my question, then, is, are the beliefs and values themselves caused? 

Newsome: 

Well I think, yes, in some sense. I mean, they’re caused in the sense that some of my beliefs and values that I have happened because I, are here because I grew up in the family that I did in the, in the part of the world that I grew up in. I have a history, right? And all of that history goes into the person that I am now. But there are also critical points at which I make choices. So I become conscious of these historical influences on my values, historical influences on my behavior.

Stump: 

I am totally on board with historical influences in that regard. I’m just trying to see if there are complete, could we tell a complete causal history of these such that if we rewound the clock and did it again, it would happen exactly the same way. Unless we also throw in probabilistic things of some sort, but I’m looking for something to ground like moral responsibility in that isn’t just the necessary outcome of you know, the original state plus all of the forces at work.

Newsome: 

Well, if the original state plus all the forces at work is all there is then why…

Stump: 

When the forces I mean, the mechanical forces, is there something that’s real about you know, philosophers call it libertarian free will right? To say there’s something that, and I don’t like saying it was caused, but I’m happy to say, the choices that I make choices for reasons, you know, they’re not just these random things, but that there’s something different about a person making a choice for a reason, as opposed to a machine having an outcome, because that’s the mechanism that works that way. 

Newsome: 

Yeah. So, I mean, this is a lot of ground that deserves more time to unpack. But let me give you a simple example. I was raised, I’m 68 years old, soon to be 69. I was raised in the South, in the 1950s, and 1960s. I was raised in a little town of 15,000 people that was totally segregated. We had white schools, we had black schools, we had white swimming pools, we had black swimming pools, you go to the movie theater in town, blacks sat in one area, whites sat in another area. And this was just the way things were for me, that was part of my culture, part of my heritage. I was pretty uncritical about it until, you know, sort of my teens in the 1960s, the civil rights movement started. And I became really aware of the inequities that of course, I should have been aware I’d much sooner, but I wasn’t. But you know, I became aware of them. I started becoming aware and critical about all of the cultural influences on me and my values and my behaviors that I became convinced, in part for religious reasons, actually, that they just simply flat out needed to change. And it had nothing to do with feelings. In fact, the process of change, felt hard, it felt difficult, it felt unattractive sometimes. But I became convinced at some level that this change was important. Now, it’s only when you become conscious of these formerly unconscious influences on your behavior, it’s only when you become conscious of them, that there is an element of choice involved, right? Because long, right, as long as you remain unconscious, you don’t actually have the option of choosing a different course. And that is true for all kinds of biases, all kinds of prejudices, all kinds of heuristics that we bring to interpreting the world. But at that moment of consciousness, when you become aware, then there’s the point of choice. And I think that it may be that the most free thing that we can do is make those choices about what we’re going to find reinforcing in the future, what we want to become reinforcing. And many times when you start behaving in a new way, like trying to engage in new patterns of race relations, that feel really, really awkward and really weird. It doesn’t feel good, it’s not rewarding in the classic, you know, psychological sense of the word, you’re searching for something higher than that. 

And that thing, it might be immaterial if you’re a Platonist and think that these ideas and ideals are immaterial. And I have tendencies in that direction, actually, I think mathematics was discovered by humans not invented by humans, for example. But when you get up into that realm of choice, I think there is where real freedom and real responsibility lies. Now, do I think that that realm of choice departs into a Cartesian world temporarily, and then comes back to the brain so that it can be freed? No, I don’t think that; I think that the brain is still involved at the very highest levels, it’s still involved. But I don’t I don’t have a problem with that. Because I think what we all want, when we, when we talk about freedom, what we really want, we don’t want to be determined just by the neural gears in our brains, we don’t want to be coerced by the social system we live in, we don’t want to be the prisoner of ancient biases, and heuristics that we’re not even aware of. What we really want is self awareness and self autonomy, right? We want to make choices that are truest to what we believe to be our highest and most significant selves. And as long as we have that kind of autonomy, and as long as we can grow into it, as we are older and become older and become more critical and more aware of the sources of our own behavior, that I would say, that’s what I want from freedom. And that I think that biology is a part of that.  I don’t feel threatened by that.

Stump: 

One last question about this, though, and partly because you earlier indicated that you think there are limits to scientific explanation, science can’t answer all of the questions and even some of the most important questions. And I guess I’ve always wondered if free will is one of those. Does free will operate, such that it’s almost even a category mistake to try to look for a scientific explanation for free will?

Newsome: 

Could be. I mean, if we were discussing consciousness right now, rather than free will, and we were discussing qualia, I would say there may be a category mismatch there. I do believe there’s a hard problem of consciousness and by the way, I’m an unusual neuroscientist in believing that, but I do believe that there’s real intellectual tension between third person descriptions and first person descriptions. And one may never be able to capture first person experiences in the terms of third person objective science, but that’s a different conversation. But I’m pretty convinced of that for a certain level of consciousness. I mean, one of the problems with consciousness is we use that word to mean so many different things. Yeah, but free will could be the same. It may be the same. I haven’t seen it yet. But maybe I just haven’t thought hard enough about the problem yet. You know, which is one of the things that’s exciting for the future.

Stump: 

Well, we’ve been talking for an hour. So I’m going to exercise my free will and bring this to a close. At least I think that’s what I’m doing. We’ll let somebody else analyze it. But thanks so much, Bill, for the conversation. It was really fun. And I could obviously keep pushing at various things along the way. But I think you gave great answers for all of those and we appreciate hearing about your expertise, and hearing about the faith outlook on life that you bring. And so thanks so much for talking to us. 

Newsome: 

Well, you’re welcome, Jim. It’s a pleasure. I admire the work going on there at BioLogos and the work that you’re doing in particular, and maybe the future will allow us to work together on some of these things.

Stump: 

Well, let’s talk again for sure. Thanks so much. 

Credits

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

William Newsome Headshot

Bill Newsome

Bill Newsome is the Harman Family Provostial Professor of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and the Vincent V.C. Woo Director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. He received a B.S. degree in physics from Stetson University and a Ph.D. in biology from the California Institute of Technology. Newsome co-chaired the NIH BRAIN working group, charged with forming a national plan for the coming decade of neuroscience research in the United States.


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