The problem with materialism as a world view is that it reduces what it means to be human. If we are no more than a biological machine, can we trust our thoughts? Are our actions a matter of free will? Some evolutionary biologists have in fact embraced determinism. Is there a self that goes beyond the programming of the electrochemical impulses of our bodies?
Reductionism is a fine intellectual game to play, but it is very difficult to live consistently. An episode of the British crime show, Inspector Lewis, illustrates the tension. Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis is the no-nonsense policeman. His partner is Detective Sergeant James Hathaway. Hathaway is the intellectual who provides the show’s dialogue with the needed literary or classical music reference. Before becoming a detective. he had been a theology student at Cambridge. In the episode, “Fearful Symmetry,” there are two exchanges that I found intriguing.
A young Oxford student has been killed, and the detectives must visit the lab of Dr. Ezrin, a biologist.
Hathaway: What do you actually study here, Dr. Ezrin?
Dr. Ezrin:The parts of the brain relating to learning. – how data is imprinted and stored in the memory. Anything you’ve ever felt is down to microscopic variation in the electrochemical balance in here (pointing to his brain). Everything we are – love, hate, anger, jealousy, desire…
Hathaway: And the soul?
Dr. Ezrin: Sorry, there is no ghost in the machine. When the machine stops, we stop.
Later the detectives learn that after an affair Dr. Ezrin has been stalking a woman who has a connection to their murder case. He has even broken into her apartment.
Lewis: You’re aware, Dr. Ezrin, that stalking is an offense?
Dr. Ezrin: I’m not a stalker. Look I went to her place once or twice … just as a… I don’t know. I was jealous.
Hathaway: Those electrochemical impulses can be a nuisance.
Hathaway’s quip accents the problem of reductionism. None of us explain our behavior away by saying my electrochemical impulses made me do it. Especially when we are in the wrong, we give reasons why in this case, our behavior is allowable and understandable. All of us in conversation assume that there is a self that is above the electrochemical impulses going on in our brains. Historically, that self is called the soul. All of us behave as if there is a “ghost in the machine” despite what we may say intellectually.