Little Szechuan, Science Fiction and the Science of the Soul

The Hunan Chicken Was Properly Spicy

Tradition for the Minnesota Atheists dictates that members of the group share a meal at a nearby restaurant following our monthly members’ meetings. Well, “dictates” is a strong word, but my thesaurus isn’t close at hand. Perhaps I should say instead that after each monthly members’ meeting, an invitation is extended to all to join for repast at a nearby restaurant.

Pre-meeting discussion as to which restaurant would serve as our gathering space was complicated by the fact that we used the Rondo Public Library for the first time, and didn’t have a standard choice for restaurants in the area. For the large part, we have tended towards Asian cuisine, and there are many excellent Asian restaurants in the Frogtown neighborhood on University Avenue. One key criterion for the meal is that the restaurant be close. Some members protested that we seem always to choose Asian foods and suggested that we vary it a bit, but no one came up with any solid alternatives to Little Szechuan and so that is where we went.

The Dining Room

The Dining Room

I had hoped for something a little less expensive myself, and nearly decided to skip the meal to head home. But I have a fault. I don’t like to leave the party if I don’t have anything pressing, and I consider being with fellow atheists to be a “party.” Atheist gatherings are an opportunity to speak freely, and for me, generally an opportunity to listen freely as I am not a talkative person. The subjects that atheists talk about are wide in scope and conversation usually flows through many subjects.

I arrived late at the restaurant and found that the early arrivers had already filled two tables. Since I didn’t really want to sit by myself I found a chair and squeezed in at one of the tables, next to one of my friends from the Humanists of Minnesota. Fortunately, the table I chose had opted to eat “family” style and invited me to take from the dishes that were there. So, I grabbed a plate and dished up.

There were a few things I had wanted to rehash about the meeting. This meeting featured a panel discussion on the hassles of dealing with creationism in biology classes both in college and high school. The guests were Greg Laden, PZ Myers, Jane Phillips, Sehoya Cotner and Randy Moore, all of them professors in the University of Minnesota system.

Towards the end of the discussion, a man stood up in the back and made the claim that Richard Dawkins once said that humans are the only animals with free will and that this logically led to the idea that we have a supernatural soul. I thought, as he was asking the question in the form of a statement, that this was an odd thing to bring up at an atheist meeting. Since the meetings are open to the general public, however, we don’t screen at the door for beliefs or anti-beliefs. I wondered if this man was an evangelist coming to save a few souls at an atheist meeting. PZ handled the question by explaining that this was something that Dawkins had never written nor would he claim.

Following the meeting and preceding the restaurant trek, I jumped into conversation with PZ, another atheist and Kevin T. Favero. Favero is the guy with the question/statement that Dawkins tacitly endorses the existence of the soul. He has a website, you know, and is kind enough there to include a review or two of his book The Science of the Soul. Here is an excerpt of the review by Reid Monaghan:

The thrust of Favero’s argument for the existence of souls is laid out in the introductory chapter. His basic thesis is that if matter/energy is all that exists, then this matter/energy must by necessity interact according to the laws of physics. We know of no matter that has a mind of its own and decides what it will do autonomously. All matter/energy must follow a natural course including that which makes up human beings. All that we are, our brains and central nervous systems, must up operate by predetermined natural laws. It is then a logical implication that human beings do not have free will. Favero argues that if it can be shown that human beings do indeed have free will, then this volition requires an explanation that is not natural, which is not operating according to the laws of nature. In logical short hand his argument is this:

· If matter/energy is all there is then there is no free will

· There is Free Will

· Therefore matter/energy is not all there is

It is a valid Modus Tollens argument

· If P then Q

· Not Q

· Therefore Not P

P = Matter/Energy is all there is and Q = There is No Free Will

With the conclusion being not P = “it is not the case that matter/energy is all there is.”

The bulk of the evidence he then marshals is necessarily in support of the premise that we do indeed have free will. He then argues that the source of the free will we have must come from something other than matter/energy operating according to the laws of Physics. Hence his conclusion, the reality of free will demands a super-natural source, which we call the human Soul.

My question in these matters of “soul,” is that if the decision-making aspect of humanity is external to a physical reality, then how does the decision get reasserted in to action on the part of the person? Our response to stimulus and thought, converted into action must have an intersection with what Favero calls the soul. To my mind that would make the soul a natural and physical entity which should then be able to be tested scientifically. When I asked this of Favero, he didn’t give me an answer and I was frustrated.

That’s what I wanted to talk about at the restaurant.

Coming in late, I found myself in a conversation that had just turned from music to science fiction. I should stress that I am a fan of science fiction, but that I am way behind on my reading of it. I read it voraciously when I was younger, clearing the library shelves two or three times of their entire collections. My authors were Zelazny, Varley, Cherryh, Heinlein, Asimov, Anthony and more. But as I say, I have gotten way behind on my reading and I am not familiar with the current crop of writers, nor am I all that up on graphic novels. I generally don’t know who they are unless a movie adaptation has been made of their works.

But I found myself at a table with four people solidly into science fiction novels, short stories and graphic novels. And to my mind, the conversation was outside of the scope of my experience and I wasn’t able to participate. I really had no idea who these authors where that they were talking about, except when Philip K. Dick was mentioned.

There were four other people at the table who were, like me, unable to break in or steer the conversation towards a more general topic. It was a stream-of-conciousness sharing by geeks of who their favorite writers were and had been, but they didn’t seem to be aware that not all of the members of their ad hoc cohort were sharing. And it didn’t occur to them to try to find a more general topic.

My mind wandered a bit, and I started wondering a bit if some of my friends don’t consider that a dinner conversation should be inviting to everyone. I wondered if some people don’t have a form of Asperger’s syndrome, in which externally directed empathy towards their fellow person must be “reminded” to them because they are so focused on what they want to say that it doesn’t really matter that not everyone is as immersed in the topic as they are.

Finally, I realized that in their social situations, these four people most likely never have the opportunity to talk to other people who have the same level of interest in science fiction that they do. I stopped seething and returned to my own acknowledgment of their needs.

I piled some more rice onto my plate. I had ordered Hunan Chicken, despite warnings that this particular restaurant tended prepare their dishes too “hot.” I found the Hunan Chicken to be properly spicy, and I made the free will decision to eat while my friends talked.

Little Szechuan is at 422 University Avenue in St. Paul. Pricy for me, moderate for everyone else.

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