An odd article appeared in today’s Ottawa Citizen, giving account of the research of Dr. Georg Northoff, a neuroscientist at Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research. After a recent period of investigation, Northoff proclaimed that while God may well exist, the theistic domain will remain forever unintelligible to us, due to the limitations of our cognitive equipment.
While it’s defensible and common (at least in universities) to declare agnosticism due to epistemological skepticism, Northoff, a scientist and philosopher, takes things a step further:
“We will never be able to answer the existence of God,” he said this week from his office at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. “There is a limit because of the way the brain functions. (That) limit . . . is the price we to pay for consciousness.
We might do well to substitute “neuroscientists” for “we” in Northoff’s first quotation, and we might cheekily ask if we can know that squares are square, and that circles are round. It’s unclear whether Northoff believes that a vastly more complex human brain might be able to apprehend God’s essence, or whether all biological computers like the brain are prohibited by nature from accessing the divine. Either way, he misses the point. Proclaiming a theoretical limit to the brain’s metaphysical reach is hardly scientific, and it fails to settle what property does the thinking and choosing in human persons. Even Richard Dawkins, rash as he is with weighty ideas, was prudent enough not to allege proof of a godless universe in The God Delusion, instead dealing with the question (inadequately) using probabilities.
Interestingly enough, Northoff has a moment of clarity when quoted later in the article:
We can research the neuro-mechanism into belief, but we cannot say anything about God. That’s where we have to go to philosophy.