I doubt that any Calvinist of the sixteenth century ever believed so completely in predestination as these, the hottest and most intensely rational young scientists in the United States at the end of the twentieth.
A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way. But what if, as seems likely, the greatest marvel of modern science turns out to be brain imaging? And what if, ten years from now, brain imaging has proved, beyond any doubt, that not only Edward O. Wilson but also the young generation are, in fact, correct?
The elders, such as Wilson himself and Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, insist that there is nothing to fear from the truth, from the ultimate extension of Darwin's dangerous idea. They present elegant arguments as to why neuroscience should in no way diminish the richness of life, the magic of art, or the righteousness of political causes. Despite their best efforts, however, neuroscience is not rippling out into the public on waves of scholarly reassurance. But rippling out it is, rapidly.
Meantime, the notion of a self--a self who exercises self-discipline, postpones gratification, curbs the sexual appetite, stops short of aggression and criminal behavior--a self who can become more intelligent and lift itself to the very peaks of life by its own bootstraps through study, practice, perseverance, and refusal to give up in the face of great odds--this old-fashioned notion (what's a boot strap, for God's sake?) of success through enterprise and true grit is already slipping away, slipping away...slipping away...The peculiarly American faith in the power of the individual to transform himself from a helpless cypher into a giant among men, a faith that ran from Emerson ("Self-Reliance") to Horatio Alger's Luck and Pluck stories to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People to Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking to Og Mandino's The Greatest Salesman in the World --that faith is now as moribund as the god for whom Nietzsche wrote an obituary in 1882.
Eventually, as brain imaging is refined, the picture may become as clear and complete as those see-through exhibitions, at auto shows, of the inner workings of the internal combustion engine. At that point it may become obvious to everyone that all we are looking at is a piece of machinery, an analog chemical computer, that processes information from the environment. "All," since you can look and look and you will not find any ghostly self inside, or any mind, or any soul.
Thereupon, in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: "The self is dead"--except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche I, he will probably say: "The soul is dead." He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: "The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists." Unless the assurances of the Wilsons and the Dennetts and the Dawkinses also start rippling out, the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase "the total eclipse of all values" seem tame.
If I were a college student today, I don't think I could resist going into neuroscience. Here we have the two most fascinating riddles of the twenty-first century: the riddle of the human mind and the riddle of what happens to the human mind when it comes to know itself absolutely. In any case, we live in an age in which it is impossible and pointless to avert your eyes from the truth. (Tom Wolfe essay, 1996; while writing his excellent A Man In Full)