May 15 2012

Another Blogger Jumps Into the Dualism Fray

It has been a while since I wrote about dualism – the notion that the mind is something more than the functioning of the brain. Previously I had a blog duel about dualism with creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor. Now someone else has jumped into that discussion: blogger, author, and computer engineer Bernardo Kastrup has taken me on directly. The result is a confused and poorly argued piece all too typical of metaphysical apologists.

Kastrup’s major malfunction is to create a straw man of my position and then proceed to argue against that. He so blatantly misrepresents my position, in fact, that I have to wonder if he has serious problems with reading comprehension or is just so blinkered by his ideology that he cannot think straight (of course, these options are not mutually exclusive). I further think that he probably just read one blog post in the long chain of my posts about dualism and so did not make a sufficient effort to actually understand my position.

Kastrup is responding specifically to this blog post by me, a response to one by Egnor. Kastrups begins with this summary:

I found it to contain a mildly interesting but otherwise trite, superficial, and fallacious argument. Novella’s main point seems to be that correlation suffices to establish causation. He claims that Egnor denies that neuroscience has found sufficient correlation between brain states and mind states because subjective mind states cannot be measured.

There is the crux of the straw man – I never claimed that correlation is sufficient to establish causation. The entire premise of Kastrup’s piece is therefore false, creating a straw man logical fallacy. He goes on at length explaining that correlation does not equal causation. Regular readers of this blog are likely chuckling at this point, knowing that I have written often about this fallacy myself. If you read Katrup’s piece you will notice that at no point does he provide a quote from me claiming that correlation is sufficient to establish causation. He seems to understand also that I was responding directly to Egnor, who was claiming that brain states do not correlate with mind states, so of course I was making the point that they do. But I went much further (perhaps Kastrup did not read my entire post).

I wrote:

In fact I would add another prediction to the list, one that I have discussed but have not previously added explicity to the list – if brain causes mind then brain activity and changes will precede the corresponding mental activity and changes. Causes come before their effects. This too has been validated.

The list I am referring to are the predictions generated by the hypothesis that the brain causes the mind. I contend that all of these predictions have been validated by science. This does not mean the hypothesis has been definitively proven, a claim I never make, just that the best evidence we have so far confirms the predictions of brain causing mind, and there is no evidence that falsifies this hypothesis. Because mere correlation does not prove causation (although it can be compelling if the correlation is tight and multifaceted) I felt compelled to add additional points, like the one above. Brain states do not just correlate with mental state, they precede them. Causes precede effects, so again if the brain causes mind then we would expect changes to brain states to precede their corresponding mental states, and in every case of which we are currently aware, they do. We would not expect this temporal relationship if the mind caused the brain, and it would not be necessary if some third thing causes both or, as Kastrup claims, the correlation is a pattern without causation.

Further, in a section of my post titled “Correlation and Causation” I pointed out that it is highly reproducible that changes in brain states precede their corresponding changes in mental states. For example, we can stimulate or inhibit parts of the brain and thereby reliably increase or decrease corresponding mental activity. The temporal arrow of correlation extends to things that change brain states. You get drunk after you drink alcohol, not before. When researchers use transcranial magnetic stimulation to inhibit the functioning of the temporal parietal junction subjects then have an out of body experience.

To further demonstrate that I was not relying upon mere correlation to make the case for causation, I wrote:

Egnor would have you believe that this growing body of scientific evidence only shows that brain states correlate with the behavior of subjects reporting their experience, and not with the experiences themselves. He would have you believe that even if turning on and off a light switch reliably precedes and correlates with a light turning on and off, the switch does not actually control the light – not even that, he would have you believe that the scientific inference that the switch controls the light (absent any other plausible hypothesis) is materialist pseudoscience.

Perhaps Kastrup does not understand the meaning of the word “inference.” That the brain causes mind is not a philosophical proof (something I never claimed), but a scientific inference. Correlation is one pillar of that inference, but so is the fact that brain states precede mental states. Further, I am clearly invoking Occam’s razor in the example above with the fairies and the light switch. The same correlation exists in that example – flipping a light switch preceded and correlates with the lights turning on and off. The simplest explanation is that the light switch controls the light – it is causing the lights to go on or off. But lets say you didn’t know light switches worked by opening and closing a circuit, and you could not break open the wall to investigate the mechanism. You could still come to the confident scientific inference that the light switch was doing something to directly turn the light on or off. You would not need to hypothesize that there were light switch fairies who were doing it.

I also felt compelled to add, for completeness, “absent any other plausible hypothesis.” Why would I specifically add this caveat if I thought correlation proved causation? Of course, in this one blog post I could not go into a thorough exploration of every supernatural claim made for anomalous cognition. I maintain that there is no compelling evidence of mental states separate from brain states, and I refer you to my many other blog posts to support this position. Here we see that Kastrup’s clumsy and, dare I say, trite, superficial, and fallacious arguments about correlation not equaling causation are really cover for his true position and agenda – he believes that there is evidence for mental activity separate brain activity. He writes:

There is an increasing amount of evidence that there are non-ordinary states of consciousness where the usual correlations between brain states and mind states break (see details here). If only one of these cases proves to be true (and I think at least one of them, the psilocybin study at Imperial College, has been proven true beyond reasonable doubt; see my debate on this with Christoph Koch here.), then the hypothesis that the brain causes the mind is falsified. Novella ignores all this evidence in this opinion piece, and writes as if it didn’t exist.

You can also watch the video embedded in his post for an explanation of his position. I will address his two main points, both of which are erroneous. He seems highly impressed by the fact that neuroscientific studies have shown that psilocybin decreases brain activity and causes a “mystical” experience, as if this contradicts the prediction that the brain correlates with the mind (so in reality he does not accept the correlation and that is the reason for his rejection of the brain-mind hypothesis, not his obvious straw man about correlation and causation). Kastrup’s conclusion, however, is hopelessly naive. There are many examples where inhibiting the activity in one part of the brain enhances the activity in another part of the brain through disinhibition. In fact the very study he cites for support concludes:

These results strongly imply that the subjective effects of psychedelic drugs are caused by decreased activity and connectivity in the brain’s key connector hubs, enabling a state of unconstrained cognition.

Unconstrained cognition is another way of saying disinhibition. The concept is simple – there are many brain areas all interacting and processing information. This allows for complex information processing but also slows down the whole process – slows down cognition. That is the price we pay for complexity. If, however, we inhibit one part of the brain we lose some functionality, but the other parts of the brain are unconstrained and free to process information and function more quickly.

The psilocybin study is a perfect example of this. The drug is inhibiting the reality testing parts of the brain, causing a psychadelic experience that is disinhibited and intense. This is similar to really intense dreams. You may have noticed that sometimes in dreams emotions and experiences can be more intense than anything experienced while awake. This is due to a decrease in brain activity in certain parts of the brain compared to the full waking state.

Kastrup seems to be completely unaware of the critical concept of disinhibition and therefore completely misinterprets the significance of the neuroscience research.

His next point is equally naive. He claims that near death experiences, in which people have intense experiences without brain activity, is further evidence of a lack of correlation between brain states and mental states. I have already dealt with this claim here. Briefly, there is no evidence that people are having experiences while their brain is not functioning. What we do have are reports of memories that could have formed days or even weeks later, during the recovery period following a near death experience. At the very least one has to admit that NDE claims are controversial. They are certainly not established scientific facts that can be used as a premise to counter the materialist hypothesis of brain and mind.


Once again we see a hopelessly naive and confused defense of the mystical position that the mind is something more than the brain. To explicitly detail my position, so that it cannot easily be misrepresented again – if we look at the claim that the brain causes the mind as a scientific hypothesis, based upon the current findings of neuroscience we can make a few conclusions:

– There is a tight correlation between brain states and mental states that holds up to the limits of resolution of our ability to measure both.

– There are no proven examples of mental states absent brain function.

– Brain states precede their corresponding mental states, and changes to the brain precede the corresponding changes to the mind.

– At present the best scientific inference we can make from all available evidence is that the brain causes the mind. This inference is strong enough to treat it as an established scientific fact (as much as evolution, for example) but that, of course, is not the same thing as absolute proof.

– There are other hypotheses that can also explain the correlation, but they all add unnecessary elements and are therefore eliminated by the application of Occam’s razor. They are the equivalent of light-switch fairies.

I have made all these points before, but given the fact that Katrup completely misinterpreted my previous writings it cannot hurt to summarize them so explicitly. Kastrup himself adds nothing of interest to the discussion. He flogs the “correlation is not causation” logical fallacy as if that’s a deep insight, and is unaware of the fact that his application of it is just a straw man. He pays lip service to the notion that brain function correlates with mental states, getting up on his logical fallacy high horse, but this all appears to be a misdirection because his real point is that brain function does not correlate with mental states. He then trots out the long debunked notion of near death experiences as his big evidence for this conclusion, without addressing the common criticisms of this position (even by the person he is currently criticizing). His only other evidence is a complete misunderstanding of pharmacological neuroscience research.

I can see no better way to end this piece than with a quote from Kastrup himself, which applies in a way I believe he did not intend:

“In my personal view, this superficial and intellectually light-weight opinion piece adds nothing of value to the debate about the mind-body problem.”

44 responses so far

44 Responses to “Another Blogger Jumps Into the Dualism Fray”

  1. daedalus2uon 15 May 2012 at 9:42 am

    It is worth pointing out that the technique used to infer brain activity (fMRI), doesn’t really measure brain activity, what it measures is differential changes in relative quantities of oxy- and deoxyhemoglobin. It is blood flow that is being measured. That blood flow change is caused by nitric oxide.

    A change in nitric oxide levels will change brain activity and brain behavior because that is how the brain controls itself.

    It is not just that the idea of a immaterial mind would be greatly complicated by something like “mind fairies” (I personally don’t like arguments from Occam’s razor when evaluating what reality actually is, using Occam’s razor to evaluate a model is ok, but we know that “all models are wrong, some are useful”). There is the problem of conservation of mass/energy, momentum, spin, charge, etc. The brain certainly is made out of materials with all of those conserved things. That matter cannot be influenced except via processes that also conserve those things (so far as we know as in the Standard Model, General Relativity and so on). Those conservation laws have been tested to energies ~12 orders of magnitude greater than energy relevant to brain activity. There has been a complete absence of deviations from those conservation laws.

    Our default hypothesis should be that the brain is matter just like everything else we are able to interact with. There is no datum that is inconsistent with that default hypothesis. If the brain can only be affected by processes which conserve various quantities, then the idea that there is an immaterial mind is not correct.

  2. SARAon 15 May 2012 at 9:47 am

    I can understand the desire to make the mind be the cause. If you think about brain causing mind, all of life becomes a sort of non-choice. All of my life becomes a slavery to brain chemicals and reactions, over which I have little or no control. Because the “I” of my brain is really just a reaction of brain function.

    But, I will never understand why people will take slivers and the barest threads of evidence and build a case against a mountain. Suppose their few examples are true. They are all contrived or extreme situations. So, are they really making a case for our every day lives to be caused by this outside “mind” rather than brain?

    It feels like they arguing that this outside soul (because lets face it – their mind/concsiousness argument is a thinly veiled attempt to infuse us with a soul) is just a voyeuristic rider who only makes an appearance when you sleep, take drugs, strangle yourself, etc and then it makes a spirited escape when you die? That doesn’t seem to be an argument for that being the actual “I” of the mind, does it?

    Frankly, I’m less disturbed by the idea of being a slave to the chemicals and electrical reactions in my brain.

  3. Bernardoon 15 May 2012 at 10:49 am

  4. Gallenodon 15 May 2012 at 11:01 am

    SARA: While we all may be “moist robots” (per Scott Adams), you’re not so much a slave to brain chemicals and electrical reactions as you are constrained by them. You’re still free to make choices within the limits of human perception, comprehension and thought.

    Dualism supports the human desire for immoratality beyond the limits of physical bodies. It’s a popular prop to the idea that some part of us will survive death. Therefore many people will want to believe in it despite any and all evidence to the contrary; even the most hardened skeptics likely want to exist forever. The tragedy is that the current evidence says we won’t and if you accept that you need to find another reason for existence than living a life that gets you into the afterlife of your choice.

    And that generally involves the realm of philosophy, not hard science.

  5. RickKon 15 May 2012 at 11:23 am

    Steve – it’s “Fray”, no?

  6. tyler the new ageron 15 May 2012 at 11:41 am

    Hi Dr.Novella, I would like to see this debate between you and Bernardo Kastrup to continue in a pleasant manner, I find your personal attacks on him a little of putting.

    You are also ignoring a large body of evidence we have for the survival of consciousness after death and consciousness being something more than brain activity.

    Proxy sittings (Mrs. Piper in particular), drop in communicators, cross correspondences, shared near death experiences and veridical NDEs, shared death bed visions, multiple witness apparitions, children with past life memories, hauntings not associated with one person and the ending of such hauntings by spirit rescue mediumship. I can go on and on. We should not be bigoted against the evidence Dr. Novella.

    Finally I would like to share something from the late great researcher Montague Keene:

    The challenge to Mr. Randi and friends (written by late Montague Keen)

    I present Mr. Randi, and any of his fellow-skeptics, with a list of some of the classical cases of paranormality with most or all of which Mr. Randi will be familiar. I know he will be because he has been studying the subject for half a century, he tells us. ….. I would not imply that Mr. Randi is ignorant of these cases, many of which have long awaited the advent of a critic who could discover flaws in the paranormality claims. For me to suggest this would imply the grossest hypocrisy on Mr. Randi’s part. But to refresh his memory, and help him along, and despite the refusal of some of his colleagues like Professor Kurtz, Professor Hyman and Dr. Susan Blackmore to meet the challenge, I list the requisite references. They are based on (although not identical to) a list of twenty cases suggestive of survival prepared by Professor Archie Roy and published some years ago in the SPR’s magazine, The Paranormal Review as an invitation or challenge to skeptics to demonstrate how any of these cases could be explained by “normal” i.e. non-paranormal, means. Thus far there have been no takers. It is now Mr. Randi’s chance to vindicate his claims.

    1. The Watseka Wonder, 1887. Stevens, E.W. 1887 The Watseka Wonder, Chicago; Religio-philosophical Publishing House, and Hodgson R., Religio-Philosophical Journal Dec. 20th, 1890, investigated by Dr. Hodgson.

    2. Uttara Huddar and Sharada. Stevenson I. and Pasricha S, 1980. A preliminary report on an unusual case of the reincarnation type with Xenoglossy. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 74, 331-348; and Akolkar V.V. Search for Sharada: Report of a case and its investigation. Journal of the American SPR 86,209-247.

    3. Sumitra and Shiva-Tripathy. Stevenson I. and Pasricha S, and McLean-Rice, N 1989. A Case of the Possession Type in India with evidence of Paranormal Knowledge. Journal of the Society for Scientific Exploration 3, 81-101.

    4. Jasbir Lal Jat. Stevenson, I, 1974. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (2nd edition) Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

    5. The Thompson/Gifford case. Hyslop, J.H. 1909. A Case of Veridical Hallucinations Proceedings, American SPR 3, 1-469.

    6. Past-life regression. Tarazi, L. 1990. An Unusual Case of Hypnotic Regression with some Unexplained Contents. Journal of the American SPR, 84, 309-344.

    7. Cross-correspondence communications. Balfour J. (Countess of) 1958-60 The Palm Sunday Case: New Light On an Old Love Story. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 52, 79-267.

    8. Book and Newspaper Tests. Thomas, C.D. 1935. A Proxy Case extending over Eleven Sittings with Mrs Osborne Leonard. Proceedings SPR 43, 439-519.

    9. “Bim’s” book-test. Lady Glenconnor. 1921. The Earthen Vessel, London, John Lane.

    10. The Harry Stockbridge communicator. Gauld, A. 1966-72. A Series of Drop-in Communicators. PSPR 55, 273-340.

    11. The Bobby Newlove case. Thomas, C. D. 1935. A proxy case extending over Eleven Sittings with Mrs. Osborne Leonard. PSPR 43, 439-519.

    12. The Runki missing leg case. Haraldsson E. and Stevenson, I, 1975. A Communicator of the Drop-in Type in Iceland: the case of Runolfur Runolfsson. JASPR 69. 33-59.

    13. The Beidermann drop-in case. Gauld, A. 1966-72. A Series of Drop-in Communicators. PSPR 55, 273-340.

    14. The death of Gudmundur Magnusson. Haraldsson E. and Stevenson, I, 1975. A Communicator of the Drop-in Type in Iceland: the case of Gudni Magnusson, JASPR 69, 245-261.

    15. Identification of deceased officer. Lodge, O. 1916. Raymond, or Life and Death. London. Methuen & Co. Ltd.16. Mediumistic evidence of the Vandy death. Gay, K. 1957. The Case of Edgar Vandy, JSPR 39, 1-64; Mackenzie, A. 1971. An Edgar Vandy Proxy Sitting. JSPR 46, 166-173; Keen, M. 2002. The case of Edgar Vandy: Defending the Evidence, JSPR 64.3 247-259; Letters, 2003, JSPR 67.3. 221-224.

    17. Mrs Leonore Piper and the George “Pelham” communicator. Hodgson, R. 1897-8. A Further Record of Observations of Certain Phenomena of Trance. PSPR, 13, 284-582.

    18. Messages from “Mrs. Willett” to her sons. Cummins, G. 1965. Swan on a Black Sea. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    19. Ghostly aeroplane phenomena. Fuller, J.G. 1981 The Airmen Who Would Not Die, Souvenir Press, London.

    20. Intelligent responses via two mediums: the Lethe case. Piddington, J.G. 1910. Three incidents from the Sittings. Proc. SPR 24, 86-143; Lodge, O. 1911. Evidence of Classical Scholarship and of Cross-Correspondence in some New Automatic Writing. Proc. 25, 129-142

  7. SARAon 15 May 2012 at 11:50 am

    # Gallenod
    “…you’re not so much a slave to brain chemicals and electrical reactions as you are constrained by them. You’re still free to make choices within the limits of human perception, comprehension and thought.”

    I have a hard time fully wrapping my head around this thought, so tell me where I’m wrong. I want to be wrong.

    But since our perception, comprehension and thought are only defined by the chemicals and electrical reactions in our brain and since every neural reaction is merely caused by the previous ones, how can we be anything but puppets to those reactions? Since there is no first cause mind to change the course of the brain, there is only a cascade of mindless reactions being perceived as mindful ones.

    Isn’t anything else merely an illusion created by our brain?

  8. tyler the new ageron 15 May 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Many of the phenomena that point to an afterlife are anecdotal, but not all anecdotal evidence must be rejected outright, because anecdotal evidence can be valid if the witnesses are competent and are in good standing. Then there is evidence of the afterlife that is not anecdotal, but not experimental, but is evidence of field research showing a systematic pattern that repeats, such as cross-correspondences and children seem to remember past lives.

    Here are a few questions for your Dr.Novella? Have you actually followed the NDE literature?
    Also what do you have to say about the Ring Study which demonstrated that NDErs who were born blind or became blind at a young age had powerful visual components in their NDE? Many NDEr’s have correctly identified conversations and visual aspects of their environment.

    In any case I will save my time because all my arguments for the evidence for survival of consciousness after death will be strongly rejected on this blog on the basis of
    Wishful thinking
    Holding on to cherished beliefs
    Laws of physics being broken
    Experimenter error
    File drawer effect
    Will to believe

    I sincerely hope this debate with Bernardo Kastrup continues.

  9. bgoudieon 15 May 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I’d like to propose the law of conservation of piss poor thinkers. At any given time at least one must appear on any skeptical blog, making arguments long since discredited, yet insisting that they are the one drawing the correct conclusion by looking at the “real” evidence. Should such a poster go away they will be replaced within hours.

    It’s as if ignorance has existence beyond the physical brain. Astounding to consider the implications.

  10. SARAon 15 May 2012 at 12:42 pm

    I think you could just call it The Law of Trolls.

    It’s not actually limited to skeptics vs nonskeptics. It’s anywhere that a controversy creates a gateway for attention mongering.

  11. Steven Novellaon 15 May 2012 at 1:05 pm

    Tyler – I am not ignoring NDEs. I linked to a prior post in which I assessed the evidence.

    The bottom line is that the evidence for anything paranormal, including NDEs, is all weak and anecdotal. None of these phenomena are well established and generally accepted by scientists. There is a good reason for that.

  12. locutusbrgon 15 May 2012 at 1:11 pm

    What I am enjoying are trolls who prove themselves wrong in their own statements by including superficial criticism with other non-sense. Glad I did not have to point out how obviously you are trying to disarm the argument utilizing straw-man, and no true Scotsman logical fallacies. Just keep rambling on and on. It always impresses me that volumes of arguments are posted to refute one point. An attempt to confuse and distract like a good magician should.

  13. ccbowerson 15 May 2012 at 1:20 pm

    “I personally don’t like arguments from Occam’s razor when evaluating what reality actually is…”

    The way I think about it in instances like these is that Occam’s razor is not used as an argument for the “way things are,” but it is useful in pointing about where the burden of proof lies.

  14. daedalus2uon 15 May 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I saw a good blog post at another site (which I have now lost track of), by a physicist who was trying to respond to those who posit an immaterial mind or some sort of spiritual energy.

    He wrote the Schrödinger equation of the electron in terms of energy, and all of the terms were recognized, total energy equals kinetic energy plus potential energy and asked the question where is the “spiritual term”. If an electron is going to be influenced by something, its Schrödinger equation has to have a term for that effect.

  15. Shelleyon 15 May 2012 at 1:45 pm

    “. . . anecdotal evidence can be valid if the witnesses are competent and are in good standing.”

    Not really. Anecdotal ‘evidence’ is based on one’s experiences and perceptions. It is, in effect, single witness testimony. Please do a literature review on the many factors that impair, affect, and weaken the accuracy of eyewitness testimony (even the testimony of those of good character) before you decide that anecdotal evidence should be taken as valid.

    Anecdotal evidence is extremely weak, and is useful only to the extent that it can sometimes lead to testable scientific hypotheses. Whenever anecdotal evidence has lead to testable hypotheses in NDEs etc, it has not held up.

    Really, most of us would love to be proven wrong on this topic. (How cool would that be?) Unfortunately, there is simply no compelling evidence that the mind is anything more than what the brain does.

  16. daedalus2uon 15 May 2012 at 2:39 pm

    CC, the nature of reality is what it is. There isn’t a “burden of proof” to establish what the nature of reality is. I find “argument from burden of proof” to be unsatisfactory.

    This is really the crux of the difficult problem that Kuhn noticed. The usual default is the current scientific understanding, even when that understanding is known to be wrong. This is not what the usual default should be. The usual default should be whatever model is most consistent with the most data that is reliable.

    The reason this is so problematic is that humans adopt the “conventional wisdom” not because it corresponds with the most data, but because of normal human feelings, my friend said so, it feels right, my intuition says so, the experts all agree. These are all arguments from authority, someone else believes it, so it must be right. That is not an argument.

    Human hyperactive agency detection pulls for this type of belief adoption mechanism. This was the problem that Einstein had getting Relativity accepted. Einstein didn’t get the Nobel Prize for Relativity because those on the Nobel Committee didn’t think it was correct. The conventional wisdom of the time was that there had to be and was absolute time and space. It turns out there isn’t.

    There wasn’t any data that required absolute time and space. It was human conceptual limitations that required absolute time and space. That is one of the consequences of our evolved human brains. Some things are easy to do and understand because they are hard-wired. Some things are not, and our neuroanatomy induces errors. These are like the optical illusions introduced by the neuroanatomy of our visual processing systems. We can recognize that they are optical illusions because we have a model of reality that is independent of our visual system and we can use that model of reality to recognize and override optical illusions. You should also never confuse reality with the model of reality that you are using.

    The same thing happens with cognition. Humans have cognitive illusions which are analogous to optical illusions which are brought on by our cognitive neuroanatomy. It is only by recognizing, acknowledging and compensating for our cognitive illusions that we can get beyond them.

    SARA, Yes, our brains are made of meat, and meat as a computational device has its limitations. Either you understand those limitations and compensate by working around them, or you don’t and are stuck believing things that are demonstrably wrong, just like optical illusions.

    Rejecting things which feel right but which are demonstrably wrong is difficult to do, but it gets easier over time. It is easier to do if you argue from data. That is why I like to always emphasize that there is no data in support of a non-material mind by using the singular form “datum”.

    Anecdotes are perfectly acceptable as data, once they are recognized for their limitations, the extreme lack of statistical power. Some arguments don’t need statistical power. If you have the hypothesis that all swans are white, a single anecdote of a black swan refutes that argument with virtually 100% certainty (the swan could have been painted black, you could be having a delusion, it is opposites day, it is a clever mechanical flying device that looks like a black swan).

  17. SARAon 15 May 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I accept that the brain is directing our mind. What I question is if we only perceive that we are making adjustments for our cognitive deficiencies, directing our brain in a direction of thought, or whether that directional choice is only the illusion of the “meat”.

    I’m honestly having a hard time putting into words this concept that is bouncing around in head that we really have no choice.

    I choose to go on a diet. Or do I? Since I have no “first cause” mind directing my brain, then the choice is an outcome of undirected neural reaction. My brain is just a program following pathways and rules and firing off commands, but all of it is really just a predetermined outcome of the previous conditions. My idea that it is a choice is an artifact of all of those cognitive deficiencies.

    Please show me I’m wrong. I am really wishing I hadn’t followed this line of thinking.

  18. Stefanon 15 May 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Not surprisingly, Bernardo does not accept any comments that might hurt his book sales… I posted twice this morning and neither post ever appeared, while several others, including his own in support of his fans, have.

  19. DOYLEon 15 May 2012 at 3:13 pm

    The brain-mind idea of cause and effect seems analogous to the mechanical properties of an engine or car.All the qualities that are essential to a vehicle(lights,signals,climate control,audio,reclining movement,window movement,navigation)are dependent upon the function of power,the fuction of catalyst.You need combustion and current to enable a car to portray a car.

  20. daedalus2uon 15 May 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Doyle, I think what you are looking for is the analogy of agency. Top-down control of something by an agent. In a car, you have the designer who designed the hardware, the fabricator who puts the pieces together, and the driver who controls the mechanism once assembled.

    The problem with the brain-mind analogy is that it presupposes that there is top-down control of the brain by the mind. There is no “top” in the brain, there is no “ghost” in the machine that is controlling things. The default assumption that humans have that there is top-down control has to do with human hyperactive agency detection.

    Human hyperactive agency detection applies to self-detection too. The idea that there is an “I”, that is a unique entity continuous over the lifespan is an illusion (albeit a persistent one). The reason there is such an illusion, is because the resolution of the self-identity detection is so poor. Organisms don’t need to identify self to a high degree of resolution because there is only a single “self” inside our brain. All you need is a “I am me” module that identifies the self as me when ever it is interrogated. That is why when people experience brain damage, they still self-identify as themselves (except in rare instances where that particular part of the brain is damaged). There is no great utility for higher fidelity resolution beyond that which prioritizes self-preservation, so evolution didn’t provide it.

    Positing top-down control doesn’t provide any answers because it simply moves the control problem to a different level. If the mind controls the brain, then what controls the mind? If the soul controls the mind, then what controls the soul?

    There is no “top” from which top-down control can be exerted. The brain forms from a single cell. How can that single cell exert top-down control of neuroanatomy? Very clearly it can’t, and it doesn’t. We know that we don’t understand how the neuroanatomy of the brain is created and how it does all of the things that it does, but we do know that “it” can’t exert top-down control before “it” exists.

    This is also an example of why defaulting to “I don’t know” is a lot better than guessing or taking somebody’s superficial idea.

  21. ccbowerson 15 May 2012 at 4:51 pm

    “CC, the nature of reality is what it is. There isn’t a “burden of proof” to establish what the nature of reality is. I find “argument from burden of proof” to be unsatisfactory. ”

    If we are looking at this from a scientific perspective, that is the best we can do: a theory that best fits reality. What I mean by burden of proof (I assumed that I was understood) is that if there are 2 alternate explanations for the same phenomenon, then an explanation that adds another layer of complexity should be tentatively rejected in favor of a simpler explanation, assuming that it does not add any explanatory power.

    It appears that you don’t find that sufficient, because there is no reason to believe that the simpler explanation is more likely the “Truth,” but that is not why it is useful. It is the ‘best bet,’ and the main utility is to eliminate the infinite number of alternative theories that add nothing but further complexity. In order to get closer to the Truth one must distinguish between theories in ways that one appears to fit with reality better. I’m not sure there is a way of accessing ‘reality’ in the way you imply. Perhaps we are talking past each other here, I’m not sure

  22. gr8googlymooglyon 15 May 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Funny how none of Tyler the Newager’s references are newer that 1990 (and a full 9 of them are pre-1940). Have we not learned anything new in the past 22 years about this supernatural pseudoscientific ‘theory’ of duality? Apparently not.

    Is it really lost on the Tyler’s and Kastrup’s of the world that the more you have to apologize for your pet magic theory, the less likely it is to be real?

  23. NewRonon 15 May 2012 at 11:23 pm

    I may be missing something but I do not know of any scientific answers to the following:

    How do thoughts arise from physical processes?

    How do physical processes give rise to a conscious state?

    How does preconscious physical activity produce a conscious experience of an event?

    What produces a sense of self from physical brain activity?

    If I have not missed something and there are no scientific answers to the above, then am I remiss in tentatively holding that the mind is separate from the brain? Or perhaps I should just trust that scientific answers will be forthcoming.

  24. BillyJoe7on 16 May 2012 at 12:26 am


    You don’t believe in freewill?…welcome to the club. 🙂
    The whole concept of freewill is irrational.
    But you know this. I’m just offering support.

    The illusion of freewill is pretty convincing, however, which is why even those of us who recognise that that is all it is, still act as if we have freewill.

  25. Bernardoon 16 May 2012 at 1:48 am

    “# Stefanon 15 May 2012 at 3:03 pm
    Not surprisingly, Bernardo does not accept any comments that might hurt his book sales… I posted twice this morning and neither post ever appeared, while several others, including his own in support of his fans, have.”

    I moderate all comments to avoid the uncontrolled level of spam I once had, because I do not require registration (as here). When you posted your comments I was asleep and could not release them immediately. Sorry it took a couple of hours. I approved (as usual) all comments posted yesterday and replied to a couple today.
    Gr, B.

  26. Bernardoon 16 May 2012 at 1:59 am

    Hhmm… I released several comments now but none from a “Stefanon.” Did you post your comment under another name? Can you have a look to make sure it has been published? If not, please let me know. Gr, B.

  27. Mantikion 16 May 2012 at 7:27 am

    I am surprised that the interpretation of Libet’s work has gained such traction amongst materialists. Although I am a theist (via a range of ESP and spiritual experiences) I grappled with the issue of sub/pre conscious decision making following experiences where I made one-handed catches of balls or apples without being consciously aware they were passing within reach. In one case, someone threw an apple at the side of my head and the first thing I knew I was staring at it in my hand (despite being a poor catch). After consideration, it occurred to me that this action is explicable in the same way that we perform innumerable daily actions “unconsciously” such as navigation, dressing and walking etc. In these circumstances, our automatic actions are the result of programmed responses and reflexes laid down from early learning experiences.

    How does this relate to Libet etc? Well I note that the researchers’ observed responses in advance of the subjects’ conscious awareness of decision making is not 100 percent but more of a ten percent shift in terms of the number of subject. My thinking therefore is that what is being detected neurologically is some form of pre-decision-making algorithmic “tipping point”. In other words, a proportion of subjects are using a number of pre-determined factors as inputs into an algorithm which they use to make the decision and when the individual results from those inputs reach a “critical point”, a decision is made. The EEGs therefore are measuring the critical point at which the decision is triggered. Thus for that significant group of subjects, the EEG displays the tipping-point of decision (not the decision itself) before the subject is aware of it.

    My conclusion therefore is that (unless I have misunderstood the experimental method) that such experiments in no way demolish the concept of conscious free-will. And in turn have nothing to say about the materialist concept of mind being an epiphenomenon of electro-chemical brain activity.

  28. daedalus2uon 16 May 2012 at 7:39 am

    New Ron, to answer your rhetorical questions.

    I don’t know.
    I don’t know.
    I don’t know.
    I don’t know.

    Not knowing doesn’t give one license to make stuff up just because you want it to be that way.

    I don’t know what is at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. That doesn’t mean I can assume that there is a vast undersea civilization called Atlantis ruled by someone named Aquaman who can breathe water and can control aquatic animals telepathically.

    I do know there is conservation of mass/energy. Any answers to your questions that violate conservation of mass/energy are virtually certain to be wrong. They are so likely to be wrong that they are not worth serious consideration.

    All of your questions could be reposed in the form “how does a non-material mind do ….” Assuming a non-material mind doesn’t answer any of your questions, it is the equivalent of saying “it is magic”. Maybe it is magic, but assuming something is magic because is is not yet understood is not how science works.

  29. RickKon 16 May 2012 at 7:41 am

    NewRon – can I paraphrase your question a different way?

    “In these cases (consciousness, etc.) is it safe to assume that a natural phenomena does not have a natural cause?”

    There are a lot of things science hasn’t answered – that’s always been true. And literally millions of times we’ve seen supernatural explanations definitively replaced by explainable natural causes. In all that time, we’ve never once seen a natural explanation definitively replaced by a supernatural explanation.

    I’d be quite happy to learn that my “mind” is really an ethereal thing that lives on after my brain is wormfood. But I don’t like the idea of betting on a team that has all failures and no successes. My money is on “mind” and consciousness being no more than a product of natural mechanisms found within our brains and bodies.

    Oh, and since consciousness, sense of self, etc. can be affected/altered/influenced by physical mechanisms (drugs, stroke, mental training and meditation, etc.), then the data points heavily to “mind” being a manifestation of a physical brain.

    You concluded with: “perhaps I should just trust that scientific answers will be forthcoming.”

    It’s a pretty safe bet to assume “natural phenomena have natural causes”. But if you’re not sure, feel free to review history for definitive exceptions to that assumption.

  30. SteveAon 16 May 2012 at 7:51 am

    daedalus2u: “Anecdotes are perfectly acceptable as data, once they are recognized for their limitations, the extreme lack of statistical power. Some arguments don’t need statistical power. If you have the hypothesis that all swans are white, a single anecdote of a black swan refutes that argument with virtually 100% certainty (the swan could have been painted black, you could be having a delusion, it is opposites day, it is a clever mechanical flying device that looks like a black swan).”

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Is there some text missing?

    Someone saying they saw a black swan proves nothing; a person holding a feather from a black swan (or the whole darned thing) has to be taken seriously.

    In a real-life situation I would give the black swan spotter the benefit of the doubt (because there is abundant evidence they exist); but someone who comes to me with stories of purple swans really does need to bring a feather with them.

    tyler the new ager: “anecdotal evidence can be valid if the witnesses are competent and are in good standing”

    Really? Did you ever see the ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ of the Loch Ness Monster? Even as a child I thought it looked fake. The only credibility it had was that it was taken by a surgeon, a professional gentleman who ‘had no reason to lie’. That’s why they gave it the name they did – Look! A surgeon took this! A real surgeon.

    But it was a fake and he eventually confessed to it.

    PS your list of papers has probably given Brian Dunning his next 20 episodes of Skeptoid.

  31. Ufoon 16 May 2012 at 8:09 am

    Some of you might be interested in this interview of Kastrup for background:

    The show is run by a “true believer” so don’t get fooled by the name of the podcast.

  32. Steven Novellaon 16 May 2012 at 8:21 am

    New Ron – don’t confuse different levels of questions. We can know scientifically that the brain causes consciousness without knowing exactly how it does. These are separate questions.

    We also don’t know nothing about how consciousness emerges from brain function. Knowledge is not all or nothing. We know quite a bit, but also there is a lot we don’t yet understand.

    More telling is the fact that the materialist paradigm of neuroscience is working fine and progressing rapidly. There is no need to hypothesize a magical non-corporeal source of mental function, and such a notion is of no value in our ongoing attempts to understand the mind.

  33. Eric Thomsonon 16 May 2012 at 10:35 am

    I am a bit surprised by all this talk of the brain ‘causing’ the mind. This way of characterizing it invokes the old 19th century view in which brains and minds are obviously different sorts of things, and minds are caused by brains the way bile is secreted by the pancreas, or steam blown off by a train.

    After all, if if X causes Y, X is usually different from Y, like the rock thrown that caused the glass to break.

    Shouldn’t we just say that conscious experiences simply are complex brain states? By analogy, the exchange of oxygen/carbon dioxide from our blood does not cause respiration: it is respiration. The voltage spikes in a neuron don’t cause the action potential: they are the action potential.

    While some might say such loose language is innocuous, it actually leads you to make some claims that strike a strange cord. Aside from abetting dualism (see below), it seems likely false that changes in brain activity precede</i mental state changes. What we typically observe, when it comes to experiences (as in binocular rivalry and such) is that both change at exactly the same time. And this is what we expect from a conscious brain (versus a brain that produces mind). I don't expect brain state changes to precede changes in conscious states: I expect them to perfectly mirror one another, the way that action potentials are perfectly mirrored by voltage spikes.[see note below]

    Also, saying the brain ’causes’ the mind abets dualism. I could be a substance dualist and agree that the brain causes the mind. They are different, but I’m fine with a bidirectional coupling between brain and mind. For me, the mind is a nonphysical substance that interact with the brain.

    We materialists should be more clear. The brain does not generate consciousness as some separate thing going on in parallel. Putting it in such terms generates really weird questions like those from New Ron about how the “two things” are connected. That is, dualism. Rather, conscious experiences are complex states of certain brains, period.

    Until I read this post, I thought such talk of brain states ‘causing’ mental states was largely innocuous.

  34. Eric Thomsonon 16 May 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Ugh I said pancreas produces bile. Umm…that should be ‘liver.’

  35. Kawarthajonon 16 May 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Light switch fairies – I had no idea that they were involved in turning lights on. Those light switch fairies were reeking havoc with my light in my 120 year old house with 1930’s wiring, making it fizzle and spark when I tried to turn the light on. Changing the switch and rewiring the light seems to have scared them away for now.

  36. NewRonon 16 May 2012 at 7:24 pm

    I am bemused at how a simple set of questions and an admission that I hold a tentative belief – that is one that is uncertain and open to change – can evoke such derisive terms from Steven and Deadalus2u as “magical” and “magic”. At least RickK and Eric Thompson were able to respond (although for me not convincingly) without resorting to such language.

  37. Alastair F. Paisleyon 16 May 2012 at 9:23 pm

    @ Steven Novella

    > At present the best scientific inference we can make from all available evidence is that the brain causes the mind. This inference is strong enough to treat it as an established scientific fact (as much as evolution, for example) but that, of course, is not the same thing as absolute proof. <

    The bottom line is that you really don't have any objective scientific evidence that subjective awareness is physical. If you did, then you could furnish us with the physical properties of consciousness.

  38. Alastair F. Paisleyon 16 May 2012 at 9:27 pm

    @ Eric Thomson

    > I am a bit surprised by all this talk of the brain ‘causing’ the mind. <

    I'm not. Most materialists presuppose some form of dualism.

  39. BillyJoe7on 17 May 2012 at 12:13 am


    “For me, the mind is a nonphysical substance that interact with the brain.”

    Nonphysical substance?

    Actually, the mind IS physical.
    It is, however, non-material.

  40. gervasiumon 17 May 2012 at 9:01 am

    Eric Thompson, the brain simply is not the mind, even from a materialist perspective, the same way that the Lungs are not respiration, but lungs cause respiration. A dead brain is still a brain and it produces no consciousness.

  41. eiskrystalon 17 May 2012 at 10:23 am

    I would like to see this debate between you and Bernardo Kastrup to continue in a pleasant manner, I find your personal attacks on him a little off putting.

    Yes, Dr. Novella, that bit about it being a “superficial and intellectually light-weight opinion piece” was particularly cutting. How could you!!1!

  42. Mantikion 17 May 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Further to my earlier post, the recent successful biological implant which facilitated the paralysed woman to control a mechanical arm using electrical impulses from her brain can only work via a conscious decision on her part. Any attempt to rationalise a source for those signals beyond her freewill leads nowhere. Turtles all the way down so to speak!

    Given time and practice familiarity would allow her to develop algorithms to look for “primers” that would allow her to control the robotic arm more smoothly without conscious thought but this would in no way prove that some other sum parts of her brain was combining to “produce” consciousness.

    Materialist explanations for consciousness are speculation unsupported by evidence.

  43. etatroon 17 May 2012 at 6:16 pm

    @ New Ron – Have you read a neuroscience textbook? Scientific answers to those questions are in a textbook. Go to and type in those key words, you’ll find the “physical processes” in the form of biological activity leading to those mental states. The “how” question is often complicated and nuanced. Just because you can’t explain how the brain causes the mind, doesn’t mean that the brain doesn’t cause the mind. For centuries, we didn’t know “how” gravity worked, but we didn’t assume that it didn’t exist.

  44. Mantikion 20 May 2012 at 10:48 pm

    Hi etatro

    “Just because you can’t explain how the brain causes the mind, doesn’t mean that the brain doesn’t cause the mind.”

    Just because you can’t explain how the mind can be independant of the brain doesn’t mean that the brain causes the mind.

    The explanation that consciousness is something fundamental rather than emergent can sit neatly within all scientific paradigms (including neuroscience).

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