Apr 29 2008

Dr. Egnor on Neuroscience – Wrong Again.

Dr. Egnor must be tired of always being wrong – or at least he would be if he had the insight and intellectual honesty to see how persistently wrong he is. Alas, so far he has not demonstrated such insight. I have been engaged in an ongoing blog debate with Dr. Michael Egnor, who writes for the propaganda blog of the Discovery Institute, over the question of whether the scientific evidence supports the strict materialist hypothesis of mind, or the dualist hypothesis – that the mind is something more than the function of the brain.

Egnor has mangled most of his arguments, has misrepresented my opinions, has cruelly assaulted logic (as you can see he has a proper home at the Discovery Institute) – but now he demonstrates that he is incapable of reading a simple sentence and comprehending its meaning.

Two weeks ago I wrote about an fMRI study that looks at the process of decision making in the brain. (Rather than re-summarizing this study, just read this post before proceeding.) At the end I wrote:

Given my recent posts concerning materialism vs dualism (does the brain cause mind), I also want to point out that this research falls squarely in the materialism camp. Causes precede their effects – brain activity precedes conscious awareness and action – the brain causes mind. That much seems pretty clear.

In response to this, Dr. Egnor wrote yesterday:

This research “falls squarely in the materialist camp”? That’s a remarkable assertion. Dr. Novella asserts that this bit of evidence for correlation (rather weak correlation) between unconscious mental processing and brain activity supports materialism.

He then proceeds to argue that the weakness of the correlation is actually support for dualism, not strict materialism. His entire argument is nothing more than a straw man, since I did not offer the correlation in this study as evidence for materialism. My point was that in this study brain activity preceded conscious awareness. It it the temporal sequence – not the accuracy of the correlation – that I was pointing to as evidence in support of materialism.

The reason I bothered to point this out is because one of the primary arguments used by dualists is the notion that brain activity only correlates with mental activity – and since correlation alone does not prove causation, it is possible that the mind causes brain activity, or that some third thing causes both. Logically speaking, this is true. These are always the options to explain a correlation between A and B: A causes B, B causes A, or C causes A and B.

This is, in fact, a common strategy of denialism in general – the denial of legitimate science. Denialists would have us believe, for example, that HIV only correlates with AIDS, and that smoking only correlates with certain types of lung cancer – but that these relationships are not causal. Correlations are very useful evidence in science. And it is important not to assume any particular pattern of causation from a correlation. But good scientists do not do that. It is necessary to look at correlation from multiple perspectives, to ask questions that derive from the various causal hypotheses and then eventually arrive at the most likely causal explanation for the correlation. (All this assumes that the correlation has been established as real and is not a statistical fluke.)

Let’s now apply this to the question of the brain-mind correlation. It is a well established tenet of science and philosophy that causes precede their effects. An effect cannot occur prior to a cause. If someone gets lung cancer before they start smoking, no reasonable person would attempt to blame the cancer on the smoking. Therefore, if brain activity causes the mind then we would expect that brain activity would generally begin prior to the mental effects caused by the brain activity. If, rather, the mind causes the corresponding brain activity then we would expect a mental experience to happen before the brain activity. If some third phenomenon causes both mental activity and the corresponding brain function, then we would expect both to occur simultaneously, although either could precede the other if there were differing lag times for the mind and the brain.

This third possibility, of a third factor causing both mind and brain, is not currently a consideration, as far as I can tell. It would be difficult to experimentally rule out such a third cause, and so the burden would be on anyone advocating this to postulate what this third cause could be, and also how we could experimentally tell if this is the case. Otherwise we can use Occam’s razor to set it aside from serious consideration.

The major question, as Dr. Egnor himself states, is: “Does the unconscious mind cause the brain activity, or does the brain activity cause the unconscious mind?” These two hypotheses make clear predictions regarding the direction of causation. If the mind causes brain activity, then we would expect mental activity to manifest prior to brain activity. If brain activity causes the mind then we would expect brain activity to precede mental activity. In this study brain function clearly occurred prior to the corresponding mental activity (the choice being made).

This is in line with neuroscience research in general. When we look at brain activity and mental activity – it is always the brain activity that comes first. This supports the brain causes mind hypothesis. In light of this, dualists can no longer dismiss the correlation between brain activity and mental activity as mere correlation – we have reason to believe that the brain causes the mind.

I expected that most people would have understood this from that brief paragraph from my prior post. Dr. Egnor, however, did not get it – and so he forced me to spell out in detail the logic behind my statement. He still won’t get it, and he will simply move on to his next misunderstanding or misrepresentation, without ever acknowledging his error. This is the dance that denialists do.

As a side note – saying that the “brain causes the mind” is a bit misleading because I think it is more accurate to say that the mind is brain activity. The reason for the long delay (seconds) in this study is because there was a subconscious phase of decision making that occurred prior to the conscious decision. But the argument of causation still holds because even with more direct neurological function there is always at least a 60-70ms (milisecond) delay from when we can see neurons firing to whatever the mental manifestation we are observing. Brain activity always comes before any mental activity with which it correlates.

Also, to put things into historical perspective – the materialist hypothesis predicts that brain function would correlate with mental function. The dualists initially denied this correlation, claiming that the mind is not physical but spiritual in nature. But now the last hundred years of neuroscience has clearly shown a correlation – so much so that the dualists can no longer deny it. So now the dualists acknowledge the correlation, but argue that correlation is not causation. But increasingly, as with this study, and other lines of evidence, the data show that the brain doesn’t just correlate with mental activity – it causes it. Dualists like Egnor then retreat further into the darkness of the gaps in neuroscience. The correlation is imperfect, they say, without recognizing that this can be explained by the limitations in our current instruments and models of brain function – not the materialist hypothesis. Dualism is a “mind of the gaps” argument – defended by perpetual goal-post moving.

I do want to address further the correlation issue that Egnor raised – even though it was not the point of my original comment. Egnor states that the correlation between brain activity and mental activity is imperfect. In this study we are discussing, for example, the pattern of brain activity predicted the left/right choice of the subject 60% of the time, with 50% being chance. This is a weak correlation. Egnor argues:

If Dr. Novella is asserting that evidence for correlation is evidence for materialism, then the evidence demonstrating a lack of close correlation (which is most of the evidence in neuroscience) between mind and brain states is evidence against materialism.

Notice the subtle misdirection here. He states that I am asserting that “evidence for correlation is evidence for materialism.” Although that was not my assertion in my prior post, I do agree that correlation between brain activity and mental activity is a powerful line of evidence for materialism. But then Egnor states that “lack of close correlation…is evidence against materialism.” Notice that he inserted the word “close” in his statement. This changes the nature of his argument altogether – but Egnor does so subtly, without ever drawing attention to it specifically. In fact I have already dealt with this criticism from Egnor, who has not responded to my existing criticism.

To clarify – I never stated that the correlation between brain activity and mental activity, as currently measured by our technology, is perfect. Egnor, however, is pretending that this is my position – which makes his argument just another straw man logical fallacy. What Egnor is saying is that because the correlation is not close (we can quibble about this, since “close” is a vague term, but functionally what he means is that the correlation is not exact) that contradicts the materialist hypothesis and therefore supports the dualist hypothesis.

But as I have already pointed out, and Egnor ignored, the lack of exact correlation is more simply explained by two things: the poor resolution of our instruments, and the complexity of the brain. We are not seeing actual brain activity at the neuronal or even neural network resolution. fMRI looks at brain blood flow and metabolism, and from this we infer brain activity. It’s an excellent tool – but it is tricky to use properly and is much lower resolution than actual brain activity.

Also – as I pointed out in my post, and Egnor quoted, brain activity is complex. In any decision like the ones being studied here, there is a complex interplay between subconscious processing, intention, attention, and conscious awareness. Multiple parts of the brain are playing their own role and interacting to produce a net result. And, we cannot know what people are actually thinking – we can only infer what they are doing because we give them specific tasks to perform.

Further – there are two types of correlation to consider in this study, and Egnor is choosing the one that he feels makes his point without ever acknowledging that he is doing so. One correlation is the correlation between brain activity and the decision-making process. This correlation in the study is very strong. The other correlation is between the particular pattern of brain activity and the specific choice that is made – this correlation is weak in the study: only 60%.

For the purpose of the materialist vs dualist hypotheses, the former correlation is much more important. Brain activity, in the same general parts of the brain, reliably precede the conscious decision-making process. This is the type of correlation that must occur if the materialist hypothesis is correct – brain activity must always occur with (and begin before) mental activity. The correlation Egnor has chosen to focus on – predicting the actual decision being made – has more to do with the limitations of fMRI and our models of how the brain works. This is another example of what I have written about before – that denialists confuse questions at different levels of understanding. The evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the brain causes mind – this conclusion is not called into question because of our limited ability to describe exactly how the brain causes mind, or (even more detailed) how specific decisions are made.

Finally, Egnor (like his intelligent design proponent colleagues) persists in turning reality onto its head by insisting that I am the ideologue. He opens his blog entry by referring to me as “the dogmatic materialist neurologist at Yale” and then concludes::

The Nature Neuroscience article provides no meaningful evidence either for or against dualism or materialism, but Dr. Novella’s citation of it to support his materialist ideology tells us a great deal about how Dr. Novella approaches scientific evidence. He’s a materialist ideologue. He views the scientific evidence through materialist glasses, and sees evidence for materialism…everywhere.

The opposite is true. The article does provide meaningful evidence for the materialist hypothesis, by supporting a temporal sequence that is consistent with the notion that brain causes mind, rather than mind causing brain. Egnor’s rebuttal is a straw man, and a false one at that. Further, the exchange reveals that Egnor does not understand scientific reasoning or basic logic, or chooses to ignore them in favor of his dualist ideology.

But like those other denialists – his intelligent design cronies at the DI – since Egnor cannot win his argument based upon logic or evidence he is taking the “dogma gambit.” He is trying to portray those who support the strong scientific consensus based upon a fair assessment of the evidence as being dogmatic ideologues. Wishing does not make it so.

68 responses so far

68 Responses to “Dr. Egnor on Neuroscience – Wrong Again.”

  1. ellazimmon 29 Apr 2008 at 9:21 am

    I keep wondering why Dr Egnor wants to be a dualist; does he think it proves the existence of the soul? Why can’t you be a materialist and a Christian?

  2. jugaon 29 Apr 2008 at 9:50 am

    You say: “it is … accurate to say that the mind is brain activity. … there is always at least a 60-70ms (milisecond) delay from when we can see neurons firing to whatever the mental manifestation we are observing. Brain activity always comes before any mental activity with which it correlates.”

    If mental activity always comes after brain activity with a delay, what is actually “processing” that mental activity? Where is the mental activity occurring if the neurons stopped firing 60-70ms ago?

  3. Steven Novellaon 29 Apr 2008 at 9:58 am

    juga- to clarify, the neurons begin firing 60-70 ms prior to any mental manifestation. They don’t stop firing 60-70ms before mental activity.

    Also – brain activity never stops (as long as you are alive and not profoundly comatose). There is a constant rhythm of background brain activity- the brain is constantly talking to itself and processing information. When you then give someone a specific task, the neurons that correlate with that task will begin to fire before the task manifests. This 60-70ms is simply the minimal time it takes for axons to conduct signals, for the neurons to communicate with each other in order to manifest the mental task.

    This is what we would expect if the brain is the substrate of mind – if the mind is brain activity.

  4. Cannidaeon 29 Apr 2008 at 11:33 am

    I agree with you Dr Novella that mind comes from brain.

    That said I also count 8 personal attacks on Dr Egnor in the first 4 sentences of your article. While a certain level of frustration can be expected, I think you do a disservice to your cause by laying in so much negativism before the reader has made it to the meat of the argument.

    Dr Egnor is a slick writer to be sure, and his attacks are subtle while your rebuttals are like hammer blows. my interpretation after reading both articles goes something like this.

    Dr Egnor: “These are the reasons I feel Dr Novella is towing the party line and misguided in his assertions.”

    Dr Novella: “Dr Egnor is a moron, a dick, an idiot, a liar and hes too stupid to read.”

    While it might be emotionally satisfying to say it, it’s a hell of a turn off first thing in the morning to read it. Some people may find it satisfying to read but I think as an intellectual, you should hold yourself to a higher bar and limit it to 1 or 2 insults in the opening paragraph ; )

    Best regards,

  5. Steven Novellaon 29 Apr 2008 at 11:46 am


    Thanks for the feedback, but I must disagree with you. First, my criticisms of Dr. Egnor were not personal attacks – and your characterization of what I wrote is not accurate. I never called him names like “moron” and “dick” – and what I wrote is not the equivalent of that.

    As I state right of – this is part of an ongoing debate, so I have prior experience upon which to base some judgments of Dr. Egnor.

    His arguments are persistently wrong. He has not acknowledged his prior egregious errors – which is evidence for lack of insight and/or intellectual dishonesty. He completely misrepresented what I wrote -so either he did not understand it, or didn’t care. Egnor has mangled his arguments and abused logic. These are NOT personal attacks – these are legitimate criticisms of his behavior.

    Yet – in his opening line he called me “dogmatic.” That is a personal attack, one he does not adequately defend.

  6. Physicaliston 29 Apr 2008 at 12:20 pm

    Nice post. It never ceases to amaze me how dense denialists like Egnor are. “We’ll accept correlation, but not causation!” The same desperate move was made by Mach to deny that heat is molecular motion, and by the vitalists to deny that life is a chemical process. They were wrong, and Egnor’s wrong too.

    Great job pointing out the depths of his confusion.

    One minor point: You quite correctly say, “the lack of exact correlation is more simply explained by two things: the poor resolution of our instruments, and the complexity of the brain.” I’d just like to add that it’s probably also partly due to the fact that without a good understanding of precisely how the brain functions, we can’t be sure precisely what we’re looking for. What constitutes a “pattern”? We don’t know for sure until we have things work.

  7. slayersaves89on 29 Apr 2008 at 1:30 pm

    ellazimm- I am pretty sure the confirmation of dualism would imply the existence of a soul in the general sense. Granted it would not confirm the existance of the soul as described by christianity (one that can be tainted by sin or enriched by good works and obedience to God). However the confirmation of materialism (and I would agree with Steve that this seems to be panning out nicely) would rule out the existance of any soul as the source of mind, and therefore the christian belief in a soul. That being said many modern christians seem to feel comfortable dropping certain specifics of christian doctrine in favor of science so I suppose one could be a materialist with regards to human mind and a christian. But at what point has a religion been so watered down that it ceases to be religion at all?
    Anyways maybe I am misunderstanding some of the terms being used here.

  8. solis.lacuson 29 Apr 2008 at 2:23 pm

    I wonder how would dr. Egnor explain the obvious fact that mental states can be changed by drugs. For a materialist, the explanation is straightforward: drugs, as chemical substances, change the biochemistry of neurons, which influences patterns of neuronal firing. This causes (or, more precisely, is equivalent to) changes of our mental states.

    Maybe dr. Egnor has the following vision: material drugs cause changes to immaterial something, which subsequently causes (measurable) changes to our material brain as well as our immaterial “soul”. I cannot imagine a less bizarre explanation that is compatible with dr. Egnor’s worldview.

  9. kordicon 29 Apr 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Very well done, thanks Steve

  10. Steven Novellaon 29 Apr 2008 at 3:06 pm

    “I wonder how would dr. Egnor explain the obvious fact that mental states can be changed by drugs. ”

    Here are the two typical responses;

    1 – this is just another “correlation”
    2 – the brain is the antenna or receiver of the mind, so if the brain is not working the signal does not get through.

    The problem with the first response is the same as I described above. It’s not just that there is a correlation between brain and mind – there is every correlation we would predict from the brain causes mind hypothesis.

    The problem with the second is that it is unnecessary – it is adding an unnecessary step and violates Occam’s razor. Also, there is no evidence for any such outside signal, or that the brain is acting as a receiver of some kind – and there is actually good evidence against these notions. There is also no basic science or theoretical basis for such a hypothesis.

  11. RBHon 29 Apr 2008 at 3:08 pm

    The sentence that best captures (for me, at any rate) the relation between mind and brain is “The mind is what the brain does.” That’s not original, of course — it was the title of a National Geographic article.

    There’s an important subtlety of that sentence that’s often missed: Mind is not a ‘thing’ but rather is a process running in/on a thing (brain). Thus questions like “Where is the mind located” ” are mis-phrased. The promotion of a process to thinghood leads to all kinds of confusions.

  12. solis.lacuson 29 Apr 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Thank you for the answer, one more question (the last one for today, I promise). If in the case of drugs and mental states it is just a “correlation”, how do they scientifically distinguish between causation and correlation? What is their definition of causation? For instance, how can they prove that my hitting someone and the process of breaking of his nose is not just a correlation?

  13. Potter1000on 29 Apr 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Totally agree with your justification of your choice of words, Dr. Novella. I think you can be fair and logical without going out of your way to be polite. It is frustrating debating people who simply interpret or twist things however they see fit, no matter how well you lay out your case. You’re a good man with a good mind (which is an invisible floatie cloud around your head, by the way. Yours is green to a psychic).

  14. BAon 29 Apr 2008 at 4:12 pm

    One major problem in arguing mind as a natural phenomenon with a dualist is the historical distinction Descartes made of mind and body and where that debate tends to lead one. That Descartes posited two worlds and that different sets of rules governed them preserves the place of the creator and/or free will. The special world of the mind is not subject to the laws of nature and thus not determined (or determined by unknowable causes). But mind as translated into mental or cognitive activity (distinct from brain activity associated with sensing/perceiving the world) you are not addressing the initial notion of mind as a unitary special/private world. One exciting development with fMRI research has been giving the scientist contact with this “private” world but this is not the same as the hypothetical spirit world. The problem is mind being accepted as a thing when it is a hypothetical construct and probably better referred to as process(es). Mind is hypothetical (real only in a social context -> language) while cognitive activity is real and now, at least occasionally, measurable. To refer to mind as a singular thing such as cognitive activity X related to other cognitive activity is a step in the right direction towards determinism. Then again, there are so many different types of cognitive activity that are encapsulated in this hypothetical construct of mind (seeing in the absence of thing seen, awareness, intentional state, perspective taking…) that they are not well captured as a singular phenomenon. And, they are all determined (not predetermined but beholden to the laws of nature). One aspect of this debate should involve the explicit acknowledgement of mind as a hypothetical construct that represents numerous things as if they are one.

  15. Roy Nileson 29 Apr 2008 at 5:27 pm

    Is that another way of saying the whole may be lesser than the sum of its parts?

  16. BAon 29 Apr 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Yes, that is the general – concisely stated – point.

  17. pecon 29 Apr 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Your whole argument makes no sense. Input enters through the senses, the brain does some processing, and the result is output through voluntary muscles. There is no way to know what subjects are conscious of at any step in this process — all you can know is their motor response.

    How can you possibly conclude that brain activity precedes conscious awareness? You don’t know when the subjects made their decisions, or became conscious of their decisions. You only know the final results of the decision.

    And that isn’t even considering that most mental activity is sub-conscious. So the conscious awareness of the subjects isn’t even relevant to your argument.

    Egnor may be confused but so are you, so are we all on this question Your arguments are weak and unscientific and obviously biased by your love of materialism.

  18. pecon 29 Apr 2008 at 8:35 pm

    “there is no evidence for any such outside signal, or that the brain is acting as a receiver of some kind – and there is actually good evidence against these notions.”

    Exactly what evidence are you talking about? If there really were evidence, you would have cited it, but you didn’t because there isn’t any.

  19. Steven Novellaon 29 Apr 2008 at 11:43 pm

    pec – read the actual study, and my post, rather than perpetually responding to your delusional straw men. As I said – you cannot know what someone is actually thinking. You can only infer by what task you give them. If you ask them to make a choice, then they do and demonstrate it by acting on their choice, you can infer that from the time they were instructed to make the choice to the moment they acted on it – they made a choice. And then you can image what the brain is doing during this time.

    Regarding evidence against an outside signal – the brain has been thoroughly anatomically and histologically dissected and analyzed. There are no mysterious structures in the brain and nothing that can act as a receiver. Of course, you can’t prove a negative, but after a couple hundred years of neuroscience the absence of evidence for any such thing in the brain is quite compelling.

    Further, there is no evidence for any information carrying energy or matter other than what is known to physics. The brain is known to be an electromagnetic organ. There are no electromagnetic signals (or other detectable signals) going to the brain, and shielding the brain from such signals does not alter behavior is any way.

    Of course this does not prove that there isn’t a signal of a completely unknown and undetectable nature that cannot be shielded by any mechanism yet tried. It also doesn’t prove that the world isn’t inhabited by invisible magical unicorns. The point is – what we can test is negative, and there is no basis upon which to postulate a magical undetectable new natural phenomenon.

    And yes I did not give a citation for 200 years of neuroscience and physics. Crack a textbook.

  20. Clavainon 30 Apr 2008 at 12:27 am

    I’m sure a fire-breathing troll lives in my garage, hes invisible, hes non corporeal, he doesn’t smell and he floats……

    But I know hes real cause he occasionally posts comments on blogs I read 😉

  21. pecon 30 Apr 2008 at 7:40 am

    “There are no mysterious structures in the brain and nothing that can act as a receiver.”

    Steve Novella,

    I have linked to pages like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Penrose
    several times but you always ignore them.

    There are physicists and neuroscientists working on exactly this problem, and you seem to be completely unaware.

  22. John Conwayon 30 Apr 2008 at 8:11 am

    “[…] the brain is the antenna or receiver of the mind, so if the brain is not working the signal does not get through.”

    This is not an adequate explanation for the changed state, because anyone who has taken drugs (even alcohol) will know that it changes your mental state, not merely your behaviour. Or am I missing something?

  23. Steven Novellaon 30 Apr 2008 at 8:39 am

    pec – I am familiar with the theories of Penrose. They have nothing to do with whether or not the brain is a receiver or whether the brain causes intelligence. Rather he speculated that classic physics cannot explain consciousness and we have to invoke quantum effects. In the end this was an attempt at rescuing free will by making brain function non-deterministic. None of this is relevant to my points above.

    Also – I disagree with Penrose, as does the majority of the scientific community. We do not have to invoke quantum effects to explain consciousness.

  24. pecon 30 Apr 2008 at 9:30 am

    “They have nothing to do with whether or not the brain is a receiver or whether the brain causes intelligence.”

    Then you don’t understand the theories.

  25. pecon 30 Apr 2008 at 9:34 am

    And you claim to know how the brain creates consciousness, when no one understands how the brain works. Your beliefs are dogmatic and unscientific.

  26. weingon 30 Apr 2008 at 10:18 am

    It’s up to you to prove the claim that he is dogmatic and unscientific. But do it without fairy tales.

  27. pecon 30 Apr 2008 at 11:17 am


    Novella claims to know things that no one knows. Therefore his beliefs are ideological, not scientific.

    I am here to defend scientific objectivity and open-mindedness. Anyone who states, without hesitation, that consciousness is created by the brain is a dogmatic materialist. Novella can be open-minded and skeptical at times, and he is not nearly as dogmatic and self-righteous as Dawkins. But he goes way beyond the evidence, and on this topic he is less scientific than Egnor.

  28. DevilsAdvocateon 30 Apr 2008 at 11:18 am

    Having read the ideas of Penrose and Hameroff (not based on evidence, they are not theories), and noting Hameroff’s directorship of the University of Arizona’s Center For Consciousness Studies, perhaps they can slide over to Dr. Gary Schwartz’s lab and pick up some needed magic to explain their notions.

  29. Steven Novellaon 30 Apr 2008 at 11:51 am

    pec – I never said I know HOW the brain creates consciousness. That is your persistent straw man – the only kind of argument you seem to be able to make.

    I said that the evidence supports the conclusion THAT the brain creates consciousness – which is NOT dependent on being able to describe exactly HOW it does it. I even wrote an entire blog entry – just to make that very distinction. It is a typical denialist tactic to confuse these two things.

    So far, all the evidence we have is consistent with the hypothesis that the mind is brain function. There is no evidence that is incompatible with that hypothesis – or that specifically points toward any competing hypothesis. You have not presented any Egnor has not presented any – only demonstrably illogical drivel.

  30. pecon 30 Apr 2008 at 12:18 pm

    “all the evidence we have is consistent with the hypothesis that the mind is brain function. ”

    We don’t have evidence either way (aside from alternative science which I won’t bother mentioning since you won’t believe anything that doesn’t have hundreds of publications in mainstream journals).

    We have no evidence for the brain as consciousness-generator, or as mind-generator. We know the brain is a device that enables communcation between the “self” and the outer environment. We don’t know what the “self” is, and we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that the “self” is generated by the brain.

    Quantum neuroscience is an alternative which goes beyond materialism. Quantum “reality” is very different from our familiar 4-d world. Action at a distance and something like time travel can occur. But I am not a physicist and won’t pretend I understand quantum physics (not that anyone does). I do understand enough to see that neuroscience is venturing beyond materialism and that your views are becoming outdated.

  31. weingon 30 Apr 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Quantum neuroscience sounds really scientific to me, just like gobbledygook. So it must be right, I guess. Never mind that I can’t follow its logic. It must be my fault for having such an inferior mind.

  32. superdaveon 30 Apr 2008 at 12:52 pm

    I am at the point where i know it’s Pec before i read the comment author

  33. superdaveon 30 Apr 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Seriously Pec, not being a physicist is just an excuse for you to just take what you want to hear at face value. Go to the library, get some good books about physics and QM and learn for yourself.

  34. DevilsAdvocateon 30 Apr 2008 at 1:17 pm

    He only come away with quantum strawman arguments.

  35. pecon 30 Apr 2008 at 3:07 pm

    The “self” gets all its information about the outside world via the brain. And the outside world gets all its information about any particular “self” via the brain.

    If the brain is damaged or altered in any way you would expect the self – world communication to be disrupted.

    All of our sensory data comes to us from our brain, and so does the way we feel.

    The complex translations between “mental” and “physical” worlds are managed by the brain (according to non-materialist hypotheses, that is).

    The complex and rapid calculations involved in social interactions are managed by the brain.

    The “self” cannot function in the world without a working brain, and neither can it be observed by others.

    So no materialist conclusions can be drawn from brains that are damaged or altered.

  36. pecon 30 Apr 2008 at 3:09 pm

    And I am not stating the non-materialist hypothesis is correct. I am saying that you do not know, and cannot know based on the current mainstream evidence.

  37. Steve Pageon 30 Apr 2008 at 3:21 pm

    What a pointless argument. You can’t prove that everything you experience isn’t part of some hugely advanced virtual reality simulator, but I’m sure that you live your life under the assumption that it’s real.

    Every time you troll on here, pec, the best you can do is philosophical masturbation. You claimed recently that you come on here to exchange ideas, to hear other viewpoints, but what have you actually learned in the course of posting here?

  38. Blair Ton 30 Apr 2008 at 3:25 pm


    It it were just a case of communication breakdown between ‘self’ and ‘outside’ world, I could see your point – but it from the things I have read, people’s personalities can be altered from physical affects to the brain, not just their perceptions or their ability to communicate.

    Also, when you say that the way we feel is produced by the material brain, I begin to wonder where you draw the line between thinking, feeling, and being.

    Perhaps part of the problem is not having a clear idea of what ‘self’ is. I would say that one’s feelings would be an important part of self-identity. However, I do not have any firm views on what is ‘consciousness’ or how to define ‘self’.

    I am firmly convinced that however you define ‘self’, the evidence is that experience of self is created in the brain.



  39. Roy Nileson 30 Apr 2008 at 3:32 pm

    pec believes that when the truth is discovered it will require a belief to a certainty in something resembling the highly improbable – as only from that perspective can one discern that the deep and profound are not illusory.

  40. themightylearton 30 Apr 2008 at 3:33 pm

    This guy’s tactics (I mean the Egg-head), remind me so much of the ID movement. He keeps pointing out what is wrong with the materialist view, and somehow thing that validates his view. That is simply a false dichotomy, and from a logical point of view is BS. You cannot prove the validity of your claim by shooting down other claims.

    What evidence does he have for his hypothesis? Is his hypothesis supported by anything other than wild speculation and religious belief? If so, are there any proper scientific studies that support his stance?

    This is the kind of stuff he needs to present, not get in a philosophical war of words. Dr. Novella’s argument is quite simple, even for me and I am not a scientist. The materialist view REQUIRES the brain to “come alive” before the mind kicks in. Neurons must start firing before we have a thought. This experiment supports that view. All Mr. Egghead has to do to shoot down Dr. Novella’s argument is point to a studies (plural) where the opposite is observed, that is the thought precedes the actual neuron activity. That’s all it takes. Something tells me he will not do that, instead he’ll probably try to latch on to semantic arguments and point at some other “deficiency” in the materialistic hypothesis.

  41. Steven Novellaon 30 Apr 2008 at 3:38 pm

    I can also come up with an elaborate scheme by which my iPod is actually a radio, and all the songs I think are stored on my iPod’s hard drive are being transmitted to the iPod and processed in the iPod. The end result is exactly as if my iPod were a hard drive based MP3 player instead of a “radio” that operates by receiving an undetectable signal currently unknown to science.

    What pec has done is just construct an elaborate unfalsifiable hypothesis. There are countless unfalsifiable hypotheses – they do not all have equal validity with the materialist hypothesis. The principle of parsimony favors materialism. We do not have to invent a whole bunch of new implausible whacky assumptions that behave exactly like a material brain.

  42. themightylearton 30 Apr 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Oh, man this guy PEC won’t give up does he? What are this guy’s qualifications? I would be curious to know what sort of training he has, what background. Now, I am not trying to attack him personally so don’t nobody go around accusing me of ad hominems. I am just curious, because he makes such strong statements, that he must be quite an accomplished scientist in the field of neuroscience.

    Someone like me on the other hand, can only judge the logic behind an argument. I can tell an ad populum, from a straw man from a false dichotomy, but I am in no position to make statements about the science of Neurology. Mr. PEC seems to be very knowledgeable about the evidence, based on his statements.

    Care to elaborate pec? Are you really Jay Novella playing devil’s advocate?

  43. pecon 30 Apr 2008 at 7:02 pm

    You all seem to think the idea that brain creates mind is obvious, is in accordance with evidence and observations, and is believed by everyone but wackos.

    But that is only because you don’t venture outside your materialist circle. Most people in some kind of super-physical soul or mind — that is the standard belief, not yours.

    Of course these questions are not decided by majority vote. I’m just pointing out that even though you are a tiny minority, you act like your views are mainstream. Even among scientists, you may be in the minority.

    The evidence from mainstream science cannot decide the question at this time. Because you are materialists, the materialist explanation seems logical to you, and agrees with your personal experiences. But to many others, the materialist explanation seems bizarre and irrational, and directly contradicts their experiences and their knowledge and their understanding of life.

    So you can’t win this argument with scientific evidence, anecdotal evidence, logic or majority rule.

    I am being scientific because I admit that we cannot know at this time, and may never know.

    Re. Steven’s iPod example:
    Machines can receive information from remote sources by wires or waves, and/or they can have information copied directly to their storage devices. We never assume a machine generated its information from nothing — that might be the “simplest” explanation, but it’s still wrong.

  44. DevilsAdvocateon 30 Apr 2008 at 7:11 pm

    I know nothing of Pec, thank goodness, but I can speak to that set of posters (fallacy trolls).

    They are ubiquitous to the internet and thrive on comment sections, message boards, and chat rooms. They are identifiable by their inconsistencies of person:

    (a) they lecture others to be open-minded but display, sans insight to it, a rigid and tightly closed mindset, literally intellectually immobilized

    (b) they attempt to speak as an authority or with an authoritative and self-certain affect but in doing so only reveal a paucity of knowledge or understanding in the topic at hand

    (c) they are totally unaffected by controvertive info; even conclusive evidence may fail to alter their opinion or belief

    (d) divorced from logical fallacies they would go mute: straw man, ad hom, ad pop, post hoc, burden of proof, false dilemma, appeal to ignorance, special pleading, etc., etc. Logically clueless, without insight

    (e) inability to properly evaluate evidence coupled with difficulties in understanding posts of others – a wispy rumor favoring their argument trumps mountains of evidence proving the counter argument, while misquoting and/or misunderstanding others is the necessary rule

    (f) most bring an almost comically quixotic presentation, a clear need to stand among perceived ‘experts’ and prove them wrong, show them the errors of their ways.. Soldiers Of The Truth (but only as they see it, again, sans insight)

    (g) they are driven off only by the one thing they cannot bear – being ignored. Argue, yell, insult, try diplomacy, hug, beg, try a verbal clubbing… no effect. The troll does not change because it cannot.

    Personally, I enjoy Pec’s entries. Often they are grand examples of one or more of the logical fallacies and stand as a, ahem, certain sort of educational demonstration. I wish he’d post more.

  45. John Conwayon 30 Apr 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Pec: “I am being scientific because I admit that we cannot know at this time, and may never know.”

    Gawd I wish this one would die. Being scientific does not mean forever suspending judgment. In most cases it is about picking the best-supported hypotheses, and proceeding to test as if they were true.

  46. inspiroson 30 Apr 2008 at 9:17 pm

    I’m noting that most everyone here equates “consciousness” with “mind” with “thoughts”. Yet we are conscious when there are no thoughts and the mind is “still”. There is awareness but no mental phenomena.

    This is a simple experiment anyone conduct by the process of stilling the mind. (There is tendency to fall asleep when this happens – however it is simply practice to learn to cease all mental phenomena and stay conscious. Indeed it is a deeply refreshing experience.)

    If we accept the idea that consciousness is not dependant on thought – then does that impact the argument stated here? Possibly not.

  47. mindmeon 30 Apr 2008 at 9:18 pm

    You know pec it’s really amazing how you keep getting your ass handed to you time and time again but you’re always back for more. You’re the message board equivalent of the guy who thinks he won the fight because he managed to block all of his opponent’s punches with his face.

  48. Clavainon 01 May 2008 at 12:27 am

    One of the most convincing pieces of evidence i came across for these debates, was a girl called Oxana Malaya.

    Oxana Malaya was raised by dogs from the time she was 3 till she was rescued when she was 8.

    from Wikipedia :

    When she was discovered, Oxana found it difficult to acquire normal human social and emotional skills. She had been deprived of intellectual and social stimulation, and her only emotional support had come from the dogs she lived with. Oxana’s lack of exposure to language in a social context made it very difficult for her to improve her language skills.



  49. Chris Nobleon 01 May 2008 at 1:49 am

    This is a simple experiment anyone conduct by the process of stilling the mind. (There is tendency to fall asleep when this happens – however it is simply practice to learn to cease all mental phenomena and stay conscious. Indeed it is a deeply refreshing experience.)

    If you can literally shut down all brain activity measured by an EEG and remain concious then I would take this as strong evidence for some form of dualism.

    You could probably win a million dollars too!

  50. daedalus2uon 01 May 2008 at 7:48 am

    and win a Nobel Prize, and found a new religion.

    It would be proof that the materialist hypothesis (as presently configured) is wrong. It would be front page news in every scientific journal in the world.

    Of course that would only happen after it had been very carefully verified that it wasn’t due to fraud.

  51. Fifion 01 May 2008 at 9:59 am

    inspiros – “This is a simple experiment anyone conduct by the process of stilling the mind. (There is tendency to fall asleep when this happens – however it is simply practice to learn to cease all mental phenomena and stay conscious. Indeed it is a deeply refreshing experience.)

    If we accept the idea that consciousness is not dependant on thought – then does that impact the argument stated here? Possibly not.”

    Are you speaking about meditation? Or just a relaxed state? Both states have been studied and there is indeed brain activity and “thoughts” that the experience of being conscious arises out of. Otherwise there really would be no point in doing brain scans on meditating monks and this remarkable ability to be conscious without any “brain phenomena” taking place would have been front page news. The process of awareness meditation is about observing one’s inner narrative and not engaging so that eventually the inner narrative quiets, though this process one begins to understand one’s own thought patterns and the associated emotions. It’s essentially a form of cognitive self therapy, that through repetition and practice flexes a certain part of the brain which creates a different state of mind. Awareness meditation is ALL about how the brain/body and mind are connected and influence each other. Trance meditations – on the other hand – are about creating euphoric sensations.

  52. Fifion 01 May 2008 at 10:24 am

    Just to finish the thought….the practice of awareness meditation is directly about shaping the physical brain through focused concentration and bringing one’s body to a state of relaxation. It’s also a very nifty way to actually get a practical understanding of how one’s own mind works, if one can actually learn to observe oneself with detachment not just disassociate from one’s body. The distinction between detachment and disassociation may seem minimal to some but it’s actually quite important as to whether one is actually practicing a form of awareness meditation or a form of trance meditation.

  53. badrabbion 01 May 2008 at 6:18 pm

    This is what I do not understand:

    Suppose I want to raise my hand. It is clear that there should be some brain activity to prepare the message to be sent to my arm. Perhaps the FMRI is picking up the activities of the brain in preparation of performing a given activity.

    The Question that is puzzling though is: Where did the thought of raising my arm come from?

  54. inspiroson 01 May 2008 at 6:58 pm

    I’m not talking about awareness meditation. I’m talking about total mental stillness and silence – the classical term in sanskrit is “nirvikalpa samadhi” – literally a one-pointed absorption where there are no “vikalpas” or thoughts.

    This is actually the goal of yoga – the stilling of the thought waves of the mind. Quite different to the goal of mindfulness meditation.

    I’m not sure what the EEG is for this state. However it reflects back on the “hard question” of consciousness. How do we explain how brain activity gives arise, not to mental phenomena, but to an awareness that observes this mental phenomena.

    Indeed both mindfulness or awareness meditation – and stillness/absorption meditation – show us that consciousness is not simply thoughts. We can think thoughts (i.e. be involved in our thinking) – and we can step back and observe ourselves thinking.

    This ability of a perceiving awareness to be aware of it’s mental phenomena as seperate to the perciever – and indeed to be able have an awareness of awareness itself… it is not so obvious to me how neurons firing or information processing models give rise to that.

  55. pecon 01 May 2008 at 7:36 pm

    “It seems to me that we are all materialists – including you – if you believe there is a material world”

    The words “matter,” or “material,” don’t have any clear meaning. Matter is not made out of matter — so what is it? Maybe string theory or matrix theory are leading towards some kind of understanding, maybe not. But they certainly do no hypothesize that matter is made out of matter.

    When the philosophy of materialism first became popular it was assumed that atoms are indivisible, hard little ultimate particles. But it turns out that atoms are mostly empty space, and their sub-particles aren’t “particles” either.

    I think matter is made of relationships, information. If you want to call that materialism go ahead. It’s all vague and undefined blathering.

    The main thing that we do know is that we do not know what mind is or what matter is. So making loud proclamations is dogmatic, not scientific.

  56. Potter1000on 01 May 2008 at 8:17 pm

    pec, if you think Dr. Novella is making loud dogmatic proclamations, then you’re not paying attention. You are the one who loudly proclaims again and again what we all think without paying close attention to what we actually say. It’s annoying.

  57. Clavainon 01 May 2008 at 10:56 pm

    pec said : “The main thing that we do know is that we do not know what mind is or what matter is. So making loud proclamations is dogmatic, not scientific.”

    what exact proof does pec require to agree with Steve?

    Pec seem to be constantly confusing science with philosophy.
    he just hides in the gaps of our current knowledge, and use those gaps to deny anything he feels like, and only what he feel like.

    Pec on evolution: “We don’t know enough to say its true”

    Pec on dualism: “We don’t know enough to say its not true”

    Pec on intelligent universe : “I know its true”

  58. Steve Pageon 02 May 2008 at 3:25 am

    badrabbi said: The Question that is puzzling though is: Where did the thought of raising my arm come from?
    From your brain. The whole point of this thread is to demonstrate that thoughts and decisions are made in the brain before we’re even aware that they are our thoughts. Activity occurs in the prefrontal cortex when we’re making decisions, although we may be unaware of the activity; patients who’ve lost part of their prefrontal cortex (e.g. Phineas Gage) lack the ability to make cogent decisions or to curb their impulsivity, so they tend to live from moment to moment, responding to environmental stimuli, rather than having any ability to delay gratification in pursuit of some long-term goal.

  59. Zoo Knudsenon 03 May 2008 at 9:18 am

    I believe that perhaps PEC isn’t his name but an abbreviation for Positive Emotional Charge, a term thrown around amongst proponents of mystical human energy fields and touch therapies. I have some other theories however:

    Person Expecting Compliance
    Pea-brain Enabling Charlatanism
    Perfectly Egomaniacal Commenter

  60. badrabbion 05 May 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Steven Page;

    It is difficult to imagine that impulses originate de novo from the brain (ya ya I am aware of the appeal to personal incredulity fallacy, but I am not sure that it applies here). If I am a cell in the brain, what makes me generate the initial action potential that is the progenitor of a complex of impulses culiminating into a decision?

    The problem is not unlike the origion of species; what brings on the initial impulse to a given decision? Are there any clues on this in brain research?

  61. daedalus2uon 06 May 2008 at 8:24 am

    As an extremely complex system of coupled non-linear parameters, the brain is fundamentally “chaotic”. I am using chaos in the mathematical sense to denote systems that while comprising completely deterministic subunits, the non-linear and coupled interactions make long term prediction impossible even in theory. Weather is a good simple example. The brain is vastly more complicated than the weather.

    The phenomena was first noticed when simulations of weather were being done. If the input was identical, the output was always the same that is the evolving system was fully deterministic. But if the input parameters were changed even slightly, even by a single digit in the last decimal place, the output would be similar for a while, but would eventually diverge and become completely different. A change of 0.000001% in the input would lead to a completely different output. This is a fundamental property of all chaotic systems. The final output is extremely sensitive to initial conditions. In physical systems it is not possible to specify the initial conditions precisely enough, or the interactions precisely enough to predict the outcome long term.

    Some chaotic systems illustrate behaviors known as “strange attractors”. These are regions of stability that the system tends to evolve toward. The transitions between those strange attractors are chaotic. This results in an extremely advantageous property of chaotic systems regarding control. If the transitions between states are chaotic, than in principle it takes only a differential change to effect those transitions.

    Natural neural networks self-regulate in the near percolation threshold that is they adjust their effective connectivity so that the network is only just fully connected. The percolation threshold is a mathematical “critical point” with the connectivity being the critical parameter. The properties of the network change exponentially with respect to the connectivity around the percolation threshold. In other words, as the critical point is approached, the sensitivity of the network to change with respect to the connectivity diverges and is actually infinite at the critical point (but that is a mathematical concept for infinite networks, but it holds pretty well for networks that are large enough, the brain is large enough). A critical point is fundamentally an extremely sensitive chaotic state.

    The way that I understand where the impulse to do something comes from, is that it starts out as “noise”, (the flapping of the butterfly’s wing in the weather example), but then the evolution of the network leads the network to the final state (the strange attractor). The final output is an emergent property of the network, which has subtle differences depending on the “details” of the input (which butterflies’ wings flapped when) and the control parameters exerted during the evolution. The final state is a “strange attractor”, in that there are multiple paths to get there.

    Chaotic behavior is observed in systems that are100.000% deterministic depending on slight differences in initial conditions. That is each state is absolutely and completely determined from the previous state. Neural systems are no where near to being that deterministic. Their output is going to be more complicated and less predictable than the chaotic systems that are known to be unpredictable. When those outputs become later inputs (inherent in the system being “coupled”) the system will only become less predictable long term. We should not be surprised if neural outputs are not predictable.

  62. badrabbion 06 May 2008 at 9:25 am


    I appreciate the explanation given above. I confess that I only partially understood what you said, but I think the gist of what you are saying is that the brain is composed of units that are chaotic in a mathematical sense and their responses are not completely predictable.

    Fair enough! I can accept that, though only because of my profound ignorance in this subject. If you are saying that there are chaotic systems capable of generating unique and coherent actions given a set of initiators, and that there are similar models in existence, then, I suppose the realm of the soul must retreat to yet another trench.

  63. daedalus2uon 06 May 2008 at 10:59 am

    I see no reason why any human neural activity requires a “ghost” to animate it any more than the weather requires “weather gods” to animate it.

    I see the need for a homunculus controlling everything to be a product of the human tendency to anthropomorphize everything, that is to try and understand the inanimate world the same way we understand how other humans behave, though our “theory of mind”.

    People adopted the hypothesis of demons animating the natural world because it was a way (a poor way) for them to understand how the natural world behaved.

    It has been said that if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If the only “cognitive engine” you have to think with is your “theory of mind”, used for understanding and communicating with other humans, everything else will look human through that anthropomorphic filter. That is an artifact of our thinking processes, not a property of the natural world.

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