Jan 15 2008

The Mind-Brain Problem – A Creationist Rebuttal

My favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Egnor, has written a rebuttal to my previous post criticizing the dualism of Deepak Chopra. His rebuttal is very revealing about the disconnect between dualists – those who think that the mind is something more than and separate from the brain, and materialist neuroscientists – those who think that the functioning of the brain is an adequate explanation for the phenomenon of mind. Egnor illustrates, although it seems inadvertently, that the real difference is that between science and philosophy.

In my original post I stated:

Deepak then plays the “false controversy” gambit. He wants us to keep an open mind “until the argument is resolved.” But there is actually nothing left unresolved. Deepak has presented no mysteries that cannot comfortably be explained within the completely material paradigm of neuroscience. His “invisible will” is nothing more than a trick of semantics – not an established phenomenon; not a genuine mystery to be solved. He says the material paradigm is “untenable” but has presented nothing that makes it so.

To which Dr. Egnor responds:

Is there genuinely “nothing left unresolved’ in our understanding of the mind-body problem? Are there “no mysteries that cannot comfortably be explained within the completely material paradigm of neuroscience?” The truth is that there remain enormous mysteries, and virtually nothing about these mysteries is resolved. The mind-body problem is perhaps the most active and contentious area of modern philosophy, and there is very little “resolved”. Of the many issues raised by philosophers, perhaps the most important is the “hard problem of consciousness” formulated by philosopher David Chalmers.

Dr. Egnor completely missed the context of my statement, which was a response to Chopra’s contention that there are actual phenomena (not just subjective experience) that cannot be explained by the brain and requires a separate will or mind. In his response Egnor confuses scientific questions and methodology with philosophical questions. He writes:

Chalmers divides the problems of consciousness into the “easy problems” and the “hard problem”. The easy problems are the sort treated routinely by neuroscientists. These are problems such as ‘what is the neuroanatomical correlate of arousal?’ or ‘which neurotransmitters are associated with depression?’ Of course, these questions are not easy in a scientific sense, but they are tractable by the methods of science, which are, for the most part, methodologically materialistic.

He acknowledges that the methods of science are methodologically materialistic, although he felt the need to qualify this with “for the most part.” I suppose he would have irritated his intelligent design colleagues if he admitted that science requires methodological materialism and did not leave the door open for their agenda to insert supernaturalism into the science curriculum.

The “easy problem” and “hard problem” of consciousness are more meaningfully described as the scientific questions and philosophical questions of consciousness. The context of my prior article was the scientific question – what causes consciousness. The materialist hypothesis – that the brain causes consciousness – has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated. Every single question that can be answered scientifically – with observation and evidence – that takes the form: “If the brain causes the mind then…” has been resolved in favor of that hypothesis.

For example, if the brain causes the mind then: there will be no documented mental function in the absence of brain function; altering the brain biologically will alter the mind functionally; mental development will correlate with brain development; and mental activity will correlate with brain activity (this holds up no matter what method we use to look at brain activity – EEG to look at electrical activity, PET scanning to look at metabolic activity, SPECT scanning to look at blood flow, and functional MRI to look at metabolic and neuronal activity).

This evidence cannot be dismissed as the “easy problem” nor as mere correlation. Brain function correlates with the mind in every way we would predict from the hypothesis that the brain causes the mind. From a scientific point of view, the mind is a manifestation of the brain.

As I have discussed previously, one way to dodge the obvious conclusion from this evidence is to confuse the question of how the brain causes the mind with the question of does the brain cause the mind. We certainly have much to learn about exactly how the brain functions to produce all mental phenomena, but this in no way diminishes the fact that the question of whether or not the brain causes the mind is settled – it does.

Dr. Egnor in his rebuttal is referring to another common fallacy used to dismiss the undeniable evidence linking brain function to mental function – retreating to philosophy, or more specifically to a conceptual realm that is not empirical and which defies common language. It is true that we lack the vocabulary necessary to define exactly what consciousness is. Egnor speaks of it as if the mind is a separate and definable thing, for example when he writes:

How can mind ‘substance’ interact with matter ‘substance’ without violating conservation laws in physics?

There is no reason to think of the mind as having “substance”, and you notice the quotations as tacit admission that this word is not adequate or accurate, but his choice is none-the-less very deliberate and meant to imply that mind has a separate existence. Yet there is no evidence to support this hypothesis.

Materialist neuroscientists also struggle to define what the mind is in satisfying prose. Some describe the mind simply as what the brain does, or as a epiphenomenon that emerges from the collective functioning of the brain (I prefer this latter description). Still others speak of our subjective sense of consciousness as nothing more than an illusion, but I think this description, while it has merit, is more confusing than illuminating.

I would describe the subjective sense of self, of existence, as the real-time processing of the brain that is constantly taking in external stimuli while engaging in an internal conversation – generating thoughts and feelings and comparing those processes to memory and sensory input. We know that in order to be awake the brain needs to be constantly activated (a process of the brainstem activating system), which suggests that this constant brain activity is necessary for consciousness, probably because it is consciousness.

Philosophers have asked what is probably a meaningless question – why is it that we “feel” that we exist, that we experience ourselves and the world – a phenomenon they refer to as “qualia.” I say this is meaningless because it does not yield any specific predictions or distinctions from a purely materialistic world. If the mind is just the brain experiencing itself and there is nothing more, then what would that be like? Why couldn’t that be exactly what we experience? How would a mind separate from the brain be any different?

The biggest problem with dualism is that the materialist neuroscience model explains all observed phenomena – there is nothing left for the dualists to explain. They are clinging to the notion of “qualia”, that subjectivity itself needs a separate explanation, but they have not made this case. Often they use mere semantics to make it seem as if something more is needed, but there isn’t. Further, the dualist hypothesis does not generate any hypotheses or predictions that distinguish it from the materialist hypothesis. Every prediction points to materialism as the answer.

The dualist hypothesis, which supporters put forward to fill the apparent gap of how the brain causes mind, only succeeds in replacing a non-mystery with an actual mystery. Namely, if the mind is something separate from the brain why is the correlation so strong? Why is it that any and every aspect of the mind can be altered, even eliminated, by modifying the biology, physiology, or anatomy of the brain?

Some dualists, like B. Alan Wallace, have “solved” the problem by saying that the brain creates the mind, but that the mind, once created, is something more than the brain. The problem with this is that it is non-falsifiable, and neither Wallace nor anyone else has figured out how to test this notion. Wallace has argued, post-hoc, that the brief delay (100ms) that occurs from the moment a neuronal network fires to the report of the subject experience of it firing is evidence for the mind being separated from the brain, but this is nonsense. The delay of 100ms is simply how long it takes for nerves to conduct signals and for the brain activity to work its way to conscious awareness.

Dualists also have no model or explanation for what the mind is, if not the functioning of the brain. They cannot even say what kind of thing the mind is. Simply placing a label, like “spirit”, on the mind is not adding any information or answering any questions.

Further, dualism does not provide any answers or solve any problems. In the wake of advances in neuroscience, the dualist position has retreated to arguing that, even though the mind correlates with brain function in every single way we look at it, the mind is something more than the brain. What is it? The answer is the equivalent of saying”magic.” What problems does this solve? None. What predictions does it make? None. What difference does it make? None.

So dualism has progressed from being simply wrong, back in the day when neuroscience was not advanced enough to demonstrate neuroanatomical correlates for everything we think of as the mind, to now being not even wrong – to being completely vacuous and irrelevant.

I think it is no coincidence that dualists and creationists have found common ground. Both commit these same logical errors. Intelligent design is an attempt to render evolution denial non-falsifiable, just as dualism has retreated from modern neuroscience until it has also become non-falsifiable. Both have rendered themselves not even wrong.

Share

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “The Mind-Brain Problem – A Creationist Rebuttal”

  1. daedalus2uon 15 Jan 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Very nicely articulated.

    I think a major motivation for a mind independent of the brain may be to allow for and justify perceived continuity of individual personal existence of that mind when the brain changes. If who you actually are changes every time the brain changes, then in a real sense people are actually different individuals from year to year, from day to day, and even from moment to moment.

    I think this is a necessary ancillary belief to any kind of belief in life after death. If there is “life after death”, but the mind changes every time the brain changes, which iteration of the mind is the one that “lives for ever”? Is it the mind of the newborn, innocent of any knowledge? Or is it the mind just before death, perhaps also innocent after being ravaged by dementia? Or something in between? If only one of those “minds” is restored, then all the others are not restored and are gone.

  2. Roy Nileson 15 Jan 2008 at 8:06 pm

    When dealing with dualism, you are essentially dealing with ancient religious concepts – which involved in turn the various interpretations (in the same or different cultures) of the causation for certain behaviors we had no conscious awareness or understanding of – at least prior to the time we began to understand there were calculating mechanisms in our bodies other than the ones we could consciously monitor. These were also behaviors that we dubbed “unreasonable” whose impetus seemed to come from somewhere outside ourselves – making us ask, as we still do, “what made me do that?” or “why did I do that?”
    So not only do you have the Chopra types still advising ways to react to malevolent spiritual forces “discovered” ages ago, you have Jungians advising us how to deal with the darkness and shadows in our ancient souls, et alia, et cetera.
    If you take away the concept of a separate mind, or soul, you take from all of these their entire structures for dealing with the problems of mental illness and especially dealing with what they see as forces of good and evil.
    Not a simple task.

  3. azinykon 15 Jan 2008 at 9:05 pm

    “For example, if the brain causes the mind then: there will be no documented mental function in the absence of brain function…”

    Wow. I had never thought about the issue quite this way. I already disbelieved in the soul, based on the weakness of evidence in favor of it, but evidence in favor of the non-existence of the soul is new to me. You’ve really expressed this clearly. Thanks, Dr. Novella.

  4. Chris Nobleon 16 Jan 2008 at 12:42 am

    The problem that I see is that Egnor and other dualists want to have their woo and eat it too.

    They want to have a supernatural mind that interacts with a material brain.

    If it is supernatural then it is outside of the material world that can be explored with science and cannot interact with a material brain.

    If it can interact with a material brain then it must be possible to investigate through science.

    You can’t have your woo and eat it too.

  5. Blake Staceyon 16 Jan 2008 at 1:59 am

    Dualism and creationism: the match made in heaven!

    Wallace has argued, post-hoc, that the brief delay (100ms) that occurs from the moment a neuronal network fires to the report of the subject experience of it firing is evidence for the mind being separated from the brain, but this is nonsense. The delay of 100ms is simply how long it takes for nerves to conduct signals and for the brain activity to work its way to conscious awareness.

    What in blazes? How does Wallace figure that?

    If it were the other way around, he might have a point: the mind doing something before the brain kicked in would be a real puzzle. However, with the neural activity happening before the report of conscious awareness, it’s like saying that because my CD has to start spinning in the player before the music begins to play, the music isn’t stored on the CD.

  6. anandamideon 16 Jan 2008 at 6:30 am

    While I agree with much of what you say, Stephen, I can’t help but feel you’re not quite giving the philosophical problem of consciousness a fair deal; while I don’t think it’s necessary to ascribe to any form of non-materialism to examine the mind, I do think there are some conceptual issues which need ironing out. This is expressed well when you say “The delay of 100ms is simply how long it takes for nerves to conduct signals and for the brain activity to work its way to conscious awareness”. Isn’t this invoking a Cartesian Theatre? Why should signals need 100ms to ‘work their way into conscious awareness’ if neural processing is identical to conscious awareness?

    I agree that philosophy can get caught in a mire of irrellevancy and abstraction; but at its best it allows us to see real problems in our thinking about reality.

  7. fontinalison 16 Jan 2008 at 9:13 pm

    Well played, sir. And you’re quite correct in that dualists and creationist make perfect bedfellows: each objects to a direction charted by a line of evidence-based reasoning, seeks to exploit remnant uncertainty in an ever growing body of convergent information, and then — with the last gaps filling — ultimately retreats to the high ground of disembodied (pun intended) abstraction, where the malleability of language is well suited for a prolonged rear-guard action.

    I’m only so familiar with Egnor……was it he who argued that an understanding of evolutionary processes was not relevant (or at least not essential) in the practice of medicine?

    Regardless, I doubt I’ll be making any appointments.

  8. eiskrystalon 17 Jan 2008 at 7:18 am

    Given that complex systems give rise to emergent patterns, I would have to ask creationists what happened to them if a separate soul is supposed to be doing the job of these emergent behaviours?

  9. jimon 17 Jan 2008 at 10:48 am

    it does sound like you could make an IQ test out of this

    Mind is to Soul as Inteliigent Design is to Creationism :-)

  10. cuervoon 17 Jan 2008 at 6:52 pm

    Great article Dr N.
    The big religions ‘reward’ of life after death hinges on dualism.Ok,there are ideologies that proffer an energy based afterlife…one is absorbed back into the energy pool and marked ‘available’ for reconstruction.But when promulgating the 3 abrahamic religions (among others) the idea of retaining ones id and of course meeting up with all your mates on the other side (and maybe Marilyn Monroe) is one of the main selling points.Thats why they aren’t going to let go of it very easily.
    Seems egotistical and arrogant to me.
    cheers

  11. skidooon 17 Jan 2008 at 9:05 pm

    Dr. Novella writes: “For example, if the brain causes the mind then: there will be no documented mental function in the absence of brain function; altering the brain biologically will alter the mind functionally; mental development will correlate with brain development; and mental activity will correlate with brain activity….

    We certainly have much to learn about exactly how the brain functions to produce all mental phenomena, but this in no way diminishes the fact that the question of whether or not the brain causes the mind is settled – it does.”

    A concise, satisfying response to the muddled slop so often slung by dualists.

  12. nbarrowmanon 18 Jan 2008 at 10:20 pm

    “Philosophers have asked what is probably a meaningless question – why is it that we “feel” that we exist, that we experience ourselves and the world – a phenomenon they refer to as “qualia.” I say this is meaningless because it does not yield any specific predictions or distinctions from a purely materialistic world.”

    It is indeed meaningless — in that narrow sense. Just as questions about aesthetics and morality are meaningless. You can scientifically study people’s behavior with regards to aesthetics (e.g. musical preferences) and morality (e.g. adherence to moral codes), but you can’t scientifically study what beauty and ugliness mean or what it means for an action to be right or wrong.

    The humanities largely depend on non-scientific methods. And the most basic element of the human condition is our consciousness.

    The subjective experience of consciousness remains perhaps the deepest mystery. If our brains are machines (albeit inordinately complex ones), then why are we conscious? Couldn’t humans chug along doing what we do with no awareness at all?

  13. Adam Safronon 21 Jan 2008 at 9:52 pm

    nbarrowman, I think it’s a bit extreme to say that questions about qualia, aesthetics, and morality are meaningless. Perhaps the qualia problem is frequently phrased in a way that makes the meaning less efficiently expressed, but that does not mean that meaning is lacking. Why do we have feelings of conscious experiences rather than feelingless information processing? I think the answer to that question is fairly clear: we have neural mechanisms for generating those feelings. We can alter qualia through physiological interventions and detect the neural correlates of qualia, therefore, qualia are probably a neural phenomena. We can also answer the question in terms of detailed mechanistic explanations and from a design/evolutionary perspective. We are continuing to work on this by studying how body maps (there are multiple) are implemented in the brain, as well as how they interact with each other, our models of the world, and other processes in the brain/body. So in answer to your question, no we probably couldn’t “chug along doing what we do with no awareness at all.” In theory, maybe you could have built an artificial intelligence that works that way (though maybe not), but you probably couldn’t evolve an organism that works that way.

  14. nbarrowmanon 22 Jan 2008 at 2:17 pm

    It seems I wasn’t very clear: I was questioning Dr Novella’s assertion that it is probably meaningless to ask questions about qualia because these questions can’t be empirically investigated.

    My point was that if we use “meaningless” in this way, then many other questions must also be declared meaningless, e.g. questions of aesthetics and morality, and in fact much of the humanities. I certainly don’t think these are meaningless.

    The body map work sounds very interesting.

    Questions around the evolution of consciousness are rather challenging! I did find this article on the topic:

    The evolution of consciousness

  15. Another Blast of Egnorance « PowerUpon 09 Feb 2008 at 7:34 pm

    [...] dualist nonsense in an attempt to refute an essay by fellow New England skeptic and neuroscientist Steve Novella. It all centers around what Egnor thinks is a “fundamental prediction of materialism” [...]

  16. [...] Novella dispatches dualism – whether it be the religious “woo” of Chopra and Egnor, or the philosophical [...]

  17. Blake Staceyon 10 Feb 2008 at 2:38 am

    Egnor has tried and failed to write a rebuttal to this post.

  18. [...] response to this statement that I wrote in my previous blog entry on this topic: The materialist hypothesis- that the brain causes consciousness – has made a [...]

  19. [...] the article quotes Dr. Novella himself: “The materialist hypothesis — that the brain causes consciousness — has made a [...]

  20. Ian Wardellon 18 Feb 2008 at 10:14 am

    Dear Steven,

    Science does not remotely require materialism. Otherwise science would not be possible.

  21. tattvaon 06 Apr 2008 at 12:43 am

    I am curious what you would accept as a proof of sentience or subjective awareness being other than brain function.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.