Search Results for "dualism"

May 15 2012

Another Blogger Jumps Into the Dualism Fray

Published by under Neuroscience

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.

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44 responses so far

Jun 13 2008

B. Alan Wallace and Buddhist Dualism

Published by under Uncategorized

Previously I have discussed, largely in the context of an ongoing debate, the notion of cartesian dualism – the belief that consciousness is due, in part or whole, to a non-physical cause separate from the brain. (I hold the neuroscientific view that consciousness is brain function.) This form of cartesian dualism seems to be favored by Western dualists, like Michael Egnor from the Discovery Institute.

There are other forms of dualism as well. David Chalmers, a philosopher of consciousness, holds what he calls naturalistic dualism – that the brain causes mind but consciousness cannot be reduced to brain function. There therefore must be some higher-order (but still entirely naturalistic) process going on. This view is opposed by other philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, who believe no such higher order process need be invoked. Consciousness can be understood as an emergent property of brain function (the position I find most compelling).

Today I want to discuss the dualism of B. Alan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk. I interviewed Alan about a year ago for the SGU podcast and it was an interesting discussion. He is quite a prolific writer on the topic of science, Buddhism, and dualism – so in addition to the interview there is no shortage of material explaining his views.

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36 responses so far

Jun 10 2008

Ether of the Mind: Chalmers and Dennett on Dualism

Published by under Skepticism

Consciousness is undoubtedly one of the most complex and interesting phenomena in the universe. Wrapping our minds around the concept of mind has vexed philosophers and scientists for centuries – perhaps because it is the task of the brain trying to understand itself. This has led to many theories and bizarre beliefs about consciousness – that it is non-physical, that it is due to quantum weirdness, or that it requires new laws of nature to explain. And yet modern philosophers and neuroscientists are increasingly of the opinion that perhaps it’s not such a hard problem after all. Perhaps the real trick is realizing that it’s not even a problem at all.

Yesterday I wrote my most recent reply to Michael Egnor’s rather lame attempt at defending what is called cartesian dualism – the notion that consciousness requires the addition of something non-physical. Ironically he invoked the writings of David Chalmers to his cause, not realizing (or not caring) that Chalmers is a harsh critic of cartesian dualism and rather supports what he calls “naturalistic dualism.” Chalmers believes that the “something extra” required to explain consciousness is a new law of nature, not a non-physical spiritus.

Today I will discuss Chalmers’ proposed solution (actually he points the way to a solution but acknowledges he does not yet have one) and its major critic, Daniel Dennett.

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36 responses so far

Jun 09 2008

Michael Egnor, Cartesian Dualism, David Chalmers, and the Hard (non)Problem

Published by under Uncategorized

I’m assuming my readers are enjoying reading a debate about neuroscience and dualism between a creationist neurosurgeon and a skeptical neurologist. I hope you are enjoying reading it at least as much as I am writing it. One of the best ways to learn about a topic is to confront your own misconceptions about it or those of others. I have therefore found this ongoing debate between Dr. Egnor and myself to be quite instructive.

Dr. Egnor has issued his latest response, and it is chock-full of instructive misconceptions and misrepresentations. The debate is about a particular version of dualism, which Egnor defends, that states that the functioning of the brain does not and cannot account for everything we observe and experience as our mental selves – consciousness. Therefore something else is needed – something not physical, spiritual if you will. I take the materialist neuroscientific position – that the brain is a completely adequate explanation for consciousness and so far the evidence points consistently in that direction. Further – Egnor’s version of dualism (and perhaps all versions of dualism – more on that later) in fact add nothing to our ability to explain consciousness, in precisely the same way that Intelligent Design adds nothing to our ability to explain the diversity of life.

Confused About Chalmers

Egnor builds his latest blog entry, The Hard and Easy Problems in the Mind-Brain Question, around philosopher David Chalmers. If one relied upon Egnor’s article to understand the dualism debate or David Chalmer’s position in it, this would lead only to profound confusion. Egnor writes:

David Chalmers, a leading philosopher of the mind and a particularly lucid thinker on the matter of consciousness, published a paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in 1995 entitled “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” This seminal paper has given rise to much debate, and I believe that Chalmers clarifies the issues in the mind-brain debate in a very important way.

Chalmers, who is probably best described as a property dualist, notes:

Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given.

Egnor makes it sound as if Chalmers is defending his position, but he isn’t. Egnor notes that Chalmers would be considered a property dualist, but he does not define property dualism nor explain how it is related to the version of dualism Egnor promotes – Cartesian Dualism. Cartesian dualism, named after Rene Descartes, holds that mind substance is something different than brain substance or physical matter. The mind (at least part of it – that part that cannot currently be reliably measured by science – i.e. god-of-the-gaps) is non-materialist – not matter, and cannot be fully explained by matter.

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27 responses so far

Dec 03 2007

More on Dualism and Denial

Last week I wrote about dualism – the philosophical position that the mind is somehow more than or separate from the biological activity of the brain. I argued that dualists commit the same error in thinking as creationists when they doubt the causal relationship between brain an mind because we cannot fully explain how the brain causes mind, not recognizing that this is a separate question from does the brain cause the mind. In the same way creationists confuse scientific knowledge concerning how evolution works with the evidence for the fact of evolution. We can know that life evolved without knowing all the details of how, just as we can know that the mind is a manifestation of brain function without knowing all the details of how brain function creates the experience of mind.

In response to this post The Agnostic Blogger wrote this response. In it he writes:

Simply put, he does not understand the dualist’s position. The dualist usually begins with an assumption- the mind exists. Now, this mind displays properties that are unlike physical entities- rationality, volition, awareness. Furthermore, science has not found a neural correlate for consciousness, and it is very possible that they never will. And it is the dualists that are being unskeptical?

It is true that I have never separated out the various forms of philosophical dualism. I am not a philosopher and when I discuss philosophy it is only to the extent that it intersects science, as the question of dualism certainly does. Further, I am interested in how critics of science use philosophy, which often reveals how philosophy has trickled down to the popular culture. Interestingly, while taking me to task for not distinguishing various types of dualism the Agnostic Blogger carelessly uses the phrase “the dualist’s position” – let us, rather, agree that there is a spectrum of dualist positions.

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21 responses so far

Jun 15 2007

More Dualism Nonsense from Michael Egnor

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon who has been shilling for the Discovery Institute – an intelligent design (ID) propaganda organization that smilingly sells itself as a “think tank” or research organization. I have had some fun picking apart his ridiculous mental shenanigans in his attempts to defend ID. Most recently he has taken to defending dualism – the notion that the mind and the brain are separate things – and attacking strict neuroscience materialism. His arguments are reassuringly childish, even silly. He has lowered the intellectual bar further with his latest entry – this time replying to critics of his previous piece.

The core of the article is a response to PZ Meyers’ analysis of Egnor’s prior argument that altruism has no location. Meyers responded that altruism does have a location – in the brain. Egnor quotes Meyers thusly:

“His altruism does have a location. It’s the product of activity in his brain. Where else would it be, floating in the air, in his left foot, or nonexistent?”

Egnor grossly misinterprets this quote from Meyers. Whether the misinterpretation was deliberate or just intellectually sloppy I will leave up to the reader to decide, but not far down Meyers made another statement that clearly shows what he meant:

“We also know that a sense of altruism is generated by patterns of electrical and chemical activity in a material brain; modify the patterns, change the feeling or action.”

But Egnor distorts Meyer’s quote into a straw man that he then props up to represent the materialist position. Egnor now write:

“If altruism is located in the brain, then some changes in location of the brain must, to use a mathematical term, ‘map’ to changes in altruism. That is, if you move your brain, you move your altruism in some discernable way. And ‘moving’ altruism means changing its properties. It won’t do to say that moving altruism changes its property of ‘location,’ because ‘location’ of altruism is the issue.”

Egnor expands on this theme that altruism has no physical location, while the brain does. Therefore the brain cannot be or cause altruism, by which he means the mind. Therefore the mind is not the product of the material brain, therefore it is spiritual – and you have dualism.

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Nov 06 2020

How the Brain Predicts Outcomes

Published by under Neuroscience

This is a really interesting study trying to work out one of the brain regions involved in decision-making. The researchers are studying mice, and using a technique know as calcium imaging and optogenetics to view the activity of brain cells in a living animal in real time. The short version is that a brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is necessary for model-based decision making. But let’s back up a bit and talk about decision making.

There appears to be two basic ways that vertebrates make decisions – model-based decision making and model-free decision making. The former involves creating an internal model of what is likely to happen in the world as a consequence of our specific actions. This approach also updates that model based upon experience. For example you may have a mental model of what is likely to happen if you slap people without provocation. If you ever decided to actually slap someone, their reaction would be used to update your model and inform future model-based decisions.

Model-based decision making is very effective, as it can take into consideration many variables and constantly updates itself with real-world experience. But this approach is also very labor-intensive. One of the basic principles of neuroscience is that brains are lazy, meaning that they tend to choose the pathway of least energy expenditure to get to a desired outcome. What this means on a neurological level is that the brain is generally wired with mechanisms to reduce energy expenditure, by which I mean thinking. As we learn, pathways form that make actions, thoughts, and behaviors more automatic. This often literally means laying down subcortical pathways that can carry out the procedure automatically without having to engage higher cortical processing, which is very energy intensive. For example, when you drive to work, which you have done hundreds or thousands of time, you will likely be on “automatic pilot”. You don’t have to think about your route, or when to turn, you just drive there from memory. It’s so easy, your brain can engage in other tasks, to the point that you may not even remember the drive.

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Aug 07 2020

Liver Fairies

Published by under Neuroscience

Liver scientists have a hypothesis – that the biological functioning of the liver, from the organism level down to the cellular level – is actually responsible for all the functions that appear to correlate with the liver. This is not a controversial hypothesis.

If, for example, those with severe liver disease, such as cirrhosis, lose the ability to make certain clotting factors, to regulate their blood glucose, to produce bile and digest fats, to metabolize drugs, and detoxify the blood, and to eliminate certain metabolic products from the blood, such as bilirubin, then those are all things that the liver actually does. In other words, the reason for the correlation is that liver function is the ultimate biological causation of all these things. Other parts of the body may be involved, but the liver is in the loop somewhere.

This hypothesis holds up very well. Liver disease reliably correlates with these downstream effects, and curing the liver or replacing it in severe cases reverses these effects. We can also culture liver cells in the lab and measure many aspects of their biological function, such as producing enzymes and metabolizing drugs. In many cases we have identified genes for liver enzymes, and can see that they are active in liver cells and not active in non-liver cells (mostly, there are always layers of complexity). We can even identify in some cases genetic mutations that produce altered function of those enzymes and produce specific diseases.

In fact the scientific hypothesis that the biological activity of the liver causes everything we see as liver function is so well established that it is taken as a given, and not questioned by any serious scientist. Over decades, countless labs and researchers doing countless studies have all relied upon this assumption, and it has worked out well.

This all may seem so obvious that it is silly to bother to point it out. But what if there were those who claimed that, in actual fact, some of what we think of as liver function is actually a manifestation of liver fairies. These are mystical entities that live in the liver. They are invisible and undetectable, but they carry out some of the functions we think of as liver function. The only reason that these functions correlate with the liver is because that is where the liver fairies live. They become unhappy when their home is not healthy, and stop doing some of their functions.

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May 12 2017

Rational Arguments for God?

BuddhismI honestly don’t care what people choose to believe about unknowable speculations outside the realm of science and human knowledge. As long as they don’t use such belief as justification for public policy or to infringe on the rights of others, believe whatever you want.

However, once someone claims that they have scientific evidence for a supernatural belief, or can prove such a belief logically, then they have stepped into the arena of logic and science and their claims can be examined.

One such claim is that the existence of God can be proven through various logical arguments. I have never seen such an argument that I found even slightly compelling. They all have gaping holes in their logic. The latest incarnation comes from Robert Nelson, who appears to be promoting his 2015 book, “God? Very Probably.”  He claims to have five rational arguments that lead to the conclusion that God very probably exists. Let’s take a look. Continue Reading »

281 responses so far

May 31 2016

Postdictive Illusion of Choice

Published by under Neuroscience

fmri brainDo we truly have free will? This is a vexing question, and as with the question of consciousness, there are complementary philosophical and neuroscientific approaches. Philosophy gives thoughtful possible answers given what we know, but neuroscience advances what we know.

As I have discussed many times before, the totality of neuroscientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that consciousness is a phenomenon of brain function. Dualist philosophies, those that posit that consciousness is anything other than or in addition to brain function, are simply trumped by the scientific evidence.

Free will, however, is a thornier question and more entangled with the philosophy. There are those who maintain that free will is entirely an illusion, because our brains are machines so they must follow physical laws which determine their behavior, hence our behavior, therefore no true free will. While I do not think this can reasonably be refuted, some think the real question is whether or not we make choices. If we do, whether or not those choices are free from physics, then perhaps that can be considered a form of free will.

Putting aside the philosophical question here, the neuroscientific question is this – to what extent do we make conscious choices vs subconscious choices?

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161 responses so far

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