May 15 2012

Another Blogger Jumps Into the Dualism Fray

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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