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.

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