Nov 29 2007

The Denialism Dodge

Deniers – those who, for whatever reason, deny the conclusions of well-established science, employ a number of strategies in their denial. Like a good illusionist, deniers are primarily involved in misdirection. I was recently reminded of one tactic of deception when the following quote was used to suggest that the materialist explanation of mind is not adequate.

J. Fodor stated in a paper published in 2001 that “So far what our cognitive science has found out about the mind is mostly that we don’t understand how it works.”

Dualists, those who believe that consciousness and the mind are something more than the material biological functioning of the brain, are, in my estimation, neuroscience deniers. They deny the current model of biological neuroscience in order to manufacture a gap, and then try to slip their dualism – their “ghost in the machine” – into that gap.

Now at this point most readers are probably thinking that we don’t fully understand how the brain works and creates the phenomenon of mind, and you are correct. But that is the misdirection – confusing the question “does A cause B” with “how does A cause B.” Let me first illustrate this denial tactic with a more established example, creationism (or evolution-denial).

Evolution deniers will often take quotes from biologists that are referring to either the mechanisms of evolution or the details of the historical pattern of evolution and then present them as if they are questioning the fact of evolution. For example, one of the classic “icons of evolution” is the American Museum of Natural History display of the evolution of horses – from eohippus (now tragically renamed as hyracotherium) to the modern horse. As our understanding of the pattern of evolution developed it was realized that such linear progressive representations are fictions. Evolution with speciation creates a branching bush of descent, without any linear trend toward an apparent goal. Cherry picking horse relatives from this bush and placing them in a line toward one branch – modern horses – completely misrepresents the true pattern of speciation over time in the horse lineage. Creationists still delight in taking quotes to that effect completely out of context, as if they call into question the fact of evolution itself.

Disagreements and uncertainty at one level of complexity does not necessarily call into question higher level conclusions. Debates over the details of evolution does not decrease our confidence that evolution happened. Just as research into the details of genetic complexity does not call into question the fact that DNA is the molecule of inheritance, or the basic facts of genetics. Science progresses largely by creating a more and more detailed picture of nature, digging deeper and deeper into how the world works. Generally, lower level, or more detailed questions, do not affect higher level questions. Even if they reveal an anomaly that cannot be explained by the overall paradigm, this usually results in a modification of the paradigm, not a dismissal of it. For example, observed anomalies led to relativity, which was a refinement of, and not a replacement of, Newton’s classical laws of motion.

Returning to consciousness and the brain – all the evidence we have suggests that the mind is a product of the brain. There is no mind without the brain (despite the unsubstantiated claims of paranormalists). If the brain is not biologically active, there is no consciousness. If the brain is damaged, the mind is altered. As brain function changes through drugs, lack of sleep, fever, or some metabolic derangement – so changes the mind. No reliable observation or experiment has been able to separate the mind as a phenomenon from the brain.

As an aside, dualists will often point to near death experiences, out of body experiences, or reincarnation as evidence for a non-biological mind. Delving into each of these areas is beyond the scope of this entry, but I will just summarize my position as stating that I have not seen any compelling evidence that any such phenomenon exists in a form that cannot be explained as brain function. For example, we can reliably create out of body experiences by altering brain function.

The evidence that the brain creates mind is, in my opinion, overwhelming. While the evidence for a mind separate from the body is dubious and questionable – certainly insufficient to disprove the brain-mind hypothesis.

Dualists have therefore adopted the strategy of creationists by requiring that neuroscientists explain, in detail, exactly how the brain creates the subjective experience of mind. There are preliminary answers to this question. The mind is an emergent property of the brain and cannot be reduced to any single component of brain function. This is, admittedly, just a partial answer – merely describing the type of phenomenon we are dealing with, and not really explaining it.

We have also identified many of the components of consciousness – localized them to specific brain regions. For example, we have identified brain regions that create the sense we are inside our bodies, that we exists as an entity separate from the rest of the universe, that allows us to direct our attention and form memories. We have long identified those parts of the brain that see, feel, plan and execute movement, and generate emotional reactions. With functional MRI studies neuroscience has accelerated, and we are quickly reverse engineering the brain piece by piece. In fact, a quote from 2001 is now hopelessly outdated. The last six years alone has witnessed an explosion in neuroscience.

This brings up another aspect of this strategy – focusing on the snapshot of a science rather than its progress over time. Creationists often point to gaps in evolutionary knowledge – whether it’s the fossil record or, more recently, genetics or biochemistry. However, there will always be gaps in our scientific knowledge. The presence of gaps does not really tell us anything about the power and success of a scientific explanatory paradigm. A better assessment is to look at the history of a scientific idea and then see how successful it has been in making predictions and improving upon the details of its descriptions of nature. How has it progressed. Pseudosciences like homeopathy and ESP have not progressed – they are chasing their tails going around in circles without making any forward progress. Evolution, by contrast, has been remarkably successful as a means of scientific explanation.

Likewise, the materialist paradigm of mind and consciousness – the notion that the brain is the cause of mind – has been and continues to be a very successful model. One manifestation of this is that neuroscience, as a discipline, has grown and progressed. As new tools come online our ability to explore the brain, and to explain the phenomenon of mind, has increased. The dualist paradigm, by contrast, has not produced anything tangible or reliable. It is still chasing its tail and pointing at the current gaps in neuroscience, without looking at the big picture.

The handwriting is on the wall for the dualists, just as it was for the creationists. Scientists follow what works. Evolution works as an explanation for the complexity of life on earth. Neuroscience works as an explanation of mind and consciousness. We will never have all the answers, never fill in all the gaps, but as long as these paradigms continue to flourish and succeed, scientists and the scientific community will follow them. And the deniers will be further and further marginalized to griping on the sideline, peevishly pointing at the shrinking gaps and desperately trying to prop up false anomalies.

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