Comments on a Steven Novella's piece

I have been asked to comment on this opinion piece by Steven Novella. 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. He writes:

"What he is saying is that neuroscience can correlate everything it can measure (behavior) to brain function and brain states, but that neuroscience cannot measure subjective experience, therefore it cannot explain it."


This whole point is mute and irrelevant. Let's grant that there are indeed tight correlations between mind states and brain states (from personal experience, I think there are, so I actually disagree with Egnor here): That still does not show causation. Mistaking a correlation for a causation is a known fallacy in science, the "cum hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy (see this). If mind states are correlated with brain states, there are at least four logical options:

  1. The brain causes the mind (this is the paradigmatic option);
  2. The mind causes the brain;
  3. Both brain and mind states are caused by a third, unknown, trans-material process;
  4. The correlation illustrates a pattern, not causation.

Option 4 needs some explanation. Alan Watts used this analogy to illustrate it: Suppose you are looking through a slit in a fence. On the other side, a snake goes along the fence. Through the slit, you see first the snake's head, then later the snake's tail. Every time, the tail follows the head. Do you then conclude that the head causes the tail? Or the other way around? No, the correlation between tail and head is merely the consequence of a broader pattern (namely, the snake's body form), not of local causation. Under option 4, brain states and mind states ordinarily correlate simply because they are both part of a trans-material pattern that we cannot see fully, in the same way that we cannot see the whole of the snake's body at once through the slit in the fence.

There are several hypotheses that equally explain the ordinary correlations between mind states and brain states without entailing that the brain causes the mind. I summarized them here. All these options not only explain the correlations, but require the correlations to exist in ordinary states of consciousness. So the observed correlations between mind states and brain states cannot at all be construed as conclusive evidence for materialism; to assume so is, at best, intellectually lazy.

Novella claims that "when the brain dies, mental function ends," and that this has been somehow proven by neuroscience. This is an absurd and logically ridiculous claim. We simply cannot know if mental function ceases upon death, since we do not have access to the conscious states of the individual who died. It's beyond evidence. The only way to claim this is to assume that mental states are (caused by) brain states; but that begs the question: It assumes that which one wants to prove in the first place. It's surprising that Novella seems to fall pray to such basic logical fallacy.

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.

Novella talks about the possibility of inducing an OBE (Out of Body Experience) by exposing the brain to high-power magnetic fields that reduce neuronal firing in certain regions. What he fails to realize is that this is entirely consistent with the idea that the brain is a localization mechanism for consciousness: By reducing neuronal firings in certain areas of the localization mechanism, consciousness de-localizes, which is the OBE. He seems so consumed and blinded by his materialist position that he fails to see obvious logical alternatives.

Egnor's claim that neuroscience has so far failed to explain subjective consciousness is, quite simply, true. I find it hard to believe that there is any contention on this. I once wrote about it here.

Finally, Novella suggests that Chalmers is a physicalist. I believe this is a severe misrepresentation of Chalmers' position, even though it doesn't matter as far as the essence of his argument (which is logically fallacious either way). What Chalmers is saying is that there is an undeniable correlation between brain states and subjective mind states. Of course! Only a fool would deny that. But again, physicalism does not follow from that. Novella's repeated attempts to link correlation to causation are, at best, a sign of his lack of scientific imagination.

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

Copyright © 2012 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

Comments

  1. Hi Bernardo

    I've been a regular reader of your blog since last year although this is my first comment. I am learning a lot of interesting ideas from this blog that I agree with and some disagree with.

    At first, I thought your ideas are coming from the Advaita Vedanta school though you've given it a western philosophical and scientific spin.

    However, when I heard your interview on an internet site in which you rejected the idea of God and simultaneously making the point made by Allan Watt about atheist spirituality, I concluded that you are not from the Advaita school.

    BTW, I am from the Gaudiya Vaishnavism school and believe in God Brahman. Saguna Brahman of the various schools of Vaishnavism means Brahman with infinite attributes, including form. Saguna Brahman is immortal, imperishable, eternal, and thus the basis of the impersonal Nirguna Brahman (meaning the supreme reality without form, quality, attribute) , as clearly stated in the Bhagavad Gita. The personal form indicated is generally Narayana, or Krishna, or Vishnu. Practically all schools of Vaishnavism adhere to this viewpoint.

    I am not advertising my beliefs, just so you know where I'm coming from.

    Anyway, these are what Dr.Egnor (who is a catholic) said:

    Changes in brain states sometimes, but not always, change mental states because brain states sometimes, but not always, cause mental states. That is a basic prediction of Thomistic dualism. The more basic the level of function, the more intimate the connection between matter and mind. Higher level functions-- intellect and will-- are more loosely connected to brain states, because intellect and will are immaterial acts. They are potentiated and supported by material brain states (perception, imagination, etc), so they will often be affected to some degree by changes in brain states, but they are not intrinsically material.

    From his blog, AUGUST 15, 2011

    http://egnorance.blogspot.com.au/2011/08/my-reply-to-dr-novella-part-3.html


    (Sorry, if my english is not so english. It's my second language).

    Regards N.O.

    ReplyDelete
  2. FYI - http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/another-philosopher-jumps-into-the-dualism-frey/

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    Replies
    1. I didn't say you were. I said you jumped into a discussion about dualism I was having with Egnor. But - if you are not a dualist, then how do you account for your position regarding, for example NDE's?

      Delete
    2. That's the main thrust of my philosophy work... I elaborate on this in my books and several articles, but to point one out, this is a good start:
      http://www.bernardokastrup.com/2011/12/brain-as-knot-of-consciousness.html

      Delete
    3. So let me see if I understand your position. The universe is actually the projection of an overriding consciousness - sort of a "consciousness aether" or "consciousness field". Human minds are just "knots" or local filtered subsets within the overall consciousness field.

      If that's a remotely accurate interpretation of your "idealism", then I believe you are saying the mind does exist outside of the biological activity of the brain, and your philosophy falls within the "dualist" camp.

      But, as you say in your article, all you have is analogy and metaphor. By contrast, the materialist position has data. For over a century, non-materialist, human scientists, full of superstitions and supernaturalist beliefs have examined this data. And it is the data that has pulled them, kicking and screaming, to the highly-supported theory that the mind is a projection of the biological activity in the brain.

      History tells us that when seeking an answer to how the world works, data and evidence are better guides than analogy and metaphor.

      Delete
    4. "So let me see if I understand your position. The universe is actually the projection of an overriding consciousness - sort of a "consciousness aether" or "consciousness field". Human minds are just "knots" or local filtered subsets within the overall consciousness field."

      >> Roughly correct.

      "If that's a remotely accurate interpretation of your "idealism", then I believe you are saying the mind does exist outside of the biological activity of the brain, and your philosophy falls within the "dualist" camp."

      >> Not sure why you conclude this. The knots represent a specific local topology in what you referred to as a "field of mind", but the entire field is mind. For scientific evidence suggestive of this idea of reality as a "field" of mind, see: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2007/apr/20/quantum-physics-says-goodbye-to-reality (The original Nature paper is better, but it's behind a paywall)

      "But, as you say in your article, all you have is analogy and metaphor. By contrast, the materialist position has data. For over a century, non-materialist, human scientists, full of superstitions and supernaturalist beliefs have examined this data. And it is the data that has pulled them, kicking and screaming, to the highly-supported theory that the mind is a projection of the biological activity in the brain."

      All empirical data available is equally consistent with the form of Idealism that I advocate. But to elaborate on this requires space... I did it in my books "Dreamed up Reality" and "Meaning in Absurdity." I also do it in two upcoming videos. In a couple of weeks they should be online.

      "History tells us that when seeking an answer to how the world works, data and evidence are better guides than analogy and metaphor."

      There is a fundamental way in which all scientific models are metaphors. In this sense, your assertion above is naive as far as philosophy of science. Have a look at Michael Dummett and other proponents of so-called anti-realism. There is a good chapter on it in Oxford University Press' "Philosophy of Science: A Short Introduction."

      Thanks for commenting, by the way. B.

      Delete
    5. RickKK: Following up on my comment above, here is the first of the videos I alluded to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHxIuP3sXsg. Gr, B.

      Delete
  3. Hi Bernardo. I am a dualist as well, and fed up with the philosophical ignorance and smug arrogance of the materialists.

    This proof I've constructed may be of some use in your battles. It's under 300 words, just 5 syllogisms.

    It aims to prove the existence of the supernatural, via Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum", and Kant's insights.

    Here's the link. Let me know what you think!

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  4. Those who support and advocate tectonic plate theory demonstrate "smug arrogance" and "ignorance" of the rich philosophical history of the god Pele and the depth of her effect on volcanic activity.

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  5. I doubt it. That type of unpleasantness usually comes from intellectually dishonest ideologues, who are emotionally committed to their position for non-evidentiary reasons.

    I do not care if dualism is true or not, but a materialist's entire universe would be shattered if he let one toe of the supernatural through his door.

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  6. Amusingly, plate tectonic theory now appears to only apply up to 3 billion years ago.

    Note how real science is emotionally capable of enduring correction.

    ReplyDelete

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