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