Dispelling straw-men: does brain imaging corroborate or contradict materialism?

Straw-man picture by Clyde Robinson. Reproduced under CC BY 2.0.

The two essays I wrote prior to this one have commanded a lot of interest and attention (see here and here). They discuss recent brain imaging studies on the effects of psychedelics. Surprisingly, the results have shown that, unlike what one would ordinarily expect from a materialist perspective, the increase in the richness and intensity of experience following the intake of psychedelics correlates with reductions of brain activity. Although these results, in and of themselves, do not single-handedly refute materialism, they do contradict its intuitions. After all, under materialism, brain activity constitutes experience. Therefore, I've referred to these studies as circumstantial evidence for the alternative, non-materialist philosophy I argue for (analytic summary freely available here).

Since publishing those two essays, I have been confronted with a barrage of straw-man arguments against my philosophy. Straw-man arguments are those wherein a critic first misconstrues my views (creating the "straw-man") and then proceeds to dismantle his misrepresentation of what I am saying (destroying the straw-man). With this essay, I hope to clarify a few key aspects of my position, in the hope that my critics will better understand what I am trying to get across. Nothing is discussed below that hasn't already been covered before, in one way or another, in the body of my work. But since the subject has now gained renewed relevance, it is worthwhile to reformulate certain clarifications.


Straw-man 1: Materialism does not imply that more experience should correlate with more overall brain activity.

And neither do I claim that it does. To clarify this, let us try to specify precisely what materialism does entail. In what follows, I choose my words carefully and precisely. In the interest of avoiding misinterpretations and further straw-men, I ask that you pay careful attention to my specific choice of words. Here we go:

According to materialism, certain aspects or patterns of brain activity constitute subjective experience. These particular aspects or patterns of brain activity are called the 'neural correlates of consciousness', or 'NCCs' for short. Notice that I use the word 'activity' here in the broad sense of metabolism itself (as such, "activity" is not restricted to e.g. neural firings alone). This way, only a dead, non-metabolizing brain has no activity. The activity of the brain thus consists of both NCCs and other neural processes that aren't NCCs. The latter are supposedly unconscious processes. Although these unconscious processes are still activity, their reduction doesn't necessarily correlate with a reduction of conscious experience, for they aren't NCCs. In fact, if these allegedly unconscious processes are inhibitory, their reduction may even cause an increase in NCCs and, therefore, conscious experience. All of this is what materialism entails.

Now, clearly an increase in NCCs may be accompanied by an even greater decrease in unconscious processes, leading to an overall decrease in brain activity. So indeed, materialism does not necessarily imply that more experience should always correlate with more overall brain activity. What's my point then?

It is this: under materialism, an increase in the richness/intensity of experience must still be accompanied by an increase in the metabolism associated with the NCCs, for subjective experiences are supposedly constituted by the NCCs. This is inescapable. After all, richer/intenser experience spans a broader information space in consciousness, and only increased metabolism can create that broader information space in the physical substrate of the brain. Any other alternative would decouple subjective experience from the workings of the living brain information-wise, which would directly contradict materialism. As such, materialism does imply a form of proportionality, but a local one: the richness/intensity of experience must be proportional to the compound metabolic level of the NCCs, for experience allegedly is the NCCs.

Having clarified this, what is the significance I see in the fact that psychedelic trances are not accompanied by increases in activity anywhere in the brain, but only reductions (see e.g. this study)? As we've just seen, materialism implies that a significant increase in the richness/intensity of experience should be accompanied by a significant increase in the compound metabolic level of the NCCs. We also know that psychedelic trances significantly increase the richness/intensity of experience when compared to placebo (more on this in point 3 below). As such, one should have observed at least localized but significant increases in brain activity in those areas of the brain corresponding to NCCs, even if the activity elsewhere (corresponding to unconscious processes) decreased even more, leading to less total brain activity. That these local increases were not observed makes any potential materialist explanation of the psychedelic experience at least counterintuitive. Allow me to elaborate.

It is, in principle, conceivable that the spatial resolution of functional brain scanners is such that, in the studies mentioned above, researchers couldn't discern between, on the one hand, hypothetical NCCs whose activity could have increased and, on the other hand, unconscious processes right 'on top of them' whose metabolism decreased even more, thereby masking the increase in the NCCs. But this stretches credulity and plausibility. It would require the rather astonishing coincidence that each and every part of each and every relevant NCC consistently had an unconscious process right 'on top of it,' intermingled with it, whose metabolism happened to decrease so significantly as to mask the corresponding NCC increase. There is no reason why this should be so. Different neural processes are often easily discernible from each other in brain imaging, otherwise brain imaging wouldn't be of much use.

To put all this in perspective, consider this other brain imaging study. It shows that, if you dream that you are clenching your hand, the brain areas associated with hand motion light up clearly in an fMRI. Now think about it: dreams and psychedelic trances are analogous in that neither can be attributed to sensory inputs. Both experiences are imagined. Yet, in a dream, when you experience something as dull as clenching your dreamed-up hand, the corresponding brain activations can be clearly discerned. But when you undergo mind-boggling psychedelic excursions into other mental universes, scientists can discern no conclusive activations anywhere in the brain. You be the judge of whether this tell us something about the likelihood of materialism being correct. Personally, I think it does.

Available now.

Straw-man 2: Under materialism, several different types of neural dynamics are plausible candidates for constituting experience, not only neural firings.

I do not dispute this either. My point is much more generic and applies to whatever the NCCs might turn out to be, as explained in this passage of my book Why Materialism Is Baloney:

By postulating that subjective experiences are neural processes [i.e. the NCCs], the reigning materialist paradigm tentatively explains the ordinary correlations between mind states and brain states rather simply. Yet, this paradigm is currently articulated in only a vague and promissory manner, in that neuroscience does not specify precisely or unambiguously what measurable parameters of neural processes map onto what qualities of subjective experience. 
This is an important point, so let me belabor this a bit. If every conscious experience is nothing but a neural process [i.e. an NCC], then there are two points-of-view from which to observe the same information flow associated with any experience: the perspective from the inside – that is, the experience itself – and the perspective from the outside – that is, what a neuroscientist sees when measuring the activity of a person’s brain while the person is having the experience. If materialism is correct, there always has to be a strict one-to-one correspondence between parameters measured from the outside [i.e. the NCCs] and the qualities of what is experienced form the inside. After all, subjective experience supposedly is what is measured from the outside. For instance, if I see the color red, there have to be measurable parameters of the corresponding neural process in my brain that are always associated with the color red. After all, my experience of seeing red supposedly is the neural process. Similarly, if I feel sad, there have to be measurable parameters of the corresponding neural process in my brain that are always associated with the feeling of sadness. After all, my experience of being sad supposedly is the neural process. You get the picture. 
As I mentioned above, neuroscience today is very far from being able to provide a consistent one-to-one mapping between the qualities of a subjective experience and measurable parameters of the corresponding neural process. It is possible to argue that this merely reflects our currently limited progress in finding this mapping and that it will be found in the future as more research is done and new techniques are developed for measuring the finer parameters of brain activity. As a vague and promissory argument, this is unfalsifiable.  

So far so good. The problem, however, is this:

Today we find ourselves in a peculiar situation wherein, of all things, ignorance is often used to defend materialism: since nobody can specify unambiguously what physiological process supposedly is consciousness, neuroscientists can always postulate a different hypothetical mapping that conceivably explains any particular experience. All that is required is some – any – level of activity anywhere in the brain, which is not too difficult to find or reasonably assume. The problem, of course, is that one cannot postulate a different materialist theory of consciousness for each different situation and still claim that the evidence supports materialism. 
The reason such surprising ambiguity is tolerated was already hinted at in Chapter 1: when it comes to consciousness, there is no way – not even in principle – to logically deduce the properties of subjective experience from the properties of matter. In other words, there is no way to logically deduce conscious perception, cognition, or feeling from the mass, momentum, spin, position, or charge of the subatomic particles making up the brain. Such complete lack of intuition makes it impossible to judge whether a particular mapping between a brain process and a conscious experience is at all reasonable. Therefore, any proposed mapping looks, at first, just as good (or as bad) as any other, a fact easily misused in support of materialism. In an astonishing acknowledgment of how arbitrary the materialist explanations of consciousness can be, militant skeptic Michael Shermer, of all people, admitted that ‘the neuroscience surrounding consciousness’ is ‘nonfalsifiable.’ 
In all fairness, many neuroscientists readily admit that our current understanding of the brain is very limited. As such, it is entirely legitimate that they remain open to many different alternatives for explaining conscious experience on the basis of material processes. But one cannot make this admission and then turn around and proclaim that neuroscience’s progress has been corroborating materialism. 

Straw-man 3: It is not clear that psychedelic trances entail a higher quantity of experience.

I am talking about the felt richness and intensity of experience here, not abstract bean counting. To deny that every person has a clear, living sense of the richness and intensity of their experience is disingenuous. Can we all agree that making love is a richer and intenser experience, which spans a much larger information space in consciousness, than staring at a white wall? Can we all agree that attending a rock concert while suffering from severe indigestion (yes, I've been there) is a richer and intenser experience than wiping the floor? More specifically, can we all agree that tripping to the center of the galaxy, reliving your own birth, facing your inner demons, losing your sense of personal identity, and then having God explain the secrets of life, the universe and everything to you (all of which are often reported during psychedelic trances) is a richer and intenser experience than staring at the inner coil of an fMRI scanner? If so, how does materialism then explain the reality of these differences in experiential richness and intensity? That's the question, not abstract bean counting. Refusing to acknowledge the validity of this question amounts to a denial of reality.

In a psychedelic study at Johns Hopkins, researchers found that 94% of the subjects described a psychedelic experience as among the top five most, or as the topmost, spiritually significant experience of his or her life. To get a taste for how people describe their trances, have a look at a few reports at Erowid's experience vault. Psychedelic trances are well-known to entail the apotheosis of experience in all its qualities and nuances: visual, auditory, tactile, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, syntactical, logical, etc. While pointing this out during the past couple of days, I have been confronted by a neuroscientist who argued that the fact that an experience is "among the top 5 most important things in your life has NOTHING to do with supposed increases in the quantity of subjective experience." Astonishingly, the suggestion here seems to be that materialism doesn't need to explain the most significant experience of one's life in terms of shifts in brain metabolism. What does, then? Do materialists even need a living brain to claim to explain experience?

This same neuroscientist argued that I am "confusing [the] significance, beauty and emotional impact of these experiences with something far more difficult to measure which is the quantity of moments of experience per unit of time." But wait a moment: what are "significance," "beauty" and "emotional impact" if not experiences that themselves need to be explained under a materialist framework? What else could they possibly be? Moreover, who the hell cares about the "quantity of moments of experience per unit of time"? This is one of those ontology-bound flights of abstraction that try to replace reality with a conceptual framework. I don't experience discrete and countable jelly beans of qualities. I simply experience. I am interested in significance, beauty and emotion, not the "quantity of moments of experience per unit of time," because it is significance, beauty and emotion that constitute my reality. An ontology that rejects this reality, instead of making sense of it, is a meaningless and useless ontology.

For a dialogue about the mind-body problem to be productive, one has to at least acknowledge the basic facts of human experience, without begging the question of ontology.

Copyright © 2016 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

Comments

  1. Bernardo, let me begin by stating that my intention is really not to troll, I am genuinely interested in your perspective.

    Metaphysical assumptions play an important role in science. In fact, you argue that your idealist philosophy is more "parsimonious" than standard materialism and appeal to Occam’s razor. Why does it matter that theories are parsimonious? We assume that true theories must be unified, simple, elegant etc. You reject physicalism on the grounds that it is not parsimonious. “Parsimony” is also an abstraction and a permanent assumption that science makes about the universe. We believe in theoretical parsimony independently of empirical evidence. What evidence do we have that the universe is parsimonious? We have lots of evidence in fact that is not at all parsimonious, but we assume that this lack of simplicity is only apparent for we assume the true nature of the universe is somehow elegantly comprehensible. For any theory, countless trivial ad hoc alternatives can be proposed that explain unobserved phenomena equally well as the original – but we reject theories not because they don’t explain observations but because they satisfy abstract concepts such as unity, simplicity or parsimony. And you also reject physicalism because it postulates that unobserved phenomena exist independently of consciousness. Again, I’m open to these arguments even if I do not reject physicalism.

    Your idealism might turn out to be more empirically fruitful than materialism. However, if we can agree that science is making progress, what is responsible for its success? How does science make progress? There is an argument put forward by Maxwell that by adopting physicalism sometime after Galelio and especially in the 20th century, science has been able to radically increase our understanding of the universe (the hard problem of consciousness notwithstanding as you point out).

    Modern brain imaging – which originated with the discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance in physics – is part of this progress. When you say, ”since nobody can specify unambiguously what physiological process supposedly is consciousness, neuroscientists can always postulate a different hypothetical mapping that conceivably explains any particular experience. All that is required is some – any – level of activity anywhere in the brain, which is not too difficult to find or reasonably assume. The problem, of course, is that one cannot postulate a different materialist theory of consciousness for each different situation and still claim that the evidence supports materialism.” This is the same problem that all science has, as I discussed above. Physicists still cannot specify unambiguously how quantum states interact with the classical level of physics – nor what physical processes supposedly explain the collapse of the wavefuntion. We cannot logically deduce these parts of physics from each other either – that is why the search for a unified physical theory continues.

    Because we cannot logically deduce consciousness from particle physics does not imply that materialism is false. But how do you logically deduce particle physics from experience? Does it not work both ways?

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    1. "But how do you logically deduce particle physics from experience? Does it not work both ways? "

      Inform yourself about The Interface Theory of Perception by Donald Hoffman,he is trying to do that with his model actually.

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    2. Andrew Smart says:
      "[H]ow do you logically deduce particle physics from experience?"

      Do you mean how do we deduce the existence of elementary particles should some version of idealism be true? Obviously you don't need to, they just exist, just as tables, trees and planets exist.

      I'm not sure if you understand idealism. I wrote a very short piece on subjective idealism which might help (it might be very different from Bernardo's idealism, I don't know).

      http://ian-wardell.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/a-very-brief-introduction-to-subjective.html

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    3. Andrew Smart says:

      "Because we cannot logically deduce consciousness from particle physics does not imply that materialism is false".

      Andrew Smart, could you *please* justify this assertion? I don't agree with it. If consciousness (by which I mean qualia in its broadest sense and intentionality):

      a) Does not have any physical properties eg consciousness has no mass, no electric charge, no location etc

      b) Are wholly unlike any physical thing or process. That is all our thoughts, emotions, sensations and so on are wholly different from the physical processes occurring in my head. The former are largely constituted by their qualitative feel, and are private, the latter are objective and consist purely of biological and electrochemical processes.

      c) Cannot be derived from any physical processes (i.e reductive materialism is incorrect).

      Then in what sense can materialism be said to be correct??


      You might be interested in an essay I wrote so you can better understand my position:

      http://ian-wardell.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/neither-modern-materialism-nor-science.html

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    4. I write a lot about Donald Hoffman in my book. There are myriad definitions of idealism, just as there are of materialism. Kastrup is also guilty of constructing strawmen out of materialism when we tries to reduce its definition to something that many materialist philosophers, neuroscientists or physicists don't believe or claim. I'm not sure where Kastrup's definition of materialism comes from, and if its his own that is fine of course.

      But regarding a definition of idealism: if we go back to probably the originator of idealism, Kant, he says the following:

      “It is not that by our sensibility we cannot know the nature of things in themselves in any save a confused fashion; we do not apprehend them in any fashion whatsoever. If our subjective constitution be removed, the represented object, with the qualities which sensible intuition bestows upon it, is nowhere to be found, and cannot possibly be found. For it is this subjective constitution which determines its form and appearance.”

      *Note too, in contrast to Kastrup, Kant also argued that we have no special knowledge of our own private experience either. In other words our knowledge of our own experience is just as false as our knowledge of the external world - according to Kant.

      In more modern language the definition of idealism I subscribe to from Ralf-Peter Behrendt is this:

      “The nature and phenomenology of hallucinations can be explained more fruitfully within a framework that accepts that, similarly to hallucinations and dream imagery, normal conscious awareness of the world during wakefulness is a fundamentally subjective and dreamlike experience.

      Philosophical idealism predicts that normal perception, hallucinations, and dream imagery are principally manifestations of the same physiological process. Hallucinations and dream imagery differ from normal wakeful conscious experience only with regard to the extent to which they are constrained by sensory information from the external physical world. Hallucinations are similar to dreaming in that a lack of sensory constraints on the physiological mechanisms of conscious experience makes these forms of conscious experience maladaptive for interaction with the physical world.”

      I think this idea also captures what LSD does - it removes sensory constraints on experience. This does not require any increase in brain activity or metabolism to produce the rich, significant, beautiful experiences one has on LSD. Because this activity could always be there happening unconsciously, but remove the sensory constraints and this activity might enter awareness. But this is a hypothesis which could explain *some* of the results of the studies we are spending inordinate amounts of time discussing.

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    5. You talk a lot Andrew without seeming to address anything anyone says!

      Kant the originator of idealism! :O

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    6. Apologies: I will try to address what you said.

      Many levels of scientific description or explanation are not logically deducible from other levels of description. Nothing in classical physics indicates that there is a quantum level of reality. I don't agree with arguments which state that we can a priori know that consciousness is "in principle" not physically comprehensible because we don't have an accepted physical theory of it. Materialism - like idealism - are not falsifiable because they are not testable - they are metaphysical assumptions.

      I also doubt that we can say at this point that consciousness:
      "a) Does not have any physical properties eg consciousness has no mass, no electric charge, no location etc"

      It certainly seems to me that my consciousness has a location - somewhere behind my eyes in my head. Maybe it's not only there, maybe it's not there at all, maybe it's the only thing that exists - but it seems like my consciousness has a location.

      "b) Are wholly unlike any physical thing or process. That is all our thoughts, emotions, sensations and so on are wholly different from the physical processes occurring in my head. The former are largely constituted by their qualitative feel, and are private, the latter are objective and consist purely of biological and electrochemical processes."

      I agree with the idea that brains are irreducibly relativistic - knowledge and experience are always from some point of view. We can only subjectively experience objective explanations - but that doesn't mean that there are no objective facts. Just because consciousness is wholly unlike other things we find in physics doesn't mean either that it's not physical. The Higgs Boson is also unlike anything else in physics - but it is still physical.

      "c) Cannot be derived from any physical processes (i.e reductive materialism is incorrect)."
      The jury is still out on this IMO. How exactly do we know that consciousness cannot be derived from an physical processes? Because we currently can't figure it out doesn't mean we will never figure it out. Maybe there are limits to what science can do, but I hope we are far from them.

      And :O
      "Idealism in sense (1) may be called “metaphysical” or “ontological idealism”, while idealism in sense (2) may be called “formal” or “epistemological idealism”. The modern paradigm of idealism in sense (1) might be considered to be George Berkeley’s “immaterialism”, according to which all that exists are ideas and the minds, less than divine or divine, that have them. (Berkeley himself did not use the term “idealism”.) The fountainhead for idealism in sense (2) might be the position that Immanuel Kant asserted (if not clearly in the first edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) then in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783) and in the “Refutation of Idealism” in the second edition of the Critique) according to which idealism does “not concern the existence of things”, but asserts only that our “modes of representation” of them, above all space and time, are not “determinations that belong to things in themselves” but features of our own minds."

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/idealism/

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    7. OK thanks Andrew. I'm afraid though that the part of your response defending materialism doesn't seem to me to have any relevancy. And your post seems all very confused. Not least of which you seem to be confused about what you're defending. First of all in the first post you say:

      "Because we cannot logically deduce consciousness from particle physics"

      But in the above post you say:

      "How exactly do we know that consciousness cannot be derived from an physical processes?"

      Your first remark equates to you denying reductive materialism (the thesis that the smallest entities explain all things). But then the 2nd remark seems to contradict this. So are you trying to defend reductive materialism, or non-reductive materialism?

      The Higgs boson is just like anything else that is physical -- its reality is exhausted by the totality of its physical properties. Consciousness (qualia and intentionality) are wholly absent any physical properties. Consciousness is qualitative, anything physical is quantitative.

      The claim that consciousness has a location is false. Consciousness cannot be seen, or touched, or measured in any way whatsoever. We think we are in our heads only because that is where we view the world from. In principle, it would be perfectly possible for our brains to be hooked up in such a manner that a robot at some remote location, sending the appropriate signals back, would make it seem to us that we were seeing out of the robots' eyes. Hence it would seem that we were actually there in the robot. And this could be extended to the other senses so that in every way it would seem we are actually where the robot is. If the robot were sufficiently complex we could experience pains when there is damage to the robot, and of course we would regard the destruction of the robot as the destruction of us. But of course we would not literally be in teh robot's body. Likewise we are not literally in our biological bodies.

      Materialism isn't a scientific hypothesis, and hence is not falsifiable in the sense that Popper used it. But of course metaphysical hypotheses might be shown to be false through argumentation.

      Anyway, I've given you my reasons in my previous post as to why I think materialism cannot possibly be correct, and you don't appear to have addressed those reasons. So I don't think this will be a fruitful discussion. But again, thanks for your response.

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    8. "Metaphysical assumptions play an important role in science. In fact, you argue that your idealist philosophy is more "parsimonious" than standard materialism and appeal to Occam’s razor. Why does it matter that theories are parsimonious?"

      See these two statements:
      1. The observable universe is not outside of mind
      2. There exists a material universe outside of mind from which mind emerges

      The first is more parsimonious than the second. Why would this matter? I think that the point becomes clear if we add a few more statements.

      See these statements:
      1. The observable universe is not outside of mind
      2. There exists a material universe outside of mind from which mind emerges
      3. We are living in a simulation within a simulation within a material universe outside of mind.
      4. There exists a material universe outside of mind, and magical unicorns exist in this underlying material universe. These unicorns drive the behaviors of this universe.

      All of these statements are unfalsifiable. Statement #3 only adds complexity to statement #2. Statement #4 is ridiculous and adds a great deal of complexity to statement #2.

      Now, I know that the principle of parsimony must be accepted - but if you see a magician perform a trick that you cannot immediately explain, do you assume that the trick was done without magic, or do you just assume that the trick is magic? Occam's Razor would side against magic. Would you accept the principle of parsimony in that instance? If you do, then why would you not also accept the principle of parsimony in metaphysics? Is there some reason that you can provide for why parsimony should not apply here? I think that by Occam's Razor there is more reason to default to statement #2 than there is to statement #3 or statement #4 - and by the same logic, there is also more reason to default to statement #1 than there is to default to statement #2.

      If you persist in rejecting the principle of parsimony for metaphysics, and you truly believe that all 4 of the above statements are equally probable, then there is no reason to choose any set of metaphysical assumptions over any other set of metaphysical assumptions - no matter how ridiculous, because without Occam's Razor all choice over such sets of assumptions is arbitrary. In this case there is still no reason to default to mainstream physicalism.

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    9. I don't reject the principle of parsimony for metaphysics, but I don't think that there is any reason to choose it other than it's our best hope for getting our metaphysical assumptions right. But we should acknowledge that parsimony is a permanent assumption we make about the world, the mind, nature etc - and crucially we believe this assumption independently of evidence. Therefore, it is actually part of scientific knowledge. Sometimes the simplest theory is not true and science often resists accepting this - recall that Occam's razor does not say make your theories as simple as possible, it just says don't postulate more things than are *necessary*. This is where the idea of explanatory power comes in - all of this I agree with Kastrup on as I understand him.

      To Ian - I don't agree with your claims about consciousness. You are more or less saying that it doesn't exist - kind of like Dennett. The fact that my consciousness seems to be behind my eyes is one of the things any theory of it has to explain - just as Kastrup argues the only thing we know is that we are experiencing. We are also each experiencing from a particular location - I happen to be in Switzerland. If this is illusion and we are all part of some insane simulation - I still want to know why it seems like I am sitting here typing a message about why it seems like I am sitting here typing a...etc.

      However things seem is real - experiences are real. My experience of the location of my consciousness is real - hallucinations are real too. Subjectivity and objectivity might be illusions - but even it is we would then have to explain why we have this illusion - just like your magic trick @Andy.

      I am completely open to the idea that consciousness lies at the bottom of reality, but at the same time the most parsimonious (I use that word without irony) way to explain the astonishing success of natural science over that last two centuries or so is to acknowledge that materialism is correct. Whether reductive, inductive or deductive materialism or whatever.

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    10. OK I'll just make one more post to let people know that of course I believe consciousness exists! I said that consciousness has no literal location. However, we can define location as from a particular visual perspective or point of view. So I am "located" just behind my eyes. But if I had an OBE, and I genuinely was seeing a remote location, then I would be "located" there.

      Secondly, the success of science is due to the fact that the world and the characteristic way it changes, can be described by laws written in the language of mathematics. So it doesn't entail or suggest materialism.

      Of course you might argue that the reason why there are physical laws is precisely because there are mind-independent objects out there which the laws are describing. But why can't the laws be simply describing the patterns in our perceptual experiences?

      But anyway, the bottom line is that even if there is a mind-independent world, we have no idea why its behaviour can be described by physical laws. Do physical laws *govern*, so they have an existence over and above the objects of the world? Or do they simply describe what the world does? But then why does the world behave as it does? Anyway, don't want to go into all this because no one ever understand what the heck I'm talking about!

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    11. I think I do, Ian. Nice blog you have, by the way. I'll be checking it out some more.

      Michael Larkin

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    12. Andrew, are you still here?

      Did you really mean to say that it was the philosophy of physicalism (or as you say, materialism) that led to scientific advances, or the philosophically neutral method of restricting one's experimental focus to the measurable, physical aspects of the world?

      If the second, I can't imagine Bernardo would disagree with you. If the first, could you give a single example of an experiment conducted in the last 4 centuries which benefited from the primarily ***philosophic** doctrine of materialism. I've conducted psychological research, not research in the physical or life sciences, but have had to study all kinds of research as a psychologist. In nearly half century, I've never come across a single study that in any way "required" materialism to assist it to completion.

      But perhaps I've missed something and would be interested to hear what you think.

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    13. Andrew Smart: I think our sense that our consciousness is behind our eyes is culturally constructed. I've read elsewhere (I think it was Owen Barfield, but couldn't pinpoint where) that various non-western peoples locate it elsewhere e.g. in the heart or the stomach.

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  2. great stuff B! would be funnier if it wasn't so tragic... like the neuroscientist who told you you're "confusing [the] significance, beauty and emotional impact of these experiences with something..." What a wonderful trick... let's first postulate there is no such thing as "significance" and "beauty" (just more brain stuff) then scold you for not seeing it.

    Your dismantling of these subtly constructed strawmen is brilliant... but also illustrates how difficult it is to step out of the shadow of materialism.

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    1. Thanks Alex. And yes, it's a tough challenge... The more I go down this road, the clearer it becomes how formidably difficult it is to break through the stigmergy.

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    2. Ah, you're starting to get a feeling of how difficult this is.

      Try attempting to engage in a calm, neutral dialog with a partisan of any political ideology (left, right, up, down, inside-out, whatever). I find it's a good "pick me up" when I start to despair of ever having an intelligent conversation with a confirmed materialist. Seeing the exact same psychological strategies in the convinced Marxist or Libertarian or whatever, as in the materialist/physicalist, suddenly makes the whole thing a bit lighter and more comical to me.

      It becomes much less about the "big project" of bringing a non materialistic view to the world and more an interesting and often quite comical exploration of the many ways the human psyche has developed to ignore what is right in front of its eyes.

      Brings to mind Groucho Marx: "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

      The Self, as Maharshi frequently said, is as clearly evident/existent as a piece of fruit in the palm of your hand.

      And you tell this to a materialist and he says, "Wait, why are you claiming that a green tree is made up of cheese from the moon?"

      And you realize, this is not about engaging in rational discourse, but perhaps, a mental health issue!!

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    3. Also, i love your word - "stigmergy"!!

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    4. Hmm, just went back to reread the essay and this stuck out: In the interest of avoiding misinterpretations and further straw-men, I ask that you pay careful attention to my specific choice of words.


      ***

      The thing is, you're assuming your reader is interested in setting aside their preconceptions and engaging with what you actually say. This also, which is kind of a side issue, presumes the CAPACITY to be aware of one's preconceptions, and the even more advanced capacity to set them aside and look with fresh eyes.

      You may recall the 2002 Nobel Prize went to Kahneman (I forget his associate) who described intricate ways that people filter information through metaphors, prototypes and frames. I find it really fascinating, when trying to understand how people can continue to make up straw man arguments in regard to what I'm saying, to at times set aside my frustration and shift from trying to explain yet once again what I'm doing, to a more detached analysis and exploration of the frames they're using.

      Sometimes it can be interesting to keep trying to draw the person back to a meta conversation, away from the topic at hand, attempting to actually address the frames the person is using. I would say it usually fails, but at times, it succeeds, and it's often stunning (in a way, this is what all good psychotherapy is about, by the way - most people who are having difficulty in life are viewing themselves, others and the world through dysfunctional frames, prototypes, etc and have no idea they're doing so. When they start to become aware of it, if it is brought to their attention skillfully, the most profound liberation results - and this is just on the ordinary, psychological level - the same happens much more profoundly on the spiritual level but that's another topic).

      Well, my hat is off to you, Bernardo, for persisting through this. I hope you can relax and enjoy the journey, as parts of it will only get harder as the straw man fallacies continue to mount. Good luck!!

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    5. In my experience, any attempt to "address their frames" in the case of materialists always fails. They invariably will claim the "high ground" there, deny that they have any such "frames," at all, and will then dump them all back on you (while blanketing themselves in the scientific method), all while bleating mindlessly about the lack of evidence for whatever the surface topic is about.

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  3. Makes sense to me. For some time now I've seen the brain as "conductor"/"incapacitate" (I'm not an electrician) that actually reduces rather than increases whatever the hell "intelligence" is.

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    1. Huxley's good old idea, which actually originated with William James...

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    2. I believe it was Frederick Myers who originated the filter idea? But am not sure.....

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  4. >An ontology that rejects this reality, instead of making sense of it, is a meaningless and useless ontology.

    And in its meaninglessness, it is cumulatively destructive and anti-life. Ontologies have mounting consequences over time. They underlie societies reward systems and thus encourage and justify certain kinds of behaviors. The mounting cruelty, nihilism and militarism of the post 19th century science, and society in general is a direct result of Materialism. All those things have always existed, but before materialism we at least knew they were wrong. Im preaching to choir, but it cant be said to often.

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    1. I sympathize with this, Bob, though barbarism has been with us always, often condoned by religious institutions.

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    2. yes, but as I pointed this is the crucial difference:

      "All those things have always existed, but before materialism we at least knew they were wrong."

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  5. Hi Bernado, Could you please give some explanation as to recent claims by neuroscientist's regarding their ability to use electrical stimulation to cause patients to have out of body experiences, less belief in god etc, and the ability to bring back memories

    "MIT researchers have shown, for the first time ever, that memories are stored in specific brain cells. By triggering a small cluster of neurons, the researchers were able to force the subject to recall a specific memory. By removing these neurons, the subject would lose that memory."

    "The main significance here is that we finally have proof that memories (engrams, in neuropsychology speak) are physical rather than conceptual"

    A similar review of these types of findings from a non materialist perspective would be much appreciated thanks again .

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    1. Hamish, it's hard for me to point each reader to specific material. Having made this disclaimer, your questions are answered in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The part about physical intervention in the brain is tackled in essay 2,2, specifically page 31. Memory is discussed in essay 3.3, pages 70-79. The discussion includes the claims about memories having been found in the brain (pages 71-72). Cheers, B.

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    2. "MIT researchers have shown, for the first time ever, that memories are stored in specific brain cells. By triggering a small cluster of neurons, the researchers were able to force the subject to recall a specific memory. By removing these neurons, the subject would lose that memory."

      How do the 2nd and 3rd sentences justify the claim made in the first sentence? How do they know that removing the neurons doesn't merely render the memories inaccessible rather than having been deleted? Personally I think the notion that memories are stored is incoherent. Read this:
      http://userpages.umbc.edu/~braude/ftp/pages/pdfs_pubd/braude--Memory%20Without%20a%20Trace.pdf

      Supposing we could use electrical stimulation to cause people to have OBE's (and it's unclear that they can), why would this suggest that OBEs are hallucinatory? Are the memories brought back by such stimulation real memories? If so then why wouldn't the OBE be real too?

      Doesn't stimulation of the brain cause greater belief in God rather than reduce such a belief? I suggest that when we are embodied the brain acts as a reducing valve or “filter” which severely curtails the range of consciousness. Arguably this would serve the useful purpose of filtering out the perception of other realities and other conscious states which are not necessary, or which hinder our ability to function in this physical reality. But obviously if the brain is stimulated in some way this may allow the perception of such realities.

      On the other hand if stimulation of the brain *reduces* belief in God, that might be unexpected if the brain doesn't produce consciousness.

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    3. This shows that memories may somehow be accessed but certainly not stored in the brain. For instance they sure can't just look at brain cells and say "Oh yeah here's your memory of your first motorcycle ride" they would have to ask the person and get a subjective reply before they could know anything. Also what is the difference between one "small cluster" of neurons and another? I don't think there are any physical differences that would objectively show that one memory is here in this cluster and another there int hat cluster. Also memories involve visual, auditory, smell, feel, taste, thought and emotional impressions. How could these possibly be digitized and stored in the brain? It takes billions of bits to store an image in computer memory and I can't conceive of any way to digitize an emotion! A small cluster of cells does not have the ability to represent all this information. If anything the study shows that memory is non-physical.

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    4. I agree, tjs. In "Brief Peeks Beyond", Bernardo says, "the real question, of course, is: how does the brain know which neurons to activate during recall".

      I've often wondered this, particularly when watching a violinist during a complicated concerto, which involves so-called "muscle memory", too. It's truly miraculous.

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    5. Hamish quotes: "MIT researchers have shown, for the first time ever, that memories are stored in specific brain cells. By triggering a small cluster of neurons, the researchers were able to force the subject to recall a specific memory. By removing these neurons, the subject would lose that memory."

      Imagine the brain as like a streaming device that can access certain broadcast information. Just because one can click on the 'play button' (here, analogous to triggering a cluster of brain neurons), located in a particular area on a computer screen, and the device then starts playing a Netflix show, does not in anyway prove that 'House of Cards' is somehow stored in the computer. It simply stimulates the computer to start streaming a specific broadcast of information that does not originate within the device. Likewise, if the 'play button' is removed from the screen, not surprisingly, the device can't be induced to start streaming the show. Where one's experiential 'show' exists, regardless of whether or not it's in the form of memories, is not locatable in time and space, which are just another aspect of the show -- all of it being created and broadcast by consciousness, which seems everywhere and nowhere, at once.

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    6. The MIT memory research you're referring to I believe involves conditioned fear responses in mice, which is largely behavioral and unconscious. Far different from (human) declarative memory, which has never been localized and in fact is correlated with large amounts of brain areas becoming activated during retrieval. This is why individuals can have large portions of their brains excised and not lose long term declarative memory - if it is "stored" in any sense, it is stored throughout the entire cortex. As others have said, however, when memory is seemingly "lost" this reflects an issue of retrieval. The above paper someone cited by Stephen Braude is a good read, also Principals of Neuroscience by Bennett and Hacker's chapter on memory - both explain why the notion of the brain "storing" memory, like a filing cabinet, is actually very misguided. You can remain a materialist and reject the view of the brain as a storage of memory (like Bennett and Hacker, and on Enactive views of cognitive science).

      The "OBE" stimulation study by Olof Blanke: I've read the actual research article as well as several rebuttals to it. Based on the patient's report, it is clear that what Blanke et al. produced was a trivial bodily illusion that only superficially resembled spontaneous OBEs. There are many subjective discrepancies between the two types of "OBEs" (that is, the one reported by Blanke's patient undergoing stimulation, and the classic spontaneous OBEs that occur during a variety of circumstances), and what's happened is that Blanke and the popular press have conflated these two quite different experiences - they are just not equivalent phenomenologically.

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  6. Ben, one thing to keep in mind, if you talk to a musician - particularly one who improvises - is that there are many different kinds of memory.

    I know many composers who trained themselves to compose away from the piano, for fear that "muscle memory" would lead them to compose too mechanically. I know when I compose music at or away from the piano, it's a very different "memory" that I call on. When I'm performing classical music by "memory", there are a whole host of systems at play - part of it is muscle memory, part of it visual (i'm seeing parts of the pages of music) and part of it is aural. There's even conceptual memory. Once, performing a 26 minute Prokofiev piano sonata, I had a complete memory blackout - about 5 minutes in. I improvised for the next minute and somehow got through it, but the way I got through it was by very consciously keeping in mind the kinds of harmonies that Prokofiev would use, filling them in with my own notes, and also literally "figuring out" what chords would most likely jog my memory for the correct notes.

    When improvising it's even more complicated. you rely partly on muscle memory, but you may also be using imagery, emotions, analysis of harmonies, and all kinds of other combinations of internal processing to come up with the notes. I often notice shifts from left brain to right brain processing and back, and sometimes a really startling integration of the two, when I'm composing or improvising (this isn't usually quite as noticeable when playing a classical piece, which doesn't require as much moment to moment inner mindfulness - my attention is more on the physical action of playing with classical music).

    This is a whole area to be explored. i might mention that consistently over more than a half century, musicians have been shown to be particularly good psi subjects. I suspect it's something about spending so much of your time with something that is "invisible" and also which often inspires very deep, internal awareness of a kind not so much valued by our present civilization.

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  7. "...under materialism, an increase in the richness/intensity of experience must still be accompanied by an increase in the metabolism associated with the NCCs, for subjective experiences are supposedly constituted by the NCCs...."

    I understand the subtly of this point, and I deny this formula. Materialism is not committed to this a priori prediction; the correlation of subjective intensity of experience to neural metabolism is an empirical question. Can you not see any mechanisms by which materialism could absorb a lack of correlation between intensity of experience and metabolism? As I commented elsewhere, though it may be counter-intuitive, baseline consciousness could inherently require more energy in order to constrain the repertoire of possible brain states. Mundane consciousness is very stable--is low entropy--across time and is highly predictable. Do you not see how this maintenance could require a great deal of energy in order to drive a state of low overall entropy within the systems of the brain? Add a psychedelic, and the constraints on the set of possible brain states are relaxed; there are more degrees of freedom within this repertoire, and the use of energy is tuned down. Experience is less predictable and more disordered.

    "...only increased metabolism can create that broader information space in the physical substrate of the brain...."

    Respectfully, I think your language here is rather unclear, and as I have argued above, the opposite relation, namely the possibility that decreased metabolism could give rise to a broader "information space" is totally allowed by materialism.

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  8. Alan, the only way your argument is tenable is if you want to hold out hope that our current brain scanning technology is too crude to pick up the actual NCCs that MUST be there for materialism to hold up. That may have been possible 40 years ago, but seems unlikely at this point. For example, it's possible that the NCCs actually happen way down on the quantum level in the microtubules as Hammeroff/Penrose have suggested, but then the materialist still needs to explain why the complete absence of the higher level signalling in psychedelic states, signalling that seems to serve perfectly well as NCCs in everyday waking consciousness. I don't think you will find Kastrup anywhere saying this sort of argument disproves materialism. It's merely highly suggestive that materialism is inadequate for explaining all of experience (the psychedelic states particularly).

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