Novella's reply, part 3

(The positions I defend below have been much more extensively, precisely and clearly argued in some of my academic papers.)

Neuroscientists evaluating fMRI images. Image source: Wikipedia.

Continuing on with the discussion, Steven Novella's latest response can be found here. In the interest of brevity, in what follows I will focus on the key points of contention, leaving out the parts where I guess we simply agree to disagree, and the less significant parts where we may actually be close to an agreement of sorts. My focus on the points of contention should not be interpreted as a sign that I don't want to acknowledge convergence anywhere; I just think that debating contentious points is much more productive, useful, and interesting.
Prior PET studies did show increases in brain activity with psilocybin.
Which was tentatively, yet cogently, explained in the Carhart-Harris study in question: "It is therefore possible that phasic or short-term effects of psilocybin show some rebound that is detected by longer-term changes in glucose metabolism." In other words, what the PET studies showed was not the effect of psilocybin, but a later rebound in metabolism. One should keep in mind that, unlike in the PET study Novella is referring to, in the Carhart-Harris study patients were in the scanner while the drug was being administered, which leaves little room for doubt on the timeline.
These experiences are only “intense” because they are so unreal. This does not require increased neuronal firing.
The fallacy here is that Novella talks merely of 'intensity,' while conveniently ignoring the other hallmarks of psychedelic experiences: Their structure, coherence, unfathomable complexity, and the fact that they are often described as "more real than real." (see Rick Strassman's study at the University of New Mexico's School of Medicine, described in his book The Spirit Molecule). Novella is creating a straw-man by subtly, yet massively, under-characterizing the experience, and then casually explaining such under-characterization away. By implying that it's all about mere 'intensity,' he makes it all sound so innocent, while in reality the phenomenology he is taking upon himself to explain embodies the very peak of human conscious experience. Psychedelic trances, alongside mystical experiences, are well-known to entail the apotheosis of subjective experience in all its qualities and nuances: visual, auditory, tactile, cognitive, emotional, syntactical, logical, etc. Such peak experiences are what Novella has to explain without availing himself of extra neuronal firings; not merely an 'intense' experience. So let's make sure that we understand what we are talking about here, and not fall for this little semantic ploy.

In a study at Johns Hopkins (the actual paper is better than this link, but behind a paywall), researchers found that 71% of the volunteers described a psilocybin experience as the top, or among the top five, most spiritually significant of their lives. To get a taste for how volunteers describe psilocybin trances, have a look at a few reports at Erowid's experience vault. The video below may also help: Even though the substance used was DMT, the latter is very similar to psilocybin both chemically and phenomenologically.

After you've taken all this in, consider this: What Novella is saying is that all these peak experiences can occur without increased neuronal firing, and still be consistent with the materialist paradigm. Apparently, according to Novella, increased neuronal firing is not required for the brain to construct, starting for an ordinary baseline, extremely complex, coherent, populated 'worlds,' wherein volunteers undergo life-times of life-changing, complex, coherent experiences. If it's true that extra neuronal firings are not needed for this, one is then forced to wonder: What, then, are neuronal firings needed for? If the construction of an entire alternative mental universe can be accomplished by the brain without extra firings, why do we ever see the brain produce extra firings, and therefore spend more energy, for anything at all? An fMRI would be a useless tool in this case: It would always measure the same, static, unchanging baseline, whatever one is doing... after all, why spend more metabolism to do something that can be done with less? You see, if the brain can produce such peak phenomenology as a psychedelic 'trip' without extra neuronal firings, we might as well abandon neuronal firings as the physiological mechanism behind subjective experience, which defeats Novella's flavor of materialism. So, ironically enough, Novella's explanation is actually a liability for the mainstream interpretation of how the brain generates the mind. I guess Stuart Hameroff would find all this very interesting. (for the record, I don't subscribe to most of Hameroff's ideas)

But wait; that's not all. We know that the mere clenching of a hand in a regular dream increases neuronal firings in a way that is clearly visible with an fMRI, the same instrument used in the psilocybin study. So I ask you: How come extra neuronal firings are needed to produce the dull dreamed-up experience of clenching a hand, while they are not needed to produce the supposedly dreamed-up, peak experience of going to 'other universes,' interacting with 'entities,' transcending time and space, gaining deep understanding of 'hyper-dimensional' geometry, cognition, and universal history and telos?

Novella's position here simply doesn't add up; it's contradictory and defies reason. Where is Novella's renowned common-sense and skepticism when it comes to his own speculations?
Kastrup argues that if the above explanation were true, then we would expect one of three things: First, we may see increased activity in the disinhibited areas of the brain. This is not necessarily the case, however. The activity might be the same, but since it is no longer being modulated and modified by reality testing centers the net experience can be very different.
Here Novella is rejecting the first of the three scenarios I offered him. So far so good, since I believe all three scenarios are untenable. By rejecting the first he is still on the same page with me. Next, he makes a little intermezzo to talk about another topic:
Also – to clarify a point I made in my previous reply to Kastrup – I was not arguing that proportionality never exists when looking at brain function. My point was that proportionality does not necessarily exist in every case, and so the absense of proportionality does not break materialist correlation. There certainly is increased brain activity correlating with increased subjective mental activity, but this simple magnitude correlation does not hold when we are talking about the interaction among the various brain regions.
Though the comment above is a little vague and evasive, I construe from it that Novella actually thinks proportionality holds in principle, but is not easily measurable because of other dynamics taking place concurrently and which conflate in the final fMRI pictures. This was my original position, so he may actually be agreeing with me here. Let me unpack my thinking a bit more to see if we are indeed in agreement: As Novella explained, the materialist paradigm entails that consciousness is a physiological process in the brain. Therefore, materialists need to determine what specific physiological process is conscious experience (let's label it the 'consciousness process'). Once that is pinned down, proportionality, of course, must apply fully: If consciousness is the physiological process in question, all qualities of subjective experience must map onto measurable properties of the consciousness process; because they are the same thing. Of course, myriad other processes that also have a metabolic fingerprint may interfere and become intertwined with the 'consciousness process' through e.g. inhibition, which is why Novella denies (the ability to measure) proportionality at a more global and conflated level. If my interpretation here is correct, I'm absolutely fine with this.

Now, based on earlier comments of his, Novella seems to assume that the consciousness process is linked to, and dependent upon, neuronal firings. Indeed, when he earlier argued that psychedelic trances did not require "increased neuronal firings," he was implicitly linking subjective experience to neuronal firings. This way, Novella's position can be stated as following: There can be no conscious experience without associated neuronal firings (although that doesn't mean that neuronal firings are sufficient for consciousness, which is clearly not the case). For a neuron to fire, excitatory synaptic potentials must carry its action potential beyond the firing threshold; i.e. there can be no firings without excitatory processes. Therefore, I construe from all this that Novella in fact agrees with the following statement of my previous post: "...subjective experience is proportional to the intensity of the corresponding excitatory processes (for a given, constant level of inhibition, so the inhibition variable can be isolated)."

Now, if this is indeed true, I am yet more baffled that Novella believes that psychedelic 'trips' do not require, under materialism, extra neuronal firings when compared to the baseline activity. After all: (a) neuronal firings are metabolic gas-guzzlers that do show up clearly in an fMRI; and (b), as discussed above, psychedelic experiences must be associated with the neuronal firings of their corresponding excitatory processes. So where are these processes? Here Novella attempts the explanation under the second one of my three scenarios: is not unreasonable that, in essence, fantasies are going on in the background all the time. Our brains are pattern recognition machines, and there is a vibrant internal conversation going on within our brains all the time.
It sounds so reasonable at first sight, doesn't it? But make no mistake: What Novella is suggesting here is that the excitatory processes that supposedly correspond to the full-force of a peak psychedelic experience are playing out all the time in our brains. You may need some time to grok the full implication of this: What other people describe as the top experience of their lives, something they can hardly put in words and which changes their perspective on reality for life, is supposedly happening within your brain right now, as you read this; you just don't notice it. What for? Why? What evolutionary advantage could this have? Subconscious noise I can understand, but coherent, complex, unfathomable storylines playing out unconsciously and wasting metabolic energy all the time, for no reason? Well-constructed, consistent, otherworldly stories that the brain goes through the trouble of building and 'telling' even though there's 'nobody listening'? Well, I'll let you be the judge of that. But mind you this: There is no positive, objective evidence that Novella's promissory speculation here holds any water, so the only criterion of judgment is your reason and common-sense.

Now Novella moves on to address my third scenario: That, by some mysterious hypothetical mechanism, the inhibitions caused by the drug somehow lead subconscious 'noise' to coalesce in the form of a structured, complex, coherent peak experience, and yet without altering the metabolic signature of the original 'noise.' So the two key points that need to be tackled under this third scenario are: (a) What is this hypothetical mechanism that turns neuronal noise into coherent, peak (don't forget this; we're talking peak experiences here) narratives for no reason? And (b) How can such unfathomable phenomenological shift in experience be accomplished without any measurable change in the corresponding metabolic signature given that, according to Novella, experience is metabolism? He then writes:
I think Kastrup vastly underestimates the subconscious “noise” that is going on in the brain during normal activity.  There is a large amount of both psychological and neuroscientific evidence for the conclusion that there is a great deal of subconscious processing, including generating lots of noise. We attend demonstrably to a very small portion of this activity. Our brains select small portions of both sensory input and our internal communication to weave into a highly constructed narrative we experience as our stream of consciousness. Altering this stream significantly without changing overall brain activity makes perfect sense.
This is the full explanation he gives; His next paragraph is just more of the usual (and entertaining, I might add) mud-throwing aimed at me; So everything he has to say about the third scenario is in the quote above. Pause for a moment... Take a look at the quote again...

...Did you notice it?

He doesn't even attempt to tackle either of the two key points. He only states what I had already not only acknowledged but volunteered myself: That there is subconscious noise; well, "a great deal" of it. Duh. He simply repeats the framing of the scenario and ends with the unsubstantiated pronouncement that it all "makes perfect sense." This may be satisfactory to Novella, but certainly not to me.

So, in summary, Novella argues that my own second and third scenarios could actually be the explanation for the Carhart-Harris psilocybin results. But in doing so, he fails to address the reasons why I had rejected all three scenarios to begin with. Perhaps he's explained it all to his own satisfaction, but in that case I take the liberty to be a little more critical and skeptical. Either way, his explanations are merely tentative and promissory speculation, but that's okay. The real problem is that Novella creates, under both scenarios, a straw-man for the phenomenology he took upon himself to explain: Psychedelic trances are not merely intense experiences; they are the peak experiences in the world of human consciousness. By suggesting that such apotheosis of subjectivity can happen without a measurable delta in neuronal firings w.r.t. an ordinary baseline, Novella is actually flirting with shooting at materialism: If neuronal firings are not necessary to explain peak experiences, what are they necessary for as far as providing ontological grounding for consciousness? Without realizing it, Novella is, in a way, making my own point.


  1. Without knowing the coding scheme, it is not possible to determine if more activity means something more complex or something less complex. You are using white lettering on a black background. Black lettering on a white background would use more energy to display. Is there more “activity” using black lettering on a white background because more energy is being consumed? This is the analogy you are trying to use. The information content of lettering is independent of the color used to display those letters on a screen. Imagining that there should be a proportionality between energy consumption and information content or complexity of information is not correct.

    The most complex signal is random noise. Random noise is the one signal that cannot be compressed at all. Any other signal has some order, some structure to it and can be compressed by taking out the redundancy.

    The problem with fMRI is that it is an extremely crude measurement. Yes, it makes pretty pictures, but those pictures are deceiving. Nerves fire one at a time (mostly). fMRI shows “activity” (not really activity, what is shows is differential blood flow” in a volume element. That differential blood flow precedes neuronal firing.

    The brain has about a hundred billion neurons each with about 10,000 connections. fMRI measures the relative blood flow in a volume element that contains many neurons and many connections. Typical voxel size is a few mm on a side. 2x2x2 mm is 0.008 mL. The human brain has a volume of 1200 mL. Thus fMRI can only measure the brain in about 150,000 spots. In each spot being measured there are ~600,000 neurons and about 6 billion connections. Is a single measurement of a volume element a fair measurement of what is going on with 6 billion connections?

    Imagining that human consciousness can be mapped with 150,000 data points is nonsensical. No one who studies neurology thinks such a thing. That is what you are doing by positing that fMRI images are able to tell us a great deal about consciousness. They are simply not high enough resolution.

    1. Your thoughts on information content are interesting and I don't disagree with them. But they are generic and vague w.r.t. to this specific point of discussion. The bottom-line is this: Materialists have to pin down what physiological process _is_ conscious experience. Novella suggests that it is neuronal firings. That pretty much settles it as far as the entire discussion around information content: neuronal firings _are_ the psychedelic experience. So where are they?

      The skepticism about fMRI is a point well-taken. But we have to be consistent then: Many of the modern neuroscience results that are used to declare materialism the final explanation for the mind-body problem are carried out with fMRIs. So if we abandon one study on that account, we must abandon them all. All this said, the psilocybin study in question had extensive protocols to deal with the uncertainties associated with fMRIs: they measured both BOLD and ALS signals and ensured they were correlated; they also used metabolic models as a sanity check.

    2. No, you are either being silly, or disingenuous. What fMRI shows is data. You want to interpret the data to mean that intensity of experience is proportional to intensity of fMRI signals. The only way to actually determine that is by observation, does intensity of experience correlate with fMRI signals?

      Your hypothesis that fMRI intensity does correlate with subjective experience intensity is shown to be not correct. Simply because the data does not fit your hypothesis does not mean that the data does not fit other hypotheses or that the data is unreliable. It simply doesn't show what you want it to show.

      The materialist hypothesis is that there will be a correspondence between brain activity and subjective experience. It says nothing about what that correspondence will be. It is to be expected that the correspondence will be beyond our ability to measure (at the present time) because our instruments do not have the resolution to measure brain states with sufficient precision to identify all the degrees of freedom. It is also very likely that the correspondence will be idiosyncratic. Just as each brain is unique, so to the correspondence between that unique brain and the unique experiences of that brain would likely be unique also.

      I am not saying we should abandon the psilocybin study because fMRI is unreliable, fMRI is not unreliable, it simply doesn't show what you want it to show.

      Let me phrase it another way. Because you assume that intensity of experience must be positively correlated with some kind of “mental activity”, then if there is a subjective intense experience without intense brain activity, that there must be “mental activity” elsewhere that is not measurable to make up the difference. The problem with this chain of “logic” is in your premise that intensity of experience must correlate with intensity of some kind of activity.

      Does using a different font change the “intensity” of a message? Does using all caps correlate with computer activity? If computer activity doesn't change when a message is displayed in all caps, does that mean there is some immaterial computer activity elsewhere to make up the difference?

    3. I personally find your comments a little confused. So I'll stick by my article as it is now. You can have a look at the next two follow-ups too, if it helps. I elaborate more explicitly on my position on those follow-up articles, including on the issues you seem to be attempting to bring up above. Thanks for commenting, B.

  2. It is completely arbitrary to select hallucinations or feelings of spirituality and declare them to be the peak of human consciousness. That is entirely your distinction, Bernardo, without substantiation.

    Why would you decide a psychedelic hallucination is more of a peak of human consciousness than, say, Isaac Newton concentrating for hours on the physics of moving bodies? Who is experiencing a higher state of consciousness - an oxygen-deprived person feeling closer to God, or Stephen Hawking contemplating the quantum mechanics of an event horizon? You can freak a spider out on LSD, but you'll never get it to write a sonnet.

    You select hallucinations over cognition because it supports your theory, not because it is logical. But I think you've selected a pretty degrading and depressing standard for the "peak" of human conscious experience.

    Enthusiasts of endurance sports like climbing and long distance cycling will often report feelings of spirituality or of a ghostly presence as they reach states of extreme exhaustion. Experience tells them that it is the effect of the stress on their bodies and brains.

    It seems to me that the height of HUMAN consciousness is when those same people maintain focus, keep the rational parts of their brains in charge, set aside the hallucinations, and continue to their goals.

    You've made an assumption that hallucinations are the peak ("we're talking PEAK here") of human conscious experience. Remove that arbitrary assumption, and your argument collapses.

    1. There is nothing arbitrary to my characterization, in the sense that it is the characterization reported in the Johns Hopkins study I referenced. But that aside, you can judge for yourself: have a look at the references I provided of people's reports of psychedelic experiences at e.g. Erowid; or have a look at the full video I linked.
      Did you ever have a psychedelic experience?

    2. There is no question that these people had profound experiences. I did not question that in the least, and you know I didn't. That's not remotely the point.

      The point is that you've arbitrarily decided that such an experience must result in increased brain activity visible to fMRI. But we didn't develop these big brains because of the evolutionary benefits of hallucinations and spiritual awakenings. The evolutionary advantage of the oversized, energy-hungry brains are from reasoning and cognition. Those are what make the brain work hard.

      No, I've never dropped acid or tried shrooms. I'm sure it's great fun. I'm sure the mind-expanding high from whipits or the heightened sexual experience from autoerotic asphyxiation are also profound experiences.

      But I wouldn't for a second think that they represent a hard-working brain.

      You've started with an invalid assumption, and you've turned it into a supernatural (and conveniently un-falsifiable) theory. That's certainly your right, but it is still a failure of logic and therefore an unconvincing argument at its core.

    3. Rick, my reply to your comment is the post itself; the one you are commenting one. I think that, in it, I sufficiently address all the points you bring up. I expect you to disagree with this; and that's OK with me. Thanks for commenting; I appreciate your interest and I hope you keep on coming back even after the 'Novela' wraps up at some point ;-). Gr, B.

    4. By the way, I also don't think for a second that psychedelic, hyper-ventilation, or asphyxiation trances represent a hard-working _brain_... I think they represent a hard-working _mind_ partially and temporarily freed from the brain. Gr, B. PS: I'm going to sleep now, so will approve upcoming comments tomorrow morning my time, in a few hours.

    5. LOL... And here I thought a hard working mind was one that is thinking, composing, producing, or navigating complex social situations.

      A hallucinating, drug-influenced mind is not working, it is at play.

      And how do people achieve such mind-expanding experiences without drugs or oxygen-deprivation? They learn how to relax the mind without putting it to sleep. It's called meditation. It's what happens when you shut down the thinking and controlling parts of your MIND and let the sensations take control.

      In other words, these profound spiritual feelings and visions are what you get when you turn OFF parts of your "mind".

      Haven't you ever wondered why psychedelic art, while full of unique visual imagery, lacks any social or emotional depth?

      With the amazing things that humans have achieved, it is so depressing to think there are people here who think that shroom-induced visions are the peak of the human mind.

      A simple change of the definition of "peak" - to reflect the height of what separates the human mind from the mind of animals - and your theory collapses.

    6. Having a degree in physics and having done mushrooms in college ... I think I can safely say, the shrooms resulted in a more intense experience, lol.

    7. Rick, I respect your opinion. Yet I can' shake off the realization that you simply do not know what you are talking about. Gr, B.

  3. I can assure you Bernardo, that he has not had such an experience otherwise he wouldn't make such idiotic statements. I've had about 5 such experiments, and i can certainly attest to the notion that it is a peak experience and one of immense spiritual value and hightened cognition. knowing of the John Hopkins study ahead of time, I was astounded by the fact that if i had been in an fmri that there would be no measurable increases in cerebral activity, but rather decreases. the materialist fantasy simply doesn't hold up to explain the phenomenology of the experience

    1. You experienced heightened cognition?


      You were better able to learn a new language? Your verbal and written communication was more effective? The things you said were more influential to the sober people around you? You were better able to navigate complex social interactions? You were better able to track, hunt, provide for your family? You were better at logic and math? You were better at winning arguments? You were more fit to educate your offspring so that they would be successful in the world?

      Those are the jobs of a hard working mind. Please tell me, if your drug so improved the ability of your mind to do work, why doesn't everybody take it?

      Or is it perhaps that your drug did for your mind what a professional massage and a hot tub does for your body? Profound, yes - "hard-working", no.

      There is zero reason to think that shutting down cognition and allowing your mind to experience only uncontrolled sensation represents a more active mental state. Quite the contrary.

      The psilocybin results are completely consistent with a materialist mind - a mind that is completely the product of the physical mechanisms of brain and body.

    2. Rick, this rant is soooo _not_ objective.

    3. I've always found this this argument to be a bit perplexing. Babies are profound in that their brains "lights" up more often than adults. Babies have more neurological connections than adults.

      But as we get older, we (adults) tend to cut down our connections in that we are more narrow minded in sensing the world than babies.

      If we assume that all neurons are created equal, it would be awkward for adults to be able to think in more complicated terms than babies. Thus we must assume that depression or loss of neurological activity does not always equate to loss of cognitive thinking.

      Otherwise adults would be considered a bunch of idiots compared to babies

  4. Bernardo,

    I have to admit, that I do have some sympathy for the accusation that these experiences you allude to must necessarily be given the label "peak". Full disclosure: I've never had anything like them, and I do realize that some things simply transcend being grasped from a purely conceptual basis, and that to fully understand them one has to go through it oneself. However, there is a legitimate point to be made that, what you are calling a "peak experience" is, certainly in a non trivial way, merely VERY DIFFERENT, and it should be noted that anything VERY DIFFERENT, is apt to disproportionately influence someone's judgment about its significance.

    In other words, you (and others) might be conflating intensity/quantity(in the all around sense you described), with just a very alien difference/quality, such that the neurological explanation whereby a reduction in the reality testing sections of the brain would result in a very DIFFERENT experience would make perfect sense, and account for this difference in quality, without contradicting the general correlations between mind and brain. In short, it does seem you are presupposing a built in proportionality spectrum arbitrarily, you need to justify it somehow (although I will admit the best one can rely on in justifying this is the testimony of others if one hasn't been in such a state oneself. I mean don't you think it would make sense that the reality testing functions of the brain would correlate highly with excitatory activity, but a VERY Different experience though subjectively shocking might correlate with less?

    Having said that, however, I must also admit that I find other parts of Novella's explanation somewhat evasive of the deeper issues, I mean one might reasonably suppose that there would be some sort of proportionality to conscious experience and brain activity, and therefore some sort of metric from highest to lowest, no? Don't we observe correlations of this sort all over nature, isn't that why we can have mathematical laws in the first place, because we can relate variables mathematically such that it results in the development of an actual relationship of some sort? If Novella and Co are claiming to deny that there should be no metric at all, I find this rather strange, since I would imagine most phenomena must have SOME sort of identifiable quantifiable relationship, and identifying so called "mystical experiences" as being towards the positive side of this spectrum is at least a candidate proposition open for further discussion. However, if Novella and others are claiming we don't need ANY sort of process with which brain activity MUST be correlated with, then I can't but feel that they must be engaging in the very activity you mentioned in a previous article; namely, failing to clearly delineate what, precisely, the materialist correlative hypothesis actually is. At least, your hypothesis is in principle falsifiable if further study secures tighter correlations between mind and brain, such that there are really no, for lack of a better word, disembodied experiences. As things stand now, I don't know what would falsify the materialist hypothesis? If not a break in the excitatory correlations, then what? Since it is completely useless to say that one's hypothesis is merely: there will be correlations of some sort. This goes without saying!

  5. Btw, I suppose I should mention that, I do consider that hard problem non-trivial. In fact, I think it's probably a lot thornier than most people, materialist, and ant-materialist alike, tend to let on. I certainly don't think that materialism has provided a good answer as of yet, though neither has anyone else as far as I can tell; at least, none that seem definitive. It looks like we're all pretty much dead in the water to me.

    Anyway, take this long splurge as a way of introducing myself. I've been following your blog for the last little while, and I do really enjoy it. There is no scarcity of food for thought around here.


  6. Bernardo, have you contacted the scientists who conducted the psilocybin experiment and asked what they think is going on?

    1. No, I don't want to put them in this philosophically-interpretative position (I wouldn't want to be put in this position if I were them). In my view, they should stay neutral and focus on the objectivity of the results of their experiments, otherwise they will be accused of bias; of trying to tilt the results one way or the other. They already took quite a leap in the paper itself by explicitly endorsing Aldous Huxley's "reduction valve" view of the brain; the so-called "mind at large" hypothesis.

  7. how about challenging Novella to drop acid and then see if he still has the same worldview after several trips? surely he will not turn this down since it is in the name of science. :)


  8. Novella has replied with an addendum to his earlier post. Also, you don't reply to his earlier criticism of the modulation hypothesis:

    "Non-materialists often dismiss this as mere correlation, but that is not fair, in my opinion. The correlation is incredible, and predictive. To give just one more example, synaesthesia is the phenomenon of different sensory modalities mixing together, so synaesthetes will smell color or perhaps perceive numbers as having a physical texture. There is evidence for more robust neural connections and activity between the relevant brain areas in synaesthetes. That is a pretty compelling neural correlate.

    Further still, the arrow of temporal correlation, which should go from cause to effect, seems to go from brain activity to subjective experience. Studies so far show brain firing happening prior to awareness of the subjective state." Care to respond?


    1. Hi Michael,
      I will react to Novella's addendum in the main blog shortly. Regarding the correlations, logically-speaking every single correlation (with the right timing to be consistent with causation) can just as well explained by the modulation hypothesis as it is by the causation hypothesis. Novella acknowledges this when he says that "the problem, from a scientific point of view, is that the notion that the brain modulates consciousness becomes operationally inseparable from the notion that the brain causes consciousness." The problem he has with this is not that modulation is explanatorily weak, but that it is a hypothesis difficult to falsify. Yet, I replied to that to, pointing out that modulation and causation make different predictions when it comes to non-ordinary, uncorrelated states of mind.

      All this said, the idea of a fixed arrow of time is disputed in physics. There are serious physical theories that talk of backward causation. But I know that if I use this as an argument I will be considered an obscurantist, evasive, desperate, etc. So I leave this out and bite the bullet.

      Gr, B.

    2. "Further still, the arrow of temporal correlation, which should go from cause to effect, seems to go from brain activity to subjective experience. Studies so far show brain firing happening prior to awareness of the subjective state." Care to respond?"

      Imagine two subjective states. Numerically let's say 0 is "very calm" and 100 is "very angry".

      To go from calm to angry is not instantaneous. It is a process that occurs as 0 moves towards 100. If the transition from calm to angry is at 3 out of 100, I might not feel angry, but there could be neuronal signals that you could pick up that could tell you that I am heading towards anger that might precede my subjective realization of anger. This does not disprove the idea that the brain is the modulator for consciousness - the neuronal firing is merely reacting to a change occurring in my consciousness as a move towards anger.

    3. Hi Anduin,
      From the perspective of my idealist ontology, this isn't a problem. In my view, the non-egoic (i.e. non 'conscious') parts of brain activity, as well as the rest of physical body, are images of our personal 'unconscious' minds. They are also in mind, because there is nowhere else for them to be. The 'unconscious' is simply an obfuscated part of consciousness ( As such, brain activity that is an image of 'unconscious' (i.e. obfuscated) mental processes is not recognized by the subject as 'conscious.' But once it penetrates the field of egoic self-reflectiveness it becomes fully conscious. This doesn't represent a transition from not-mind to mind, but from obfuscated-mind to non-obfuscated-mind. It isn't evidence for materialism, since it is expected and natural under my formulation of idealism as well.
      Cheers, B.

    4. Thanks for the response Bernardo. I was trying to say something similar to MickyD - that what he proposed does not show causation, but as always you worded it much better than I could.

  9. You're telling me my "rant" is not objective, and that I don't know what I'm talking about. In one respect you're correct - like you, I am not a neuroscientist.

    What I do know is this - throughout history, people have been just as convinced as you are that "something else", something beyond the observable physical world was controlling or influencing what humans experience.

    For the hunter-gatherers, it was animist spirits in the rocks and trees. For early civilizations, it was gods controlling rain and hurling lightning. For later philosophers of nature, it was divine creation of Earth and species. Newton figured out the planetary movements were natural, but assumed God must have put the planets in motion. In every case, as human understanding improves, materialist explanations are definitively determined and the ethereal "other" is pushed further into the background.

    Now neuroscience is chipping away at the "ethereal other" in the mind. We've learned that every single aspect of what people call "mind" (or "soul") can be influenced, enhanced, suppressed, altered by purely physical means: stroke, electrical stimulation, training, and in this instance, drugs. Our growing understanding of "mind" is following the same path as our growing understanding of physics, astronomy, geology, biology, and the other natural sciences that pushed spirits and gods into the realm of philosophical abstractions.

    This historical backdrop presents a very big hurdle and a very demanding evidentiary requirement for anyone who wishes to challenge the overwhelming success of materialist explanations for natural phenomena. Into this discussion, Bernardo, you bring some fMRI scans of people on drugs, you make up your own spectrum of what should constitute "peak" brain activity, and you draw the conclusion that reality we experience is a projection of a grand consciousness.

    Unsatisfied with turning a molehill into a mountain, you've turned a molehill into a universe.

    Much as I WANT to exist in some form after I die, much as I WANT to meet my grandmother again or become one with Eywa, sadly, the evidence indicates that "mind" is nothing beyond an output of the very complex activities of the organ we call the brain. That's the honest conclusion from an objective review of what we know of nature in general and the "mind" in particular. And I'm willing to bet that is the conclusion of the scientists who ran the fMRI experiment, so it is no surprise that you are unwilling to contact them.

    Oh, by the way - it is interesting that other researchers who have done fMRI studies of psychedelic drug effects had contradictory results to the study you link. If the next set of studies show that psilocybin does in fact increase brain activity in some areas and decreases it in others, would that in any way alter your "Idealism" position? My unapologetic materialism (to steal a phrase from Dr. Novella) is absolutely falsifiable. Is your Idealism?

    1. Rick,
      I can only tell you this: I'm not starting from the conclusion I want to arrive at. I actually started as a materialist. No, I'm not going to bore you with the wonderful story of my "conversion" or anything of that sort. But I will tell you I am honest in what I do: My agenda is what I believe is the best shot at the truth. I also try to be honest and open-minded with the evidence at my disposal, be it scientific (in the form of papers) or otherwise (e.g. personal experience). If you ask me, the main short-coming of the skeptic movement is that it's not skeptic enough. You paint my Idealist position as if it were somehow dependent on faith... while I believe it's more skeptical than materialism. See this: Ultimately, I'm not forcing you to believe anything; I'm not even trying to convince you of anything. I consider you a (somewhat pissed off) guest on this site to whom I will extend every courtesy as a host. I'm just putting my ideas out there for what they are worth, if anything. And if they turn out to be untrue, so be it. I don't depend financially on my philosophy work (it's actually a cost center for me), and have nothing to lose.
      Cheers, B.

    2. Bernado, I think it's sniffy or one of those angry atheist.

  10. daedalus2u,
    'Without knowing the coding scheme, it is not possible to determine if more activity means something more complex or something less complex.'

    You hit the nail on the head again. In another thread I attempted to explain an analogy would be if we attempted to measure the 'activity' in a Beethoven symphony using a threshold of volume. We might erroneously conclude that there is a reduction of activity occuring in the quieter passages when in fact the 'subjective' experience and activity may be more intense.

    But what do I know? :-(

  11. Skeptics now know everything. Everyone else is a heretic. ;-0 Now where have I heard this before? 99.9% of every philosophical position has been proved wrong. Apart from the skeptics themselves of course. They have their belief in the truth about their position that is insurmountable.

  12. Dr. Steven Novella's view that ultimately a self/consciousnesss can be revealed and understood by improvements in fMRI and scientific technology is totally futile. He is a quack who thinks he may be able to 'read' minds one day. Telepathy anyone? Metaphorically speaking, I am a penguin. Stick that thought in your fMRI scanner and see where you get!.