Novella's reply

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

Razmnama illustration of a debate. Source: Wikipedia.

Steven Novella has replied, on his blog, to my earlier post on an older opinion piece he had written. While I appreciate his having taken the time to reply, I am also somewhat surprised by the sheer amount of space he dedicates to ad homenen attacks on me, which dilutes his argument and the quality of the debate. While I agree that dancing on the edge of a personal attack does make a debate sharper and more interesting, Novella exaggerates on this to the point of making his position look desperate and weak, which was, in my view, unnecessary.

Be it as it may, I'll focus on content, addressing his comments systematically:
I further think that he probably just read one blog post in the long chain of my posts about dualism and so did not make a sufficient effort to actually understand my position.
This is correct. So let me take the opportunity to be explicit: I only read the post that was forwarded to me, and my comments were based on that alone. If Novella’s position in other posts was more nuanced, I’ve missed that, since I do not know Novella's work. But if this is an error on my side, Novella has committed the exact same error already in the title of his reply: Had he read anything of my work besides the post he is replying to, he would have seen that I am precisely not a Dualist, but a monist (for instance, see this). Therefore, he also "did not make a sufficient effort to actually understand my position." This comes back in several points of his reply.
Causes precede effects, so again if the brain causes mind then we would expect changes to brain states to precede their corresponding mental states, and in every case of which we are currently aware, they do.
In my article, I mentioned several models for the relationship between mind and brain under which the exact same phenomenology is expected: Changes to brain states leading to changes in subjective experience. My post was very clear about this, so I am surprised Novella seems to have difficulties on this point. To be explicit: If the brain merely modulates subjective experience (through filtering and/or localization, for instance), then one would expect precisely that disturbances in the brain would impact the modulation process and, thereby, alter subjective experience. I invite Dr. Novella to acquaint himself a little more with these other explanatory models of mind-brain interaction so we can continue with the debate in a more productive manner. As it stands now, his argument bears no relevance to the alternative models I brought up.
That the brain causes mind is not a philosophical proof (something I never claimed), but a scientific inference.
It is only possible to infer, from a correlation between A and B, that A is the only cause of B when, for all observed cases, B occurs after A. If B occurs without A, even in a single confirmed case, then, at the very least, there are more than one causes for B and B does not ontologically depend exclusively on A. So if mind states do not always correlate with brain states, one can infer, under Occam's razor, that mind is not ontologically dependent on the brain; i.e. the brain does not cause the mind. To repeat a point I made in my original post: There is strong scientific evidence for mind states that indeed do not correlate to brain states. So if anything is to be scientifically inferred from current observations, I'd say it is that mind states are not caused, but merely modulated, by brain states.
There are many examples where inhibiting the activity in one part of the brain enhances the activity in another part of the brain through disinhibition.
Again, Novella clearly did not take the time to read the links I provided in my original post. I elaborated extensively on this very issue of (dis)inhibition in several posts, including in my original exchange on this with Dr. Christof Koch. Please consider these:
  1. Response to Dr. Christof Koch
  2. Disembodied trippers
  3. Wanted: a new paradigm for neuroscience

Novella goes on down this hopeless path:
The psilocybin study is a perfect example of this. The drug is inhibiting the reality testing parts of the brain, causing a psychadelic [sic] experience that is disinhibited and intense. This is similar to really intense dreams. (my italics)
As I have pointed out in one of the links above, when you dream the areas of your brain that are generating the dream are clearly activated. For instance, if you dream that you are clenching your hand, the brain areas associated to hand motion show up in an fMRI with a clear increase in activation (see this). Yet, if Novella took the time to read the psilocybin study he is referring to, he will have read that the researchers "observed no increases in cerebral blood flow in any region." In other words, there was no increase in brain activity anywhere in the brain. So Novella's explanation fails before it even begins.

I have discussed the specific points Novella raises here ad nauseum before, so I won't elaborate more. I'm ready to continue the debate if Dr. Novella takes the time to read the three links above, and take the discussion from there.

Kastrup seems to be completely unaware of the critical concept of disinhibition and therefore completely misinterprets the significance of the neuroscience research.
This is precious. Coming from someone who accused me of creating a strawman for not taking the time to acquaint myself with his work, this particular comment is quite ironic.

The rest of Novella's reply contains a lot of hand-waving but no new argument of relevance to the point in dispute. In conclusion, I believe that he did not at all counter any of the points I originally raised. I'm certainly willing to continue the debate if Dr. Novella addresses, with more substance, the contents of the articles I originally linked to as part of my original post, instead of ignoring them as he has done so far.


  1. Great reply Bernardo. I can't decide if it's more comical or pathetic how weak the skeptical arguments are and how myopically they cling to their world view which is quickly becoming quite antiquated. great job!

  2. Some brain scientists invent bizarre functions for parts of the brain in response to experiments such as the psilocybin research. It reminds me of suggestions related to OBE's that there is a bit of the brain that keeps us seeing reality from the right perspective!

    I suppose what makes me cringe regarding such 'explanations', is that if you imagine creating a robot you would not fill it with special circuits to keep it seeing reality - that would automatically follow from the data that would be going into the thing, and it would require extra work - and probably extra cameras - to enable the robot to see itself from another perspective!

    As I suggested to you privately, if you want to engage with a neuroscientist who really recognises the problem with conventional explanations of consciousness, try Donald Hoffman.

  3. I have a second suggestion on a neuroscientist to talk to and that is Jason W. Brown.

    Don't know Brown's stance on NDE's or OBE's but he takes a process philosophy view to things. You can download his book "Neuropsychological Foundations of Conscious Experience" for free here:

    Even if Brown does not think OBE's or NDE's suggest a separation of mind from body, the process view he endorses does have the resources for such things.

  4. One has to wonder what Novella was thinking! Did he completely miss the point of Nutt's psilocybin experiments, or is this just more theater from dogmatic skeptics?

    1. From his reply, I suspect he just didn't get to read the actual paper; perhaps he read only the corresponding news summaries. Let's see how he will react now. Maybe he will take the time to read it through.

    2. I did read the paper. It is you who did not understand it. My reply is here:

  5. Here is another possibility where the psilocybin experiments may not be quite what we think they mean with regards to mind being separate from brain. Basically, there is an issue with measurement since millions of neurons can still be active and not measured. However, the argument goes that waking or maybe even dreaming conscious experience requires much, much more activity and in these experiments we have much less with still vivid and coherent experiences.

    If shut down parts of the brain shape and focus experiences for waking life then what is being shaped and focused? It could be also vivid and coherent experiences related to activity in more primitive parts of the brain that are harder to measure given our technology. These would normally be sculpted/filtered/focused by less primitive parts of the brain that have been shut down by psilocybin. The filter theory can work between the phylogenetic hierarchies of the brain. I'm viewing things this way since a non-cognative, hierachial, process philosophy view of the mind/brain allows for this kind of filter theory.

    In my previous post, I put a link to a book by Jason Brown in which he explores vision happening by this sculpting process and the neurological pathways actually fit this view better than the standard views.

    This may mean that psilocybin experiments mean what we think they might mean and maybe OBE's are better evidence of mind separated from brain to some degree.

    1. If I understand what you are suggesting, I think I replied to this in one of the scenarios explained in my "Response to Dr. Christoph Koch" article.

      Process Philosophy, even though I don't quite subscribe to it since it is ultimately a Realist (in the philosophical sense) philosophy, remains intriguing!

    2. Mark,

      "Here is another possibility where the psilocybin experiments may not be quite what we think they mean with regards to mind being separate from brain. Basically, there is an issue with measurement since millions of neurons can still be active and not measured...."

      I think what worries me about arguments of this sort, is that I am left wondering why fMRI is used for anything if the results can be interpreted any way you want. I have seen analogous discussions at Skeptiko, in which it was claimed that a flat EEG during an NDE may not mean much!

      I am always left wondering just how much we really do know about the brain, if we can't trust instrumental results!

    3. The issue of fMRI or MRI use, overuse or misuse isn't new. These are the best tools available for the time and people go with them. The misdiagnosis and over-diagnosis of musculoskeletal abnormalities and pain has a similar history with these devices. At first patients were being diagnosed as having problems based on MRI findings and some theory/rational. More research showed these findings and supposedly associated pain problems often did not correlate well with MRI findings, they have a large false positive rate. MRI's can be quite misleading.

      So there really is a problem of interpretation with these psilocybin studies.

      If there is no end point of brain activity where all of a sudden consciousness happens then what you have is a process where consciousness is sculpted within one epoch or process.

      I believe this is the "mircogenetic" view of Brown.

      It's like a trajectory from core to extra-personal space. Core self (primitive categories) --> Empirical self (conceptual feeling) --> Images, desires --> Objects, acts. There is a "depth to surface" analogy in which we have these associations:

      Hindbrain --> Diencephalon --> Forebrain.

      Again, consciousness doesn't arise at some endpoint but is sculpted all along as one process that moves through this hierarchy in phases. Our normal waking consciousness is the integration of all these phases together.

      With regard to brain lesions, as Brown puts it:

      "The claim is that the principle effect of a focal lesion is to retard process, not destroy function. ... A focal lesion of the brain exposes pre-processing phases. The effect of the brain lesion can be likened to a rock in a stream, which delays, diverts or perturbs the flow but does not block it. ..."

      Psilocybin can simply be acting like a rock which inhibits parts of mind/brain activity that the MRI could have pick up but are now "shut down" in the sculpting or filtering of experiential and conscious events. However, experiential and conscious events have never left.

      Of course, none of this means mind-is-just-brain or brain-is-just-mind and that consciousness in some sense doesn't survive bodily death. After all this is a process philosophy perspective and experiential events go "all the way down."

    4. David, I'll give one more way to look at this and I also forgot to say something about NDE's and OBE's.

      If you view processes as being in a nested hierarchy with different grades of experience at every level which integrate with each other then shutting down parts of one level (say the MRI measurable ones) still leaves lots of other processes active that are experiencing and integrating into the whole experience.

      Now it seems to me that crucial issues of brain circulation as opposed to partial and questionable brain activity measured with fMRI or EEG are a better indicators of total brain shut down.

      The cardiologist as opposed to the neurologist maybe the better person to ask about these issues.

      It's loss of adequate blood supply that indicates total brain shut down and these are associated with vivid and coherent conscious experiences. I my opinion these are better indicators of "mind separate from body."

      The psilocybin studies apparently don't have vivid and coherent experiences according to another post in this thread.

    5. Here is a paper that demonstrates that there are severe problems with fMRI, based on some simple statistical tests:

      I think my concern is that neuroscientists can weave a story round fMRI results, that give a totally false impression of their understanding of consciousness. My interest in all this started many years ago, when I worked on software languages for Artificial Intelligence. Everyone thought (circa 1980) that AI would be relatively easy - and a huge project started, and went essentially nowhere. This told me that consciousness/AI is an extremely hard problem, and that scientists can grossly overestimate the extent to which they understand the subject.

    6. Mark,

      I like to compare the study of the brain to the sort of studies that might be run if nobody understood how computers worked - if perhaps they were artifacts from an alien race.

      They might start by observing the overall electrical noise coming from the computer (EEG) and then study the fluctuations of heat generated by the CPU chip and the various memory chips (fMRI). Since these chips dissipate more heat when they are in active use, you would observe some correlations between heat and the task in hand. For example, you might observe that one particular memory chip heated up when the word processor was loaded.

      Vast numbers of such correlations could be gathered, but they would tell one essentially nothing about how the computer actually worked. Furthermore, the actual way in which memory chips are brought into active use is based on the operating system's paging algorithm, and bears only a tenuous connection to the software in use - so all those correlations would be pretty useless!

      You said:

      "If you view processes as being in a nested hierarchy with different grades of experience at every level which integrate with each other then shutting down parts of one level (say the MRI measurable ones) still leaves lots of other processes active that are experiencing and integrating into the whole experience."

      I think the real problem with this, is that I can't see how to put even the simplest piece into that hierarchy! Suppose you take the simplest possible conscious awareness of a stimulus, and you want to claim that a particular pattern of neuronal connections generate that consciousness, how would you distinguish that from another neural net, or other hardware/wetware that recorded the information but which was not conscious!

      Please understand that I am not trying to attack you - just to expose the threadbare nature of conventional explanations of consciousness - as I see it.

  6. Interesting. I looked at Nutt's study, and the conclusions in no way suggest a vast overriding universal "mind field" from which our common view of reality is but a projection. I've never personally taken psilocybin, but have seen the effects. The ability to perform mathematics, the ability to exercise self-control, and the ability to express abstract thought are all clearly reduced in people under the effects of the drug. My guess is that the loss of these cognitive abilities would show up on fMRI as lower levels of brain activity.

    So once again, we have key components of "mind" that are clearly affected by physical stimulus. That is completely consistent with "the brain makes the mind" and in no way supports the idea that "mind makes the brain" or "mind/brain dualism" or "brain is only a projection of mind".

    You'll have to explain to me how the loss of cognitive function coupled with a loss in brain activity somehow proves a supernatural component of the mind.

    I do hope the answer won't be a "buy my book to truly understand" infomercial.

    1. "Interesting. I looked at Nutt's study, and the conclusions in no way suggest a vast overriding universal "mind field" from which our common view of reality is but a projection."

      >> Of course not, this is a neurology study. Perhaps you're mixing this up with the Nature paper I suggested in another reply? Moreover, a scientific paper shows an objective result, not necessarily how the result should be philosophically interpreted. It's a usual fallacy against philosophers to claim that the papers they refer to not have the exact interpretation they are claiming; of course they don't. That's why we have logical inference.

      "I've never personally taken psilocybin, but have seen the effects."

      >> This is a contradictory statement. You're seen deterioration in some cognitive abilities when observed from the outside, which is, again, consistent with reduction in brain activity. You have not seen the expansion in conscious awareness that was reported in the psilocybin study through a specially-design form volunteers filled out during their 'trips.'

      "So once again, we have key components of "mind" that are clearly affected by physical stimulus."

      >> The role of the brain in coordinating externally-visible physical function has never been in dispute. So, yes. (Have a look at Henri Bergson's old work, "Matter and Memory", for a model that reconciled this with Idealism already in the late 1800s).

      "You'll have to explain to me how the loss of cognitive function coupled with a loss in brain activity somehow proves a supernatural component of the mind."

      >> I don't _have_ to explain anything since I am not trying to convince you of anything. Insofar as you are curious about my ideas, I'm happy to oblige, though. Personally, I don't like the word "supernatural": Whatever is true is ultimately natural, even if it's a part of natural we don't yet understand or acknowledge. Still, I think my line of argument was more or less clear: Activities that reduce blood flow to the brain lead to peak conscious experiences. Let's not speak only of psychedelic drugs; why not, say, strangulation or hyperventilation (which constricts blood vessels int he brain)? Have a look here: There are many examples.

      "I do hope the answer won't be a "buy my book to truly understand" infomercial."

      >> Informercial or not, one's ideas are elaborated in a more complete way in book format. So if you want to truly judge one's ideas, yes, you gotta avoid intellectual laziness and read his/her books. Otherwise, it's trial but refusal to see the evidence.

    2. Rick,
      One quick extra comment in addition to the earlier reply above: Nutt's paper does explicitly mention that the results are consistent with Aldous Huxley's "Mind at Large" hypothesis, which is not so far away from the "mind field" idea you allude to. For details, I quote the passage of Nutt's paper where they say this, as well as Huxley's description of his hypothesis, here:
      Gr, B.

    3. bernardo - your major fallacy in interpreting the psilocybin paper is in assuming that intensity of one type of experience must correlate with intensity of neuronal firing (according to the materialist model). This is simply wrong, and therefore your premise is false and your argument unsound.

      Also, a separate point, this one paper is hardly the definitive or final word on the effects of psilocybin, so you are also extrapolating irresponsibly from controversial and preliminary research. This is not a solid premise from which to conclude that materialism is dead.

    4. Steve, the intensity proportionality argument is only one of several scenarios I explore in the three articles I linked. I also say very explicitly in my analysis of the paper that science is not made by single studies (have a look at the last paragraph). So I think your accusation of irresponsibility is misplaced. I will read your long response when I get home tonight (right now, time for a few drinks with friends, since we have a holiday here in Europe tomorrow). If I may say, I'm enjoying our sharp exchanges. Gr, B.

  7. Above you wrote that if correlation is disproved "even in a single confirmed case" the materialist paradigm breaks down.

    You are clearly arguing that the examples you give are "strong evidence" and imply they are confirmed. This is simply not true. NDEs are controversial and very weak as evidence. The psilocybin example is controversial, with other evidence coming to different conclusions, and therefore is preliminary - not confirmed or solid. And your interpretation is wrong.

    Also - I don't see that you made distinct arguments for the implications of psilocybin. Your arguments are dependent on the premise of proportionality, which is false.

    1. No, my argument does not depend on proportionality. See my response. Gr, B.

  8. "NDEs are controversial and very weak as evidence."

    For those who are avowed mortalists such evidence will NEVER look strong and noncontroversial, even being experimentally replicated thousands of times.

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