Tying up a few loose ends

German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers. See discussion below. Source: Wikipedia.

No, this is not another Novella post. I just wanted to share a few thoughts with you, inspired by all the discussions and developments of this week. This article will be a little more fragmented than usual; more of a flow-of-consciousness thing. It won't be building up to any single conclusion at the end, but just parsing through several more or less connected ideas as a kind of overall balance of the week's insights and intuitions.

One thing that strikes me repeatedly when debating materialists is their non-thought-through, but understandable, notion that if a subjective mental state can be achieved through material means (say, drugs), then that is immediately construed as evidence for the notion that the brain causes the mind. In my debate with Novella, he alluded to Ketamine (a known psychedelic at lower doses) causing NDE-like experiences, or to magnetic fields causing OBE-like experiences, construing both as evidence for materialism. Perhaps people are so used to thinking of religion as the only alternative to materialism that other reasonable and non-supernatural logical possibilities don't even come to mind. If the brain modulates and localizes consciousness, without causing it, it is not only acceptable but expectable that physical interference with the brain will change subjective states. Not only that, partial de-activation of certain brain processes through physical means (e.g. drugs, magnetic fields, hyper-ventilation, asphyxiation, meditation, brain entrainment, ordeals, sensory deprivation, prayer, etc.) would be expected to allow consciousness to partially de-localize and expand, which is consistent with NDE- and OBE-like reports. There is nothing extraordinary about the possibility of inducing valid, transcendent experiences through physical means; just as there is nothing extraordinary about the possibility that consciousness is fundamental and not reducible. Assuming otherwise is a throwback to archaic preconceptions that modern thinking should be able to overcome.

Something else now. A lot of attention has gone this week into the Carhart-Harris psilocybin study. In a way, that's a pity. As I have always emphasized, what I believe to see here is a broad, ancient pattern associating peak experiences with activities that reduce blood flow to the brain. The psilocybin study is but one small part of that, albeit a particularly polemic part because of the associated fMRI measurements. So I am not surprised that my debate with Novella has ended up with so much emphasis on this particular work, to the detriment of the broader pattern: It was unavoidable, given the inadmissibility of nearly all other evidence from the perspective of the most hardcore materialists. Yet, at a fundamental level, there is no reason to look upon psilocybin effects as any more telling or important than those experienced by people who achieve transcendence (a.k.a. de-localization) through breathing techniques; or pilots experiencing NDE-like narratives induced by G-LOC; or aboriginals learning about the 'secrets of nature' through initiatory ordeals; or people experiencing higher states of transcendence after surgery-induced brain damage, as this paper reported; etc. In all these cases, we have instances of processes that directly damage or reduce blood flow to the brain, leading to peak experiences. Since the brain, like any organ, is powered by metabolism, reduction or cessation of blood flow must ultimately reduce or stop brain activity, whether one is measuring it with an fMRI or not. As such, the Carhart-Harris psilocybin study is both a blessing and a curse for the hypothesis that I am putting forward: It steals the focus from where it should be, as, in hindsight, my debate with Novella so clearly illustrates.

And this brings me to another topic: I've read many times this week the accusation that 'my certainty that materialism is dead is premature.' I didn't react to this, nor to a number of other comments, because I had no option but to be selective regarding what I could spend my time on. But as I sit here on Friday late afternoon, relaxing and anticipating the weekend, I'd like to come back to this. As an extreme skeptic (so much so that I am often described by skeptics as a believer!), I am sure of nothing but the fact that I am conscious. So attributions of certainty to my positions are misplaced. As such, I am not absolutely sure that materialism is false, in the exact same way that I am not absolutely sure of anything but my own consciousness. What I think is that materialism is not the best metaphysics for explaining the data and personal experiences at my disposal. If, during a debate, I seem to take too radical an anti-materialist position, it is to antagonize my debating opponent with the intent of forcing his best arguments to come to the table. That said, I sincerely believe what I am arguing; I'm absolutely honest when I stake a position for myself. And the problem I see with the modern skeptical movement is a lack of skepticism and critical attitude; namely, skepticism and critical attitude towards their own default positions.

Curiously, I started the week by writing a piece in which I was critical of the new New Age movement  a segment of society that has been very welcoming of my ideas, even though I suspect they are often not properly understood  and its fantastic narratives and uncritical approach to reality. And I now end the week in direct conflict with one of the main figures of the skeptical movement. As I mentioned in that earlier piece, "whoever tries to remain individually balanced now finds him or herself isolated and friendless in the crossfire between these extreme poles; a situation wherein its easy to be alienated and difficult to belong." How prophetic that was, only a few days ago. This whole thing makes me wonder: Would self-proclaimed 'skeptics' be able to be themselves without the soft targets of religious and New Age figures they've made a sport of harassing? And equivalently, would religions or the New Age have the same power of group cohesion and clarity of purpose if not for the 'skeptics' that constantly keep them in check? It's curious to wonder about the relationships of inter-dependency that might be at play here. One is tempted to step back and stare in awe at the social and historical dynamics underlying this entire hysteria of the modern age; an age where few actually see all the ways in which they've lost objectivity; and themselves. In pondering all this, my mind reaches back to Karl Jaspers and his brilliant assessment of the elusive pattern underlying human history. I feel humbled to recognize, in the brief blink-of-an-eye that my life is, a local expression of that pattern.

Let me take the opportunity here to take my hat off to Dr. Steven Novella, for his willingness to engage in a debate with an admittedly less qualified stranger as far as one of the specialisms in contention. He took (and maybe will still take) risks in doing so, but chose to be true to his own position. I respect that. I also reserve special respect for people who spend their lives helping others free themselves from, or at least alleviate, their pain and suffering; indeed, I can see no more noble occupation. If Dr. Novella chooses to discontinue our debate now, as he suggested in his last post, I will understand it. Perhaps better than anyone else right now, I understand very well the amount of time and energy that needs to be invested to engage properly in a debate like this; time and energy scarcely available to most of us. On the other hand, if Dr. Novella opts to continue, I will be honored and eager to carry on, for I think we've done (are doing) something good here. None of this means, of course, that I will take any less sharp, spirited, or confrontational a tone or attitude in the debate, if it continues.

There is no better way to end the week than to quote Jaspers:
Truth is that which links us to one another. (in The Origin and Goal of History, p. 10)


  1. "No, this is not another Novella post."

    Good, because I think he has already occupied enough of your blog!

    Orthodox neuroscientists seem (to me) to have a strange ambivalence towards their data. On the one hand they are full of it - this area of the brain lights up when this happens.......etc, on the other, they seem to slip into a much vaguer style when they don't like what the data is saying:

    "Psychadelic [sic] experiences are so emotionally mindblowing because they are outside of our everyday neurological experiences ... None of this implies that there has to be more neuronal firing going on."

    Does anyone doubt that if the psilocybin experiments had shown activation of some part of the brain, this would have been seized on as the physical 'explanation' of the drug experiences?

    Mark Szlazak seemed to take the same approach. I start to wonder (very cynically) if fMRI supplies a source of data that can be used selectively to construct narratives about how the brain works. I tried to compare fMRI with measuring heat output from the chips in a computer - pointing out that neither actually gave any insight as to how the brain/computer actually works! So far, Mark did not respond to this!

    I wonder if neurologists have become too comfortable with a tool that gives no fundamental understanding of consciousness, and yet gives a superficial opposite impression of an ever deepening comprehension.

    1. David why do you think fMRI don't have any value at all. I didn't say this nor does any neuro-scientist nor critic of misuse of fMRI's in neuroscience. X-rays also can't give good images of soft-tissue but it doesn't mean they are useless.

    2. Mark,

      I didn't say fMRI had no value exactly, although the paper that I linked to painted a pretty worrying picture regarding the statistical validity of the technique. It may well have clinical value, but it doesn't seem to add much conceptually to the nature of consciousness. If the chips in your computer lit up when they were working hard, it might be fun to watch, but it really wouldn't tell you much about how the hardware or software actually worked!

      Perhaps more seriously, is the way it is interpreted. If the psilocybin studies had shown that some part of the brain was activated by the drug, you and Novella would (I guess) have accepted the result with none of the equivocation that you used when the result was not expected. Of course, the theory that the brain only filters consciousness, not creates it, would be far more consistent with those results.

      My biggest issue is with the fact that fMRI seems great for telling a story, but very little use for actually explaining consciousness. Back in the 1980's people thought they could make consciousness/intelligence (the distinction, if any was never clear) by transferring the action to a computer. Computers are seemingly ideal, because you can pour a lot of complexity in. I expected to see some exciting results come from that project, or perhaps from artificial neural nets - so did all the people who put money into those projects. It was amazing how little was achieved.

      This is why I seriously doubt if explaining consciousness can be reduced to tracing all the signals (chemical or electrical) between neurons, because that would have a direct equivalent in the form of a computer program.

      You introduced the idea of a hierarchy of conscious modules, and my point was/is that if you take even the tiniest such module, there seems no conception of how this module could be conscious, as opposed to just manipulate data. Talking about hierarchies seems to just miss the point - rather like talking about CPU chips before the transistor had been invented! Consciousness may indeed by hierarchical, but how does the smallest fragment of consciousness operate? This is, of course, a version of David Chalmers' hard problem.

      A few people like Bernardo and the neuroscientist, Donald Hoffman, seem to take this problem seriously, but most seem content with hand waving arguments.

    3. Look David, it's not all that hard to find out about fMRI sensitivity on the web. This issue has nothing to do with my position on the mind surviving bodily death which I happen to think happens. It's strictly about the limitations of fMRI's and the interpretation of the psilocybin studies. Warnings are given about the use of fMRI "all over the place" in unrelated topics like for example in "What Makes Osteoarthritis Painful"


      The other issues you bring up are the filter and cognitive theories of mind.

      Well, Brown's microgenetic theory of neuropsychology isn't considered a cognitive theory, it's a process and pan-experientialist view and it also uses filtering or sculpting ideas from Bergson, James, etc. So you need to look at that whole outlook and then Brown's ideas because you are understanding what I'm saying in a completely wrong way.

    4. Well, I suppose my point is that fMRI results seem to be treated as valid if they support the "brain generates consciousness" model, and the caveats come out when fMRI produces an unexpected result as in the psilocybin study. This can quickly degenerate into a tool that just confirms the conventional view. A lot of brain science seems to be based on this flawed tool.

      You seem very keen to criticise fMRI - should it be used at all in its present form?

    5. David, did you actually bother to read anything on fMRI's and their uses. You seem to have a "black and white" view of this device where if it isn't good enough to tell whether a brain is completely shut down then it's not good enough for any brain imaging.

    6. Mark,

      The real test of a scientific tool is not whether it is useful - I am sure phrenology was considered useful in its day! It is whether it can be trusted even when it tells you something you don't expect. You clearly don't trust fMRI when it produces surprising results.

    7. David,

      I see that you are desperate to "save face" at my expense so I'll let the readers decide who didn't do their homework with regard to interpreting this psilocybin study and sensitivity issues of fMRI's. Better luck next time.

    8. Mark,

      I don't want (or I think need) to "save face", I was just curious to know how you know when to believe your fMRI results, and when to discard them! I still don't know, and like you, I will have to let the readers of this blog judge for themselves!

    9. David,

      Are you trying to say that you can't understand the idea of measurement specifications of a device?

      If a thermometer measures to within a degree centigrade and you want to measure temperature changes of one tenth of a degree then according to your logic that thermometer is useless in measuring any temperature changes.

      So yes I do encourage readers to judge for themselves, to research the blood and circulation related physiology that fMRI measures and how those changes relate to brain activity.

    10. Mark,

      So are you saying that the changes demonstrated in these experiments were particularly small - analogous to your thermometer? All I'd really like to know is what criteria you use to exclude an fMRI result, other than you don't like what it seems to be saying!

      Would you still have dismissed the result if it had shown great activity in one part of the brain?

      If I wanted to measure 1/10 C with a thermometer that was only good for 1C changes, I'd know in advance not to use it!

      It just seems strange to dismiss someone else's experiment on the grounds of flaws in a technique, which (I guess) you use yourself!

  2. I have always taken the view that it's not so much that materialism is wrong, it's just starting to outlive it's usefulness. Like any other worldview it was good for it's time and was correct in its domain, but eventually comes up short and a new worldview needs to supersede it ultimately. I think we're at the beginning of the threshold where materialism is starting to fall by the way side, and something new will come in it's place.

  3. Carhart-Harris seems to think that psilocybin may cause an increase in some brain activity...

    "Carhart-Harris is also interested in the effects of psilocybin on memory. “When subjects are in the scanner,” he illustrates, “and are shown personal memory cues, then asked to close their eyes and remember the emotions at the time of the original event, the recalled emotions are more vivid – indicating elevated brain activation – when under the effects of psilocybin.”"


    1. If only we knew how memories are stored... we will get there.

    2. Either way, I personally believe that, for my contention to be sufficiently explained, we need _a whole lot_ more than 'some' increase in brain activity...

  4. Bernardo, I am reading your first book now, and I find it well written and brilliant. I am glad that you have done this work and filled this niche as I am not aware of anyone else doing what you are doing. I plan to get all three books.

    Your debate with Novella was highly entertaining and enlightening about both positions. Like you, I am open minded to materialism but suspect after reading thousands of NDE accounts that the mind is almost certainly more expansive than materialism would allow. I also strongly suspect that psi is real, so it is great to see someone develop an intelligent (may I say non-new agey) framework for some aspects of the nature of consciousness.

    I would agree that the profound disgust towards religion which is ingrained in the tradition of materialism has blinded it to phenomena which make open minded rational people skeptical of materialism. It is based on a pyramid of assumptions which are forced to deny every piece of contradictory evidence as "anecdotal". Since the scientific method is blind to the detection and even existence of phenomenal consciousness, we can put that right in there with the other anecdotal claims.

  5. Novella seems keen on the idea that the "reality-testing" modules of the brain are getting dampened, allowing hyper-sensory awareness during things like NDEs. When I read NDEs on par, I don't necessarily see a lack of "reality testing". I see that, even after cardiac arrest, a person maintains the ability to *deeply* and intelligently analyze what is going on in the NDE state. Perhaps the most obvious example is their own life review, where the degree and speed of analysis of the tapestry of one's life experience would exceed the depth of a normally functioning frontal lobe. I have long suspected that people like Novella simply do not read NDE accounts or listen to a great number of accounts, and therefore aren't very well aware of what it is they are trying to explain about them in the first place. Many NDE's involve complex deliberations about the whys and wherefores of whether to return to the body. Often they pitch a fit, plead, come up with excuses as to why they should be allowed to stay (and in a few cases they actually plead to return to the body despite being told they should stay). It is my understanding that such complex deliberation would require a very functional level of synchronized brain activity, the presence of a fully intact sense of self (whatever the neural correlates are), not to mention the fact that many/most NDErs describe their NDE state as "more conscious and aware than usual" (once again, whatever the neural correlates of being more conscious and aware are imagined to be, and why decreased brain activity would lead to that). Interesting to me that Novella mentioned the "global work-space theory". I wonder how he fits that in with decreased (or possibly *no* relevent brain activity after cardiac arrest) and yet "more consciousness and awareness than usual", with cognitive deliberation that clearly would necessitate a very functional cerebral cortex. I'm at a loss to pick these guys apart as I am not a brilliant PhD, so I am expecting people like you to crack the whip on these obvious holes.

    Listening to Novella's podcast has revealed to me that he hedges and contradicts himself over this point. He claims that the complexity of NDEs are likely caused by the brain developing a fictitious story while the person is recovering in the hospital. This makes no sense whatsoever, because some classic NDEs occur with immediate recovery (I recently read an account of a seizure NDE with an observer who said the person was out for only 20 seconds) and the person has the same NDE elements and is able to talk about them immediately upon coming to. Novella then says that dampened higher brain areas may lead to a heightened sensorial awareness. Maybe, but he conveniently ignores the fact that NDErs are clearly using what would be considered "higher" level brain functions throughout the experience, at what appears to be a boosted level, not dampened. If one wants to have their cake and eat it to as Novella apparently does with his heads I win tails you lose shotgun approach to "explaining" NDEs, he at *least* needs to overturn the assumptions of modern neuroscience with his extraordinary claims before dismissing the ideas of the non-materialists.

    People having hallucinations where "reality testing" is blocked, believe weird imagery they may see, such as an oasis in the desert during dehydration. When they get back to health, they reflect back and realize the unreality of the hallucination. But people reflecting back on their NDE do the opposite. They are strongly convinced, even after the fact, that the more "real" reality was the post "death" state, and forever they carry with them an understanding that physical life is a sort of virtual reality illusion in comparison. Sorry if I'm off topic or took a lot of space on this post. I'm responding to the overall conversation and offering some ideas I think would be good to call out.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. TSI, many thanks! I hope you enjoy the books. And I very much agree with the points you raise and positions you take above. Cheers, B.

  6. Bernardo,

    I regret to say I have been neglecting your blog recently. However, I've just spent an hour or two catching up on the Novella exchanges and all the associated comments, and must say I enjoyed them and found them stimulating.

    I think David Bailey made a telling point--there's no doubt in my mind that, had the psilocybin experiments demonstrated marked fMRI activity, Novella would be saying: "There. Told you so!".

    That said, it is terribly hard to gainsay the hypothesis that when certain neurological centres are switched off, underlying activity that is going on all the time can be consciously experienced. I'm extremely sympathetic to the idea that the mind doesn't reside in, and isn't caused by, the brain. However, I can't accept uncritically the opinion that because experiences can be described as "peak", that necessarily means they should be evidenced by marked fMRI activity (if materialism is correct).

    Yes, I know that materialists are probably scrambling around for ad-hoc explanations, but despite that, they could conceivably be right. I'd perhaps like to think they are not, but a true sceptic, as you have pointed out, is able to challenge his own assumptions and leanings.

    If they are right that switching off certain activity centres enables "subconscious" experiences that are going on all the time to become conscious, and by virtue of strangeness or unfamiliarity, that those are experienced as "intense", then the next logical step, for me, would seem to be to try to test that hypothesis.

    Such evidence as there is from NDE reports, etc., seems to me to indicate the burden of proof in this instance is more with the materialists, because such reports are very consistent with the idea of brain not being coterminous with mind, and hence I see that as being the hypothesis to try to shoot down.

    The problem is, I suspect, that materialists don't credit the evidence for non-materialism. De facto, it must be wrong, and we who see it differently can only be "religiously" motivated. Not so: if mind is indeed not generated by brain, then all it means is that natural law includes things that aren't currently included in the materialist paradigm. If and when that changes, there's no reason why the scope of the "material" couldn't simply be extended if one wanted to remain a materialist. After all, materialism embraces magnetism, gravity, etc. despite the fact that no one has the faintest idea what they actually are. They are just as ineffable as the idea of the existence of mind independent of the brain.

    Michael Larkin

  7. Michael and Bernardo,

    I strikes me as interesting that the Novella/Szlazak explanation of this experiment, isn't so very far removed from non-materialist explanations that see the brain as limiting our access to a larger reality. In both theories, it is postulated that a part of the brain functions to inhibit these experiences, but the non-materialist position differs in that it postulates that what is being inhibited lies outside the brain!

    In a sense these two theories have converged to the point where it is hard to separate them experimentally! However, I think the fact that NDE's can occur, even in cases where the brain must be severely impaired (long periods of immersion under cold water, say) strongly favors the concept of a non-material mind.

  8. I agree with you that psilocybin experiments suggest that the materialist hypothesis on mind is false, but it is always possible that the materialist claim that somehow neurological although unknown a decrease of neural activity cause an experience intense and sophisticated.

    Therefore I prefer to consider other types of evidence against materialism that I think are more robust. For example: have you considered in your blog describe Karlis Osis experiments with psychic Tanous on astral projection? What about the shared experiences of death studied by Moody? I think there is much evidence out there against the materialism that is very reliable, very unpopular.

  9. Out of curiosity, how many of the individuals commenting here on the nature of psilocybin have personally experienced said effects? Having experienced it various times myself, it is simply unfathomable that an event of such intellectual/spiritual magnitude would be only accompanied by DECREASES of fMRI readings...It is a major blow to materialism in my opinion, along with reincarnation evidence, NDEs, psi, terminal lucidity, ADCs, quantum physics, etc etc.