The case for integrative medicine

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

This essay expresses my support for ISHAR.

Integrative medicine encompasses a variety of approaches to healthcare focusing on mind-body interaction. Unlike mainstream materialist medicine, which treats a patient’s body as a biological mechanism, integrative medicine seeks to heal the whole being, including – and often starting from – one’s psychic, emotional functions. It is a more holistic approach to healing that, because of the metaphysical bias carried by our culture’s mainstream materialist worldview, has largely been neglected over the past several decades. In this essay, I want to not only lend my support to integrative medicine, but also elaborate on how a sane and parsimonious understanding of reality provides credibility and strong rational foundations to the integrative approach. The time has come for our culture to overcome the narrow and artificial materialist boundaries that for so long have impaired healthcare. We have suffered long enough.

Let me begin by summarizing the worldview discussed at length in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. Bear with me, for it isn’t easy to summarize 250 pages in one paragraph. I maintain that all reality is in consciousness, though not in your personal consciousness alone. This way, it is your body-brain system that is in consciousness, not consciousness in your body-brain system. Think of reality as a collective dream: in a dream, it is your dream character that is in your consciousness, not your consciousness in your dream character. This becomes obvious when you wake up, but isn’t at all obvious while you are dreaming. Furthermore, I maintain that the body-brain system is the image of a process of localization in the stream of consciousness, like a whirlpool is the image of a process of localization in a stream of water. It is this localization that leads to the illusion of personal identity and separateness. For exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water, your brain doesn’t generate consciousness. Yet, because the image of a process correlates tightly with the inner dynamics of the process – just like the color of flames correlates tightly with the microscopic details of the process of combustion – brain activity correlates with subjective experience. Motivated by this correlation, materialists naively mistake the image of the process for the cause of the process. Finally, while particular types of brain activity are the image of egoic processes in consciousness, the rest of the physical body is the image of our personal ‘unconscious’ psyche. I maintain that the ego corresponds to self-reflective processes in consciousness – that is, processes that you are aware that you are aware of – while the ‘unconscious’ corresponds to non-self-reflective processes also in consciousness. As such, there is no true unconscious, but simply processes in consciousness that become obfuscated by the ‘glare’ of self-reflective awareness, in the same way that the stars become obfuscated by the glare of the sun at noon. Now, as the body is the image of our personal ‘unconscious,’ the world at large is also the image of a collective ‘unconscious.’ That is the reason we all seem to share the same reality. See the figure below.

The key point in this whole story, as far as integrative medicine is concerned, is this: beyond certain specific types of brain activity that correlate with egoic awareness, the rest of the physical body is the image of our personal ‘unconscious’ minds. The body isn’t merely a lump of matter fundamentally independent from, and outside, our psyche: it is the image of buried emotions, feelings, beliefs, cognitive processes and structures of consciousness that escape the field of our self-reflective awareness. Now, just as blue flames are the image of hotter combustion and red flames the image of colder combustion, so a healthy body is the image of healthy psychic activity and an ill body is the image of unhealthy psychic activity in the personal ‘unconscious.’ This way, if we need to speak in terms of causation, it is fair to say that unhealthy psychic activity in the personal ‘unconscious’ causes all illnesses. This shows the importance of integrative medicine: we can treat all illnesses by influencing ‘unconscious’ psychic activity.

A note of caution is required at this point. Many alternative healing techniques are promoted today that focus on the ego: affirmations, positive thinking, visualization, etc. But for as long as the corresponding psychic activity remains in the ego, it won’t affect the rest of the body. Because the body is the image of non-egoic psychic activity, whatever remains in the ego cannot influence the body. How many people get seriously ill despite assiduously practicing positive thinking and visualizations? How many people continue to suffer from the conditions they try to overcome with their daily health affirmations? Clearly, it isn’t enough to refurnish the ego: the new furniture has to sink into the cellar of our personal psyches if it is to have bodily effect. It has to be assimilated by the core of one’s being.

This isn’t necessarily bad news, for it works the other way around as well: hypochondriacs, for instance, need not worry about ‘attracting’ the very illnesses they are constantly anxious about. Their anxiety resides in their egoic awareness, this being precisely the reason why they suffer. Remaining self-reflectively aware of unhealthy psychic activity causes psychological distress, for sure, but it also prevents that activity from becoming somatized as physical illness. Depth psychology has, for decades, insisted in the need to bring unhealthy psychic activity into the light of self-reflective awareness, where it does less damage and can be more easily treated through talk therapy.

Nobody needs to feel guilty about ‘attracting’ illness due to a negative mood disposition, since such disposition isn’t ‘unconscious.’ If it were, you wouldn’t be aware of it and wouldn’t feel guilty to begin with. Do you see what I mean? Generally speaking, you cannot know at an egoic level whether your psychic dispositions are going to compromise your health, for the dispositions that can do so are, by their very nature, ‘unconscious.’ Case in point: a meta-study has shown that ‘extremely low anger scores have been noted in numerous studies of patients with cancer. Such low scores suggest suppression, repression, or restraint of anger. There is evidence to show that suppressed anger can be a precursor to the development of cancer, and also a factor in its progression after diagnosis.’ [Thomas, S. P. et al (2000). Anger and cancer: an analysis of the linkages. Cancer Nursing, 23(5), pp. 344-9] This is entirely consistent with the explanatory framework I am putting forward here: anger only becomes somatized if it escapes egoic awareness and drops into the personal ‘unconscious.’ But the irony is clear in the quote: it is precisely low anger scores that indicate high internalized levels of, well, anger! How is a patient to tell a healthy lack of anger from internalized, ‘unconscious’ anger? Should people who do not feel angry start worrying about anger-caused cancer? That would be preposterous. Only trained therapists can differentiate between a healthy lack of negative emotions and deeply buried emotions; and even then only tentatively. Either way, worry is illogical.

Another thing to take into account is this: as the image of our personal ‘unconscious’ psyches, the body is connected not only to the ego on one side, but also to the collective ‘unconscious’ on the other side. See the figure above again. Now, since the physical world we perceive around us is the image of the activity of the collective ‘unconscious,’ environmental stressors like viruses, bacteria, exposure to the elements, nutrition, physical trauma, pollutants, drugs, etc., all obviously influence our bodily health. The problem is that this is the only avenue of influence that materialist medicine acknowledges. Therefore, it misses half of the problem and half of the avenues of healing.

The view that all reality is a manifestation of consciousness in consciousness points to the following twin-avenues for effective integrative medicine: first, the patient must be helped to bring all negative psychic activity into the light of self-reflective awareness, so it doesn’t become somatized. The patient’s ego must acknowledge and welcome the patient’s buried, repressed material. Once this happens, the patient can be treated through the oldest, simplest and most effective healing method ever devised by mankind: heart-to-heart personal interaction between patient and healer. Second, healers can influence the psychic conditions in the personal ‘unconscious’ – seat of all illness – through the egoic channel. But for this to be effective, healers must help patients internalize the treatment, so it drops past the ego and into the deeper layers of the psyche. Here is where the art and skill of the healer comes into play, for this ‘dropping in’ must be accomplished through bypassing egoic barriers and defense mechanisms. A form of benign manipulation is required, which may conflict with present-day notions of ethics.

A case in point is the so-called placebo effect. Current practice in approving new drugs and treatments is that they must be demonstrated to be more effective than the proverbial ‘sugar pills.’ A serious problem for the pharmaceutical industry is the growing effectiveness of placebos in combating illness, which makes new drugs increasingly more difficult to approve [Silberman, S. (2009). Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why. Wired Magazine, 17.09, 24 August 2009]. The elephant in the room, obviously, is that placebos work, and more so in recent years. Clearly, through the power of suggestion and a form of benign egoic manipulation, a real effect is produced in the patient’s personal ‘unconscious;’ an effect whose image is renewed bodily health. To close one’s eyes to the greatly beneficial implications of this fact is insane. Even the ethical questions often raised (‘Can we deliberately deceive the patient?’) are based on prejudices: there is no deception if the method works. It is hardly relevant, for instance, whether reiki or homeopathy work for the theoretical reasons claimed by their practitioners or for entirely different reasons, as long as they do work. As a matter of fact, the theoretical reasons offered by the practitioners may be integral to the treatment insofar as they provide the patient’s ego with models and images that help lower the ego’s defenses. Without those, the treatment may never fully penetrate the patient’s psyche and drop into the personal ‘unconscious,’ the only place where physical healing can occur. Moreover, even mainstream science depends largely on convenient fictions like, for instance, force-carrying subatomic particles [Okasha, S. (2002). Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, Chapter 4]. We claim these convenient fictions to be legitimate because we can build working technology based on them: empirically, things work as if the fictions were true, and that’s good enough. Why not apply the same sensible pragmatism to the healing arts? Maybe acupuncture works as if energy meridians were true and, until we know better, that’s good enough too.

We have every logical reason – not to mention myriad empirical ones – to give ourselves rational permission to embrace and trust integrative medicine. It explores effective avenues of treatment that have been left untouched by mainstream materialist medicine. Today’s healthcare systems treat us as biological robots because the materialist metaphysics defines us as such. Consequently, doctors often behave as mechanics instead of healers. But for millennia prior to modern medicine, it was the sheer strength of the healer’s personal presence, as well as the psychic effects of his or her often-intricate techniques, that helped people heal. Back then, we lacked the avenue of the collective ‘unconscious’ in the form of effective drugs and surgery. Now, the situation has been reversed: we focus solely on the collective ‘unconscious’ methods of drugs and surgery, ignoring the egoic channel. The time has come to explore both of these avenues concurrently. The time has come for integrative medicine. Human health and wellbeing demand no less.

(Regarding this essay in particular, I'd much appreciate your feedback: Is integrative medicine a valid area for applying philosophical insights? Is it an important focus area in the so-called 'culture war'? Is this something you think I should be spending effort on? Please leave a comment below or participate in my Discussion Forum)

Science and the defacement of Reason

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Kali and Shiva, the destroyer/transformer.
Source: Wikipedia.

Right, this one is going to be controversial. Even as I write these opening words, I still harbor some doubt about whether I should be doing this at all. I'll postpone thinking further about it until the point when there's nothing left to do but to click on the 'publish' button. If you are reading this now, you know that, eventually, I did click on it.

You see, the problem is that I am about to commit sacrilege. I am about to attack my alma mater in the original latin sense of the words. I am about to attack science; or, at least, science as most people know it in our society. I come from the womb of science. Yet, doing what I am about to do is, I guess, the price of brutal honesty. This article has been inspired by private discussions I've had with Alex Tsakiris and Niclas Thörn. I gratefully acknowledge their input. Having said this, I am solely responsible for the opinions I am about to express.

In an earlier article I wrote for New Dawn Magazine, which is now freely available online, I elaborated upon what true science should be and how it differs from how science is presented to the public today. In that article, my concern was to protect an idealized, archetypal view of science from the defacement it is suffering at the hands of those responsible for promoting it. Since I wrote that article, however, I've come to realize that my archetypal view of science is more a personal ideal than an objective reality. More than a kind of Platonic Form, science is what scientists do in practice. As such, the reality of the situation may be the opposite of what I painted in that earlier article: actual science may be the culprit, not the victim. To separate my archetypal, idealized view of science from the reality of science today, I will refer to the latter as science-as-you-know-it.

Archetypal science is ontologically neutral: it is merely a method for unveiling the empirically-observed patterns and regularities of reality, without philosophical interpretations. But science-as-you-know-it implicitly adopts the materialist ontology. Perhaps not all scientists do this; perhaps even only a minority does. But this minority is vocal and influential. They clearly control where the research funding goes, for projects that do not assume the materialist metaphysics collectively get much less funding than projects that do. If you ask me to substantiate this assertion with data, you will be simply revealing your naiveté about what's going on: it's like asking for proof that the Earth is round. Moreover, this vocal minority also controls how science-as-you-know-it is presented in the media, in school curricula, and to the culture at large. Just think of people like Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and others such specialized prodigies of rhetoric and intellectual puzzles, who cavalierly ignore rigorous logic, epistemology, and ontology. As much as it pains me to admit this, the fact is that science-as-you-know-it has become synonym with the materialist metaphysics. Even if, as assumed, only a minority of scientists are responsible for this association, the institutions of science seem to be in no hurry to correct the situation. As such, they and all their members are guilty, at least by omission, of allowing it.

As argued in my latest book Why Materialism Is Baloney, as well as in recent essays and videos in this blog, materialism is a fantasy. It's based on unnecessary assumptions, circular reasoning, and selective consideration of evidence and data. Materialism is by no stretch of the imagination a scientific conclusion, but merely a metaphysical opinion that helps some people interpret scientific conclusions. It's not the purpose of this essay to elaborate on this; the references I just provided make my case. The point here is this: the emperors with no clothes that promote the materialist belief on TV, books, and what not, are seen as spokespeople of science-as-you-know-it. When these people promote their flawed logic in the media as an expression of Reason, the irony is distasteful. As such, science-as-you-know-it, with all the funding and respect it has accumulated as enabler of technology, has become the chief promotor of a philosophical worldview that is not only false, but corrosive, demeaning to the human condition, and a threat to a sane and healthy future for your children. As much as its continuing positive contributions to civilization cannot be ignored or dismissed, science-as-you-know-it has also made itself part of a great threat. Allow me to elaborate.

The implicit materialist belief that is now intrinsically associated with science-as-you-know-it limits the horizons of scientific research. Many interesting and promising phenomena do not get studied because, according to materialism, they are a priori decreed to be impossible. Interesting data, which could point the way to entirely unexpected and promising avenues of research, get discarded because, according to materialism, they cannot be valid. By adopting materialism, science-as-you-know-it has surrendered its neutrality and openness; it is now biased. How many healing methods, amazing technologies, and ways of improving our lives will not be discovered because of this? How many new horizons that could bring great meaning, excitement, and unimagined possibilities to the human condition won't be opened? Instead of a force for impartial exploration, science-as-you-know-it is turning into a strait jacket for the human spirit. Instead of working on truly new discoveries, science-as-you-know-it is now busy with fantasies that make for great entertainment but not much more, as cogently argued in a recent Huffington Post essay.

Worst yet, science-as-you-know-it now claims to have rendered philosophy redundant, a philosophical statement recently made by, among many others, Lawrence Krauss. The insanity and danger of this position have been cogently argued by Prof. Austin Hughes. By projecting all reality onto abstract matter, and then by proceeding to deny the value of philosophical inquiry, science-as-you-know-it is sucking the meaning out of the human condition.

Yet, science-as-you-know-it is not the sole culprit of this tragic and dangerous state of affairs. We all are. It is our society and culture that project wisdom onto people who are just smart in their very-highly-specialized-and-narrow fields. To ask Stephen Hawking – someone who had the nerve to state that, 'because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,' apparently ignoring the quaint fact that the law of gravity is not nothing – about the underlying nature of reality (i.e. ontology) is like asking a chess player about quantum physics. The chess player is pretty smart, alright, but those smarts don't apply to all and everything. Smart scientists can be, and often are, surprisingly foolish when it comes to epistemology, ontology, psychology, art, poetry, and all those things that matter much more to actual human life than mathematical puzzles. Yet we, as the people, still can't resist the temptation to project general wisdom onto them. This projection is what has invested them with the power to speak nonsense and not be either ridiculed or ignored.

But if we have been enablers of this situation, we can also counter the situation by withdrawing our projections. Let's look upon the militant spokespeople of science-as-you-know-it for what they truly are: confused human beings like you and me, potentially beset by hubris, narrow-mindedness, prejudices, agendas, circular reasoning, projections, hidden insecurities, neuroses, unconsciousness, and the entire gamut of human limitations. In doing so, we may lose some of the anchors that ground our lives: we may feel lost in the jungle, without guides. But those anchors were illusory to begin with. We need wisdom, not narrow intellectual prowess. We need guides, not puzzle-solvers. We need people who are conscious of, and in touch with, their humanity, in all its horror and beauty, not unconscious nerds living in denial.

It started with us, but it can change with us.

At the same time, we have to be extraordinarily careful. To simply get rid of science would be a catastrophe for the human condition, setting us back hundreds of years. A quick look at the fringes of the culture shows the dark tides of delusion, hysteria, nonsense, fundamentalism, and sheer madness waiting at the sidelines. But the real risk of catastrophe cannot justify accepting the prospect of slow but sure death that scientific materialism now presents us with. Finding the right balance here is crucial and not at all easy. Our culture will be faced with this critical crossroads not too long from now. The human spirit cannot tolerate the starvation of meaning and the limited horizons that science-as-you-know-it is forcing upon us. The collective human unconscious will rebel. Our challenge will be to channel those erupting energies in a way that balances their destructive and constructive aspects. Shiva and Brahma are both needed; in this order. Vishnu must stand on the sidelines for a while.

Five ways materialists beg the question

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Hidden but still visible.
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

To 'beg the question' is a logical fallacy in which one takes the conclusion of an argument as a premise of the argument. For instance, if one says: 'God exists because the bible says so, and the bible is true because it was written by God,' one is begging the question of God's existence. As such, to beg the question is a kind of circular reasoning. Although the circularity of the reasoning is obvious in the simplistic example I just gave, one often begs the question in an indirect and somewhat hidden manner. In this essay, I want to summarize some of the common ways in which materialists beg the question: that is, the ways in which they argue for the validity of materialism by assuming materialism in the argument. The circularity of their reasoning becomes clear once it's pointed out, but it is astonishing how often educated, intelligent materialists fall for it. The list below is in no particular order of importance or ranking.

1 - 'Our sense perceptions provide direct evidence for a world outside consciousness.' Whatever else they may or may not be, our sense perceptions are certainly a particular modality of conscious experience. Other modalities are thoughts, emotions, and imagination. The difference is that we often identify with our thoughts, emotions, and imagination – that is, we think that our thoughts, emotions, and imagination are part of us – and seldom identify with our sense perceptions – that is, we do not think that the world we see around us is part of us. Moreover, we often have some degree of direct volitional control of our thoughts and emotions, while we do not have any direct volitional control of the world we perceive around us: we cannot change the world merely by wishing it to be different. Therefore, all we can really say about sense perception is that it is a modality of conscious experience that we do not identify with or have direct volitional control of. That's all. When materialists assert that sense perception is direct evidence for a world outside mind, they are assuming that things we do not identify with or have direct volitional control of can only be grounded in a world outside consciousness. This, of course, begs the question.

2 - 'We cannot say that reality is in consciousness because that would require postulating an unfathomably complex entity to be imagining reality.' The hidden assumption here is that consciousness can only exist if it is generated by something else; by an entity outside consciousness, whose complexity must be proportional to the level of consciousness being generated. This is a hardly-disguised way to assume materialism in the first place: to assume that mind must be reducible to complex arrangements of something outside mind. Naturally, when one claims that reality is in consciousness, one is claiming precisely that consciousness is irreducible, primary, fundamental. Consciousness, as such, is not generated by complex entities or, for that matter, by anything outside consciousness: it is simply what is. To say that irreducible consciousness generates reality requires no more complexity and poses no more problems than to say that irreducible laws of physics generate reality. In fact, it poses less problems, since it avoids the hard problem of consciousness altogether.

3 - 'The stability and consistency of the laws of physics show that reality is outside consciousness.' The hidden premise here is that all conscious processes are necessarily somewhat unstable and unpredictable. This would be true only if all conscious processes were tied to neuronal activity, for neuronal activity is often unstable and unpredictable. But that is an implication only of materialism. There is nothing in the statement that all reality is in consciousness requiring that all conscious processes be tied to neuronal activity. There is nothing in it that precludes the possibility that certain processes in the broader, non-personal levels of consciousness unfold according to very stable, strict patterns and regularities that we've come to call the 'laws of nature.' If all reality is in consciousness, then it is brains that are in consciousness, not consciousness in brains. As such, consciousness is not limited or circumscribed by brain activity. To assume so is to beg the question of materialism.

4 - 'Since our minds are separate and we all experience the same external reality, this reality must be outside consciousness.' The idea here is to suggest that, if reality is fundamentally in consciousness, as a kind of collective dream, how come we can all be sharing the same dreamworld, given that our minds are not connected? How can the dream be shared? Naturally, this begs the question entirely: it is only under the notion that our minds are generated by our bodies that we can say that our minds are separate; after all, our bodies are indeed separate. But if reality is in consciousness, then it is our bodies that are in consciousness, not consciousness in our bodies. The fact that our bodies are separate in the canvas of consciousness simply does not imply that our minds are fundamentally separate at the deeper, subconscious levels. To say so is analogous to stating that, because one has two applications open in a computer screen, one must be using two separate computers! It is the application that is in the computer, not the computer in the application. Separate applications do not imply separate computers.

5 - 'We know that subconscious brain activity can determine later conscious experience. For instance, by measuring brain activity neuroscientists can predict a subject's choice before the subject is conscious of making the choice. Therefore, brain activity generates consciousness.' Here, materialists beg the question by equating neuronal processes outside self-reflective awareness with processes outside consciousness. As I elaborate upon in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney (see this freely-available excerpt), our self-reflective awareness amplifies certain contents of consciousness and, thereby, obfuscates others. This is analogous to how the stars become obfuscated in the noon sky by the much stronger glare of the sun. The stars are all still there at noon, their photons still hitting your retina. Strictly speaking, you are still 'seeing' the stars, but you don't know that you are seeing them because they become obfuscated. Similarly, the contents of consciousness that become obfuscated by the 'glare' of egoic self-reflection are all still in consciousness, but you are not conscious that you are conscious of them; that is, you are not self-reflectively aware of them. There is a strong sense in which not knowing that you know something is equivalent to really not knowing it, this being the reason why we think that we are not conscious of certain things when everything is, in fact, in consciousness. The brain activity that neuroscientists can measure to predict a subject's later conscious choices are simply the image of these contents of consciousness that become obfuscated; not their cause. I have elaborated on this notion that the brain is the image – not the cause – of self-localization processes of consciousness in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The argument is briefly summarized here.

I personally believe that most materialists beg the question sincerely. They truly are confused: they can't see the circularity of the ways in which the interpret, and then think to confirm their interpretations of, reality. This happens because we live in a culture that has completely lost objectivity: we can't see past the assumptions and beliefs we are immersed in, and indoctrinated into, since childhood. This is all understandable, even though it remains one's personal responsibility – if one is actually interested in truth – to overcome it at some point.

However, when it comes to militant materialists – often scientists – who make it their mission in life to promote the materialist metaphysics, the stakes are much higher. When these people come to the mainstream media and beg the question of materialism so vocally, arrogantly, and blatantly, they are going much beyond doing harm to themselves: they are doing harm to countless others. It is your children, especially those still going through the educational system, who are listening to them with the openness characteristic of those who trust authority and aren't yet ready to evaluate more critically what's being said. Whether these militant materialists are genuinely confused in their question-begging or not is irrelevant: by making the choice to militantly promote the materialist metaphysics, they take on the responsibility of knowing better. After all, ignorance of the law does not entitle anyone to commit the crime. Their actions are damaging and irresponsible. It would be hilarious to watch these people promote idiocy with the hubris of an emperor with no clothes. However, the reality of it is tragic, and something must be done about it.


The 'brain as receiver': comments on Steven Novella's post

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

A radio receiver. Source: Wikipedia.

As my readers know, in Chapter 2 of Why Materialism Is Baloney I discuss the 'filter hypothesis' of mind-brain interaction. According to this hypothesis, 'no subjective experience is ever generated by the brain, but merely selected by it according to the perspective of the body ... This selection process is akin to a 'filtering out' of conscious experience: like a radio receiver selecting, from among the variety of stations present concurrently in the broadcast signal, that which one wants to listen to, all other stations being filtered out.' (p. 40) Clearly, the 'filter hypothesis' can be referred to as the 'receiver hypothesis,' since it compares the brain to a radio receiver. Due to several subtleties that escape the scope of this essay, I prefer the term 'filter,' but will acquiesce to the 'receiver' description here in the interest of brevity and simplicity.

This week, Michael Prescott referred extensively to my defence of the 'receiver hypothesis' in his latest blog post. As it turns out, not so long ago a reader had also posted on my Facebook page a link to an article neurologist Steven Novella recently wrote attempting to rebut the hypothesis. The 'synchronicities' seem to be suggesting that I write something about it, so I will attempt to de-construct Novella's position here. I encourage you to read this essay to the end, for there are nuances and turns in my position that you may not expect at first.

As my readers know, my use of the 'receiver hypothesis' is metaphorical. The hypothesis, if taken literally, entails dualism: consciousness as one kind of 'stuff' and the brain (that is, the 'receiver') as another, fundamentally different kind of 'stuff.' I do not subscribe to dualism: my position is what philosophers call 'monistic idealism,' as summarised in an earlier essay and short videosIn a nutshell, I think consciousness and the brain are of exactly the same kind of 'stuff', but I think the brain is in consciousness, not consciousness in the brain. More on this below. For now, I want to comment on Novella's article as if I were a proponent of the literal interpretation of the 'receiver' hypothesis. I want to do this to illustrate what I believe to be the clear weaknesses of Novella's argument. This is important because, as we so often see, materialists tend to argue arrogantly as though they had the rational and empirical high-ground. As Robert Perry brilliantly put in a comment to an earlier post in this blog, 'underneath every argument for materialism is the implicit or explicit statement that materialism occupies the privileged default position, so that it gets the benefit of all doubt.' This is what I want to counter in the first half of this essay. In the second half, I will confess that my own position is, in fact, not so far from Novella's own, but with a big twist...

Novella's argument

Novella summarises his two arguments against the 'receiver' hypothesis as follows:
it does not explain the intimate relationship between brain and mind, and (even if it could) it is entirely unnecessary
He elaborates on the second point first:
When I flip the light switch on my wall, the materialist model holds that I am closing a circuit, allowing electricity to flow through the wires in my wall to a specific appliance (such as a light fixture). That light fixture contains a light bulb which adds resistance to the circuit and uses the electrical energy to heat an element in order to produce light and heat.

One might hypothesize, however, that an invisible light fairy lives in my wall. When I flip the switch the fairy flies to the fixture where it draws energy from the electrical wires, and then creates light and heat that it causes to radiate from the bulb. The light bulb is not producing the light and heat, it is just a conduit for the light fairy’s light and heat.

There is no way you can prove that my light fairy does not exist. It is simply entirely unnecessary, and adds nothing to our understanding of reality. The physics of electrical circuits do a fine job of accounting for the behavior of the light switch and the light. There is no need to invoke light bulb dualism.

The same is true of the brain and the mind, the only difference being that both are a lot more complex.
This sounds compelling at first sight, doesn't it? Yet, it is a completely hollow and misleading metaphor: unlike the solid physics behind electrically-powered lighting, we do not have a causal model for how the brain generates consciousness. In fact, we don't even have coherent hypotheses. The whole power of Novella's metaphor resides precisely in the suggestion that we have for consciousness a causal model like we have for electric lighting. But that is false. You see, it is solely because of the existence of causal models for electric lighting that he can say that light-fairies are unnecessary. We simply cannot say the same about consciousness given the complete absence of any remotely equivalent model for how the brain generates mind. The cogency of Novella's fairies is purely rhetorical and, ultimately, hollow and misleading. It brushes over the elephant in the room: the hard problem of consciousness.

Novella goes on, elucidating his first point now:
The examples often given of the radio or TV analogy are very telling. They refer to altering the quality of the reception, the volume, even changing the channel. But those are only the crudest analogies to the relationship between brain and mind.

A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch?

 Well, that is what would be necessary in order for the analogy to hold.
The idea, of course, is to suggest that we can 'change the plot' of our conscious experiences by fooling around with brain wiring; that we can change our life from 'a sitcom into a drama' by messing around with the brain; that we can 'change the dialogue' of the people around us by hacking our heads. Well, can we? Here is what he says next:
As we have learned more and more about brain function, we have identified many modules and circuits in the brain that participate in specific functions. ...

Disruption of one circuit, for example, can make someone feel as if their loved-ones are imposters, because they do not evoke the usual emotions they should feel.

Disruption of another circuit can make a person feel as if they are not in control of a part of their body – so-called alien hand syndrome.

A stroke that leaves the ownership module intact but unconnected to the paralyzed limb can rarely result in a supernumerary phantom limb – the subjective experience of having an extra limb that you can feel and controlled (but that does not exist).

Seizures are also a profound area of evidence for the mind as brain theory. Synchronous electrical activity in particular parts of the brain can make people twitch and convulse, but also experience smells, sounds, images, feelings, a sense of unreality, a sense of being connected to the universe, an inability to speak, the experience of a particular piece of music, a sense of deja vu, or pretty much anything you can imagine. The subjective experience depends on the part of the brain where the seizure occurs.
Well? What about changing the plot of our lives by manipulating the brain? What about changing our lives from sitcom to drama? What about inserting dialogues into our conscious experience by hacking the brain? Where is the evidence for all that? Clearly, Novella is using a misleading rhetorical device here. He appeals to a strong and valid intuition at first by making an implicit promise. Then, very subtly, he 'forgets' entirely to deliver on that promise. The trick is that readers may not be critical enough to notice it when they read on. They may stay with the conclusion evoked by the original promise, failing to see that it wasn't fulfilled in the end.

What the evidence does show is that brain hacking (for lack of a better expression) can cause incoherent or limited hallucinations (which Novella refers to when he talks about the brain-induced experience of 'smells, sounds, images, feelings.'). These are a far cry from induced 'plot changes' from 'sitcom to drama.' Moreover, the 'receiver' analogy can easily deal with incoherent or limited hallucinations as well, as anyone who ever messed around with the tuning knob of a radio will know. Other observations Novella refers to can also be accommodated by the 'receiver' analogy. For instance, someone's inability to feel connected to loved ones can be interpreted as the 'filtering out' (or 'tuning out') of the experience of love, which is not a mere detail of our conscious lives but a major 'channel.' One can think of it as limiting the range of the tuning knob along a certain dimension, so one can no longer tune into the 'heart channel.' (Here I anticipate that Novella, if he replies to this, will pick on this very specific statement and create a straw-man... just watch.)

His next misleading point:
If, on the other hand, the receiver model were correct then it would be reasonable to predict that as we investigate the relationship between brain function and mental function in greater and greater detail, the physical model would break down. We would run into anomalies we could not explain, and it would seem as if the brain does not have the physical complexity to account for the observed mental complexity. None of this is what we find, however.
Very smoothly, he is passing for a fact the claim that we don't find those anomalies. One can only conclude this by ignoring all the evidence that contradicts materialism. There are plenty of anomalies. I refer to Chapter 2 of my book Why Materialism Is Baloney for a list.

In conclusion, I think the power of Novella's arguments depends on misleading rhetorical devices. I won't even claim that he is purposefully misleading; on the contrary: I actually think that he honestly believes what he wrote. Once you become too invested in a certain paradigm of thought (as any militant materialist is), you also become unable to step back and evaluate the arguments objectively. You drink your own poison and then go on to sell it as elixir; very sincerely.

Where I agree with Novella

All this said, I actually think Novella does suggest some good points, buried in his misleading rhetoric. Here is a part I like:
A dedicated dualist might still argue that each specific mental function requires its own specific receiver. Brain circuits are receiving specific signals. If you stimulate the circuit it acts as if it is receiving the signal. Eventually, this argument leads to a brain that has all the circuitry necessary to produce everything we can observe about mental function – it leads to the light fairy argument, where the light fairy is simply not necessary.
Indeed, beyond a certain level of granularity, if we can keep on deactivating or stimulating more and more specific cognitive capacities by brain manipulation alone, the 'receiver' analogy breaks down. The 'receiver' model entails that brain activity correlates with experience at the finest levels of granularity, but not that brain hardware has the same level of correlation. Of course, the question is: have we passed that level?

My own position

As my readers know, I think materialism's postulate of a whole universe beyond the only carrier of reality we can ever know – that is, conscious experience itself – is inflationary and unnecessary. Materialism simply isn't skeptical enough, entertaining unreasonable metaphysical abstractions as it does. My claim is that only subjective experience exists. As such, the brain is in consciousness, not consciousness in the brain. Anything beyond consciousness is, by definition, beyond knowledge and concreteness, since both knowledge and concreteness are (qualities of) experience.

How do we then explain the fine-grained correlations between brain activity and subjective experience? Because the brain is the visible image of a localisation of the flow of consciousness, like a whirlpool is the visible image of a localisation of the flow of water. For exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water, the brain doesn’t generate consciousness. Yet, obviously, the image of a process correlates very well with the inner-workings of the process. Flames, as the 'outside view' of the microscopic process we call combustion, correlate very well with the 'inside,' microscopic view of combustion. Yet, flames don't cause combustion; they are simply the way combustion looks from the outside. In exactly the same way, brain activity doesn't cause subjective experience; it is simply the way subjective experience looks from the outside. The simplicity of this interpretation is so self-evident that I find it baffling that materialists don't see it.

Fine, but how do we then explain why physical intervention with the brain can so dramatically interfere with cognition and motor control? For the same reason that a thought can interfere with an emotion. Is there any problem with that? Of course not. After all, a thought is merely a process in consciousness that interferes with another process in consciousness – namely, an emotion. Under monistic idealism, all physical objects, actions, phenomena, and processes are images of processes in consciousness; what else could they be? As such, there is absolutely no problem in the fact that physical intervention in the brain – a process in consciousness – interferes with cognition – another process in consciousness. Seeing a problem here implicitly assumes dualism.

Notice that Novella appeals frequently to parsimony: dualism is unnecessary, because we can explain things without postulating a 'soul' or 'spirit.' I agree with him. But what I find striking is his – and most materialists' – inability to see how their own position makes unnecessary postulates: namely, a whole darned universe outside experience and, as such, beyond knowledge. Parsimony is necessary, and that is precisely why materialism cannot be considered the best explanation for the mind-body problem.

I am aware that what I say above isn't, by any stretch of the imagination, complete enough to tackle all possible objections. That's why I wrote a 250-page book to make my case in a more complete manner. In addition, I have addressed the most common objections to my position in the video below. Please have a look at least at this video before posting your objections in the comments section below.

You might now ask: why do I like the 'receiver' or 'filter' metaphor at all, if I am not a dualist? Because it has much intuitive explanatory power, is closer to reality than materialism, and because it is indeed a proper metaphor for my position: if the brain is a kind of 'whirlpool' of mind, a whirlpool does 'filter out' of itself the water molecules that do not fall within its vortex. A process of mental localisation is, in a way, a process of mental 'tuning.' Dualism may ultimately be wrong, but it surely is a more apt metaphor for the true nature of reality than materialism.