November 11, 2008

War On Neuroscience? What War?

After the initial shock of reading the article about Creationism's declaration of war on neuroscience, I thought I had better give some of my own thoughts. It would be very easy (and also very lazy) to rant on as many have already done by condemning them as "stupid" and IDiots (ID = Intelligent Design, IDiots = advocates of ID) although I do feel that way sometimes. One of my favourite science writers, Steven Novella, has written an excellent two-part review of the article and also provides some of the background behind the controversy:

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature - Part II

This whole affair annoys me deeply because, as a general researcher, I am bound to keep up with all the latest developments in the field so as to maintain my own standard of knowledge as well as being properly equipped to deal with issues that I come across. What to speak of any patients I may eventually treat! And now I am going to have to take a greater care with what I read. Of course due care and caution needs to be taken with what we anyway, such as whether experimental studies have been carried out by using a fairly rigorous methodology and whether the (statistical) data really do support the conclusions, but now every time I read a paper that presents somewhat startling or surprising results I'm going to have a niggly little voice in the back of my head asking, "Did an IDiot write this?"

I've already had some disturbing run-ins with IDiotic papers (blogged here) and I still shudder at the memory. Aside from all that, though, is the disturbing possibility of how old notions of neuroscience are proposed for ressurrection (for want of a better term!) in order to substantiate this new 'battle', implicated in the very term 'non-material neuroscience' that is being thrown around by them suggests that they are on a mission to decry 'material' neuroscience as if it is a bad thing. What any good neuroscientist would know through years of private practice and research is that a duality between the two doesn't exist: the mind is the brain and vice versa. This is experienced even in empirical ways where we see a patient suffering from brain injury very often undergoes variable personality changes. The effect of any changes of course depends on the severity of the injury, and cases like these have been known about and treated for nigh on two centuries already (as per the incredible case of Phineas Gage). In short, an injury (or deficiency) to an important part of the brain generally causes the patient to exhibit behaviour that is synonymous with the injury or deficit at hand. The important point about cases like these, and which is often missed, is that it is possible to suggest that fundamental things such as 'thoughts' and 'personality' which are usually thought of in abstract terms can be said to have a material origin.

This point is very unpalatable for those who tend to a spiritual or otherwise New-Agey outlook on life, and who would be given to beliefs or sentiments that favour a sense of being a controller of one's own destiny. One certainly can exhibit control over certain areas in ones life, but this isn't about which outlook, viewpoint or worldview is correct or superior. This is about simple facts. And these facts make it clear that a material viewpoint is the only real path one can take to understanding issues of neuronal importance. Any reasonable person who gives a moment's thought to the concept will be able to understand that all our experiences - sensory, emotional, somatic, metaphysical - are processed only through the brain. Thus, even at the outset, the idea of a "non-material neuroscience" as propounded by Schwartz, Beauregard, and those of their ilk, is defeated.

But for me, this is one of those areas where science and philosophy merge to such an extent that it becomes a big blur. What the ID movement is trying to do is ressurrect "Cartesian dualism" which, put simply, is Rene Descartes' idea that mind and body are separate. Applied to neuroscience, this translates as the mind being a separate and different 'entity' from the brain tissues that host it. He summed up this idea in the famous saying, "cogito ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am." According to Descartes, the mind and the body were composed of different types of substances just as oil and water. How could this be? We can see from our own experience that if we think about kicking someone up their bum and have our minds instruct our foot to do so, signals are sent to the leg that prepares and allows our foot to take aim and kick. Conversely, our bodies can also have an effect on our minds; a cut on the hand, for instance, may be painful enough to send distress signals to our brains and perhaps lead us into a state of panic. It seems that there is some ostensible connection between our bodies and minds.

Although Descartes insisted on their being separate entities and didn't adequately answer how these connections take place, Cartesian dualism, the theory that espouses these views, has come to explain these connections as a form of interactionism, that the (separate) body and mind interacted with each other in some way. In what ways they do that also hasn't been adequately explained. There are other types of dualism of course.

Perhaps the explanations above may go some way in explaining the shortcomings of the dualist theory, and why monism, the conception of the mind and the brain being one entity, is a much better model to use in trying to understand neuroscientific issues and problems. This kind of view is apparent in many modern descriptions of mind: 'Minds are simply what brains do' (Minsky, 1986); "'Mind is designer language for the functions that the brain carries out' (Claxton, 1994); Mind is 'the personalisation of the physical brain' (Greenfield, 2000). To quote Susan Blackmore:

"Such descriptions make it possible to talk about mental activities and mental abilities without supposing that there is a separate mind. This is probably how most psychologists and neuroscientists think of 'mind' today, but there is much less agreement when it comes to consciousness." - Consciousness: An Introduction, 2007 (p. 13).

And this is in fact one of the current problems in neuroscience: how consciousness works. The New Scientist article correctly identifies this as an area where the ID movement are very likely to strike. But before we discuss that, a short description of consciousness must suffice. To describe a neural function that is, to say the least, responsible for our being alive is very hard to do. Is it appropriate to describe consciousness as a 'live' phenomenon? What about those unfortunate individuals who exist in a vegetative state due to horrific injuries, aren't they technically "alive"? Or are they? Who can adequately describe consciousness, in all its fancies and frivolities, dreams and nightmares, naturals and supernaturals, illusions and vividity, in a way that would comprehensively define it? The answer is: there isn't one. Consciousness is simply too big and too difficult to describe and there is no general definition that could come close to fully explaining it.

However, there are ways in which we can come close to understanding it or how it works. The ability to categorise stimuli and react to them, to discriminate between things, the way different cognitive structures integrate to provide information, the reportability of mental states, the mechanics of focus and attention, the deliberate control of behaviour, the difference between sleep and wakefulness, all of these are generally separate issues that can be understood in themselves. They are what we call the 'easy' problems of consciousness, denoting that these issues are relatively easy to understand when sufficient research has been carried out and these processes unfold. When we have 'easy' problems, it automatically follows that we have a 'hard' problem and it is this very hard problem that lies unsolved in the mystery of consciousness. The hard problem can be properly described as how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. Or put another way, how can the functioning of neurons (objective processes) give rise to the subjective experiences that make us who we are, our loves, our joys, our sadnesses, our life experiences, our memories, our emotions, everything about us that makes us unique?

This is an issue that neuroscience cannot yet fully explain, although research is always ongoing. Some neuroscientists are sceptical and say that the hard problem will never be solved. Others think, as per the article, that new physical principles need to be postulated in order to guide research and solve it. Still others suggest that sufficient research into the easy problems will cause the hard problem to disappear automatically. Time (and research) will tell.

There will be those who, throwing their hands up in frustration (or thunder from their pulpits à la Jeffrey Schwartz), decide it's all a waste of time and go to the opposite extreme in their extreme thirst for an explanation. As per Daniel Dennett (1991), 'accepting dualism is giving up.' And this is precisely what these people appear to have done in joining the ID movement. But before you start thinking about the influence of right-wing Christian fundamentalists, Steven Novella has shown how the current agents for non-material neuroscience have links to Buddhism, loose associations with Deepak Chopra, as well as the intellectual abuse of quantum mechanics. This makes things a little more difficult because there are some neuroscientists who are interested in Buddhist meditational methodologies (and who employ them in their own lives) as a tool to better understand the experiential quality of consciousness, and some papers are sometimes published that discuss the possibility of what those Buddhist principles may be able to contribute to research in the area. Novella also goes into an excellent discussion of what constitutes the correct understanding of materialism, or naturalism, that is required to understand scientific or neuroscientific issues, and how IDeology diverts and is generally incompatible with the basic precepts of science, such as how a hypothesis should be falsifiable in principle. One example of this is how ID'ers suggest that "unexplained" issues in science can be explained once one accepts the notion of an intelligent top-down designer ('Godiddit!'), but how could this assumption be falsifiable? How is it possible to even prove that an intelligent designer exists? Thus, how could ID ever be scientific in spite of their claims to be so?

All in all, it appears that the IDeologues have learnt nothing from their abject failures in attacking evolution. As outlined in their mission statement they seek nothing less than the destruction of materialism, so it is expected that they will simply up sticks and move somewhere else to kick up a fuss. If they follow similar strategies to when they attacked evolution, we can expect more of the same: attacking all the "weak points" and filling the gaps with God. The disturbing thing is that they do this academically and while wearing the same white lab coats that genuine scientists wear, so the public will be fooled into thinking that any controversy they stir up will be a genuine one and that "conflicting opinions" may have some substance to them. They will publish their "scientific" academic papers (mostly in their own journals) and leave them to confuse the innocent wide-eyed newbies. This is all very disappointing, and underlines all the negatives of being influenced by an ideology that conflicts with the facts. Who would ever attempt to square a circle? Yet this is what the IDiots are trying to do.

I do not think much of their declaration of war. What war? Based on previous history, IDiots hardly ever come up with any real evidence of their claims; they simply re-interpret older and 'classic' experiments to suit their ways of thinking. When the 'weaknesses' of neuroscience are an open secret, the ID'ers will have the tough job of explaining away the 'hard problem' as well as having to explain how Cartesian dualist principles are valid after all. I'm not envious, but I'm not expecting too much from them either. Simply saying 'Godiddit!' to everything isn't a scientifically valid answer nor does it provide satisfactory explanations. It also turns out that David Chalmers, the philosopher who coined the term 'hard problem', has shown significant unease at how it has been hijacked by the ID'ers and has made some interesting points on his blog.

What worries me are the reactions of the public. As mentioned before, they are likely to be fooled into thinking that non-material neuroscience is just as equal and valid a paradigm as 'material' neuroscience is. We are likely to hear more 'spiritual' explanations for how various neural functions work from individuals such as the odious Deepak Chopra, and quite possibly the repellent 'Godiddit!' chorus from the Bible-quoting (or Dhammapada-quoting) peanut gallery. And of course, the usual criticisms about evil crackpot scientists with their chemicals and their test tubes, and how damn myopic and narrow-minded they are to ignore the "spiritual realm" in their doomed endeavour to search for the meaning of everything. This isn't a fantasy - this is history - which has the peculiar quality of repeating itself. That the whole evolution debacle even made it to several legal courts and education boards brought the indignation of many a scientist and a judge, but the one good thing about this "war" on neuroscience is that it is unlikely to have a large effect on public education as the subject is generally only taught at university level. Still, the idea of graduates' heads being filled with 'alternative' theories (when there are already plenty of 'orthodox' theories to digest) is something that causes me to shudder.

At the end of the day, what matters is that - war or no war - this shift is important to acknowledge and represents a challenge for this scientific establishment to face it head-on. Plenty of people would disagree about there being anything to face, and they would be right, but the final paragraph of the article was very telling: "What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the 'God of the gaps'."

And this is the reason why this blog exists. It represents my very small and humble contribution to public education.


  1. This is the most elegant riposte I've read yet to the cartesian creep. The bias detector needs to be kept at a high level.

    When my neurosurgeon started a line about the brain and the mind, I admit to cutting him off with: Descartes was wrong. We could then proceed to straight talk on cortical matters.

  2. Thanks, Luci! Cutting people off before they start is probably the best way to deal with it, hehe.

  3. >>>>Consciousness is simply too big and too difficult to describe and there is no general definition that could come close to fully explaining it.

    You have not studied enough Scientology, probably because you've made up your mind^H^H^H^Hbrain about what Scientology is (without having actually studied it), but if you were to investigate it honestly and with rigour, you might notice that, in fact, the description of consciousness *has* been done in a conclusive, well-organized, technically proficient manner.

    I suggest you start with the Philadelphia Doctorate Course and Phoenix Lectures. Both of these bodies of knowledge deal, very specifically and succinctly, with the nature of human consciousness, and the description of consciousness as an awareness-of-awareness along 52 perceptics may well, indeed, prove fruitful.

    That is, if you can overcome your own silly prejudice against the subject. It would seem that in order to be qualified to be a smart neuroscientist, you have to submit to some fairly atrocious prejudice. A pity. You may be overlooking something very, very obvious ..

  4. Cartesian Dualism is not only espoused by theists, I think it's kind of a straw man to attack those (since they're anti-scientific anyway). What about generative linguistics, what with titles like "Cartesian Linguistics" (Chomsky). It seems you're taking on the philosophy of mind from your neuropsychology perspective and pretend empiricism has solved all the questions. All too easy.

  5. Anonymous, why would I need to study Scientology? My article made no mention of Scientology, so I fail to see what it has to do with my points, let alone any bias on my part? I'm sure Scientology offers answers that are acceptable to the vast majority of it's adherents. Whether they agree or differ with neuroscientific evidence is another matter.

    Andreas, thank you very much for your points. I agree with you in general. I don't hold that empiricism alone can solve any questions nor can a theory of mind do so. I am simply trying to speak in "real world" language so that these issues are easily understandable for "Joe the Plumber". Of course, deeper discussions can always be undertaken.

  6. This a rather hamfisted reading of Descartes. To take one example "Cogito ergo sum" is a not a statement of dualism. Descartes' argument for mind/body dualism is quite separate from the cogito (which a materialist could perfectly well endorse), though it does begin from the cogito.

    There are innumerable other confusions here. E.g. monism is not the doctrine that mind and brain are the same entity (most functionalists are monists, for example, but do not think that minds and brains are the same). Monism is merely the doctrine that there is only one substance. Materialist monists believe that this substance is matter (whatever that is). Nonetheless, most materialists accept the existence of abstract properties instantiated in matter -- so for example, materialist functionalists take minds to be systems of functional relations instantiated in brains. Such systems of functional relations are of course not identical or the same as the brains that instantiate them.

    It is also a little odd that you choose to attack substance dualism, which has virtually no advocates these days. Why not address property dualism? (As advocated by Chalmers and others.) It is at least a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the complete failure of neuroscience to shed any light on the basic problems for materialism identified by Descartes.

    Finally, there is no clarification of what "materialism" is supposed to mean in this context. It had a very concrete meaning for Descartes (think contact mechanics), but we really don't have any robust notion of "body" or "material" since Newton introduced action at a distance into physics.