Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Brain Drain


Uh oh, here we go again:

"YOU cannot overestimate," thundered psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, "how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You're gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about... how Darwin's explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it... I'm asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality."

It looks like ID is morphing again. Irreducible complexity at the cellular level, except among the faithful, is pretty much dead. "Teach the controversy" had a stake driven through its heart in Dover and, although there will likely be a knock-down, drag-out in Texas in the next few months, teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution is on life support after failing in Florida and a numbers of other states this year, with Louisiana's double-edged law being its only success on the path to Texas.

So what will it be this time around? According to The New Scientist, the Discovery Institute is funding research into "non-material neuroscience".

According to proponents of ID, the "hard problem" of consciousness - how our subjective experiences arise from the objective world of neurons - is the Achilles heel not just of Darwinism but of scientific materialism. This fits with the Discovery Institute's mission as outlined in its "wedge document", which seeks "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies", to replace the scientific world view with a Christian one.

We might have guessed! ... given the recent book Denyse (accent on the "deny") O'Leary co-authored with Mario Beauregard, a researcher in neuroscience at the University of Montreal, The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul. Never one to eschew hyperbole, O'Leary calls the study of consciousness "Darwinism's grave." Besides Schwartz and Beauregard and, of course, Discovery Institute stalwarts, O'Leary, J.P. Moreland, William Dembski, and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, another name to look out for among the would be highjackers of neuroscience is Angus Menuge, a philosophy professor at Concordia University, who is getting some of the DI's "research" funding.

James Porter Moreland (who usually publishes as J.P. Moreland), a professor at the Talbot School of Theology and a DI fellow who is usually forthright about the theological content if ID, wrote in Consciousness and the Existence of God:

"I've been doing a lot of thinking about consciousness," he writes, "and how it might contribute to evidence for the existence of God in light of metaphysical naturalism's failure to provide a helpful explanation." Non-materialist neuroscience provided him with this helpful explanation: since God "is" consciousness, "the theist has no need to explain how consciousness can come from materials bereft of it. Consciousness is there from the beginning."

Hmmm. The bare assertion that God exists and "is" consciousness (whatever that might mean), coupled with a denial of any need to explain, piled on naturalism's alleged "failure" (for the moment) to explain consciousness, is evidence for God's existence? A protean combination of circularity, shifting of burden and argument from ignorance.

Schwartz has gone a bit farther:

Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for [obsessive-compulsive disorder]. Then he had patients use "mindful attention" to actively change their thought processes, and this showed up in the brain scans: patients could alter their patterns of neural firing at will.

From such experiments, Schwartz and others argue that since the mind can change the brain, the mind must be something other than the brain, something non-material. In fact, these experiments are entirely consistent with mainstream neurology - the material brain is changing the material brain.

Needless to say, some are unimpressed, such as Andy Clark, professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh:

He and others worry because scientists have yet to crack the great mystery of how consciousness could emerge from firing neurons. "Progress in science is slow on many fronts," says John Searle, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley. "We don't yet have a cure for cancer, but that doesn't mean cancer has spiritual causes." ...

And as Clark observes: "This is an especially nasty mind-virus because it piggybacks on some otherwise reasonable thoughts and worries. Proponents make such potentially reasonable points as 'Oh look, we can change our brains just by changing our minds,' but then leap to the claim that mind must be distinct and not materially based. That doesn't follow at all. There's nothing odd about minds changing brains if mental states are brain states: that's just brains changing brains."

So we're in for another round of picking away at the present unknowns in legitimate science, followed by the unwarranted assertion that any unexplained phenomenon is support for the preconceived beliefs of the IDeologists.

My brain is already beginning to hurt.

Update: As I had hoped, Dr. Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, has picked up on this development. And here is Part II of Dr. Novella's response.

Good post. I'm sympathetic to some of the deeper mysteries of "consciousness" (an overloaded word, to be sure), but I have to laugh when I see creationists and IDers use these mysteries as evidence for "God" or design. They are simply philosophical problems, which may or may not become scientific problems. They are not problems with science. They don't provide any evidence for or against any God. In fact if anything, they seem to faintly suggest either panpsychism or solipsism - worldviews that most Christians would find quite repellent.
So if consciousness is god, then every time I have impure thoughts while watching porn, I must be making god actually perform those same actions. No need to thank me god. Enjoy and I'll try to keep up the good work.
Certainly, the nature and functioning of consciousness is likely to remain an area open to philosophical/theological interpretation for the foreseeable future. But, as always, the IDers will try to redefine science to smuggle in their theological musings.

And Brian, God told me he'd like you to que up "Debbie Does Dallas" Saturday night.
We saw this coming. By "we" I mean that I recall reading and making posts on t.o nigh on ten years ago, that the religious apologists would get around to neurology sometime.
The 'hard problem' of consciousness comes up a lot in my discussion with colleagues. Being somewhat of a behaviorist at heart I tend to say that the 'hard problem' is an illusion. However, many neuroscientists I know believe that it is a scientifically approachable topic, though one which we are several decades away from trying to tackle. But those scientists approach consciousness as a materialistic phenomenon, as an 'emergent property' of our neural architecture. There is nothing metaphysical about it; consciousness is simply an outcome that was not predictable given the organization of our brain.

I've tried reading some of the thinking behind the hard problem (eg. David Chalmers work) but I admit that it leaves me more confused. Perhaps I am missing something, but I don't really understand what he and others operational define as consciousness.

One additional point: if scientific research were to be fruitful in this area, it would undoubtedly make use of animal models. And if animals were shown to have consciousness ... well wouldn't that be more of a problem for those who would deny evolution and want to place the human species on a pedestal. I mean, if consciousness = a soul and you show that non-human animals have a soul ... well, you see where I'm going with this.
... but I don't really understand what he and others operational define as consciousness.

It's been a while since I gave up my first attempt to wade through Chalmers' book (I intend to go back) but as I understand it, he is talking about the "me" in here ... the sense of a continuing personality that experiences this moment and whatever sense impression, such as "green," that "I" have at this time. His contention is that "me" is not necessary for my interaction with the environment, for the utilization of memory or the employment of logic. As a purely functional matter, I could be just as evolutionarily successful as a "zombie" with no "me" to "experience" my senses. His question is why, if that's so, the purely material chemical/electrical processes of the brain came up with this, for want of a better word, "illusion" of personality.

Personally [cough], I find that calling consciousness (especially since we cannot define it at all well in the first place) an 'emergent property' of the brain's architecture is no explanation at all and is little more than a label we are putting on our ignorance. I prefer a simple "we don't know."
JP, Your work and writing is truly impressive. You seem to be fair and reasonable and critical of any position that overstates it's case regardless of which philosophical camp it comes from.
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