“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.”
Sound familiar? That’s exactly the same rhetoric the Discovery Institute has used towards evolution, and it’s just as false. It’s to be expected, since this is the ranting of a DI fellow.
What Schwartz is arguing for is dualism: the idea that the mind is not the product of the activity of the brain, but is somehow generated supernaturally, with the brain being nothing but the host or receiver for the emanations of an immaterial ‘soul’. Contrary to his claims, however, this is definitely not a popular view in the neuroscientific community — if anything, the trend is going far, far away from what he claims, with the evidence growing that the reductionist, materialist approach to the brain is the best way to understand how it works. It’s not breaking down. Just as evolutionary theory has been strengthened by advances in molecular biology, so too has the materialist view of the mind been strengthened by multidisciplinary approaches in neuroscience.
The article is reporting on a meeting of these DI-sponsored loons, and it really does sound like a delightful coterie of idiots. Denyse O’Leary was there, along with Mario Beauregard, who together authored what I consider the worst book of 2007, The Spiritual Brain, and so far I’ve read nothing as bad in 2008, so they may deserve a lifetime award. It’s a book that was practically unreadable in its incoherent style, and which was full of illogical claims built from fallacious premises and bad experiments. Schwartz provides more excellent examples of the nonsense these guys are propagating.
To properly support dualism, however, non-materialist neuroscientists must show the mind is something other than just a material brain. To do so, they look to some of their favourite experiments, such as research by Schwartz in the 1990s on people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for OCD. 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.
That makes no sense. The perception of mental activity is associated with detectable changes in the activity of the brain; that is not evidence for dualism. Would it be evidence for the idea that the mind is the product of the brain if our most sensitive instruments revealed that while people composed sonnets or solved calculus problems or daydreamed about Tina Fey nude, their brains were as inert as large lumps of cold silly putty? I think not. These data are exactly what we’d expect if thought were the product of brain activity, that we’d see brain activity while people were thinking. We even have experimental evidence of correlated brain activity preceding individual awareness of conscious thought…again, as we materialists would expect.
The article points out that this is a looming concern, and it’s one I’ve been talking about for a long time. Just as evolution challenged religious literalists preconceptions about human exceptionalism and our origins, and made itself a focus of concerted hatred by the dogmatists, neuroscience is the next big science that is going to antagonize them, since it challenges other fundamental concepts of primitive religious thought, such as the idea that we have immortal souls separate from our flesh, that we are imbued by our creator with this magical element at some instant, such as conception. Remember that this is the papal escape clause: Catholics can accept physical evolution, but that the significant spiritual event was the endowment of a soul on the human lineage at some indefinite time in the past. It’s also going to be a flashpoint for the anti-choice crowd, who want to claim personhood and identity on clumps of cells that don’t even have any neural tissue — it yanks the basis for their claims right out from under their feet.
The only thing sparing us right now is that most public school science classrooms never introduce anything about neuroscience, so it avoids the problem so far of actually directly antagonizing ignorant yahoos who don’t like their children liberated from the biases of their parents’ ignorance. Give it a few more years, though, and let it become a bit more high profile, and it will trigger furious outrage in many more. After all, it is so degrading to be told that your finest thoughts are made from well-ordered meat.