Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
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Laboratory mice in the experiment test. Blue filter.
Laboratory mice in the experiment test. Blue filter.

Has Neuroscience “Proved” That the Mind Is Just the Brain?

This is hardly the first time that bizarre claims have been made for minimal findings. In neuroscience, materialism is the answer only if you don’t understand the questions.

Last month, materialist neurologist Steven Novella made a rather astonishing claim in a post at his Neurologica blog: A recent open-access study of learning and decision-making in mice shows that the human mind is merely what the human brain does. That’s a lot for mice to prove.

In the study, the mice were trained to choose holes from which food is provided. Their brain activity was measured as they learned and decided which holes were best. The research looks specifically at quick and intuitive decision-making vs. decision-making that is slower and involves analysis of the situation. The investigators found that analysis-based decisions in the mice involve brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region of the brain in the fissure between the hemispheres.

From the standpoint of understanding the mind-brain relationship, this study is unremarkable. There is no doubt that thinking usually involves brain activity of some sort. Dualists (who think that the human mind uses the brain but is not identical with it) and materialists (who think that the mind is just what the brain does) have no disagreement here. This study details the correlative brain activity in mice, which is nice to know. But Dr. Novella takes this mundane study and draws a ludicrous conclusion:

I also feel obligated to point out that research like this completely destroys any notion of dualism – that mental function exists somehow outside of or separate from the biological functioning of the brain. So far, the “neuroscience” hypothesis, that mental function is brain function, is working quite well. The brain is a complex biological computer, and we can figure out how it works by studying it. Even the most sophisticated cognitive processes, such as analytical decision-making, are demonstrably happening in the brain. Further, not only is there zero evidence for the dualist hypothesis, it is completely unnecessary, which is a fate in science even worse than being wrong.

Steven Novella, “How the Brain Predicts Outcomes” at Neurologica Blog (November 6, 2020)

Nonsense. Novella has been trying to sell his materialist ideology in the guise of neuroscience for more than a decade. This is only the most recent in a host of his bizarre claims, including his 2008 assertion that “The materialist hypothesis– that the brain causes consciousness—has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated.”

That’s a beautiful example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (people overestimate their mastery of a situation they don’t understand.) In neuroscience, materialism is the answer only if you don’t understand the questions. Here are some of them:

cages with white mouse

First, the philosophical issues. It’s fair to say that the mind-brain problem is the most active and contentious field of philosophical inquiry in modern times. Philosopher David Chalmers has summarized the conundrum succinctly: there are two kinds of problems in understanding how the mind relates to the brain: the easy problems and the hard problem.

The easy problems are the ordinary scientific questions addressed by neuroscience, such as “What part of the brain is active when I think?” or “What neurotransmitters are secreted when I feel anxious?” The science may be difficult but the questions are tractable. Scientific research has the tools to address these “easy problems.”

The “hard problem” is another matter entirely: How do material brain states correspond to mental states? How could a certain concentration of chemicals in my brain cause me to do calculus? How could a specific electrochemical gradient in my brain make me feel sad? What is the link?

The answer, says Chalmers, is that we have no idea how brain states can cause thoughts. There is certainly no explanation provided by science—there is no mathematical formula that links neurons to thoughts and there is no reason to think there ever will be or ever can be. Brains are material, thoughts are immaterial, and there is no way imaginable to explain one by the other. This is why the hard problem (Chalmers himself coined the term in 1995) is hard—it’s not even tractable by neuroscience, let alone solvable.

Other philosophers have used different terms for the hard problem—Joseph Levine calls it the Explanatory Gap. But the problem is the same. There is no explanation for the mental on the basis of the physical. No physics or chemistry explains thought.

What is not in doubt is that, to some extent, thoughts correlate with brain activity. On that, dualists and materialists agree. But what is also not in doubt is that there is no materialist explanation—and there cannot be a materialist explanation— for the mind.

There are two general non-materialist ways of understanding the mind-brain relationship. There’s idealism, according to which, “reality itself is a form of thought and human thought participates in it.” That is a profound metaphysical perspective that offers much to admire both as a theory of mind and as a metaphysical basis for science, although in modern times it is (regrettably) not in vogue.

Alternatively, there are various kinds of dualism—substance dualism, property dualism, Thomistic dualism to name a few—which offer coherent and scientifically consistent descriptions of the mind and brain. My own view is Thomistic dualism. But I acknowledge that idealism and other variants of dualism have undeniable strengths.

The neuroscience evidence for dualism is very strong. Many of the greatest neuroscientists of the past century have been dualists or idealists— Charles Sherrington, Ramon y Cajal, Wilder Penfield, Benjamin Libet, Roger Sperry, and John Eccles, to name a few. The pioneering research of Wilder Penfield in neurosurgery for epilepsy strongly supported dualism. The research on the correlates between brain activity and will by Benjamin Libet supports a dualist interpretation of free will (Libet himself was a property dualist).

Roger Sperry’s Nobel-prize winning research on split-brain patients clearly supports a non-materialist perspective. Sperry, whose philosophy I would describe as idealist, rejected the prevailing materialism common among neuroscientists:

[I rejected] the then prevalent ’mechanistic, materialistic, behavioristic, fatalistic, reductionistic view’ of the ‘nature of mind and psyche’. It was on this occasion that I openly changed my alignment from behaviorist materialism to antimechanistic and nonreductive mentalism…

“Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, YES; Dualism, NO” in Neuroscience Vol. 5. p.196

The emerging science of near-death experiences, as well as the evidence for mental activity even in the most profound states of coma, provide powerful evidence for the ability of the mind to function at least somewhat independently of the body. It can be argued that even the strong similarity between the ape brain and the human brain is evidence for dualism because the profound dissimilarity between the human mind and the ape mind cannot be readily explained on a material basis.

I offer a synopsis of the neuroscientific arguments for the immateriality of some kinds of thought—abstract thought and free will— here. But now, back to Steven Novella and the mice:

Dr. Novella’s assertion that the study of brain activity in trained mice “completely destroys any notion of dualism” is abject nonsense. Novella gets the answers wrong because he doesn’t understand the questions. Materialism is a woefully impoverished way to understand reality, and it is most clearly inadequate as a framework for neuroscience. To paraphrase philosopher Roger Scruton, Novella’s materialist neuroscience is a vast collection of answers with no memory of the questions.


You may also enjoy these articles by Michael Egnor:

Why the mind can’t just be the brain. Thinking it through carefully, the idea doesn’t even make sense.

and

Is materialism falsifiable? Yes, easily. However, neurologist Steven Novella is sure that materialism is not falsifiable by science.


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Has Neuroscience “Proved” That the Mind Is Just the Brain?