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Why So Many Neuroscientists Are Unreflective Materialists

It’s part of a larger commitment to the belief that materialism will one day refute dualism by explaining away all of the apparent immaterial aspects of the mind

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has contributed a chapter of The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos (2021): “Have science and philosophy refuted free will?” (Ch 18) and “Can materialism explain human consciousness?” (Ch 19). In it, he notes a reality of modern neuroscience: Materialism (the mind is simply what the brain does) is not a discovery so much as a pledge of allegiance:

One might think that the logical problems with materialism would insulate 21st-century neuroscience from its influence, but that is not so. Most contemporary neuroscientists work from an implicitly materialist perspective — in part because they’re unreflective, in part because materialism is the metaphysical correlate of the atheistic scientism that infests modern science, and in part because public admission of a dualist perspective is perceived (correctly) to be a career impediment in neuroscience. I recently had a friend (a tenured and accomplished neuroscientist) who is a devout Christian tell me privately that if he ever publicly questioned materialism, he would never get another grant.

Michael Egnor, “Dualism and Materialism in Modern Neuroscience” at Evolution News and Science Today (November 16, 2021), p. 215 in the book

In a recent podcast at Theology Unleashed, neuroscientist Mark Solms also noted,

And I’m not sure how many people realize that, that science is an incredibly rigid… sort of… it’s like a mafia. You have to go along with the rules of the Don, otherwise you’ve had it. So that’s the big thing I wanted to say in response to what Michael was saying: He’s expressing hard-won conclusions that he has come to as a result of struggling with the biggest questions that there are. And it’s not universally admired to do that. It’s considered… It’s something worse than a maverick, that’s it’s sort of unscientific even anti-scientific to express opinions based on the evidence on these big questions. And so when he said… that in neuroscience we have tons of answers, but we’ve forgotten what the questions are… nothing could be closer to my own experience than that statement.

News, “Neuroscientist: Mind is not just brain? That’s career limiting!” at Mind Matters News (November 9, 2021)

Thus, the many aspects of neuroscience that do not support materialism are quietly ignored. We are assured that science will one day explain (away) these anomalies when advancing technologies are the means by which we come to know of them.

Egnor goes on to explain that dualists like himself do not claim that all aspects of the mind are immaterial: “The dualist claim is less radical: There are some aspects of the mind that are not caused by the brain.” (p. 215) The question is not easily resolved by research:

The evidence, of course, is incomplete — there are countless mental states that are uncorrelated with brain states because no effort has been made to study them, or (perhaps) because the scientific methods employed are insensitive. With these provisos in mind, we can still make reasonable inferences about materialism and dualism based on this fundamental concept: If all mind states are caused by brain states, then every mind state can be evoked by stimulating the brain in some fashion, every mind state can be suppressed by ablating (damaging) the brain in some fashion, and every mind state can be correlated with a brain state in some fashion. If some mind states are notcaused by brain states, then these mind states will be recalcitrant to evocation, ablation, and correlation.

Michael Egnor, “Dualism and Materialism in Modern Neuroscience” at Evolution News and Science Today (November 16, 2021), p. 216 in the book

He reviews the key seminal research and concludes,

The seminal research in neuroscience in the past century clearly supports a dualist view of the mind–bran relationship. Materialism fails logically, and it fails as a framework for understanding experiments. The brain can be split in half (Sperry), but abstract thought and one’s sense of self are not split in half. Abstract reasoning cannot be evoked from the material brain by electrical stimulation or by seizures (Penfield). Higher abstract thoughts are not localized to particular regions of the brain (phrenology), but language is an abstract, inborn ability of huan beings (Chomsky), and severe brain damage and even death do not ablate the mind (Owen and NDE research). Free will can be demonstrated experimentally (Libet and Penfield)

Michael Egnor, “Can materialism explain human consciousness?” (Ch 19) in The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos (2021) pp. 221–22

It’s not that neuroscientists do not know these things. Rather, they know them as anomalies against a vast landscape (as they suppose) of materialism — anomalies that will eventually be smoothed out. The anomalies are not, of course, being smoothed out and new evidence for such anomalies is slowly emerging from new research.

You may also wish to read:

Dualism is the best option for understanding the mind and the brain. Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.

and

Trying to disprove free will shows that materialism doesn’t work Michael Egnor: If you have a metaphysical theory and it contradicts science, logic, and everyday experience, then your metaphysics should be abandoned. To deny free will, biologist Jerry Coyne tries, once again, to defeat the implications of quantum mechanics, neuroscience, and logic.


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Why So Many Neuroscientists Are Unreflective Materialists