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Neuroscience Has Never Provided Much Evidence for Materialism

In a chapter of the new book, Minding the Brain, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor points out that many great neuroscientists were non-materialists

Over the past century, philosophers and philosophy connoisseurs have had a great time making fun of dualism. It was so easy. The human mind, we are told, is just the ghost in the machine, something that, as science will prove, doesn’t really exist. We are just bodies with brains. Life is all material.

An early warning that things aren’t as simple as that should be the outcome of the wager between prominent neuroscientist Christof Koch and dualist philosopher David Chalmers. After 25 years of search, Koch conceded to Chalmers because no consciousness “signature” had been found in the brain.

Was it just a ripple effect of that outcome that, shortly afterward, many leading neuroscientists denounced Koch’s well-regarded Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as pseudoscience leading to panpsychism and possible pro-life attitudes on abortion.

The reality is, as neurosurgeon Michael Egnor points out in “Neuroscience and Dualism,” Chapter 13 of just-published Minding the Brain (Discovery Institute Press, 2023), dualism about the mind and the brain makes a lot more sense than materialism. Great neuroscientists and neurosurgeons have understood that:

Neuroscience, as it extends to the study of the relation of the mind to the brain, seems an exception to mechanistic science, because the phenomenology of thought seems to have no point of contact with matter and mechanism. First-person experience—sensations, memories, beliefs, desires, and such—cannot be explained or even described in the language of matter and forces. Many of the great neuroscientists of the twentieth century—Sherrington, Penfield, Libet, Sperry, and Eccles, to name a few—have been dualists or idealists of various sorts and have rejected the materialist theories of the relation between the mind and the brain. (p. 237)

These scientists weren’t dualists in spite of the evidence but because of it. The findings from their research really did not support a materialist view of the mind, although it has sometimes been spun that way in popular science writing.

Perhaps the most revealing example of this trend is neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891–1976), who pioneered the treatment of epilepsy by exposing the brain and removing damaged parts. That should certainly have predisposed him to materialism — and he did start out as a materialist. But, interacting with epileptic patients whose brains were exposed to electrodes and scalpels, he — in Egnor’s words — “finished his career as an emphatic dualist.” Why?

Practically every imaginable category of evoked neurological activity has been observed by doctors and researchers, as reflected in the broad scope of recognized seizure types, but there is no category for intellectual seizure or for seizure of the will. Seizures always involve either complete unconsciousness, or specific activation of a non-abstract neurological function— flashes of light, smells, sensations on the skin, jerking of muscles, specific memories, or strong emotions and forced concrete thoughts. As Penfield noted, this is, from the materialist framework, unexpected, given the fact that in the materialist predicate much of the cortex— the association cortex—is devoted to abstract thought. Association areas, which are the regions of the cortex imputed to be the origin of abstract thought in the materialist paradigm, comprise most of the cerebral cortex. (P. 253)

The problem is that the very nature of the mind is immaterial. To be purely material beings, we would need to get rid of our minds and then we wouldn’t be the same beings.

There is much more in the chapter, of course — everything from neuroscience arguments for free will to reflections on the scientific study of near-death experiences.

As Michael Egnor and I show in our forthcoming book, The Human Soul (Worthy 2024), materialism is a dying paradigm. It’s failure to shed much light on the human mind is one of the reasons. The problem is that it is taking a long time to die so it is often still taken for granted in popular media.

For example, the attack on free will — which would set us apart from mere physical nature — continues. We were recently told by clinical psychologist Francis Merson to “Recognise free will is an illusion and reap the emotional benefits”:

In my practice as a therapist, I’ve seen patients who adopt a deterministic worldview become more empathic, less angry, more socially conscious and less inclined to struggle needlessly against the vicissitudes of life. Rather than something to be feared, determinism could be personally, positively transformative for many. While it can be a hard pill to swallow, it may, once fully digested, result in a range of emotional benefits – like a kind of metaphysical Zoloft. (Psyche, 12 October 2023)

Likewise, we are told by Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky that, after decades of study, he has concluded that we don’t have free will:

After more than 40 years studying humans and other primates, Sapolsky has reached the conclusion that virtually all human behavior is as far beyond our conscious control as the convulsions of a seizure, the division of cells or the beating of our hearts. This means accepting that a man who shoots into a crowd has no more control over his fate than the victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It means treating drunk drivers who barrel into pedestrians just like drivers who suffer a sudden heart attack and veer out of their lane. Corinne Purtill, “Stanford scientist, after decades of study, concludes: We don’t have free will,” MSN , October 17, 2023

Egnor would point out (and has) that no guilt also means no innocence — and therefore no justice. Governments would be quite right to imprison people for pre-crime. That is, if their profiles suggest that they might commit a crime, as in Minority Report (2002), given that they have no control anyway, why not be on the safe side and lock them up?

If that does not sound right to you, it is likely because you do have free will and you know it.

Materialism, these days, is in a peculiar position in neuroscience. It is the bedrock assumption yet it lacks evidential support. It is an evident danger yet it gets reliably good press from the science media.

It’s a good time to start asking some serious questions — if we believe we have minds.

You may also wish to read: Philosopher: I accept dualism but don’t believe in the soul. David Chalmers, whose background is in physics, talks to Robert Lawrence Kuhn at Closer to Truth about his struggle to accept that the mind is immaterial. Chalmers: “I banged my head against the wall for years trying to come up with a physically based theory of consciousness.” New insights sprang from defeat.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Neuroscience Has Never Provided Much Evidence for Materialism