Friday, November 07, 2008

The creationists go to war over the brain.

A Zoology colleague of mine pointed out an article by Amander Gefter (PDF here) in The New Scientist on a group of "non-materialist neuroscientists" that is trying to resurrect Cartesian Dualism. It is particularly sad that one of these is Jeffrey Schwartz, who has done classic work showing how cognitive therapy can amelioate 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.

Clearly, while there is a genuine attempt to appropriate neuroscience, it will not influence US laws or education in the way that anti-evolution campaigns can because neuroscience is not taught as part of the core curriculum in state-funded schools. But as Andy Clark, professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, UK, emphasises: "This is real and dangerous and coming our way." 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 for Patricia Churchland, a philosopher of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, "it is an argument from ignorance. The fact something isn't currently explained doesn't mean it will never be explained or that we need to completely change not only our neuroscience but our physics." The attack on materialism proposes to do just that, but it all turns on definitions. "At one time it looked like all physical causation was push/pull Newtonianism," says Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy and neurobiology at Duke University, North Carolina. "Now we have a new understanding of physics. What counts as material has changed. Some respectable philosophers think that we might have to posit sentience as a fundamental force of nature or use quantum gravity to understand consciousness. These stretch beyond the bounds of what we today call 'material', and we haven't discovered everything about nature yet. But what we do discover will be natural, not supernatural."

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."

1 comment:

  1. Looking on the positive side, the IDers will continue to be on the leading edge of scientific research, imposing their hypothesis of mystery on the merely unknown. This will redouble the focus of the best minds in neuroscience and the frontier of ignorance will be pushed back even faster.

    Oscar Wilde said "Science is the record of dead religions." And in a more nuanced mode:
    To arrive at what one really believes, one must speak through lips different from one's own. To know the truth one must imagine myriads of falsehoods. For what is Truth? In matters of religion, it is simply the opinion that has survived. In matters of science, it is the ultimate sensation. In matters of art, it is one's last mood. (The Critic as Artist)