Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Rationalist" encyclopedia stumbles onto non-materialist neuroscience

Rationalwiki is an online encyclopedia struggling to be born. Judging from the copy I saw August 29, 2007 (which will probably change), it appears to be written by a group of people who see themselves as the guardians of reason, progress, and enlightenment, against "the anti-science movement" and "crank ideas".

Nowadays, theirs is a pretty crowded field, in which hordes of half-educated and indifferently talented placeholders aim their resentment at anyone capable of questioning materialist dogmas.

Rationalwiki knows what to make of non-materialist neuroscience.
Non-materialist neuroscience is the latest front in the Religious Right's war on science. This battle has been a long time coming and it is surprising it has taken this long to get going. Modern neuroscience is rapidly reducing much of human thought, emotion and behavior into component pieces of neuronal interactions. The combination of computational modeling and non-invasive imaging of living brains has allowed researchers to begin describing how complex thought emerges from the firing patterns of neurons. In a way neuroscience is the death knell of dualism. When materialist causes become both necessary and sufficient to explain all of human thought then parsimony dictates that references to a soul or other supernatural entities can be tossed out.
Well, that certainly clears thing up, doesn't it?

As a matter of fact, as Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I demonstrate in The Spiritual Brain, none of these remarkable things is actually happening! Quite the opposite - the hard problems of the relationship between the mind and the brain have become irresolvable in a materialist framework, though tales are spun with increasing desperation. The popular science media, hoping to confirm that all is well when nothing is well, devour them avidly.

No matter. The RationalWikis need not bother with research. They "know" how non-materialist neuroscience got started:
Non-materialist neuroscience is a reaction to these discoveries, a rallying cry for dualism. Like creationism and Intelligent design this "new" neuroscience is a reactionary movement against science. Rather than a hypothesis that leads to predictions and experiment, it is simply a catalog of things modern neuroscience cannot yet explain.
In reality, non-materialist neuroscience is primarily practical, perhaps to its own detriment. As Mario and I say in The Spiritual Brain, it is concerned with treatments that actually WORK for mental disorders such as obsessive compulsions, phobias, and depression. These treatments assume that the patient's mind is directing the brain. Non-materialist neuroscience may also provide a better understanding of such current problems, puzzles, and "things that don't make sense" as psi, near death experiences, and the massive placebo effect.

Non-materialist neuroscientists do not say that there are no purely material processes. Quite the opposite:
A scientifically coherent case can be made for a nonmaterial view of mind and consciousness. Nonmaterialist science can accommodate all phenomena that can be shown to be simply material in character. But it does not require that all phenomena be so shown—a crucial difference from materialist science. (The Spiritual Brain, p. 179)

That is a marked contrast to the materialists who are vexed by the "hard problems" of consciousness or free will, for example. If we face up to the significance of the direction in which quantum physics has been pointing for nearly a century, there is no hard problem, or at least no particularly hard problem. There is simply a lack of acceptance of the many realities that do not go away because we do not accept them.

One notable and instructive characteristic of the RationalWikis is their utter disdain for precision of fact - unusual in people who claim an interest in science. Have a look at this:
Unsurprisingly, the movement is spear-headed by Intelligent Design lackeys from the Discovery Institute and related affiliates. The primary proponents at the movement are Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon and recent contributor to the Discovery Institute blog, Denyse O'Leary a Canadian "journalist" who has a parasitic attachment to William Dembski and runs her own blog dedicated to non-materialist neuroscience, and Mario Beauregard the co-author of O'Leary's recent book on the subject The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul.

This sort of thing hardly rewards the trouble of setting straight, but some items are worth noting:

- Michael Egnor provides valuable observations from his perspective as a neurosurgeon, for which I am personally deeply grateful at the Mindful Hack. But he would be the first to honour and recognize pioneers of non-materialist neuroscience: Charles Sherrington(1857-1952), Wilder Penfield (1891-1976), and John Eccles (1903-1997).

- It is possible that most of the RationalWikis do not have English as a first language and, as a result, do not know how to express in standard English the thought that "Denyse O'Leary is a named co-blogger with William Dembski at a community blog, Uncommon Descent, founded by Dembski." hence the incoherent attempt to express the relationship ("parasitic"). The blog that the RationalWikis refer to ("her own blog") is, of course, The Mindful Hack, not that you would know that from them.

- With respect to The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard is the FIRST author. I am the co-author. That is the usual way things are done when a scientist and a journalist write a book together, and all the available material shows that our book follows the pattern. The RationalWikis seem not to know how to interpret conventional authorship statements. Nonetheless, they would gladly instruct the world ...

Mario is in no way a Religious Right type. But I am sure that the RationalWikis will find a way to shoehorn him into their suffocating little scheme. His real story, as told in our book, is a remarkable one - but that is mere evidence, of course, not their peculiar brand of "rationality."

It is embarrassing to read a thumbnail sketch of modern non-materialist neuroscience - however malignly intended - that does not reference the work of Jeffrey Schwartz, Andrew Newberg, and Richard Davidson and their many colleagues. But none of these people clearly and obviously fits into the RationalWiki's "Religious Right" pigeonhole either, which likely explains how they came to be omitted.

The RationalWikis are clearly not people who really want to know what is going on. They are pleased by hearing and repeating what confirms their prejudices. Mario likes to call them "fundamaterialists."

Fortunately, I have just finished reading George Hunter's Science's Blind Spot, which I highly recommend. I will link to the review I am planning to write of Blind Spot, but for now, Hunter has helped me make sense of the RationalWikis. He does an excellent job of explaining how the "rationalist" tradition in science finds itself increasingly in conflict with empiricism and evidence.

As I wrote to Mario, the RationalWikis are
a sociologist's dream a wonderful example of what the rationalist tradition looks like at a popular level as it enters a state of decay.

Notice how everybody but themselves is just an idiot or worse ..;.

But they can't help themselves because they cannot afford to consider any evidence that does not support their position.

Well, it is not illegal, but it will not lead to intellectual advances.

Of course, the RationalWiki site on non-materialist neuroscience will change over time, just as a rubbish dump does. But don't bet on it getting any better.

Nothing in science makes sense except in the light of ... evidence.

Update: Over at Uncommon Descent, "Trent" posted the following comment, apparently on behalf of the RationalWikis:
We are not actually an “encyclopedia” so wikipedia can keep that job.

Thanks for the tip about “co-author” and a few other names to work with. Other than that I don’t see much else to comment on. I guess the “science” will come out in your book?

I replied,
Trent: You are an embodiment of just what is wrong with your tradition.

You make your site LOOK LIKE Wikipedia, but now you claim that it is not, after all, an encyclopedia.

No, it isn’t. It is a rubbish dump of detraction.

I have given you the names of many more people to detract - every one of whom is certainly a more thoughtful and creative person than you could ever hope to be.

Thus your dump will grow. And if you seek your monument, look around you.

I am sure it’s the world’s fault if the world doesn’t think you are any Christopher Wren.

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Materialism is not, after all, the latest thing

You think materialism is relatively new? I did too, years ago. Then I discovered that, in both East and West, there are very old (thousands of years old) materialist schools of philosophy that sound just like the latest sage in Time Magazine.

While writing about why the Dalai Lama accepts modern science but rejects materialism, I had occasion to read about a genuinely materialist school of philosophy in ancient India (over 2500 years ago).

The Charvaka school that flourished around 600 B.C., and it had nothing to do with claims about discoveries in science.

In The Universe in a Single Atom, the Lama references
... the radical materialist Charvaka (or Carvaka) school's theory of the evolution of the universe through a purposeless, random development of matter, with all mental processes viewed as derivative of complex configurations of material phenomena.

Purposeless? Random? Everything old is new again!

Here is an extract from a later work setting forth the Charvaka philosophy:
In this school the four elements, earth, fire, water and air are the original principles. From these alone, when transformed into the body, intelligence is produced—just as the intoxicating power of some herbs is developed from the mixing of certain ingredients. When the body is destroyed, intelligence at once perishes also. They quote the Vedic text for this:

Springing forth from these elements itself

solid knowledge is destroyed

when they are destroyed—

after death no intelligence remains.

Therefore the soul is only the body distinguished by the attribute of intelligence, since there is no evidence for any self distinct from the body. Therefore the existence of such a separate self cannot be proved, because this school holds that perception is the only source of knowledge and does not allow inference as an alternative source.

The Charvakans were bolder than most modern materialist philosophers because they seemed to think that consciousness ("solid knowledge" in the text above) can actually be produced directly by matter. The modern materialist is content to argue that mind (self) is an illusion generated by the activities of neurons of the brain, but not that it can be produced by mixing elements of matter. So we have learned something or other in the last 2500 years after all.

The Lama is an atheist, but a non-materialist atheist, so he doesn't think that this sort of materialism is compatible with Buddhism. He writes,
This last position is not dissimilar to scientific materialism's belief that mind is reducible to neurological and biochemical reality and these in turn to facts of physics. Buddhism, by contrast, explains the evolution of the cosmos in terms of the principle of dependent origination, in that the origin and existence of everything has to be understood in terms of the complex network of interconnected causes and conditions. This applies to consciousness as well as matter. (pp. 76-77)

The point here is that he thinks that consciousness is real and that it is capable of causing events; it is not an illusion. Here is an old text on Charvaka.

Interestingly, the West also featured some interesting old materialists in Epicurus (341-270 BCE) and Lucretius (99-55 BCE). Outside the hothouse of the academy, it never caught on then and my guess is, it won't now.

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