Monday, December 01, 2008

Consciousness: A physicist on the recent New Scientist flap re non-materialist neuroscience

British physicist David Tyler blogs on the recent flap created by a smear job against non-materialist neuroscientists in New Scientist (non-materialists think that your mind is not merrely an illusion of your brain):
The prevailing paradigm in neuroscience is materialism. Everything about the brain is interpreted in terms of physics and chemistry: our sense of free agency, our consciousness, our hopes and our ability to appreciate beauty. Yet this paradigm has only limited results to show for all the effort expended and "scientists have yet to crack the great mystery of how consciousness could emerge from firing neurons". The UN conference set out an agenda for going beyond reductionism. Jeffrey Schwartz warned the delegates that what they were doing would be met with heated opposition, because materialism is deemed by many to be of the essence of science:

"YOU cannot overestimate, how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You're gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about. . . how Darwin's explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it. . . I'm asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality."

Sure enough, the event has raised alarm! The New Scientist reported it with the headline: "Creationists declare war over the brain". It has become commonplace for the science media to portray every departure from philosophical naturalism as "creationism" as though that were the ultimate crime for a scientists and no more needs be said. There is evidence that some of the conference speakers have links with the ID Movement, and apparently that is enough to shower derision on them. Since scientists are supposed to be able to grapple with complex issues and think rationally and objectively (rather than emotionally), I do not understand why there is so little outcry against the intolerant attitudes of so many science journalists and writers.
I do understand why there is so little outcry. Believing that materialism is "the truth," many journalists assume that their role is to promote materialism, even at the expense of evidence. Non-materialist views are okay for fooling people into helping the poor, paying their taxes, or avoiding crime, but they are not a source of true information, in their view, jsut sentimental bluff.

So now that non-materialist approaches are gaining a foothold in neuroscience - based on evidence and practical considerations - the New Scientist writer was forced to see the development as "creationism" - oh yes, and also as the work of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

In reality, the institutional sponsors" of the mind-body conference at the UN on which she was reporting are unrelated to the Discovery Institute and are unlikely enthusiasts for its overall views. Their concern is medicine in the 21st century, and the failure of materialist explanations to provide useful answers in a vast range of situations.
But that just isn't something that a New Scientist writer would see.

Changing the magazine's masthead name to "Fast Backward to the Twentieth Century" might make sense at this point.

Tyler muses further,
No interviews with the scientists that were at the symposium are reported. This was noted by Angus Menuge in a letter (unpublished) to New Scientist: "I find it very troubling, that while Amanda Gefter took the trouble of interviewing sources who advocate scientific materialism, she did not interview any critics of that position, instead relying on third-hand reports. This does not seem to reflect journalistic best practice."
No, it doesn't reflect journalistic best practice, but it does reflect the practice of people who think that their readers do not really want to be told what happened at the conference and why, but do want to be told a story that makes them feel comfortable. (links to conference coverage below)

For example, what about Esther Sternberg, Christina Puchalski, Bruce Greyson, Sam Parnia, and Andrew Newberg, who had lots of useful things to say at the conference?
I guess if you "connect the dots" to include them, you don't find a conspiracy that involves creationism or the Discovery Institute. And that is the principal difficulty with connect-the-dots thinking.

See also:

New Scientist publishes non-materialist neuroscientist's letter

Selected moments from "Beyond the Mind-Body Problem Symposium - morning panel

Selected moments from "Beyond the Mind-Body Problem Symposium - afternoon panel

My response to the New Scientist bid to be the National Enquirer of pop science mags. (But, why?)

New Scientist - a philosophy prof responds

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Neuroplasticity: Growing public recognition greets Norman Doidge's new book

Friend Deborah Gyapong is looking forward to reading Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself:
Norman Doidge used to have a must-read column in the National Post, back in the days of Conrad Black's ownership. A man with a breadth of classical and medical education and a terrific writer to boot, he should be a treasured public intellectual. Today I was treated by a long op-ed by him in my Post. Sounds like his book The Brain That Changes Itself is something I must buy. And it sounds like a great companion to Denyse O'Leary and Dr. Mario Beauregard's The Spiritual Brain. I hope people pay attention to his findings, because they blast the mechanistic and materialist models that so many people think is scientific, when it fact cutting edge science has moved well beyond them.
Yes, it has, though some people haven't gotten the message yet. Here's a recent National Post piece (November 26, 2008), in which he discusses the fact that the brain is no longer seen as a machine:

... [formerly] the brain came to be seen as a complex machine with parts, each performing a single mental function, an idea with us today when we describe the brain as a kind of computer. This doctrine of the unchanging brain meant that many born with mental limitations, learning disabilities or certain psychiatric problems, or those who suffered brain damage or strokes, were seen, almost by definition, as condemned to live with them. Machines do many glorious things, but they don’t grow new parts, or reorganize themselves. This doctrine promoted a neurological nihilism that spread through our culture: At times it meant that human nature, which emerges from the brain, was seen as being equally rigid.

There were problems with hard-core localizationism from the beginning. As early as 1868 Jules Cotard had shown that children with a diseased left frontal lobe could speak quite well without it. This meant that Broca had only shown there was a tendency for speech to localize left, but it didn’t necessarily have to. Challenges to localization have been accelerating since. The winner of the Nobel Prize for 2000, psychiatrist Eric Kandel, showed that learning actually turns on our genes to make new proteins and create new connections in the brain’s circuits. The neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has shown that with repetition these circuits can become better at what they do and fire faster, more efficient signals. These findings have already been used to cure learning disorders and remedy a variety of psychiatric and neurological problems, treat strokes, raise IQs and preserve the ageing brain. We are not, it turns out, merely the galley slaves of our selfish-gene masters because conscious thought gives us a significant degree of control over their expression in our brains (and elsewhere), by moulding our microanatomy.

As Doidge points out, this change may help us get beyond false dilemmas. Consider, for example, the notion of that there is a "violence gene" or that "being a criminal is hardwired into So-and-So's brain." Obviously, for a variety of reasons, some are more prone to violence than others, but the "fatal gene" and the "hard wiring" are constructs of our imaginations that should not be cited in public policy proposals.

Herer's David Suzuki's CBC documentary on Doidge's book. An excerpt from the Introduction:

Known in scientific circles as "neuroplasticity," this radical new approach to the brain provides an incredible way to bring the human brain back to life. Some of the cases that we meet are:

Roger Behm, a blind man who is now able to see via his tongue (and can throw a basketball into a garbage can to prove it).

Cheryl Schiltz, who was written-off by doctors when she lost her sense of balance due to a drug's side effect. Once sentenced to a lifetime of wobbling, her brain rewired itself through a seemingly simple therapy, and has now regained her balance and returned to a normal life.

Michelle Mack, one of the greatest examples of the brain's ability to adapt: she was born, literally, with just half of her brain.

Michael Bernstein, who suffered a debilitating stroke in the prime of his life, paralyzing the left side of his body. He's now back to his former life, as his brain functions have been rerouted and re-invigorated.

The implications of this research, presented by Dr. Doidge through these compelling stories, are enormous. The impact is just beginning to be felt in research, medical and rehabilitation circles.

It is heartening and quite significant that neuroplasticity is gaining such broad recognition, along with the placebo effect and the effect of spirituality on health.

Here's a thought: One of the greatest medical triumphs of the mechanistic twentieth century was the eradication of smallpox in the wild. To that feat an understanding of patient mental states was irrelevant. However, advances of the twenty-first century cannot avoid considering issues like neuroplasticity and mental states.
Human longevity, after all, is altering health care. Simple "pill for every ill" solutions may have worked for the young Baby Boom - who were not usually very sick anyway - but will not help older midlife adults who must learn to manage chronic illnesses.

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