Thursday, April 02, 2009

Neuroscience and Physicalism ... a key letter

My lead author, Mario Beauregard has just informed me that Science has not agreed to publish his response to Nancey Murphy and Martha Farah's defense of materialism (physicalism).

I've no idea why.

I simply don't get why anyone believes in that stuff any more, but then I never got why people used to believe in banshees either.

Like, at a certain point, don't you say, "But this doesn't make any sense ... Can we talk about stuff that makes sense, for once?"

But here's what Mario would have said if they had published his letter:
A Response to the Letter titled "Neuroscience and the Soul"

In their letter (1), Farah and Murphy claim that as neuroscience progresses, it gradually appears that all aspects of a person (e.g., self-awareness, emotion, morality, spirituality) can be explained by material processes in the brain. This affirmation is based on the physicalist/materialist belief that mental functions and events can be reduced to their neural correlates. It is important to bear in mind, however, that neural correlates do not yield an explanation of mental functions and events, i.e., they cannot explain how neural processes become mental events. Indeed correlation does not entail causation. Therefore, the results of neuroscience studies performed using either imaging, lesion, stimulation, pharmacological or recording techniques should not be presented as leading to, or validating, physicalism/materialism.

The physicalist/materialist ontology is based mainly on principles of classical physics that have been known to be fundamentally false for over three quarters of a century. According to the classical physical conception of the world, all physical behavior is explainable in principle solely in terms of local mechanical interactions between material entities. This conception was rejected by the founders of quantum mechanics, who introduced into the basic equations choices that are not determined by local mechanical processes, but are attributed rather to human agents (2). Consequently, physicalism/materialism can no longer be taken as the basis for any ontological belief about the nature of reality and a scientific Weltanschauung based upon the physicalist/materialist ontology must also be false.

The physicalist/materialist doctrine, which is unable to solve the "hard problem" of subjective consciousness, is no more “scientific” than other views (e.g., mentalism, dualism) with respect to the mind/body problem. In my perspective, a non-physicalist/materialist science of mind and consciousness account for facts related to human mental experience better than a physicalist/materialist one. For instance, there is mounting evidence that the intentional content of mental events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, beliefs, volition) significantly influence the functioning and plasticity of the brain (3). This implies that mentalistic variables have to be seriously taken into account to reach a correct understanding of human behavior (as in the case of the placebo effect).

Furthermore, a non-materialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved (and considered taboo) by physicalism/materialism. One of these phenomena is veridical perception and information gained by patients during cardiac arrest while their brains do not show any detectable activity (e.g., the case of Pam Reynolds) (4). Another phenomenon is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to perceive objects/events beyond the range of the ordinary senses or to mentally influence physical or biological systems. Psi phenomena, which have been shown to exist in thousands of experiments (5), also calls into question the physicalist/materialist position.

It is legitimate and necessary to continuously reflect on the metaphysical assumptions of the scientific enterprise. It is also very important to realize that science in general, and neuroscience in particular, are not synonymous with physicalism/materialism.

Mario Beauregard*
Departments of Psychology and Radiology
Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology
Neuroscience Research Center
Université de Montréal
Montreal (Quebec) Canada

1. M.J. Farah, N. Murphy (2009). Neuroscience and the Soul. Science 323: 1168.
2. J.M. Schwartz, H. Stapp, M. Beauregard, M. (2005). Quantum theory in neuroscience and psychology: a neurophysical model of mind/brain interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 360: 1309-1327.
3. M. Beauregard (2007). Mind does really matter: Evidence from neuroimaging studies of emotional self-regulation, psychotherapy, and placebo effect. Progress in Neurobiology 81: 218-236.
4. M. Beauregard, D. O'Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul (HarperCollins, New York, 2007).
5. D. Radin, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (Harper SanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1997).