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Non-materialist neuroscience

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Non-materialist neuroscience is a reactionary, anti-science movement — like creationism and intelligent design. Rather than offering a hypothesis that might lead to predictions and experiments, it simply catalogs things modern neuroscience supposedly cannot yet explain.

Computational modeling and non-invasive imaging of living brains have allowed researchers to begin describing how complex thought emerges from the firing patterns of neurons. Modern neuroscience is rapidly identifying much of thought, emotion and behaviour with the brain.

When physicalist causes become both necessary and sufficient to explain all of thought, parsimony dictates expunging references to supernatural entities. In a way, neuroscience is the death knell of dualism.

Primary proponents of the movement include Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon and contributor to the Discovery Institute blog;[1] Denyse O'Leary, a Canadian "journalist" who runs her own blog dedicated to non-materialist neuroscience[2] and likes to copy and paste these entries over on William Dembski's blog as well; and Mario Beauregard, co-author with O'Leary of a 2008 book on the subject of non-materialist neuroscience: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul.[3]

Michael Egnor's argument of shared properties[edit]

Egnor's Syllogism[edit]

Egnor is a professor of neurosurgery and pediatrics at Stony Brook University (State University of New York) School of Medicine,[4] pediatric neurosurgeon at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Center[5] and is a Discovery Institute blogger.[6] Egnor attempts to argue the case for dualism from a philosophical standpoint. It is interesting to note that he includes no actual science, and only vaguely approaches the scientific method by proposing a few thought experiments. The gist of his argument is that, in order for one set of things to be derived from another set of things, they must share the same properties. Here is his argument in syllogism form:

P1: Matter has the properties of mass, length, temperature and location
P2: Ideas do not have the properties of mass, length, temperature and location
C1: Ideas cannot be created from matter[7]

Quod erat demonstrandum, right?

P1: The transistors inside a computer have the properties of location, charge, voltage and temperature.
P2: The ideas on this wiki page do not have the properties of location, charge, voltage and temperature.
C1: The ideas on this wiki page cannot be created from transistors inside a computer.


P1: Milk is a liquid and is white.
P2: Cheese is not a liquid, and is not white.
C1: Cheese does not come from milk.

Egnor's syllogism is obviously silly. A large number of examples could be set up to show how his logic is flawed, not least the existence of emergent phenomena, where the properties of a larger scale phenomenon can be completely independent of, and ultimately unpredictable from, the smaller bits it comprises. When asking the question about whether or not one thing can be derived from another, one does not start by looking at any mutually shared properties — rather, one starts with correlation of states and work towards the experimental manipulation of those states. Egnor does attempt to formulate something along these lines in his hypothetical thought experiments: he envisions several different manipulations, the first of which is moving the brain through space and time, and the second being the division of the brain into smaller, component pieces. Egnor then wants to see how "ideas" change in regards to these manipulations.[7][8] While the spirit of the thought experiment might be in the right vein, Egnor has fallen into the typical creationist trap of setting up an experiment designed to achieve a goal rather than to test a claim. Real scientists start by asking what property changes in the brain actually have a proven correlation to subsequent changes in thought patterns. We know that the wholesale movement of the brain through space does not alter thought, and dividing the brain into smaller component pieces does not subsequently give us corresponding pieces of thought. If there were absolutely no correlation between changes in brain properties and those of thought, then Egnor would be right to say that the brain cannot produce thought; however this is not what is observed.

Of course, our brains cannot be divided into parts as Egnor imagines. There is an analogous situation when brain damage occurs.[9] Sometimes parts of the brain are removed surgically, other times parts of the brain die through a disease or illness (a stroke for example) or through a traumatic injury. Alternatively, parts of the brain survive but function abnormally due to brain damage. It is well known that brain damage sometimes does affect the thought process.[10] The exact effect depends on which parts of the brain are damaged and in what manner the damage occurred.

The material properties of thought[edit]

As PZ Myers points out in his response to Egnor's strawman, neuroscience and psychology are full of examples of how changes in the material properties of the brain alter thought.[11] By studying injury to the brain — resulting from stroke, surgery, or accident — scientists have discovered that the thought process can be drastically altered by changing the relative position of neurons to each other, severing or rewiring the connections between neurons, or through the wholesale death or removal of neurons.[12][13] Through the study of psychological disorders and drugs it is also known that changes in the properties of cell membranes, neuronal structure, protein properties or chemical gradients have a range of effects on thoughts and emotions.[14][15] These correlative studies identify the kinds of properties that the brain and its matter have that are important for the formation of thought. The last 60 years of cognitive psychology and neuroscience have been dedicated to exploring how manipulating these properties alters thought.

Thoughts or ideas that were separate from matter have never been observed; changes in the properties of matter alter the properties of thoughts, and scientists have even begun modeling how the individual circuits of the brain could create certain thought and behavioral patterns. It is easy to see that matter is a necessary ingredient in the creation of thought, plus all the evidence points to this being a sufficient cause. Egnor's argument comes down to the old school argument from ignorance. "I don't understand how a complex idea like altruism emerges from neuronal interactions, therefore it cannot happen." This is the same creationist routine we have seen again and again from such luminary figures as a certain other guy named Michael.

If Egnor wants to be taken seriously he must come up with a way to identify, measure and test the ghost in his machine. He must show how a predictive, falsifiable theory of neuroscience can develop from his hypothesis. Egnor can't do this so his dualism is as much a scientific dead end as saying "god did it". All of modern neuroscience is built around discovering how neuron interactions form thought and how said interactions can be manipulated to cure disease and recover from injury. The "ghost in the machine" hypothesis gives scientists absolutely nothing to work with. If researchers hadn't tossed out Egnor's dualism idea a hundred years ago, Egnor could not have become a neurosurgeon because the field itself wouldn't exist.

Mario Beauregard's quantum mind[edit]

Introduction to Beauregard's world[edit]

Mario Beauregard (1962–), like Egnor, comes with credentials. He has his doctorate in psychology and is a neuroscience researcher out of the University of Montreal.[16] Unlike Egnor, Beauregard has published his ideas in peer-reviewed journals. These studies have been published in standard science journals and are of adequate quality and can be referred to as legitimate scientific peer-reviewed studies. These publications can be divided into two categories. The first is his work with Paquette, Lévesque and Mensour, involving mostly neuroimaging studies on the regulation of emotion.[17][18][19][20] However, none of these works detail his dualistic theory; they are not peer-reviewed papers on the science behind dualism, but instead rather straightforward neuroscience studies grounded in methodological naturalism (except for a few odd sentences here and there about "mind processes" and "psychological space").[21] The second category is his peer-reviewed scientific work with Schwartz and Stapp, which addresses their dualistic theory.[20] Schwartz et al. make an interesting leap in their paper that somehow Beauregard's papers justify dualism and cites them accordingly.[20]

Schwartz et al.'s argument can be broken down into several steps, one part rooted in observations made in the field of psychology and neuroscience and the other rooted in quantum physics. The neuroscience argument goes something like this:

  • Brains have an inherent plasticity in that their neuronal architecture and firing patterns can be altered to some degree throughout the lifetime of an organism; these alterations can take place both over a long time and a short time, and can also be either temporary or permanent.
  • It has been shown that humans can activate this plasticity through conscious effort.
  • Existing materialist explanations do not adequately explain this to Schwartz et al.'s satisfaction.
  • Therefore, we must appeal to a "mind" that exists outside of the "brain".[20]

The argument from quantum physics takes a slightly different path:

  • Some of the alterations that take place during plasticity changes in brain structures involve quantum effects.
  • Quantum physics demonstrates that a "mind" is a necessary component for anything to happen. (This has not been demonstrated, wave function collapseWikipedia does not occur with all interpretations of quantum physics and even where wave function collapse is postulated not all theories require a conscious observer, see Objective collapse theory.Wikipedia)
  • This "mind" is not based on material existence.
  • Therefore a "mind" is needed to alter the brain because quantum interactions are involved.[20]

Of course none of the neuroscience studies Beauregard has done are proof of dualism or a spiritual realm, nor is Schwartz et al.'s mangling of quantum physics. What follows is the dissection of their claims.

Badly crafted neuroscience[edit]

Beauregard's arguments owe a lot to intelligent design and creationism, since he has basically co-opted their two-tier strategy. First, create a false dichotomy and then second, find something interesting and proclaim that you don't see how that could happen without a God/soul/alien interfering so therefore a God/soul/alien must have done it. Beauregard has done several fMRI studies which show that active thinking can alter the firing patterns of neurons in the brain. The false dichotomy he sets up is either existing materialist theories explain how this is done, or it has to be dualism, ignoring any possible third, fourth or fifth explanations that might emerge. He then states that modern theories of neuroscience cannot explain how thoughts alter the brain, therefore it must be a "mind" that is outside of the material bounds of the matter. An argument from ignorance is not a very convincing tactic. Even if modern neuroscience really had no way to address Beauregard's data, his argument for dualism falls apart at a prima facie level due to gross violations of logic. However, modern neuroscience based on methodological naturalism and materialism has no problem explaining anything that Beauregard has published. In fact, the data in his papers offer direct support of the sufficiency of materialist explanations for thought and neuronal firing patterns.

Beauregard's imaging studies basically fall into two categories. The first are studies that show normal people being able to change their response to stimuli through active thought[21] and the corresponding brain pattern changes that emerge from this. The second are studies that examine how psychological disorders such as schizophrenia and depression might emerge from an inability to actively alter thinking patterns.[19][18] Beauregard defines something he calls the "psychological space" and "mind process" where he believes this active thought lies, and that this "psychological space" alters the neuronal firing patterns through quantum interactions. Beauregard defines this "psychological space" to be outside of material causes. Beyond this basic tautology we may ask, what would we expect to find if there really was something outside the brain controlling neuronal firing patterns, and what would we expect to find if it was the brain (basically other neurons) that are controlling the changes?

Let's break down one of his studies, where he showed a series of erotic images to males and imaged the brain's response to these images. Unsurprisingly he found activation primarily in the limbic and paralimbic regions (amygdala, right anterior temporal pole and the hypothalamus). This region of the brain is long known to be associated with reward assessment and baser drives such as sex, hunger, thirst, fear, and anger. He then asked subjects to repress any sort of sexual thoughts or feelings in regard to the images and showed them again. This time he showed little to no activation in the paralimbic and limbic system, but saw extensive activation in prefrontal regions such as the superior frontal gyrus.[21] The prefrontal regions are associated with what many of us refer to as the normal day-to-day consciousness of ourselves. It is the executive controller and one of its primary roles is that of an inhibitor. It's the part of one's brain that indicates when something is really not a good idea, and lets one control oneself; it's the part that is used when one is "biting one's tongue" to keep from saying what one really want to say.[22]

Working from the theory that it is the material constructs of the brain itself that alter firing patterns this is exactly what one would expect. One sees an area of the brain that is activated by stimuli that are known to cause excitation in that region. When asked to inhibit that excitation, subjects show brain activation in regions that have been demonstrated to be involved in inhibition. This is one area of the brain putting the brakes on another area of the brain. If we were working from the posit that it is the "psychological space" that is putting the brakes on the limbic system, why would we posit any other area of the brain needing to be activated? If Beauregard had shown that the only change when actively suppressing a response was that the previously activated regions did not show any activation it would be a lot more problematic to explain. Under that condition one might be able to posit something not in the brain acting on the region. But that is not what one sees at all. One sees a clear pattern of one area of the brain effecting a change in another. Beauregard's whole hypothesis seems to have nothing left other than the silly incredulous response of "I don't see how something can change itself, so that means it can't."

Of course researchers in the field of neuroscience have been answering the question of how the brain can change itself for over 60 years. Much like evolution, all one needs are a few basic rules and the whole system can easily self-assemble and self-regulate. Donald Hebb proposed one of the most basic rules of neuroscience in 1949. His simple idea explains a huge amount of brain self-assembly, plasticity, and functional architecture. The rule has become known as Hebb's Rule and was described as "The general idea is an old one, that any two cells or systems of cells that are repeatedly active at the same time will tend to become 'associated', so that activity in one facilitates activity in the other."[23] This is usually simplified to "cells that fire together wire together." Since Hebb's time, this rule has been sufficient to model vastly complex neuronal architectures and create complex interactions between network components, all of which are based on simple materialist assumptions and demonstrate an amazing amount of predictive detail.[24]

The question can then turned to Beauregard, and one can ask, "Does your dualism provide any sort of mechanistic action to explain your findings? Does it provide any testable hypotheses? Do you have any level of theory or hypothesis that allow for direct experimentation and the advancement of knowledge that can be derived from your ideas?"[note 1] Perhaps Beauregard might respond much like William Dembski did when similar questions were leveled at him about intelligent design:

As for your example, I'm not going to take the bait. You're asking me to play a game: "Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position." ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it's not ID's task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots. True, there may be dots to be connected. But there may also be fundamental discontinuities, and with IC systems that is what ID is discovering.[25]

Mangled quantum physics[edit]

Beauregard's "Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology"[20] was published with co-authors Jeffery Schwartz and Henry Stapp (1928–). Schwartz and Stapp, like Beauregard, come with credentials. Schwartz is a research psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine, where he studies self-directed neuroplasticity.[26] Stapp is an emeritus theoretical physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has worked with Pauli, Wheeler and other greats, and has published hundreds of scientific papers.[27] Their argument hinges on two ideas: first that quantum effects must be accounted for in how thoughts emerge from the brain and second that quantum effects can not be accounted for unless a 'mind' outside of the material causes of the brain is included in the calculations.

Schwartz et al. argue that quantum effects must occur in the brain by bringing up the size of ion-channels that mediate signaling between neurons. He and his co-authors propose the idea that they are small enough that quantum effects must dominate over 'classical' effects. The idea that the size of a given area in a neuron is with in the realm of quantum effects is not new. Other theorists and philosophers have tried to place quantum effects in other areas like the microtubules which form the cytoskeleton of the cells.[28] These ideas have more than passing resemblance to Rene Descartes' attempt to seat the 'mind' and human soul in the pineal gland. Descartes' idea is snickered at in Freshman neuroanatomy and philosophy courses alike, but the idea of seating the human soul in the microtubules or ion channels is just as snicker-worthy.

There are several major problems with trying to place quantum effects in neuron structures. The first is that quantum effects dominate not just in small spaces but in really small time scales and the time scales that operate in the brain remove any basis for quantum mechanics to have any significant effects.[29] One is also left wondering what in the world is so special about a microtubule or an ion channel that all of human thought, emotion, and behavior could somehow be controlled from quantum manipulations of its function. There is no reason to view these neural features as special or any different from any other architecture of the brain. Many very important neuronal architectures, which we know play significant roles in thought and emotion, are well outside the range of quantum effects both in size and time.[30] An instructive analogue is the computer. We know quantum effects are important to the operation of a computer; understanding the flow of electrons in many modern-day circuits requires intricate understandings of quantum effects and must be accounted for. But even though quantum effects are present in circuits, these effects do not alter or change the actual computations that are performed or in any way affect the software being run when compared to a classical approximation.[30] We are left with the fact that actual scientific evidence shows there is little reason to account for quantum effects in the human brain, that the few putative regions in which quantum effects are present are not particularly convincing or special, and that even if we do eventually find a place for quantum effects that does not mean that they play a role in thought at all. At this point we can throw out the quantum brain theory but take a look at Schwartz et al.'s second point.

Schwartz et al. seem to believe that a 'mind' separate from a material existence is needed for anything in the world to function. He has taken the ideas from Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and decided that in order for a wave to collapse, a mind must guide it. This is, of course, ridiculous. The classic double slit experiments that proved that light is a wave and a particle are a perfect example of this. It is not the researchers' 'mind' that causes the light to act as a wave or a particle but rather the mechanical nature of the slits in which the light travels through. Does one attribute a 'mind' and a 'soul' to the pieces of light-absorbing metal that collapse the 'wave'? Nowhere is one required in quantum theory to force an immaterial 'mind' into the world to explain how matter and energy work. Nor are we any more required to shove a mind in neuroscience when all the evidence points away from such an immaterial existence. This is nothing more than quantum woo and is as easy to reject as Schwartz et al.'s bad neuroscience.

Ray F. Streater (1936–) points out[31] that in a relevant earlier paper[32] Stapp makes three significant mistakes. First, Stapp believes that the mind must be able to "bring the information together from far-apart locations" in an instantaneous manner, to create a "whole thought". This is untrue, and has in fact been quantitatively disproved by brain-imaging experiments: neural activity can start half a second before the conscious mind is aware of making a decision. Second, Stapp makes the (absurd) claim that classical field theories cannot include correlations among the states of different physical sites, a claim which is again quite untrue. Third, Stapp radically misinterprets the "non-locality" of quantum mechanics, the property studied in the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen thought experiment. Stapp has replied to Streater.[33]

The science of materialist thought[edit]

Materialist neuroscience

Real science is not done through arguments of ignorance; instead, to test between two hypotheses you attempt to make falsifiable predictions that differ between them and then go out and test them. If the functioning of the brain causes the mind then we would expect a range of phenomena to exist: neuronal activation patterns in the brain should correlate with mental phenomena and states, and vice versa; altering brain function pharmacologically or physically or with other methods should alter mental phenomena in predictable ways; goal-directed behavior and complex processing should be able to occur without conscious recognition of it; systematic comparisons of animals with different brain structures should reveal systematic differences and similarities in behavior that correspond to similarities and differences in brain structures; cognitive development should correlate with brain development; if the brain is damaged, then the mind should be damaged; behavior patterns should be replicable in any medium that can mimic the neuronal interactions and architectures of the brain, and so on. These things are not predictions of dualism, and many would seem to be counter-predictions of dualism. There is no reason to assume that changes in thought should change the brain, or vice versa. The brain should not be capable of complex goals-direct action when the "mind" is not engaged. Animals that have more "primitive" brain structures show correspondingly similar (homologus) but less complex behavioral patterns. Are we also dealing with a functionally more primitive "mind" in the animal? If the "mind" was really needed to explain behavior and information processing then modeling the neuronal architecture and firing pattern in mediums that we know do not have a "mind" (such as computers) should not be able to replicate animal and human behavior. All of the predictions made by a materialist-based neuroscience approach have been demonstrated again and again in the literature, and none of the possible predictions that dualism would make have ever emerged.

Neuroimaging correlates[edit]

One of the most exciting areas of study in modern neuroscience is the ability to use noninvasive techniques to study the activation of brain regions during controlled behavioral and thought experiments. The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), PET (positron emission tomography), and EP (echo planar) studies have revolutionized our ability to explore how thoughts, behavior and brain activation patterns correlate. The overwhelming reality of these studies has demonstrated clearly that the same thoughts in different people activate the same basic brain regions. The thought, behavior, emotions, and consciousness all appear to be reliably predicted by the activation of particular brain regions. This is very powerful evidence for materialist-based explanations of the "mind" and definitely not a prediction of any dualist model.

Beauregard's own work has demonstrated that people reliably activate the limbic and paralimbic systems when exposed to erotic material, and suppress sexual excitement using prefrontal regions.[21] This is not a unique stream of research either, as many others have demonstrated similar effects in the role of the prefrontal and limbic regions.[34][35]

Even complex ideas that are most coveted by the dualist, such as the concept of a 'self', have been shown to emerge from specific brain regions. For example, when subjects were asked about memories or judgements that involved self-references there was activation of the medial prefrontal cortex. This differed significantly from the activation pattern of thoughts that were processed about other people with no reference to a self.[36] What is really great about this is that reference to the "self" being found in the prefrontal regions correlate with studies such as Beauregard's that demonstrate that active use of our "self" to suppress thoughts also shows prefrontal activation. Multiple lines of evidence from a range of hypothesis and experiments come together to help locate where in the brain this concept of an "I" emerges. How close are the dualists to locating the location and cause of the "mind"?

Neuroimaging is also helping to explore issues that were previously relegated to philosophical disputes. Emotions provide a great example of this; are emotions merely failures of inhibition? Are there higher order emotions (love, humor, kindness) and lower order emotions (anger, fear, disgust) or are they all at the same level? Are emotions modular and discrete or merely several valences along a continuum? Before neuroimaging these questions could only be discussed on a philosophical plane but now researchers have the ability to test and explore these ideas, thanks in large part to the assumption of materialist mechanisms.

Imaging studies have shown that emotions are not merely failures of inhibitory mechanisms but are specific activations of specific regions. Studies have also shown that many emotions are complex processes involving multiple regions of the brain while other emotions, such as disgust and fear, really do seem to be baser and are activated in more primitive structures.[37][38]

Computational modeling[edit]

Computational modeling of the brain is probably one of the greatest death blows to dualism that has emerged. Having constructed a computer out of component pieces of matter most humans realize that there is no non-material "mind" floating around the processor that allows it to do its work. While computers serve as an interesting counter-example to dualism in and of themselves, they do not really perform the same sort of feats that people do. To learn about mechanistic causes of thoughts and behavior, researchers have begun to create models inside computers that actually do develop, organize, and function in the same way as neurons in the brain. These models are actually capable of very sophisticated behavior, and not only do we not need a "mind" for them to function but we understand their basic component interactions and the exact mechanisms that allow them to create specific behavioral responses. As models grow in sophistication and other areas of research converge we will slowly approach the ability to accurately model inside computers all of those neuronal patterns that were thought to be uniquely "human" and be the source of the "mind" or "soul".

However, while researchers are not yet at this point, that is not to say that there are not some amazing models in the bag already. Work studying particular regions in the brain (called the ventral tegmental areas) has shown that neurons in these regions fire in predictable ways in response to unexpected rewards, and associated predictors of these rewards.[39] The behavior of these cells follows exact mathematical dictates. By structuring artificial neuron networks that behave in the same mathematically precise way, we can create digital organisms that can learn almost identically to real animals.[40] In fact, one can download the source code of OpenWorm, a computer emulation/simulation of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, and explore its full connectome (a trendy word for its whole brain connectivity).[41][42][43]

The region of the brain that is associated with memories is called the hippocampus. Most of the adult brain does not create new neurons but merely adjusts the firing patterns of existing neurons, but one area of the hippocampus referred to as the dentate gyrus exhibits very active creation of new neurons (this process is called neurogenesis). Computational models of the hippocampus were created that showed the effect of having neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus on memories and why it is useful.[44] The model was then adjusted so that neurogenesis was halted and the deficits this caused in the model's ability to learn were recorded. The same deficits are discovered in people who are depressed, and depression is a major correlate of cessation of neurogenesis. Specific predictions derived through adjusting computerized models of neuronal architecture in how people will perform on complex tasks is only possible through application of a materialist explanation for the origination of thought.

Drug manipulation, surgery, and injury[edit]

One of the complaints about the neuroimaging studies being applied to the dualist controversy is that these are merely correlations. And anyone who has spent much time in logic or science knows that correlation does not equal causation. While these neuroimaging studies are powerfully suggestive, in order to establish a causative relationship between brain states and thought, one needs to be able to directly manipulate brains states in an experimental setting. However, this is not ethically possible to do in humans! Instead most of the work has relied on three kinds of studies: one is the temporary adjusting of neuron firing patterns through drug manipulation, the second is analyzing changes in patients who have undergone some form of brain surgery for medical reasons, and last is changes in people who have experienced some sort of injury to the brain (usually through some kind of accident).


Manipulation of neuronal firing patterns with drugs can change just about every aspect of a person. It can drastically alter the sensory perceptions, it can alter memory retrieval and encoding, it can change emotional responses, it can alter cognitive control over actions and behavior, and it can drastically alter personality.

The most common drug manipulations for sensory perception are probably hallucinogens, with psilocybin and LSD being most well known. Consumption of these drugs alters major neurotransmitter pathways, primarily serotonin and dopamine. The effects are drastic alterations in perception with full-blown hallucinations, mixing up of sensory pathways, and significant alterations of body image.[45] It has also been known for decades that drugs in many categories strongly alter memory. Most drugs have a negative effect on memories, causing poor retrieval, encoding, and even implanting false memories.[46] However, other drugs are now being developed and discovered that increase and sharpen memory as well.[47] Drugs also have very strong influences on emotional responses: anyone that has had too much to drink will realize the emotional roller coaster it can cause. Drugs like amphetamines can increase anger and violent responses. These drugs also alter the pathways of cognitive control over behavior. The disinhibition effects of alcohol are notoriously well known. Psychiatric medication, such as antidepressants, are known to alter brain chemistry, and their effectiveness is well-documented.[48]

These drug manipulations show that memory encoding and retrieval, emotional responses, cognitive control over behavior, perception of reality, and personality are all directly controlled by neuronal firing patterns in the brain. Neuronal firing patterns are clearly a materialist mechanism and so all these things are sufficiently explained by standard materialist theories. This leaves very little left for the soul to do. But even drug manipulations pale in comparison to the blow leveled against non-materialist explanations that brain injury delivers.

Injury and surgery[edit]

There are many thousands of examples of how injury to the brain, whether surgical or accidental, alters a person permanently. The truly fascinating thing about these injuries is that the area that is injured directly predicts the deficits in function that the person experiences. This is, of course, exactly what one would expect to find if brain structure and function was the cause of thought and behavior. The dualist believes that the ghost in the machine is controlling and motivating behavior. Probably one of the single most devastating blows to this viewpoint is injuries that cause the body to perform complex motivated behavior against the will and completely independent of the person. In many cases it is almost as if there is a separate person who can be communicated with and can communicate back. The consciousness of the person remains intact but they have no control over this behavior. The dualist would be hard-pressed to fit such data into their worldview. Do these brain injuries somehow 'split' the 'ghost' into competing parts? It strains credulity to say the least.

The most famous example of this is in split brain patients who have had their corpus callosum cut. The corpus callosum is the primary gateway for communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It is sometimes severed in extreme cases of epilepsy and creates what is known as split-brain syndrome. Split-brain syndrome is fascinating because it seems to create two very different people. By presenting stimuli to one of the halves of the brain or the other[note 2] you could create behavior that the person denied being involved in. Observations were made of times when the two hemispheres had strongly different motivations and emotions. As quoted by one researcher “there were times when the left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) behaved playfully with an object that was held out of view while the left hemisphere seemed perplexed about why.”[49] These patients showed that language processing, personality, emotion, motivation and behavior could be controlled independently and sometimes contradictorily by each hemisphere.

Less severe but just as fascinating are examples of 'alien hand syndrome'. While initially limited to just hands it has since been extended to areas all over the body. Injuries cause the patient to lose conscious control over some exterior part of the body, usually a limb. However, the area of the brain that controls it is not harmed, just its connections to executive control regions. The hand actually will seem to act of its own accord. Patients deny it even belongs to them. It can perform many complex motivated behaviors completely free of executive conscious control. These behaviors can be belligerent and contrary to what the person wishes as well.[50][51]

If motivation, thought and behavior are dictated by the materialist mechanisms of the brain, these split cases are easy to understand, as are the thousands of other examples of alterations in every aspect of behavior due to changes in the brain. Materialist explanations allow for fine-tune studying of how injury correlates with loss or change in function and allow us to better understand how and why we do the things we do. It also offers hope for treatment of patients that have debilitating injuries. The non-materialists have failed to show how their ideas can explain that data — and are even further away from showing how they can advance the cause of knowledge and help people in need.

Final analysis[edit]

The quality of a scientific hypothesis is related to many factors but can generally be broken down into three main categories: the actual structure of the hypothesis itself and how amenable it is to testing; the actual evidence that can be derived from predictions and how close that evidence is to the predictions made; and finally how fruitful the hypothesis is in generating new questions, advancing knowledge and helping people and the world. Materialist-based neuroscience scores massive hits in all three categories. The structure of the theory allows it to easily be testable and to make falsifiable predictions. It makes specific predictions in a wide range of fields and the evidence gathered from testing these predictions correlates amazingly well with the original predictions. It has provided countless hypotheses and extended a diverse range of fields and sub-fields from psychology and biology to medicine, engineering and computational science. It has also provided a framework for offering real progress in helping people with neurological diseases, developmental illnesses and brain injuries.

Non-materialist neuroscience has failed every single one of the categories. Its basic framework is unwieldy and does not provide any clear, specific, falsifiable predictions. What few tests might be imagined for it have all turned up evidence strongly against its basic predictions. It has failed to advance knowledge, create new hypotheses and definitely has not made clear how it will aid in helping us understand and treat brain injuries or illnesses. It has been a complete flop scientifically. So why has there been a sudden surge in books and publications pushing it? The answer is that it is a political and religious movement just as are the people supporting intelligent design and creationism.

In 2007 O'Leary discovered this article and attempted to attack it at one of her blogs. The only substantive complaint she had to make was over our choice of wording in naming her a “co-author.” She never once even got close to addressing any of the science involved.[52] This makes sense when you have no science to work with. O'Leary, just like the whole non-materialist movement in general, is long on rhetoric and sarcasm and extremely short on science and evidence. This is a battle that has already been won handily in the field of science, but just like the anti-science attacks on evolution, a long and frustrating political battle lies ahead.

See also[edit]


  1. Prediction, and testing predictions are key elements of the scientific method.
  2. By, for instance, showing something to only one eye.


  1. Evolution News.
  2. Mindful Hack, Denyse O'Leary's blog (not updated since 2012).
  3. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul by Mario Beauregard & Denyse O'Leary (2008) HarperOne. ISBN 0061625981.
  4. Michael Egnor Stony Brook University.
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