My "Neuroscience Denial"? - Evolution News & Views

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My "Neuroscience Denial"?

Dr. Steven Novella has post entitled "More Neuroscience Denial," and of course it's about me.

Dr. Michael Egnor has written two more posts reiterating his neuroscience denial over at the Discovery institute. This reinforces the impression that neuroscience denial is the "new creationism" - the new battleground against materialism as a basis for modern science.

First of all, I'm not a creationist, in the sense that I don't interpret Genesis literally. I adhere to neither "old creationism" nor "new creationism." It is my opinion that design is empirically evident in biology, so I support intelligent design theory. I'm a Christian, but my faith doesn't depend on any particular scientific theory. There are many Christians who accept the basic scientific tenets of evolutionary biology -- e.g., the inference to random mutation and natural selection as the origin of most biological complexity. I don't agree with that view, but my reasons are scientific, not doctrinal.

I am deeply perplexed by Dr. Novella's obsession with "denial" as an epithet. The term is obviously meant to evoke Holocaust denial, and thus to place the denier beyond the moral pale. But I don't deny the Holocaust. I just deny materialism, which certainly doesn't put me in the same moral camp as David Irving. Most people deny materialism, in the sense that they deny that matter is all that exists. Most people deny the materialistic theory of the mind. I deny materialism; Dr. Novella denies dualism. One can't hold an opinion without denying other opinions. Dr. Novella calls himself a "skeptic." He denies a lot of things, probably more things than I do. He denies the mainstream religious beliefs of most of humanity. Is he a "denialist," too, like I am?

I don't deny neuroscience. I believe in neurotransmitters, neuroanatomy, synapses, axons, and so on. I'm well trained and well versed in neuroscience. I got honors in neuroscience in medical school. Dr. Eric Kandel, subsequently a Nobel Laureate, was my neuroscience professor at Columbia. I trained in neurosurgery for seven years, and spent quite a bit of time doing basic neuroscience research during my training (my mentor was Richard Bunge, who was a leader in the study of myelin sheaths that surround axons). Following my residency training, I've been practicing neurosurgery and conducting basic research in neuroscience at a medical school for the past seventeen years. No doubt Dr. Novella has good training and experience as well. We're both professionals, respected in our fields, probably with comparable knowledge in our related specialties.

So in what way am I a "neuroscience denier"? By calling me a "denier," Dr. Novella seems to mean that I deny the truth of something that has already been proven beyond reasonable doubt and has the assent of all informed people. He means that I deny that materialism can explain the mind entirely, and he means that that particular view is held by nearly all informed neuroscientists. But that's not true at all. Most neuroscientists spend their time concerned with getting probes to work and publishing papers on highly technical science. They're not philosophers, and they really aren't informed about the central problems in the mind-brain problem. They probably couldn't discuss intentionality or qualia or token identity theory with anything close to adroitness. Perhaps most couldn't even define the terms. Yet these are the central concepts in the mind-brain problem, and one can't say anything meaningful about the relationship between the mind and the brain without invoking them.

Within the community of philosophers who do understand and explore these concepts, materialism has not only failed to be "proven beyond reasonable doubt," but has actually been on the decline over the past decade or two. These philosophers are quite aware of the advances in neuroscience, but the main issues in the mind-brain problem aren't experimental issues. They are much deeper issues, about ontology and epistemology and causation. Strict materialism hasn't fared well in this light. The enthusiasm a half-century ago with computational models of the mind-brain relationship has waned as the deep problems of materialist theories have become better understood, and dualism of various sorts, such as property dualism, predicate dualism, hylomorphism, and even substance dualism, is in ascendance. In the view of very many philosophers of the mind, materialism hasn't so far even met minimal criteria of logical coherence, let alone empirical proof. Philosopher Joseph Levine hasobserved: "We lack an explanation of the mental in terms of the physical."

I'll get back to Dr. Novella's specific arguments in my ensuing posts, but Dr. Novella's invocation of "neuroscience denialism" leaves me dumbfounded. Just why Dr. Novella would confuse disagreement with his materialist ideology with denial of neuroscience is hard to see. The epithet "denialism" has a disturbing Orwellian ring to it, and it's not clear to me why anyone would invoke such a term in a discussion about the philosophy of the mind. Perhaps it's meant to intimidate. Perhaps Dr. Novella isn't used to having his opinions questioned, and it's just a slur, a substitute for a reasoned argument.

That seems closest to the truth.