If Neuroscience Is a Victory for Materialism, What Would Defeat Look Like? - Evolution News & Views

Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

Evolution News and Views
Views NEWS

If Neuroscience Is a Victory for Materialism, What Would Defeat Look Like?

Dr. Steven Novella has taken exception to my recent post suggesting that the materialist theory of the mind has characteristics of a superstition. In the recent past, the Yale neurologist has been so confident of the truth of his materialistic ideology on the mind-brain problem that he has asserted that

"The materialist hypothesis- that the brain causes consciousness- has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated."

Leaving aside the hubris (has any reputable scientist ever claimed that 'every single prediction' of his pet theory has been validated?), one of Dr. Novella's implicit predictions seems to have frustratingly failed to materialize. In his latest post, Dr Novella seems to have been certain that, following his pronouncement on the resolution of the mind-brain problem, everyone would defer to his decision:

[Egnor] fails to recognize that this battle has already been fought and lost within the scientific arena...[a]s our knowledge of brain function increases, it is squeezing out any role for a non-material ghost in the machine. A non-material cause of mind is...unnecessary...

"This battle has already been fought and lost"? Consider this. There are six properties generally agreed to constitute the essence of mental states: intentionality, qualia, persistence of self-identity, restricted access, incorrigibility, and free will. Each of these properties of the mind shares a common characteristic -- subjectivity, what philosopher David Chalmers has called the "Hard Problem" of consciousness. The 'easy problems' of consciousness are the kinds of problems that neuroscientists routinely deal with; for example, the determination as to which neurotransmitters in the brainstem are associated with behavioral arousal. These are 'easy' because they're tractable, although they can obviously involve some very challenging science. The Hard Problem is something entirely different; it is the problem of subjective experience, of why we are subjects, and not just objects. Why do we experience things?

Philosopher Joseph Levine has termed this epistemological gap between our subjective experience and our inability to explain it using a materialistic understanding of nature the "Explanatory Gap." Levine succinctly observes:

...[W]e lack an explanation of the mental in terms of the physical

How can subjectivity be explained by objective matter? Subjective experience is the central dilemma in the mind-brain problem. Matter, even brain matter, has third-person existence; it's a 'thing.' We have first-person existence; each of us is an 'I,' not just a thing. How can objective matter fully account for subjective experience? If matter is the complete cause of the mind, how is it that none of the six salient properties of the mind is a property of matter? How exactly does a clump of protein, carbohydrates, and lipids (a neuron) give rise to meaning or to first person experience -- using the example of pain, not merely the behavior associated with pain and the reflexes and neural correlates of pain, but the experience of it?

For materialism to offer a plausible scientific explanation for subjective experience, we would need more than materialists' reassurance that "this battle has already been fought and lost within the scientific arena." An assertion of dogma isn't a scientific law. It is, turning the materialist slur back around where it so commonly belongs, "anti-science." A scientific explanation requires a quantifiable law-like dependence of subjective experience on matter and a satisfactory account of the Explanatory Gap.

First-person ontology and third-person ontology share no properties at all. There is no scientific law-like dependence of free will, intentionality, qualia, etc. on matter. How would we even measure intentionality (meaning) to establish a law-like dependence? In what units can 'meaning' be expressed? The materialist assertion -- 'this must be true, so stop resisting' -- is merely arrogant dogma.

No one doubts that there are quantifiable law-like correlates between behavioral states and brain states, and between some brain states and other brain states. But behavior and brain states are objective third person phenomena, the sort science deals with routinely. And behavior is not the same thing as the mind. The mind's salient properties are all first-person, not third-person. Not a single first-person property of the mind -- not intentionality, qualia, persistence of self-identity, restricted access, incorrigibility, nor free will -- is a known property of matter. No one has ever demonstrated a law-like dependence of any subjective property of the mind on any objective property of matter. How could we establish such a scientific relationship? A differential equation quantitatively relating intentionality to intracellular calcium?

Contra Dr. Novella's assertion that advances in neuroscience are "squeezing out" any need for immaterial causation, after a century and a half of remarkable advances in neuroscience it's still not even conceivable what a quantifiable law-like dependence of mind on matter could look like. The Explanatory Gap remains unaddressed by neuroscience. It's hard to see how it could be addressed. Are materialists asking for another 150 years to provide one plausible materialistic theory to close the Explanatory Gap or one example of a scientific law-like dependence to buttress their dogma? The advances in methodologically materialistic neuroscience and the failure to provide even a single example of quantifiable law-like dependence counts against materialism, not in support of it. Materialist neuroscience offers no explanation whatsoever for the central problem of the mind-brain relationship: the gap between subjectivity and objectivity. In a century and a half, neuroscience has explained nothing about the Hard Problem of consciousness, nothing about the Explanatory Gap, and has not provided a single example of a law-like dependence of subjective ontology on objective ontology.

If neuroscience is a victory for materialism, what would defeat look like?