The Mind-Body Problem Has Not Been Solved by Naturalism
Several news stories bring back the issue of mind-body dualism with a vengeance.
Hospital Finds Nothing but Air Where Part of Patient’s Brain Should Be (Breitbart News). Some people get accused of being airheads, but this case is real. Nate Church reports, “The remarkable cause of an 84-year-old man’s numerous minor symptoms when he came to the emergency room shocked his doctors.”
It is not unusual for a man of such advanced years to experience muscle weakness or loss of balance, nor is it especially notable for them to suffer falls. But when the frequency of all three became concerning, the unnamed Irishman came to Causeway Hospital in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, for answers.
Dr. Finlay Brown recalls the unique experience: “He was otherwise fit and well, independent with physical activities of daily living … and lived at home with his wife and two sons.” But after a CAT scan and MRI, it became immediately apparent that the man’s case was almost unprecedented; there was nothing but empty space where a large part of his brain should have been.
Most of the patient’s right frontal lobe was instead an empty pocket of air.
Can you think with air instead of brain tissue? Undoubtedly not, but this case illustrates the extreme plasticity of the brain to survive major trauma. Apparently a bone tumor in his sinuses created an opening like a one-way valve into his skull. Every time he sneezed or coughed, it pumped air into his brain. This went on for years until he was examined.
Logic in babies (Justin Halberda in Science Magazine). New evidence shows that infants as young as 12 months possess the rudiments of logical thinking. A new paper by Cesana-Arlotti et al. in the same issue of Science, “Precursors of logical reasoning in preverbal human infants,” shows that “one essential form of logical inference, process of elimination, is within the toolkit of 12-month-old infants,” Halberda says. This leads to deep philosophical questions:
Every scientific method requires a supporting logic. For Francis Bacon, this was unfettered empirical observation followed by induction (reasoning from many cases to form a general principle). Karl Popper stressed the importance of hypothesis testing and the ability to refute hypotheses found to be false (science as an extended instance of process of elimination). And Thomas Kuhn highlighted the dramatic changes that occur during scientific revolutions, in which wholly new models of phenomena are created through model building and abduction (sometimes called “inference to the best explanation”). Examples of such revolutions are the Copernican Revolution producing the heliocentric model of the solar system, and the Einsteinian Revolution of special relativity in which space and time become one. In each of these cases (induction, hypothesis testing, abduction), the work of science is supported by an underlying logic. No logic, no science.
If infants possess rudiments of logical thinking, where did it come from? The latest paper adds to growing evidence of logical foundations in infancy, which is quite astonishing. “After all, it often feels like logical reasoning is effortful, conscious, and even linguistically based,” Halberda remarks. “These characteristics, if accurate, would seem to preclude the possibility that preverbal infants could engage in any such process.” Even without language, however, Cesana-Arlotti et al. showed with experiments that infants would express confusion or delight if objects were hidden and revealed in illogical or logical ways.
Potentially even more exciting, infants also showed signs of making the necessary inferences along the way—for example, upon seeing which of the two objects was behind the wall, but before the cup’s contents were revealed, infants’ pupils dilated and they tended to shift their fixation to the cup (consistent with them inferring which object must be inside). This pattern suggests that infants used the information they had seen to reason through a disjunctive syllogism (A or B, not A, therefore B). There were also additional versions of these vignettes that manipulated the precise sequence of hiding and revealing, which allowed the authors to determine what specifically the infants were remembering and expecting during each moment.
This is all pre-verbal inference, supporting the idea that logic is conceptual in nature and not dependent on language. Experiments with dogs and other animals show that they lack this kind of logical inference. Halberda concludes, “It is a thrilling time for us as scientists—using logical reasoning to understand how we reason logically.” He makes no attempt to explain how Darwinian evolution might have brought this about. See also the Science Daily summary of the experimental procedures and findings.
Ravens, Crows, Parrots, and More—Meet the Most Intelligent Birds (National Geographic). In the previous article, Halberda stated, “The race to document the range of early logical abilities shared by infants, adults, and nonhuman animals, and to determine how these foundational abilities empower our broader capacities to reason, has begun.” But is there a difference between human and non-human logical ability? In this National Geographic article, Amelia Stymacks discusses bird brains, long subjected to ridicule, which are no bigger than a nut and presumably stupid. She discusses the smartest of the birds: ravens, crows, parrots and cockatoos, stating, “Their brains may be tiny, but birds have been known to outsmart children and apes.” Other “sleeper” birds like grackles, orioles and blackbirds might turn out to be brainier than thought.
Bird intelligence seems to consist of puzzle-solving skill, such as the ability to make a tool to obtain food. Even chimps fail at some of the tests corvids and parrots solve. Birds are certainly impressive in their ability to navigate, signal, solve puzzles and remember things, but is this the same as logical reasoning? Stymacks doesn’t say. She also doesn’t explain how such abilities could have evolved, nor why small-brained birds should perform better than larger-brained chimpanzees. Scientists also cannot determine if any nonhuman animal is capable of abstract thought, morality (see 11 March 2018) or a logical chain of inference.
Study tackles neuroscience claims to have disproved ‘free will’ (Medical Xpress). Materialists have made much of old experiments that seemed to deny the existence of human free will. This quote from North Carolina State University gives a cogent counter-argument, pointing out along the way the need for critical thinking before accepting claims. Incidentally, reasoning about this debate requires free will, doesn’t it?
For several decades, some researchers have argued that neuroscience studies prove human actions are driven by external stimuli—that the brain is reactive and free will is an illusion. But a new analysis of these studies shows that many contained methodological inconsistencies and conflicting results.
“Score one for skepticism of claims that neuroscience has proven—or disproven—any metaphysical position,” says Veljko Dubljevic, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of philosophy at NC State who specializes in research on the neuroscience of ethics and the ethics of neuroscience and technology.
“The problem is that neuroscientists in training are being taught these studies provide definitive proof of the absence of free will, and instructors aren’t being careful about looking at the evidence that supports the claims that are made,” Dubljevic says. “Teaching uncritical thinking like this in science courses is both unscientific and socially dangerous.”
Neuroscientists identify brain circuit that integrates head motion with visual signals (University College London). We tend to think that following motion depends just on our eyes, but we also must process information about our own position. A context-dependent process in the brain integrates signals from the eyes and ears so that we know which way to turn our heads.
As you go about daily life you are constantly moving your head to look around the world. In order to make sense of the information that falls within your gaze you need to keep track of the position of your head; this is accomplished with information that comes from your vestibular sense organs, which are in your inner ears.
The research team identified a site in the primary visual cortex (area V1) where vestibular signals and visual signals converge and went on to determine that the vestibular signals come from the retrosplenial cortex, a brain area thought to encode information critical for spatial navigation through the surrounding world.
Think of how quickly this occurs. When you hear a gunshot and turn your head to look where it came from, signals from several areas must travel in a finite time, converge, and be processed in that brief moment. “Perhaps the most surprising observation was the extent to which these signals were being represented across the local network,” Professor Troy W. Margrie remarked. “Despite exploring only a small fraction of vestibular stimulus space, almost all cells were found to respond.”
Why the world looks stable while we move (Medical Xpress). A related article concerns experiments at the University of Tübingen to explore head-eye coordination. The world does not appear to roll or bounce, even when we run or walk with a bobbing motion. Video cameras catch the bouncing, as photographers know, even when using a gimbal. The brain, however, “corrects for any changes in visual information caused by head movements.” The brain can be tricked, though; “when visual stimuli and our perception of movement do not fit together, this balancing act in the brain falls apart.” Users of virtual reality headsets know the feeling; it can lead to motion sickness. The researchers are only on the verge of being able to understand how the brain corrects for the input errors from the senses. However it works, it appears to be a matter of software (programmed response), not hardware (neurons).
Where did that noise come from? (Science Daily). Research at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich augments the above findings about sense perception. With our two ears, we have the ability to use parallax to locate the source of sounds. Experience helps us with familiar sounds, such as a baby’s cry or an ambulance, but what does the brain do with unfamiliar sounds? Are wec hearing a faint sound close by or a louder sound further away? The body’s response, which can be improved by training, is to move the head.
Wiegrebe and his team set out to determine how our hearing system copes with this situation. The experiments were carried out in a non-reverberant chamber to ensure that the participants could not assess relative distances from the locations of sounds on the basis of echoes or reverberation. The experimental subjects wore blindfolding goggles and their head motions were monitored. They were seated facing two sound sources that could be positioned at different distances from the subject. One of the sources, chosen at random, emitted high-pitched and the other low-pitched sounds. The subjects’ task was to determine which of the sound sources was closer to them. “Participants who moved their upper bodies sideways — so that the sound sources were further to the right and then further to the left — were better able to estimate the distance between the sound sources. This result demonstrates that humans can use auditory motion parallax to estimate relative distances from sound sources,” Wiegrebe points out. In fact, subjects were able to do so even when the distance difference between the two sound sources was only 16 cm.
How would the brain process alien music? (Science Daily). Speaking of unfamiliar sounds, how would the brain process alien music? A researcher at the Max Planck Institute created computer-composed mathematical sequences of tones to find out. Knowing that a region of the left brain above the temple (Broca’s area) was responsible for processing language, he hypothesized that a corresponding area in the right brain would process music. Musicians were invited to listen to the sequences made up of “randomly generated combinations of tone-triplets that were combined in a palindrome-like manner,” and determine which ones contained musical grammar that made sense. Sure enough, the right side that corresponds to Broca’s area was activated in MRI scans during the tests. “This suggests the task [of determining musical grammar] is accomplished through the integration of information in memory with some form of neural computation of the musical grammar in the right homologue of Broca’s area.”
Space radiation more hazardous: Implications for astronauts and satellites (Science Daily). In the mind-body problem, all agree that the physical brain influences thoughts. The monist reduces thought to the physical brain, denying the separate existence of the mind. The dualist acknowledges both, while accepting that they interact in complex ways. This news item coming from the University of New Hampshire’s Space Science Center warns that space radiation is “much higher than thought,” with implications for astronaut safety: “Unshielded astronauts could experience acute effects like radiation sickness or more serious long-term health issues like cancer and organ damage, including to the heart, brain, and central nervous system.” Previous studies have shown that extended travel beyond earth’s safety shields (magnetic field and atmosphere) could lead to dementia (6 Jan 2013). Does this demonstrate that the mind is merely the brain? Not necessarily. To even ask the question, one must assume a “self” that understands the question and can contemplate answers that can endure even when brain cells are replaced. As for free will, Professor Alan Charles Kors demonstrated the problem in his course The Birth of the Modern Mind by merely commanding his arm to raise and doing it against the force of gravity. Then he could make his body disobey his mind by commanding it to rise up but making it move down. None of the above news articles are likely to help the materialist/monist view.
Update 3/19/18: After this article was published, National Geographic posted an article, “Why the Brain-Body Connection Is More Important Than We Think” that is very much on topic. In a Book Talk piece, Simon Worrall interviews Alan Jasanoff, author of The Biological Mind. Jasanoff, a professor of biological engineering at MIT, denies dualism, relegating the soul to a reflection of biological activity not only of the brain itself, but of the whole body’s responses to internal and external environmental inputs. He describes his main point:
This book is largely about two opposite ideas: the biological mind centered on the brain, in which influences from the rest of the body and outside the body shape what we think and do, and the cerebral mystique, a complex of stereotypes and ideals about the brain, which tend to treat it as an isolated and all-powerful entity, almost like a modern version of the soul.
The problem with having a dualistic view of the brain and its relationship to the physical body, and the physical world, is that it makes us see ourselves as unnaturally self-contained, both as minds and as autonomous agents. In other words, we view ourselves as things that operate from within, so we’re less sensitive to things that influence us on the outside.
There’s no question that our minds are influenced by inside and outside influences, including temperature, light and our own gut biota. But his explanation undercuts itself. We would have to conclude that Jasanoff is not an autonomous agent making rational statements he believes to be true about the brain. His words reduce to “mere” responses to environmental influences. He debases ‘mystical’ views, but then says, “The brain is a biotic organ, embedded in a continuum of natural causes and connections that together contribute to our biological minds.” How is his view of the mind not mystical itself? How does a biotic lump of tissue, subject to natural causes and connections, give rise to a mind capable of striving for truth with any credibility? He says in the concluding paragraph,
My overarching theme is against narrow thinking. If we want to solve our problems, we shouldn’t reduce them to problems of the brain. We need to keep a broad view, which recognizes how the brain is connected both to the body and to the environment; and look for solutions wherever they happen to lie. Explaining human behavior in terms of brain function alone stems from a kind of mystical view of the brain and keeps us from advancing in a way that science can encourage us.
Look at all the ‘should’ and ‘need’ words there. Is narrow thinking bad? Is a broad view good? How does a biotic brain decide that? How does a biological mind know that explaining things or finding solutions are mental activities worth striving for? His materialistic Pandora’s box has just let loose a swarm of questions about morality.
Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has written on the mind-body problem numerous times at Evolution News & Science Today. Readers will find it instructive to hear his arguments for dualism, such as “The Representation Problem and the Immaterialism of the Mind” (ENST 5 Feb 2018), “Free Will Denial and PreCrimes” (ENST 1 Feb 2018), “Naturalism and Self-Refutation” (ENST 31 Jan 2018) and others (search on his name on the front page under “Writers”). He also has spoken on the ID the Future podcast several times. Another author on the mind-body problem at ENST is Denyse O’Leary, co-author of The Spiritual Brain. A video interview by Lawrence Kuhn with philosopher David Chalmers on ENST is well worth reviewing (ENST 24 Aug 2012).
Another good thinker on the mind-body problem and the necessity of reason and the validity of thought is C.S. Lewis. I recommend his essays “De Futilitate” and “The Poison of Subjectivism” in Christian Reflections for his own exposition of the argument from reason. The Discovery Institute’s book The Magician’s Twin has good essays expounding on Lewis’s views. See also the videos on the C. S. Lewis Channel on YouTube.
Creation-Evolution Headlines has also written about the mind-body problem over the years, in articles such as “Who’s in Control: Your Brain or You?” (12 March 2010), “Let Your Mind Marvel at Its Brain” (5 Aug 2016), “You Are Free to Read This” (18 Sept 2016), and others (search on “Mind-Body Problem” in the search bar).