Viewing Neuroscience through Materialist Glasses

Michael Egnor

Dr. Steven Novella, the dogmatic materialist neurologist at Yale who has insisted that “…every single prediction [of the strict materialist understanding of the brain] has been validated” by science, has found even more scientific evidence for his personal ideology. Dr. Novella recently noted a report in Nature Neuroscience about fMRI correlates of decision-making in the brain.
In the report, “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” authors Chun Siong Soon and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany show that brain activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortex may precede conscious decision-making by as much as ten seconds before a decision is consciously made. Each subject was asked to push a button with either the right hand or the left hand. Seven to ten seconds before the conscious decision, brain activity appeared that appeared to correlate with unconscious decision making. Sixty percent of the time, the brain activity correlated with the hand used (no correlation would be fifty percent).
The study is an interesting demonstration that brain activity as measured by fMRI (which measures local blood flow and metabolic activity) correlates to some degree with unconscious processing, as well as the well-known but weak correlation between fMRI and conscious thought. Dr. Novella notes:

What we can say at this point is that brain function is complex (duh), and that taking action involves multiple steps – including planning, preparation/organization, and finally action. We can also conclude that subconscious brain processing contributes significantly to decision-making.[“duh” in original]

No argument there. But then Dr. Novella sees evidence…to support his materialist ideology! He writes:

Given my recent posts concerning materialism vs dualism (does the brain cause mind), I also want to point out that this research falls squarely in the materialism camp. Causes precede their effects – brain activity precedes conscious awareness and action – the brain causes mind. That much seems pretty clear.

This research “falls squarely in the materialist camp”? That’s a remarkable assertion. Dr. Novella asserts that this bit of evidence for correlation (rather weak correlation) between unconscious mental processing and brain activity supports materialism. But the natural corollary to Dr. Novella’s assertion would be that lack of evidence for correlation between mental processing and brain activity would fall squarely in the dualist camp. But of course most brain activity doesn’t correlate all that well with mental activity. In this study, the correlation with the sidedness of the hand chosen was only 60%, which is quite poor correlation. Fifty percent is no correlation. If Dr. Novella is asserting that evidence for correlation is evidence for materialism, then the evidence demonstrating a lack of close correlation (which is most of the evidence in neuroscience) between mind and brain states is evidence against materialism.
It’s a safe bet that this is not at all what Dr. Novella meant. What Dr. Novella means is this: all evidence, regardless of the nature of the evidence, favors materialism.
So what does the observation that there is brain activity that correlates with unconscious mental activity really tell us about the strict materialist-dualism debate? It tells us nothing at all. Both Dr. Novella and I accept the existence of unconscious mental processes. The Nature Neuroscience article shows that brain activity is ongoing during the time that we presume unconscious mental processing is occurring, and that the brain activity correlates (weakly) with the subjects’ choice of right or left hand. But the debate about strict materialism and dualism is a debate about mental causation, not correlation. Does the unconscious mind cause the brain activity, or does the brain activity cause the unconscious mind? Chun’s study doesn’t address that question at all.
Does every bit of relevant scientific evidence support the strict materialistic understanding of the mind, as Dr. Novella claims? It does so only if you start, as Dr. Novella did, with the (unexamined) premise that strict materialism is necessarily true. If you approach the question of strict materialism and dualism with an open mind, interested in truth rather than polemics, the evidence is mixed. Strict materialism asserts that the mind is caused by the brain without remainder. Dualism asserts that the mind is caused by the brain with remainder. Some evidence supports the materialist view, and some evidence supports the dualist view. I believe that the dualist view is better supported by the scientific evidence, but reasonable people can disagree. “Reasonable” implies that you approach the scientific questions with a willingness to consider alternative explanations. But in Dr. Novella’s view, every single piece of evidence supports strict materialism, and people who disagree with him are “creationists” and “punching bags” afflicted with “ignorance”. So you know his scientific conclusion before the question is asked.
The Nature Neuroscience article provides no meaningful evidence either for or against dualism or materialism, but Dr. Novella’s citation of it to support his materialist ideology tells us a great deal about how Dr. Novella approaches scientific evidence. He’s a materialist ideologue. He views the scientific evidence through materialist glasses, and sees evidence for materialism…everywhere.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.