My Denialism and Dr. Stephen Novella’s Latest Fumble on the Mind-Brain Problem

Michael Egnor

“Denialist” has become the slur du-jour of materialists. Dr. Stephen Novella, ardent acceptist, takes me to task for denying the truth of his personal materialist ideology of mind-brain causation. He believes that the brain causes the mind entirely, without remainder. I believe that the brain causes the mind partly, with remainder. He’s a materialist, I’m a dualist. That makes Dr. Novella angry:

Dr. Egnor must be tired of always being wrong – or at least he would be if he had the insight and intellectual honesty to see how persistently wrong he is. Alas, so far he has not demonstrated such insight. I have been engaged in an ongoing blog debate with Dr. Michael Egnor, who writes for the propaganda blog…Egnor has mangled most of his arguments, has misrepresented my opinions, has cruelly assaulted logic (as you can see he has a proper home at the Discovery Institute) – but now he demonstrates that he is incapable of reading a simple sentence and comprehending its meaning…His arguments are persistently wrong. He has not acknowledged his prior egregious errors – which is evidence for lack of insight and/or intellectual dishonesty. He completely misrepresented what I wrote -so either he did not understand it, or didn’t care. Egnor has mangled his arguments and abused logic. These are NOT personal attacks – these are legitimate criticisms of his behavior.

My “cruel assault on logic” and “incapability of reading a simple sentence” have seduced me into very bad behavior…denialism:

This is, in fact, a common strategy of denialism in general – the denial of legitimate science. Denialists would have us believe….This is the dance that denialists do…This is another example of what I have written about before – that denialists confuse questions at different levels of understanding….But like those other denialists…[emphasis mine]

When it comes to materialism, I’m a denialist to the bone. But what is it about my denialism that so infuriates Dr. Novella? He deigns to inform:

Dr. Egnor…forced me to spell out in detail the logic behind my statement.

Yep. I want Dr. Novella to spell out the logic behind his statements. Scrutinizing Dr. Novella’s logic is a useful exercise. Let’s consider an example.
In a paper published in the May issue of Nature Neuroscience — “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” — Chun Siong Soon and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany show that brain activity may precede conscious decision-making by as much as ten seconds. Subjects were asked to push a button with either the right hand or the left hand, which they were free to choose. Seven to ten seconds before the conscious decision, brain activity sometimes appeared that appeared to correlate with unconscious decision making. The correlation was slight. The specific hemisphere in which the brain activity occurred correlated with the hand used sixty percent of the time (no correlation at all would be fifty percent).
Dr. Novella sees clear evidence…to support his own 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.

I disagreed. I pointed out that Chun’s study merely demonstrated that an unconscious mental state may (weakly) correlate with a simultaneous unconscious brain state. That correlation wasn’t evidence either way for causation, which is the issue in the materialism/dualism debate. Perhaps the unconscious mind caused the brain state, or perhaps the brain state caused the unconscious mind. Perhaps the causation is more complex. Chun’s study didn’t address these issues.
This observation led to Dr. Novella’s pique:

Dr. Michael Egnor…has cruelly assaulted logic…he is incapable of reading a simple sentence and comprehending its meaning…His arguments are persistently wrong. He has not acknowledged his prior egregious errors – which is evidence for lack of insight and/or intellectual dishonesty.

Correcting my “cruel assault on logic” and my “intellectual dishonesty,” Dr. Novella sets me straight:

Further – there are two types of correlation to consider in this study, and Egnor is choosing the one that he feels makes his point without ever acknowledging that he is doing so. One correlation is the correlation between brain activity and the decision-making process. This correlation in the study is very strong. The other correlation is between the particular pattern of brain activity and the specific choice that is made – this correlation is weak in the study: only 60%.

There are indeed two types of correlation in Chun’s study. The first type is the correlation involving general brain activity recorded 7-10 seconds before the subjects made the conscious decision to use a specific hand to press the button. However, the recording of “brain activity” 10 seconds prior to the decision merely means that the subjects were thinking 10 seconds before the decision — it provides no evidence as to what they were thinking about. The regions of the brain that were activated are known to be associated in some circumstances with planning, but the association is often nebulous, and activation of these regions provides little in the way of information about the content of the thought. Perhaps they were thinking, “What if I don’t feel like pressing the button at all,” or “what shall I get for lunch?” or “how much are they going to pay me for doing this?” The mere recording of generic brain activity during the study is meaningless, because the subjects were continuously conscious, and there’s no clear evidence, without hemispheric localization, to infer that the brain activity involved an unconscious decision about hand selection, which was the whole point of the study. So Dr. Novella’s assertion that the first brain activity correlation was “very strong” suggests that Dr. Novella didn’t understand the study. Ten seconds before subjects pressed the button there’s no doubt they were thinking about something.
It’s what they were thinking about — subconsciously — that matters and that was the point of the study. And it’s the side of the brain activity — the laterality and its correspondence to hand selection — that matters. It is only this second correlation that pertains to this question of hand choice. Yet this correlation is very weak. Forty percent of the time the brain activity was on the wrong side of the brain, and this would contradict the hypothesis that the activity represented lateralized planning. And of course 50% correlation — a shift of only 10% of the data from the correct to the incorrect hemisphere — would lead to a conclusion of mere chance, with no correlation at all with planning.
So Dr. Novella describes as “very strong” a correlation that means nothing (brain activity occurs in conscious subjects), and claims as vindication for his materialist ideology a marginal correlation between brain and hand lateralization that is barely greater than chance.
Furthermore, even if one accepts this weak correlation, the correlation does little to advance the materialist theory of causation of the unconscious mental process. Both materialists and dualists believe that brain activity often correlates with mental activity. It’s causation that we disagree about, and as we’ll see, careful consideration of the results of Chun’s experiment cast doubt on the strict materialist theory of brain-mind causation.
Do Chun’s results (60% correlation with hand choice; 40% lack of correlation with hand choice) really mitigate in favor of the materialist hypothesis? Consider Dr. Novella’s own criterion for this debate:
“If the mind is completely a product of the material function of the brain, then we will be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity — no matter how we choose to look at it.”
Dualism predicts the inverse:
If dualism is true and the mind is partly the product of the material function of the brain and partly the product of something else, then we will not always be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity — no matter how we choose to look at it
Keep in mind that materialism posits that mind states are always identical to brain states, because mind states are brain states, entirely. The materialist prediction is that the correlation between mind state and brain state must be 100%, minus experimental error. Dualism posits that the correspondence between mind states and brain states is not exact, because there are aspects of mind states that are not identical to brain states. Dualism predicts that the correlation is less than 100%, and that this lack of correlation cannot be explained away entirely as experimental error.
Chun’s research shows that 40% of the time there is no unique brain function lateralized to the hemisphere involved in the hand choice, despite the presumption that an unconscious mental state is active at that time. Their research reveals very poor correlation between mind states and brain states. Is the correlation very poor — not much more than no correlation — entirely because of experimental error (if materialism is true), or is the correlation very poor because… part of the mind state isn’t caused by the brain state (if dualism is true)? If materialism is true, and the actual correlation is 100%, then the experimental error of Chun’s experiment is so high as to render the results virtually worthless. If that’s true, why would Dr. Novella choose this research to lend support to his theory? And why would the experimental error be so high? fMRI is one of the most sensitive methods we have of non-invasively measuring local neuronal activity. Its spatial resolution is excellent (3 to 6 millimeters), and it is so precise and so reliable that we use it to plan surgical resection of tumors and epileptic foci very close to critical brain regions. Was the failure of fMRI to detect any lateralizing activity in 40% of patients entirely due to error inherent in the technique? Is Dr. Novella claiming that those subjects had no unconscious processing? If Dr. Novella is claiming that the experimental error is genuinely 40% (which it must be if materialism is true), what evidence can he provide that all of the lack of correlation is mere error? Can Dr. Novella cite any other fMRI studies that have demonstrated such astonishingly high experimental error? Does he even understand that there is a problem with his claims about the research?
Then of course there’s the most parsimonious explanation: there is poor correlation between mind state and brain state measured by fMRI because the mind state isn’t entirely caused by the brain state. What if the failure to detect lateralized brain activity in 40% of subjects were not caused entirely by experimental error, but was partly the result of an absence of specific brain activity synchronous with unconscious planning? With lack of correlation at 40%, most researchers (without an ideological bias) would conclude that the processes — the mind state and the brain state — were obviously not identical. That would be clear evidence for dualism — the theory that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain.
Dr. Novella seems unaware of the implications of the very research that he cites. By his own criteria, the evidence of very poor correlation between brain state and mind state mitigates in favor of the dualist view, not the materialist view.
Ironically, Dr. Novella asserts that this evidence — evidence that by his own criteria mitigates against materialism and for dualism — falls clearly into the materialist camp. No doubt it does. Weak and misinterpreted evidence seems to pile up in the materialist camp.
Dr. Novella is a materialist ideologue. He has difficulty drawing coherent scientific inferences, and his rhetorical style is little more than condescension and contempt. He brooks no questions. When it comes to challenges to his personal materialistic ideology, Dr. Novella sneers, dissembles, and ultimately invokes parsimony:

The problem with [dualism] is that it is unnecessary – it is adding an unnecessary step and violates Occam’s razor.

William of Occam was a 14th Century English scholastic philosopher and a father of modern epistemology. He was also a Franciscan friar, and by his vows (…God is Spirit, and man is created from dust and in God’s image…) — he was a dualist.
So even dualists end up, posthumously and incongruously, in the materialist camp. Denialists are 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.