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Has Neuroscience “Proved” that the Mind Is Just the Brain?

Michael Egnor
Photo credit: Rama, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR , via Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, materialist neurologist Steven Novella (at Yale University School of Medicine) made a rather astonishing claim in a post at his Neurologica blog: A recent open-access study of learning and decision-making in mice shows that the human mind is merely what the human brain does. That’s a lot for mice to prove.

In the study, the mice were trained to choose holes from which food is provided. Their brain activity was measured as they learned and decided which holes were best. The research looks specifically at quick and intuitive decision-making vs. decision-making that is slower and involves analysis of the situation. The investigators found that analysis-based decisions in the mice involve brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region of the brain in the fissure between the hemispheres.

Understanding the Mind-Brain Relationship

From the standpoint of understanding the mind-brain relationship, this study is unremarkable. There is no doubt that thinking usually involves brain activity of some sort. Dualists (who think that the human mind uses the brain but is not identical with it) and materialists (who think that the mind is just what the brain does) have no disagreement here. This study details the correlative brain activity in mice, which is nice to know. But Dr. Novella takes this mundane study and draws a ludicrous conclusion:

I also feel obligated to point out that research like this completely destroys any notion of dualism — that mental function exists somehow outside of or separate from the biological functioning of the brain. So far, the “neuroscience” hypothesis, that mental function is brain function, is working quite well. The brain is a complex biological computer, and we can figure out how it works by studying it. Even the most sophisticated cognitive processes, such as analytical decision-making, are demonstrably happening in the brain. Further, not only is there zero evidence for the dualist hypothesis, it is completely unnecessary, which is a fate in science even worse than being wrong.

Nonsense. Novella has been trying to sell his materialist ideology in the guise of neuroscience for more than a decade. This is only the most recent in a host of his bizarre claims, including his 2008 assertion that “The materialist hypothesis — that the brain causes consciousness — has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated.”

That’s a beautiful example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (people overestimate their mastery of a situation they don’t understand). In neuroscience, materialism is the answer only if you don’t understand the questions.

Read the rest at Mind Matters, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.