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Understanding the Mind: A Neuroscientist and a Psychiatrist Walk into a…

Photo credit: Jr Korpa via Unsplash.

No, this isn’t the beginning of a stand-up gag but rather of an interesting discussion at Unbelievable’s “The Big Conversation,” hosted by Justin Brierley.The participants seem well-matched:

First there is Sharon Dirckx, a neuroscientist and Christian apologist who speaks and writes on human consciousness, and the problem of evil. The author of Am I Just My Brain? (Oxford Apologetics, 2019), she is especially interested in the “intersection of science and theology, questions of human consciousness and identity, and the problem of evil.”

Then there is Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist who has specialized in the overlap between psychiatry and neurology, who has written both for colleagues and the public about the mind–body relationship. He “is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise.” His most recent book is The Matter with Things (Perspectiva Press), a critique of reductive materialism that asks questions like “What do we mean by purpose, value and the divine? And how do we most reliably set about finding out?”

Highlights from the Conversation

Here are some highlights from the automated transcript (slightly edited):

Dirckx: (13:36 min) My perspective on that is that we need to be very clear on what the science tells us and where we make a leap and start to make a philosophical and worldview statement that the science doesn’t get you to. Of course, just in a healthy volunteer, if you put them in an MRI scanner and give them a task to do, you will see networks lighting up that correspond to that use of their mind. And so clearly mind and brain are connected. That is where the science gets us to.

But the science doesn’t say anything about the nature of that connection, and that is where people move into a worldview perspective on it. The front page of Scientific American in 2017 had a headline about looking at brain networks and “how neurons create thoughts.”

Now that is not a scientific statement. There is nothing in any study that will get you to the conclusion that neurons create thoughts. That’s a worldview.

[McGilchrist, though he comes from a quite different perspective, largely agreed with this.]

McGilchrist: (16:01 min) Certainly, I wouldn’t accept, from a philosophical point of view, that just because we can see a parallel between the brain and consciousness that the brain makes consciousness. There are logically three possible relationships between them:

One, the one that is favored by modern science, seems to be the least likely: The brain gives rise to consciousness, emits it. Another alternative is that it transmits it in the way that a receiver would take in consciousness and produce it, like your radio set produces a program.

The third which is the one that I adopt is, the brain permits a certain element of consciousness to be expressed and that’s quite important because often things only come into being by being restricted or sculpted. William James makes this wonderful remark that it’s only because of the vocal cords inhibiting the outflow of air from his lungs that he has a personal voice and it may be that the brain … is a sort of filtering device which allows aspects of consciousness, which are my consciousness, to become apparent.

[Then follows his epic takedown of Daniel Dennett’s and others thinkers’ wholly materialist position on consciousness.]

McGilchrist: (18:40 min) I think his position is wholly incoherent. He says that consciousness is an illusion but I would point out that, for it to be an illusion, there must be a consciousness to be illuded. And so it’s one of the most remarkable statements by an obviously rather intelligent man.

[Dirckx then brought up qualia, the conscious experiences that elude material representation.]

Dirckx: (20:46 min) Well, think that the reductive materialist position will always be there and so we need to have responses to that ready to hand … there are all kinds of qualitative experiences that we have in life that actually are impossible to describe physically. If I were to ask you to describe to me the smell of coffee in physical terms, you would be at a loss as for how to describe it. The chemical structure of caffeine wouldn’t be enough. It doesn’t get you to the smell of coffee.

And so all of these kinds of qualia — not least the qualia of what it is to be you … There is something that it is to be a human being that actually nobody else, not even a scientist with the most highly developed technology, can really access, the inner reality that it is to be you.

[Dirckx noted the growing popularity of panpsychism as well, though she finds Christian theism much more persuasive. It then developed that McGilchrist leans to a panpsychist approach.]

Justin Brierley: (23:56 min) What’s your perspective on panpsychism and this idea that we start with consciousness and sort of build back from there?

McGilchrist: (24:01 min) I think that is right. I think that, for what it’s worth, matter is a phase of consciousness. So matter is not prior to consciousness. Nothing is prior to consciousness.

This is a point of view that’s been common to many traditions all around the world for thousands of years. I think people often have insight into the brain without using scanners. But the idea that consciousness is a fundamental — what’s called an ontological primitive — seems to me to make a lot of sense. But of course if they’re phases of one another, then matter is also a primary because it’s part of consciousness.

The Life of the Intellect

The rest of the discussion covered McGilchrist’s theories about the role of the hemispheres of the brain, with which Dirckx expressed sympathy. We’ll take that up in more detail soon. What’s most interesting about this discussion is how well the life of the intellect, engaged by science, gets on without guidance from any form of eliminative materialism.

Note: There really is a (polite) joke like this in the science literature: “A Paramedic, a Neurologist, and a Psychiatrist Walk into a Bar,” though it is making a sober point.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.