Via Victor Reppert, a pretty atrocious piece in New Scientist about the looming threat of Creationism to neuroscience.
First, I have to state I intensely dislike both the big pop science mags, New Scientist and Scientific American. For two reasons. First, they seem to be attracted to pseudoscience like flies are to shit - at least in as far as non-physics subjects such as linguistics are concerned. And I can only state this because I know nothing about physics. About subjects that I do know a bit about, both mags seem to have a tendency to colossally mess up. This is worrying.
Second, both of them represent the suave American liberalism that is the intellectually least interesting and most superficial of stances - coupled with a good bit of self-congratulatory "brave scientist saves the world from Republicans" nonsense. Which reached its apex in SciAms disgusting hatchet job on Bjorn Lomborg.
And if the "Global Warming Denialist" is the one perennial bugbear of suave American pro-science liberalism, the other is certainly the "Creationist". Both keeping the not-quite-highbrow sometimes-thinking left-leaning-but-not-too-far part of the population perpetually busy with their attacks on Science and Reason.
It is the latter that is the bad guy in this particular New Scientist article. Apparently, Creationists are now mounting their attacks on Reason and Science through neuroscience and philosophy of mind:
Schwartz and Beauregard are part of a growing "non-material neuroscience" movement. They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism - the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial - in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul. The two have signed the "Scientific dissent from Darwinism" petition, spearheaded by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, headquarters of the intelligent design movement. ID argues that biological life is too complex to have arisen through evolution.
The first problem with the piece - and it's a very big one - is that dualism or the position that "matter and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things" (which does not necessarily imply Cartesian dualism, but anyway) has been a respectable minority position within philosophy of mind for God knows how long. I assume it is a minority position; my subjective impression is that most philosophers of mind hold to some kind of property dualism or emergentism which in effect acknowledges mind to be irreducible to matter while at the same time holding to some kind of ontological materialism. Then there's a minority of hard-core materialists (the Churchlands, Daniel Dennett) and a minority of dualists, panpsychists and idealists (Galen Strawson has defended a panpsychist account, which he regards as a kind of materialism, in a special issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies).
Briefly, the viewpoint that there is a "hard problem" of consciousness, that mind cannot be scientifically explained or reduced to matter is pretty widely accepted. And various arguments go back a long way. The argument that the (normative) ground-consequence relationships of reasoning cannot be reduced to the (non-normative) spatiotemporal relationships of matter in a manner that is not self-refuting has been proposed with great clarity by Popper in The Open Universe back in the fifties but goes back to, as Popper mentions, to Descartes and Augustine.
The second problem is that the article stays firmly within the framework of "neuroscience". There is an irony here, in that in doing so, it repeats the main conceptual error of the ID/Creationist bogeymen (assuming that it originates with them):
To properly support dualism, however, non-materialist neuroscientists must show the mind is something other than just a material brain.
(Aaargh! No they don't!!! Conceptually, the mind is something other than a material brain! The challenge is precisely to argue that dualism, or non-material causation, or whatever is explanatorily more comprehensive than materialism)
To do so, they look to some of their favourite experiments, such as research by Schwartz in the 1990s on people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for OCD. Then he had patients use "mindful attention" to actively change their thought processes, and this showed up in the brain scans: patients could alter their patterns of neural firing at will.
From such experiments, Schwartz and others argue that since the mind can change the brain, the mind must be something other than the brain, something non-material. In fact, these experiments are entirely consistent with mainstream neurology - the material brain is changing the material brain.
The crux of the issue is, of course, that the relationship between mind and matter - the problem of qualia, intentionality, and so forth, and how these are to be placed in a material world of law-governed spatiotemporal entities, or the other way around - is a philosophical problem, not a scientific one. The natural sciences (such as neuroscience) must by necessity stay within their naturalistic, non-teleological explanatory framework. The human sciences (such as semiotics, linguistics, psychology) must by necessity stay within their teleological non-naturalistic explanatory framework. And neither science is able to justify the basic philosophical framework by itself. So looking for neuroscience to provide for a justification for materialism is an exercise in question-begging.
Just one example of this is the way in which Libet's experiments have been regarded as either an indication for the illusory nature of consciousness, or for the existence of retrocausal, non-materialistic phenomena with regards to the human mind.
Because, of course, things go both ways. For biological ID to succeed, it would need to argue for a shift in metascientific perspective: that a framework borrowed from the human sciences is more explanatory for biology than one borrowed from the natural sciences. It is often forgotten that there is a whole body of inquiry, in some areas at least as old as the natural sciences, in which "supernatural" concepts such as free will, goal-directed agency and so forth are methodologically presupposed even by those who would philosophically reject them: linguistics, history, psychology and the like.
The irony I referred to lies in the fact that scientism and it's ID/Creationist opponents often tend to take the same kind of post-Enlightenment one-dimensionalism for granted: there is a single world, and a single set of facts (scientific facts). Creationism tends to simply substitute the Bible as a replacement for the results of scientific inquiry.
But back to the article. I have a nasty feeling that at least some of the thinkers mentioned in the article as Creationist enemies have a viewpoint on some of the issues I mentioned above quite a bit more subtle than reflected in the writer's myopic focus on neuroscience. I haven't read J.P. Moreland, but glancing from the contents of his book, I would hazard a guess his place is within fairly mainstream philosophy of mind, rather than within some ID fifth column of neuroscience. And of Henry Stapp I know that he is working on a Whiteheadian process-philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics, which has again everything to do with philosophical and metascientific frameworks and absolutely zilch with ID or Creationism.
Not to mention that process philosophy, which has been applied to mind-matter problems by others as well, such as Stuart Hameroff, is as far from Cartesian dualism as you can get. Farther, at least, than eliminative materialism. (Not to speak of conservative Christian theology).
And ultimately, upon the basis of what I can only see as an exercise in non-understanding, the article devolves in familiar scare-mongering. The ragtag bunch of non-materialist neuroscientists, quantum physicists and philosophers mentioned in the article are a Danger to Science and Reason, no less:
And as Clark observes: "This is an especially nasty mind-virus because it piggybacks on some otherwise reasonable thoughts and worries. Proponents make such potentially reasonable points as 'Oh look, we can change our brains just by changing our minds,' but then leap to the claim that mind must be distinct and not materially based. That doesn't follow at all. There's nothing odd about minds changing brains if mental states are brain states: that's just brains changing brains."
(Presupposing a materialist conception of the mind-matter issue, yes. Which is precisely the issue. See previous remarks about blatant question-begging.)
That is the voice of mainstream academia. (No. It. Is. Not.) Public perception, however, is a different story. If people can be swayed by ID, despite the vast amount of solid evidence for evolution, how hard will it be when the science appears fuzzier?
What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the "God of the gaps".
I have a better suggestion. On second thought, it would be too obscene to mention here. (I need to get outside and calm myself down with a cigarette).
(Back). I have a better idea. Neuroscientists should study neurology and not pretend they do philosophy. Philosophers of mind should study philosophy and not pretend to do natural science. Incidentally, I have a feeling that most of either group are already doing this and not need my advice.
Popular science journalists, on the other hand, should try their hand at reporting science. Not pseudo-science. Not politics or the intellectually barren perspective of left-liberal culture warriors. Not distort genuine, and interesting controversies through the lens of anti-religious hysteria.
Things like this almost make me root for a McCain victory, out of sheer spite.