Why Neuroscience Will Win

Oh no they deh-ent.

Creationists and Intelligent Design Iterators of “True” Science (IDiots) have given up on attacking evolution and now have taken aim at neuroscience. The article is reproduced fully over at NeuroWhoa! The ring-leader is psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D.:

YOU cannot overestimate how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You’re gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about… [how] materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.

And the gloves are off! He is saying that our mental faculties are different from our biological ones. Mind and matter have to be separate. But did anyone read that New York Times article finally proclaiming the death of science? I, too, must’ve missed it.

When we address the science, we quickly see that mental states and brain states are simply, well, brain states. This is a why biology and psychology got married and had a baby that would become neuroscience. First, some semantics <face-palm>: scientists once used the umbrella term “mental” simply to distinguish a psychological phenomenon (e.g. memory, consciousness) from a biological one (e.g. an action potentials, neurogenesis), circa 1900s when we didn’t know better. Today we know that that the biological underlies all of the psychological, and we know this because our tools are that damn good.

Wanna change a robust behavior by deleting a single gene? Done! Wanna control neurons and behavior with light? Check! How about changing people’s judgements regarding a moral dilema by transiently manipulating the activity of some brain regions? Wonderful.

More specifically, here’s a classic in neuroscience literature that ties together higher-level cognition and the pre-frontal cortex An even more direct and reader-friendly framework for consciousness, no less, can be found here. Note that none of these scientists are throwing their hands in the air because some mental state is supposedly just so out-of-reach, so elusive, so mysterious.

Yet despite all this, Schwartz armors up as an all-talk-no-data tough guy and calls the battle over the brain nothing short of a “cultural war.” And what would an attack on brain science be if it didn’t try to dig Darwinism a grave yet again:

ID argues that biological life is too complex to have arisen through evolution.

What a Bill O’Reilly thing to say. Biological life is complex indeed, but it is every bit explainable, not to mention that hydrogen atoms do some pretty nifty things when given nearly 14 billion years, as Carl Sagan reminds us. We know evolution is true because literally every branch of science supports it. Think about how staggering that is: it just takes one finding, just one, in all of science to disprove evolution by natural selection. A fossil of a rabbit in the pre-cambrian era, for instance. Not surprisingly, millions of researchers for more than a hundred years have never found evidence contrary to evolution. This is why it was called “The single best idea anyone ever had” by philosopher Dan Dennett.

Likewise, it also will take only one strand of data to provide evidence that suggests mental states are something more than just brain states. Bets, anyone? Today, the idea that the mind and brain are separate is the single most wrong idea anyone has ever had. We have amassed 400 years of data since Descartes’ mind-body separation, yet much of what Schwartz is saying simply regresses science back the same amount of time.

Anyone who’s ever been “put under” with general anesthesia, and then brought back to wakefulness when taken off it, has single-handedly settled the score. Anesthesia — often a cocktail of inhaled or injected chemicals — shifts the balance of excitation and inhibition in the brain such that you doze off while a procedure is performed and wake up when the anesthesia wears off.

There. A loss-of-function (consciousness), followed by a gain-of-function (consciousness) experiment, all done millions of times a year, world-wide. This is a gold standard in science in order to claim causality. What neuroscience is working on now, however, are the nitty-gritty details of the “neural correlates of consciousness.”

“AHA! Neural correlates of consciousness! You’ve proved nothing!” say the doubters. Accordingly, if I had a megaphone and 15 seconds on live TV, I’d ask all brain scientists to stop being modest (hi mom hi mom!) and simply refer to the neural correlates of consciousness as the neural causalates of consciousness.

Every bit of data ever collected in neuroscience suggests that mental states are brain states. Whether we like it or not is irrelevant; again, nature doesn’t give a fig about our agendas. And for many of us, it’s our job as students of science to make sure that the public knows how to separate fact from fluff, science from pseudoscience.

Full disclosure: I ain’t spending a wallet-emptying $10 a year for the “okaysteve” domain name just to have people like Schwartz naively make neuroscience look bad.

The ball is in your court, Schwartz et al. Neuroscience will win, because it really, actually, truly works. Whaddaya got?

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One response to “Why Neuroscience Will Win

  1. Sadly, Steve, Schwartz is talking to a lot of people that don’t care about semantics and the scientific method and some of those people have a lot of money at their disposal.

    I think a lot more students of science are going to need to get those jobs educating the layman and discounting the nonsense. Dismissal does nothing to stop those that spread it and fails to convince those who hear it that science knows any better.

    Keep up the blogging. Good reads.

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