Jerry Coyne, Neuroscience, and Research Methods 101

comments form first comment
Jerry Coyne
Jerry Coyne
(Image Source)

Dr. Jerry Coyne, atheistic biologist and blogger, thinks it’s surprising some people still believe in dualistic free will. To add to V.J. Torley’s excellent extended response to his post on Uncommon Descent, I want to focus on this question of Coyne’s.

“In fact, when you think about more abstract things, like God or faith, parts of the brain light up in brain scans. Why should they if such notions are immaterial?”

My answer: why shouldn’t they? What does he think we were expecting? That’s a scientific finding that’s predicted equally well by materialism and by dualistic free will.

Be sure to read to the end to find out about an exciting opportunity today!

Theory 1

Let’s start with Coyne’s view, materialism.

He believes the material brain explains all thought; indeed, every explanation for everything must ultimately come down to a material explanation. Brain scans consistently show brain activity that correlates with certain thoughts, feelings, etc., so therefore when we think, feel, etc., those mental states are completely explained by—caused by, produced by, or even (some thinkers hold) identical to that brain activity.

Research Methods 101

On one level this conclusion is a simple correlation/causation error. When researchers discover two phenomena that relate to each other statistically, they always have to ask what’s causing what, if anything. I’ve shared before how my Research Methods 101 prof explained this. She told us a statistical relationship had been found between crime rates and ice cream sales in St. Louis. Now, does buying ice cream cause crime? Does a desperate need to buy ice cream cause crime? Does crime make people want ice cream? Or could it be that both effects are related to the weather?

I think we can agree it’s the weather. Crime goes down when it’s cold out, and ice cream sales go up when it’s hot outside. Neither crime nor yummy treats can change the weather.

Notice what we’ve done here, though, because it’s important. We’ve examined some correlational findings, and we’ve used good theoretical thinking to decide what’s causing what. Correlation plus a previously existing and sound theoretical foundation can yield valid opinions about causation. It doesn’t always, but often it can.

There’s no sound theoretical foundation for thinking that a tummy full of ice cream makes one want to break windows, or vice versa, so we quickly reject the idea that one of those effects causes the other. In contrast to that, there are very strong theoretical reasons to believe crime and ice cream sales should be associated with the temperature.

Again: correlation plus a previously existing theoretical framework can yield valid conclusions about causation. The corollary is this: correlation without a solid prior theory cannot yield valid causal conclusions.

Coyne 101

Jerry Coyne would say we have a strong theoretical foundation for his view. The theoretical foundation is materialism, and it perfectly explains the correlations we find in brain scans.

That works just fine—unless he’s using those correlational findings as proof that another theory is wrong, which is exactly what he’s doing. Sure, he can support his theory through these findings, but can he support it over and above another theory? More to the point, can he use it to show that his theory is better than the other theory?

The answer is yes, he can, if the findings weren’t expected (predicted) by the other theory. But if the other theory expects these kinds of findings, then all we get is a standoff. Neurological science can’t settle the issue, we’ll have to look elsewhere for ways to decide between the theories.

Theory 2

So is there another theory? Yes: mind/brain dualism, which says there is an immaterial aspect to mind, interacting with the physical brain. Does that theory expect brain scans to show activity when people think about certain things, or move certain muscles? Of course. It’s a theory of interaction, after all. The physical side of that interaction has to happen somewhere, and every dualist is convinced it’s in the brain.

So both theories explain brain scan findings equally well. Neurology can’t tell us which one is true. If we want an answer, we’re going to have to turn elsewhere.

We could try to settle it through the question, “Why is it that physical brain damage prevents persons from thinking or feeling certain things? Isn’t this proof that the brain does the work?”

No, because the rival theory, dualism, expects the same result. It’s an interaction theory, remember, and if there’s something amiss in the physical side of the interaction, that’s going to displayed in the physical effect, not only in the brain but in every function downstream, including memory, motor skills, and even personality. Dualists knew long ago that lack of sleep could make a person cranky, and it fits into the dualist theoretical structure just fine. Brain damage is in the same category, as far as the current question is concerned.

The Interaction Problem…

Now, granted, this raises a question commonly known as the Interaction Problem: if mind interfaces with body, how does it do so? I’ve dealt with that elsewhere. In short, some people think this question defeats the dualist view, but they don’t seem to have been able to formulate the question in a non-question-begging manner. I suppose their concerns could be valid, but until they find a way to speak them without falling into fallacy, there’s nothing there to answer.

… And the Real Point of This Post: Jerry Coyne and Research Methods 101

But that’s not the point today, in fact, I’m bringing it up simply to point out that it has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here. I haven’t been talking about the Interaction Problem, but about metaphysical conclusions that logically can be drawn from neurological science. The answer: not much.

Let’s take it back to Coyne’s question, in fact:

“In fact, when you think about more abstract things, like God or faith, parts of the brain light up in brain scans. Why should they if such notions are immaterial?”

My answer again: Why not? If you think this helps prove your view of reality, Dr. Coyne, I suggest you re-read the alternate theory’s proposed explanation for these findings, and then recall what your prof must have taught you many years ago in Research Methods 101.


An Opportunity For You Today!

Note: I wrote the first draft of this article a few days ago. Last night I watched a live-streamed conversation between John Lennox, J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and Hugh Hewitt on “God, Science, and the Big Questions,” originating at Biola University. Moreland said something about the fact that neurological findings predict three different mind/brain theories equally well, and his thoughts have influenced the way this draft turned out. The University is going to make the stream has made the stream available on demand. sometime today. See it also here on this website.

I highly recommend it. In fact, I was going to save this post until next week, but I’m rushing the schedule so I can tell you about that live-streaming opportunity.

top of page comments form

12 Responses to “ Jerry Coyne, Neuroscience, and Research Methods 101 ”

  1. Coyne really doesn’t seem to understand what he is talking about.

    The interaction problem is a difficulty for dualism, as is mental causation when it comes to free will, but physicalist theories have their own difficulties too. The knowledge argument and Kripke’s modal argument are still very actively debated in the literature, and they have by no means been settled in favour of physicalism.

    It’s worth noting that there are varieties of dualism other than Cartesian dualism such as hylemorphic dualism.

  2. Coyne really doesn’t seem to understand what he is talking about.

    Ya think?

    Actually, I think Coyne knows his argument stinks but he also knows his audience doesn’t or if they do wouldn’t dare challenge him. Pretty interesting contrast for I think if Tom had erred as Coyne has none of us would have a issue calling him on it.

  3. bigbird, on varieties of dualism, I think what I wrote here applies to both. I intended it that way, at any rate. The interaction problem is different for the two versions of dualism, but that was parenthetical.

  4. Okay, on re-reading it I see I made an error of speaking of “the dualist” view, when in reality there are “dualist views.” I won’t correct the writing error, I’ll just issue this notice that I see I got that wrong.

  5. @BillT

    Actually, I think Coyne knows his argument stinks but he also knows his audience doesn’t or if they do wouldn’t dare challenge him.

    His view is very common amongst scientists and even neuroscientists, so I don’t think he is really aware of how bad his argument was.

    I doubt Coyne would deliberately present such a poor argument. I hope.

    @Tom

    bigbird, on varieties of dualism, I think what I wrote here applies to both. I intended it that way, at any rate.

    Hylemorphic dualism is a minority view even amongst dualists so it is normal to not take it into account. I mentioned it only because there are a few Thomists on these forums, and it seems to be growing in popularity.

    I’m no expert on hylemorphic dualism, but I don’t believe the interaction problem is applicable. The soul is regarded as the form of the body, and so there is just one substance, the human body. There aren’t two substances trying to interact as there are in Cartesian dualism. See Feser’s explanation here.

  6. His view is very common amongst scientists and even neuroscientists, so I don’t think he is really aware of how bad his argument was.

    I doubt Coyne would deliberately present such a poor argument. I hope.

    You may be right bigbird but given the consistent poor arguments from the NA crowd, of which Coyne is one, and the obviousness of the error I have my doubts. The whole “feed them red meat” mentality that is pervasive among that group and the suppression of any dissension seems a bit too commonplace not to be deliberate. That you say it’s common among scientists and neuroscientists is just sad.

  7. If our conclusions are nothing but the result of brain chemistry, then how does Coyne know who is right when there are conflicting conclusions? Some people’s brains would conclude God, and other’s conclude no God. How can he know which one is valid?

  8. Tom –

    correlation without a solid prior theory cannot yield valid causal conclusions

    Please forgive the slight side note: that’s not entirely correct. Sometimes you can look at a correlation and determine causation even if you don’t know what the mechanism might be. If there’s noise in the data (and there usually is), you can look at that noise – and if one variable (“A”) influences another (“B”), you’ll find that noise in A correlates to noise in B, but not vice-versa.

    Now, how you’d measure the noise in belief vs. neural correlates is a bit of a puzzler; this probably isn’t a case where such a technique could apply. We see neural correlates influencing belief (e.g. drugs causing hallucinations) and beliefs altering neurology (e.g. religious or cognitive therapy for addiction). Still, I felt compelled to point out the ‘in principle’ issue.

  9. It does seem that Coyne aggrandizes what can be known from his research.

    But on the interaction problem, how does a cartesian dualist respond? I’ve always wondered how it is that a soul interacts with the brain. Shouldn’t this interaction be measurable, at least on the material side?

  10. That measurement is what we see brain scans. I hope that doesn’t sound simplistic, but it’s the case. The interaction itself is not measurable physically because by definition it is not a just-physical interaction.

  11. But on the interaction problem, how does a cartesian dualist respond? I’ve always wondered how it is that a soul interacts with the brain. Shouldn’t this interaction be measurable, at least on the material side?

    It’s certainly a problem- even if the interaction is accepted as a brute fact, like we accept gravity, it does seem to violate causal closure of the physical. However an alternative is to accept overdetermination of physical events, which means we don’t have to abandon causal closure.

    Of course, physicalism has its own problems too – there is no theory of mind that doesn’t.

Comments close automatically on posts older than 120 days.