Mind and the Limitations of Science

Consider this news story from 2009:

A car crash victim has spoken of the horror he endured for 23 years after he was misdiagnosed as being in a coma when he was conscious the whole time.
Rom Houben, trapped in his paralysed body after a car crash, described his real-life nightmare as he screamed to doctors that he could hear them – but could make no sound.
‘I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,’ said Mr Houben, now 46, who doctors thought was in a persistent vegatative state.
‘I dreamed myself away,’ he added, tapping his tale out with the aid of a computer.
Doctors used a range of coma tests before reluctantly concluding that his consciousness was ‘extinct’.
But three years ago, new hi-tech scans showed his brain was still functioning almost completely normally.
Mr Houben described the moment as ‘my second birth’. Therapy has since allowed him to tap out messages on a computer screen.

This story leads to a thought experiment.

Put yourself in the place of Rom Houban. You know that you are conscious because you experience it subjectively. You know you are aware because you experience it subjectively. Imagine a team of physicians and scientists walk into your room to discuss your status. You hear everything they say. For a good bit of time, they discuss all the measurements and all the evidence and reach a strong consensus, based on reason, you are not conscious and you are not aware.

So who do you believe? Science says you are not conscious, because science cannot detect your consciousness. But you experience it moment to moment. Who do you believe? Yourself? Or science? The answer is obvious to me – the science would be wrong.

Don’t make the mistake of viewing the example of Rom Houbran as scientific evidence for the non-physical nature of consciousness. That’s not the lesson. The lesson is that if science tells me I am not consciousness, science is wrong. I may not know where it went wrong, but it got it wrong. The alternative would be to deny my consciousness as real and label it an illusion. But why do that? Tell myself that because science put men on the moon, those doctors must be right?

So when modern day atheists insist our sense of agency is an illusion, and our free will is an illusion, how do they know they are not in the same position as Rom’s doctors?

There are other lessons to be had. Rom’s consciousness did not begin once the new tests were developed. The new tests simply allowed others to detect what was always there. This should be a clear warning of the limitations of science. Science, by definition, is always limited but its ability to measure and detect.

So what if the core aspect of our sense of agency and our sense of free will remains beyond the limitations of science? In fact, given that science cannot determine whether or not God exists, what if science cannot ever determine whether or not agency and free will are real? Go back to our analogy – that would be like Rom’s doctors never having access to any new “hi tech scans.” All possible tests would give them the same denial of Rom’s consciousness. And Rom would witness reason and evidence confidently pointing in the wrong direction.

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21 Responses to Mind and the Limitations of Science

  1. This would only be a reasonable analogy if theists were unable to communicate. Sadly, this is not the case.

    What if Rom never got into an accident, but was told that, although he feels the sense of agency, it is an illusion generated by the complexity of his existence, and, although he ultimately doesn’t have free will, he can go about his business like normal because the very complexity which generates the illusion keeps him from knowing himself how things will turn out.

    Any normal person would look at it and say, well, either way my life goes on, but not you. For you, such a situation is analogous to being in a coma.

  2. Michael says:

    This would only be a reasonable analogy if theists were unable to communicate.

    Interesting. I didn’t think of it as a communication analogy. But now that you mention it, communication requires both sender and receiver, so it may not have anything do with the inability of theists. Gotta run, so might explore this later.

    IN the meantime, you skipped over my question:

    So who do you believe? Science says you are not conscious, because science cannot detect your consciousness. But you experience it moment to moment. Who do you believe? Yourself? Or science?

  3. fojap says:

    That was considered a hoax.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shermer/the-coma-man-hoax_b_371269.html

    When I read the story, my first thought was to related it to the many who wrote the book The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. Then the next thing I thought of was the the vogue for facilitated communication that arose during (if my memory serves) the nineteen-eighties. My mother was a school social worker at that time and I recall how excited she got when she heard about a technique that helped autistic kids communicate. I also remember the skepticism she felt after she witnessed the technique first hand and her eventual disappointment. There was a Frontline documentary about it that was really quite moving.

    Watching the documentary, it’s easy to see why people want to believe this is real. Even though, because of my mother I knew it was not real, I watched that program wanting the more skeptical doctors to be wrong.

    Of course, you can still have your thought experiment. I’m not sure what your thought experiment has to do with atheism, however. Scientists get things wrong. Sure. I’m not sure how that proves anything. What do scientists have to do with atheism?

  4. In order to ask questions about consciousness, you first have to define it.

  5. Crude says:

    In this case, it wasn’t even ‘science’. That’s a big part of the problem that goes ignored.

    ‘Science’ doesn’t show that we have no self, or that consciousness is generated by ‘complexity’, or what-have-you. There isn’t even the inkling of the latter, and the former isn’t amenable to scientific study in any reasonable, much less confidence-inspiring, way. What we do have is a materialist metaphysic that regards the world in a certain way, and things which cannot fit inside of it are discarded.

  6. Doug says:

    @Ignostic Atheist,
    In order to ask for the definition of consciousness (a question about consciousness if there ever was one), I first have to define it? Not particularly coherent…

  7. Doug says:

    @Crude,
    Surely you’d agree that Mike (in his usage of “science” here) is simply being faithful to its common misuse?

  8. Crude says:

    Doug,

    Yeah. Don’t mind me, I’m being anal. It’s a habit on this particular subject.

  9. What we do have is a materialist metaphysic that regards the world in a certain way, and things which cannot fit inside of it are discarded.

    On the other hand, we have a dualistic metaphysics that regards the world in a certain way, and things which cannot fit inside of it are discarded. The difference being that describing things exclusively by their materials has a long and successful track record, whereas ascribing things to god and the supernatural has been slowly and steadily eroding.

    In order to ask for the definition of consciousness (a question about consciousness if there ever was one), I first have to define it? Not particularly coherent…

    You’re just a special kind of special aren’t you.

  10. The Deuce says:

    Good thing Rom Houban isn’t an eliminative materialist. He’d have concluded that the doctors were right!

  11. Crude says:

    On the other hand, we have a dualistic metaphysics that regards the world in a certain way, and things which cannot fit inside of it are discarded.

    Actually, we have more than one alternative to materialist metaphysics. There’s panpsychism, neutral monism, hylemorphic dualism, Cartesian dualism…

    And what is ‘discarded’ on dualistic metaphysics that cannot ‘fit inside of it’? Nothing I’m aware of.

    The difference being that describing things exclusively by their materials has a long and successful track record,

    Not really. At least, not without the added caveat of ‘having to drastically change our definition of ‘materials’ and related concepts, including at times what counts as successful’, and once you make that point, materialism is dead.

    whereas ascribing things to god and the supernatural has been slowly and steadily eroding.

    Ascriptions to God and the supernatural, in the relevant senses, were never possible inside of science – and that’s not where they were intended to apply anyway. “The supernatural”, like “natural”, has no real definition at this point, and hasn’t for a long time.

  12. Michael says:

    In order to ask questions about consciousness, you first have to define it.

    Are you kidding? That whole news article was about consciousness and never defines it. Are you saying you can understand that news article?

    No need to make this needlessly complex. It’s simple.

    First, read news article.
    Second, try to put yourself in Rom’s shoes.
    Third, answer question: Medical science says you are not conscious. Should you believe yourself or science?

  13. I didn’t read the article, because what I was responding to was your question concerning atheism

    So when modern day atheists insist our sense of agency is an illusion, and our free will is an illusion, how do they know they are not in the same position as Rom’s doctors?

    So basically what you’re saying is “awake”. So I am awake but unable to communicate, and science is unable to detect my parietal lobe lighting up via fMRI as I quietly scream to myself. Wait no, it can. Well, it’s not like people in comas have demonstrably less blood flow to the brain. Crap, they do. Ok then, but at least we have this instance as proof. Ah, no, we don’t. Well, I’m sure they ran an fMRI while doing these facilitated communication farces so they could watch my brain control my arm.

    I think if I find myself unable to communicate, then I’m either dreaming or they haven’t run any tests yet. Enjoy.

  14. jwds says:

    Actually, the nice thing about a dualistic metaphysics is that we don’t actually have to be reductionistic. We can look at an event, and consider whether the cause might be “natural” or “supernatural,” (although I agree, Crude, that those terms can’t just be thrown around–I recommend C.S. Lewis’ discussion in Miracles). We don’t have to find a supernatural cause, and we’re open to critically examine claims of supernatural causation. If there is a natural causation, we are free to look for those causes as well. But a “natural-ist” cannot look for a cause that is part of a different or larger system than whatever the system of “natural” causes is (whether reductionistic or just materialist), because they have outlawed them at the start.

    That’s why GKC thought “Freethinker” was in fact an antonym of “materialist,” instead of a synonym: a dualist is free to consider material causes, but a materialist is not free at all to consider non-material ones. In fact, it turns out that the materialist is not free to “consider” anything at all, since the self that does that and the process itself are both illusions…

    I think that was the chapter in Orthodoxy called “The Suicide of Thought.” An apt name…

  15. jwds says:

    By the way, the “hoax” part of it was the facilitated communication, which actually came after the neuroscientist performed a new brain scan that showed “it is behaving only slightly differently from that of a healthy brain…”
    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/02/15/update-on-the-case-of-coma-man-rom-hoube/

    So, Rom’s situation is still applicable: if his brain activity is only slightly different from a healthy one, then:
    -either he was conscious for years when the tests showed he was PVS, and Michael’s analogy still holds, or
    -he is not in fact conscious, which still causes problems for materialism, since his brain can be almost normally active without consciousness, and thus consciousness is not identical to brain activity.

    And I love how IA felt totally free to start off commenting, without actually reading the article that the post was about. That’s not “pretending to know what you don’t know” at all.

  16. Luis says:

    Michael

    I think you need to address fojap’s article because if this is a hoax, your entire OP is pointless> The event never happened so why argue about it? You would then need to show that this sort of thing is possible in order to have any meaningful discussion.

  17. Sylph says:

    Speaking of consciousness, what do you guys think about the following argument? An atheist philosopher named Matt McCormick made it, and I’ve seen it come up often in irreligious circles.

    “(1) All of the activities we traditionally ascribe to the soul (consciousness, intentionality, thought, etc.) depend on the brain. (2) The brain ceases to function at death. Therefore, the soul does not survive death.”

    I suppose the argument could also work if “immaterial mind” is substituted for “soul.”

  18. Crude says:

    So basically what you’re saying is “awake”.

    Here we had a case where ‘science’ – in this case, doctors and scientists – concluded the man was not conscious. It turned out, he was.

    Same with consciousness. The materialist says that you cannot be conscious (and there cannot be a ‘you’) because the physical world is regarded as X and X has no place for consciousness, a self, or more. Do you listen to the materialist?

  19. Michael says:

    I think you need to address fojap’s article because if this is a hoax, your entire OP is pointless> The event never happened so why argue about it? You would then need to show that this sort of thing is possible in order to have any meaningful discussion.

    You mean something like this?

    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0905370

    Or like this?

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23939634

    But that’s beside the point. I am merely raising a thought experiment and asking if people would be willing to deny their consciousness if science taught they were not conscious. To render the thought experiment meaningless, you would need to show that it is impossible for both someone to be conscious yet their consciousness be undetected by scientific measurements. It would seem you would have to confer omniscience to our instruments to accomplish that.

  20. Michael says:

    “(1) All of the activities we traditionally ascribe to the soul (consciousness, intentionality, thought, etc.) depend on the brain. (2) The brain ceases to function at death. Therefore, the soul does not survive death.”

    I would imagine you could argue the soul is “brain-dependent” in this reality. That is, to interact with this physical reality, the soul needs a mediator – the brain. But this does not mean it is brain-dependent in all possible realities.

    As for me, I don’t even reach the ranks of amatuer philosopher and not even sure a “soul” exists. As a Christian, I can’t help but notice that rather rare aspect of Christian belief about the after-life – it entails a bodily resurrection. I am perfectly comfortable with idea that we cease to exist when we die. Then, an instant later (an instant, because we don’t exist to experience time), we are resurrected (but in a way that we are also transformed). But that’s a whole other meaty topic that I don’t have time for right now.

  21. Michael says:

    I wrote:
    First, read news article.
    Second, try to put yourself in Rom’s shoes.
    Third, answer question: Medical science says you are not conscious. Should you believe yourself or science?

    IA responded:

    I think if I find myself unable to communicate, then I’m either dreaming or they haven’t run any tests yet.

    In other words, IA is only willing to consider the possibilities where he is either not conscious or the scientists have not run any tests. So it turns out my thought experiment threatens him and he is not willing to entertain it. Interesting. Very interesting.

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