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The Latest Episode of The Way of the Mister: Skepticism & Atheism

Can you be a good skeptic and believe in God?


About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall, M.D reviews Richard Burton’s book A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves (St. Martin’s Press, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1250001856. Available on Kindle).

How to Think Like a Skeptic

by Harriet Hall, M.D., the SkepDoc

In his first book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, neurologist Robert Burton showed that our certainty that we are right has nothing to do with how right we are. He explained how brain mechanisms can make us feel even more confident about false beliefs than about true ones. Now, in a new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, he investigates the larger question of how a brain creates a mind. There is no alternative to the scientific method for studying the physical world, but Burton thinks there are essential limitations to science’s ability to investigate conundrums like consciousness and free will.

Brain scientists fall into error because, he says, “our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.” Burton has a bone to pick with neuroscientists. They are discovering fascinating information, but their interpretations often go beyond what the data can really tell us. They often draw questionable conclusions from imaging studies that could have other explanations.

There is a lot going on in our brains that we’re not aware of. Subconscious brain mechanisms are like a gigantic committee. Everything from your DNA to your past experiences to your political leanings to your emotions is given a vote, and only the consensus is passed on to your conscious awareness. If all the raw input to the committee were accessible to consciousness, it would be too much information and would hopelessly impair our ability to act. For the mind to function, mental sensations have to override contradictory evidence to create certainty and motivation.

The brain tries to make our experiences meaningful by tricks like re-ordering the temporal sequence of events. When the batter swings, he thinks he is seeing the ball and then reacting; but he initiates his swing before he could possibly be consciously aware of the ball’s trajectory.

Our minds are not truly individual and independent. Burton offers a non-woo-woo view of a “group mind” illustrated by exhibits from slime molds and locusts. We are subject to peer pressure and groupthink. Even the perception of visual illusions varies across cultures, and psychological studies may be misleading because 96% of behavioral science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries.

We have studied neurons because they are easier to study and are believed to be the basis of cognition. But glial cells are at least as numerous as neurons, and they may be vital to our understanding of the brain.

He questions some high-profile articles to show how good basic science has been used to advance unwarranted claims: “My goal isn’t to refute the observations but to question the degree of confidence in the conclusions.”

Mirror neurons have been offered as an explanation for empathy, but the evidence is not sufficient to infer that. Direct measurement of mirror neurons in humans has never been done, and the monkeys in which mirror neurons were first discovered—Macaques—show next to no empathy in their actions.

Burton also questions research into the “neural correlates of consciousness” by investigators such as Christof Koch, because the behavior of individual neurons can’t explain emergent properties with a higher level of complexity. In an fMRI study, a patient in a persistent vegetative state was asked to imagine herself walking through her house and then to imagine playing tennis. Different patterns were identified on the fMRI scans when she was asked to think about these two different activities. The researchers concluded that she was conscious and was responding to their commands. Burton offers another possible explanation: that some degree of unconscious cognition was occurring without any conscious awareness.

The brain mapping project is misguided. One researcher believes his research marks a turning point in human history, and that we will eventually be able to read our memories from our neural circuitry and preserve them after death. Burton is skeptical: “I cannot imagine a better example of faith-based magical thinking.”

As infants develop into adults, they lose 50% of their neurons. A pruning process creates a more efficient brain. When a new skill is being developed, the volume of relevant parts of the brain increases, but once the skill is learned, brain volume returns to normal. A 2007 article from the Royal Society of England criticized 25 years of research on brain size and behavior, saying that while correlation doesn’t demonstrate causation, that is how results are invariably interpreted.

fMRI studies can show increased blood flow to areas of the brain, but they can’t distinguish between psychological and physical causes. In Burton’s analogy, if the fMRI lit up when subjects imagined three-legged Martians surfing on a sea of concrete, that wouldn’t make the Martians real. Scan findings in patients with fibromyalgia don’t prove their pain is “real” but may only indicate expectation of pain. As Burton writes: “Neuroscientists must acknowledge that translations of scientific data into causal explanations about the mind are pure storytelling.”

In physics, the speed of light can be measured without any influence from personal biases. In contrast, scientific data about the mind is filtered through personal perceptions. Burton feels that current neuroscience is teetering on the brink of an era of excess that will not be viewed kindly by history.

Instead of speculating about conscious “free will”, it would make more sense to focus on intention, which may be conscious or unconscious. Elegant studies have shown that brain activity demonstrates unconscious intention before conscious awareness of intent. Burton quotes the psychologist Daniel Wegner: “The experience of consciously willing a action is not a direct indication that the conscious thought has caused the action.”

Burton provides an overview of the latest research in neuroscience. He covers a wide variety of subjects, including out-of-body experiences, body image disorders (including people who want to have a limb amputated), feelings of causality, the alien hand syndrome, and the Dunning-Kruger effect where incompetent people not only fail to recognize their incompetence but believe they are more competent than those who are really competent (sometimes paraphrased as “being too stupid to know that they’re stupid”).

This is heady stuff. It challenges our preconceptions. It is packed with the results of intriguing scientific experiments that raise more questions than they answer. The committee in my brain passed on a strong “thumbs up” vote to my conscious mind. END



  1. Bob Pease says:

    “This is heady stuff. It challenges our preconceptions. It is packed with the results of intriguing scientific experiments that raise more questions than they answer. The committee in my brain passed on a strong “thumbs up” vote to my conscious mind”

    I detect an element of disbelief in the anti-free-will model.

    Form my viewpoint the question
    “What is free will and do I have it?”
    is a fundamental question but it falls into the Hofstadter category
    of questions that need to be “Unasked”

    Pease’s Tenth Law

    “Any question which shouldn’t be asked must be asked”

    Have fun


  2. Dorothy Thrower says:

    Aw, shucks! You just ruined my whole day !

  3. Dorothy Thrower says:

    And furthermore:

    Does the last sentence of Hall’s article mean

    the committee in her brain


    on a strong ‘thumbs up’ vote


    the committee in her brain


    a strong ‘thumbs up’ vote to her conscious mind


  4. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    This is the sort of ‘skepticism’ I most enjoy. Taking a careful view of ‘hot topics’ of research. [I am bored with astrology, UFOlogy, homeopathy, witches, and Santa Claus]

    BTW: I watched Brian’s video and I think linking Skepticism to Atheism is a bad idea. It requires all skeptics to reject the Non-overlapping magisteria view (NOMA). Sure, many great minds do reject NOMA but many great minds espouse it. SJ Gould was a big advocate of NOMA. But mainly, as a skeptic and scientist, I am uncomfortable with efforts to ‘disprove’ god – what is sillier than believing in an ill-defined, vastly-powerful supernatural being when there’s a complete lack of evidence? Attempting to disprove such a being with that same lack of evidence! [Isn’t there an old cliche about absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?]. Besides, for these misguided efforts to succeed, they must disprove _all_ gods, not just the ones that have buildings in your home town. And, if we cannot establish something with reason and evidence why would we want to make it part of Skepticism?

  5. Roy Niles says:

    “The brain tries to make our experiences meaningful by tricks like re-ordering the temporal sequence of events. When the batter swings, he thinks he is seeing the ball and then reacting; but he initiates his swing before he could possibly be consciously aware of the ball’s trajectory.”
    Observations like this are irksome to say the least. The brain DOES make things meaningful, by what would seem to be tricks, except that they are functional processes that should better be referred to as intelligent devices. When the batter swings, he HAS seen the ball, and is able to predict it’s trajectory by a very complex and yes, intelligent, process. That’s what our brains are used for, predictions. So to argue essentially that we are unaware of what we predict will happen is silly to the max.

    • Bob Pease says:

      The decision is made on very sparse information something like the beginning trajectory and estimate of speed .
      It takes several miliseconds (10-15??) to even realize that the information has been received .
      Actually the ball is several feet from where it appears to be .
      I call this phenomenon “perceptual lag”.
      ( I would appreciate it if anyone could direct me to the latest “Correct” name)

      If you are shot by a rifle, at 50 or 80 feet , the bullet has already hit you before you even realize that the gun has been fired (by seeing smoke from the barrel) .

      Jet fighter pilots finally realized that firing a missile was simply an “enable” command
      to a computer to make a decision to fire.

      It’s interesting that “real time” decisions are actually made by machines having much faster processing time than humans.


      • Roy Niles says:

        You are assuming that only our so called conscious processes are thinking about the predictive problem, but our so called unconscious processes are nevertheless quite consciously aware of what they are doing or they simply couldn’t do it. You can’t be non-consciously aware in other words.

        • Bob Pease says:

          I don’t see how these “unconscious” process are different from “magick”
          “What we got here is a failure to communicate”… Cool Hand Luke
          Are you suggesting that mental processes exist but the evidence isn’t available??
          I suggest that this kinda stuff went out with Freud and his Victorian Parlor games”
          What we got here is a failure to communicate”… Cool Hand Luke


  6. another point of view says:

    As far as the batter starting his swing before the pitcher releases the ball. All the pitchers motions before the ball leaves his hands contribute to the trajectory and speed of the ball and are being processed real time, or as close to real time as the speed of light and neurons allow. It is conscious, subconscious and experience all working together.

    Skeptics as well as non skeptics can believe anything they choose, only skeptics should leave room for a modicum of doubt. Some things though should appear much more certain than others. God and Aliens landing on earth are things that probably require almost no doubt. String Theory and Global warming controlled by mans actions allow for quite a bit more doubt. At least that is how I look at it.

    • Bob Pease says:

      Terence McKenna sez ( paraphrase from a public lecture in Denver)

      ” a skeptic is a person whose rules for evidence are not as loose as mine …
      but even I have to gasp at the looseness of the rules of evidence accepted by some of our New age Kooks ( myself excluded ( grin) ) ”

      As Shermer points out repeatedly , if something HAPPENS to you that proves a previously doubted idea, then true belief will allow you to abandon reason rather than give up the belief.

      For example ,If you KNOW you were a saucer abductee , you may still be skeptical about anything else except this and even recommend that holders of much less preposterous beliefs should check in to the Funny Farm.

      Sic transit

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