The Myth of an Afterlife Chapter 10: The Dualists Dilemma by Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman

The Myth Of An Afterlife Chapter Ten:  The Dualist’s Dilemma: The High Cost of Reconciling Neuroscience with a Soul 

by Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman

One of the editors of the anthology, Keith Augustine, has provided a helpful brief analogy illustrating the case against the thesis that the mind somehow exists independent of the brain.  As a teacher, I think it would be an excellent hands-on activity for students.  He writes:

Consider the analogy of two bins sitting on an office desk, one labeled 
outgoing mail, and the other labeled incoming mail. Re-label the bins 
“minds require brains to exist” and “minds do not require brains to exist” 
(i.e., “the dependence thesis simpliciter” and “the independence thesis 

Now imagine that you have a big bowl of succinct facts that scientists 
have discovered about the mind printed out on paper strips (like those in 
fortune cookies, or those printed out in old military teletype machines). 
Imagine that such paper strips say things like:

* Minds mature as brains mature
* Childhood mental development halts when childhood brain development halts
* Minds degenerate in old age when brains degenerate in old age
* Creatures with simple brains have simple minds
* Creatures with complex brains have complex minds
* Sickening/injuring the brain sickens/injures the mind
* Mental dispositions can be inherited from one’s parents

* Mental desires can be evoked and suppressed by brain stimulation (e.g., 
as shown at 3:19-6:25 here: 
; or as prominent memory researcher Eric Kandel puts it in that clip, the 
specific brain activity described is both necessary and sufficient to 
produce the desire to fight);

* Mental disorders can be cured by altering brain chemistry with drugs 
(e.g., the best dose of lithium for schizophrenia)
* Mental disorders can be brought on by altering brain chemistry with 
drugs (e.g., by ingesting bath salts)

ACTIVITY: If you were tasked to sort those paper strips into one or the other bin, 
such that you HAD TO pick one, for which bin would the preceding facts be 
MORE EXPECTED, answering honestly? That says it all, really.

That does seem to make the case in a nutshell, and would make an excellent hands-on lesson for students studying multiculturalism/pluralism and learning about secularism

Our best scientific evidence suggests mental processes can’t exist independent of a functioning brain.  Augustine and Fishman comment:

The weight of the scientific evidence supporting the dependence thesis thus puts in a bind those substance dualists who think both that the mind is independent of the brain and that it can survive the brain’s death. On the one hand, they can retain their belief in personal survival at the expense of ignoring or dismissing the implications of our best evidence. On the other hand, they can accept those implications at the expense of acknowledging that the prospects for personal survival are extremely dim. Any scientifically respectable dualist must take the latter horn of this dilemma. And that, in turn, entails conceding that one’s individuality almost certainly cannot survive the death of the brain. In a last-ditch effort the dualist could posit that the mind is unknowably duplicated elsewhere, and that this duplicated mind might survive death. However, since neither science nor introspection reveals any evidence of such duplication, this position is not motivated by the evidence.

Mill pointed out that while we can’t remove the moon to see the effect such removal would have on the tides, “we can nevertheless observe that the closer the moon is to our coastline, the higher the tide, and the farther away it is, the lower the tide (Mill, 1843/1950, pp. 225–226).”  Similarly, 

Our best data clearly indicate, under a wide range of conditions, that when we intentionally modify certain brain states, or simply observe their naturally occurring variations, we find corresponding changes in mental states. When we compare different kinds of animals (such as fish and mammals), we find that animals of greater intelligence always have more complex brains. As brain complexity increases, mental proficiency improves. Conversely, the more primitive the brain, the more limited a creature’s mental capacities. Likewise, when we compare infants with adults, we find that human beings become much more capable as their brains mature. The more that children’s brains develop, the more proficient they become; and when normal brain development is thwarted by tragic biological accident, mental development is thwarted to a comparable degree in mental retardation. Brain damage yields a similar pattern: the more substantial the damage to various neural pathways, the greater the mental deficits. Perhaps no disorder demonstrates this as clearly as the progressive brain degeneration of Alzheimer’s disease: the greater the deterioration of synaptic connections, the greater the loss of memory, recognition of others, and characteristic personality traits. Finally, various drugs affect mental states in a predictable way, with greater intoxication leading to more muddled thinking (Beyerstein, 1987, p. 165). In short, the greater the neural resources available, the more versatile the mind. The degree to which our minds function properly, then, is proportional to how well our brains are functioning … Similarly, philosopher Paul Edwards notes that the greater the damage to the brain, the greater the corresponding damage to the mind. The natural extrapolation from this pattern is all too clear—obliterate brain functioning altogether, and mental functioning too will cease (Edwards, 1996, pp. 282–283) … [A] correlation is most likely causal when it has the following five characteristics: (1) consistency; (2) strength; (3) specificity; (4) temporal relationship; and (5) coherence

By the accepted standards of when correlation implies causation, this standard can reasonably be applied in the mind/brain dependency issue:

We can already see how mind-brain correlations meet epidemiological standards for causation in the concomitant variations outlined above and elsewhere. They are consistent: mental capacities vary according to the intricacy and condition of one’s brain both across species and within them. The evidence for this point is both wide-ranging and robust. They are strong and patterned: within thresholds, to the extent that the complexity or functioning of one’s brain improves, mental capacity follows suit. The correlations are specific: damage to the left posterior lateral temporo-occipito-parietal junction prevents the ability to name tools while retaining the ability to name other items (Tranel, Damasio, & Damasio, 1997, p. 76; Vigliocco, Tranel, & Druks, 2012, p. 446).6 They have the necessary temporal relationship: brain disorders always precede the mental deficits accompanying them. Viewed as causal, they cohere well with other empirical facts: that mental activity occurs in the brain does not conflict with other scientific knowledge, and firmly situates the mind as yet another part of the natural world. They are manipulable: electrical stimulation of the brain, the use of recreational drugs or psychopharmacological agents, and neurosurgical intervention have predictable mental effects. Finally, as we shall see in the next section, the hypothesis that brain states bring about mental states has successful observational consequences aside from the facts that it was originally formulated to explain.

Mind independence theorist can double down and say correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, but a strong case for mind/brain dependence is being made.  Augustine and Fishman cite Colin McGinn that 

 Why does brain damage obliterate mental faculties if minds do not owe their existence to brains? . . . Why are all mental changes actually accompanied by brain changes? The fact is that minds have their deep roots in brains. They are not just temporary residents of brains, like wandering nomads in the desert. Deracinate them and they lose their handle on reality. Minds don’t merely occupy brains, they are somehow constituted by brains. That is why the minds of different species vary, why minds develop in concert with brains, why the health of your brain makes all the difference to the life of your mind. Minds and brains are not ships that pass in the night; the brain is the very lifeblood of the mind. (1999, pp. 27–28)

Soul/Mind independent theorists are quite entrenched, though.  See

Augustine points out 

In essence, Wardell is saying that known mind-brain correlations do not 
provide one iota more of evidence for the dependence thesis than for 
mind-brain independence.

Because the existence of the correlations themselves is undeniable, 
parapsychologist John Palmer makes a similar desperate move to save the 
phenomena–honestly, what other recourse does he have–in his Journal of 
Parapsychology 80(2) commentary on the exchange between James G. Matlock 
and I on The Myth of an Afterlife there in 2016. Palmer wrote:

“I have never understood why materialists keep citing brain-behavior 
correlations as evidence against dualism because dualists ‘predict’ such 
relationships every bit as much as materialists do.” (p. 254)

Nevermind that for Palmer, “materialists” should be read to mean 
“dependence thesis proponents” and “dualists” should be read to mean 
“independence thesis proponents” (since there are versions of 
interactionist substance dualism that grant that minds cannot exist in the 
absence of functioning brains, such as C. D. Broad’s compound theory or E. 
J. Lowe’s non-Cartesian substance dualism). The bottom line move that 
Palmer makes is simply:

“[T]hese [brain-behavior] relationships are ‘predicted’ by both theses.” 
(p. 256)

As I point out in “The Dualist’s Dilemma,” any hypothesis can of course be 
*forced to* predict the same thing as its rival by continuously hammering   
one’s square peg into a round hole, blunting the edges until it finally 
unnaturally fits. In the face of contrary evidence, one can ALWAYS contort 
one’s hypothesis to “predict” the exact same thing as a rival hypothesis 
that much more naturally implies what’s actually found. One can do this by 
unparsimoniously tacking on untestable auxiliary assumptions to the 
otherwise disconfirmed/falsified hypothesis that one favors.

But in this case, it’s obvious that the most parsimonious versions of each 
thesis–what I call the dependence thesis simpliciter and independence 
thesis simpliciter–mostly make opposite predictions about what we should 
find if the mind functions in the way that each thesis says that it should 

Augustine also provided me with the following helpful links I’d like to share:

 The entire Journal of Parapsychology exchange happens to be 
online, too.

The specific links to Matlock, myself, and Palmer are linked here (under 

And, if you want to get really precise, the specific links to the page 
numbers from my Palmer quotations are here, respectively:

p. 254:
p. 256:

(The page numbers are off because the PDF pages numbers aren’t the same as 
journal issue page numbers; there’s a way Adobe be set so that they match, 
but most editors–even those from publisher who make e-book 
versions–rarely bother or know how to configure that setting for their 
PDFs. The final proof copy of my Myth of an Afterlife PDF is off, for 
example, but any purchasable one probably wouldn’t be. I think Kindle uses 
a different format than PDF.)

 So, this is a particularly meaty chapter, and I will proceed on to the next part of it in my next blog post.