May 28, 2011
The following excerpt from Chris Carter’s Science and the Near-Death Experience, reminded me all-too-much of contemporary (a)theist discussion [cf. Materialism Is A Misnomer]. The philosophy of materialism is so deeply ingrained into their minds that Cohen and Taylor seem unable even fathom the logical and empirical possibilities Stevenson suggests. Everything below the fold is quoted directly from the book, with my additions in [red brackets].
Edwards tells us that “brain physiology supplies us with evidence against the existence of extra-cerebral memories.” He offers no detailed account of this evidence, but instead refers us to a debate between psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, best known for his research on reincarnation, and two skeptics, mathematician John Taylor and psychologist John Cohen, that took place on a BBC program in 1976.
Cohen: …memories are tied to a particular brain tissue. If you take away the brain, there is no memory.
Stevenson: I think that’s an assumption. Memories may exist in the brain and exist elsewhere also.
Cohen: But we have not the slightest evidence, even a single case, of a memory existing without a brain. We have plenty of slight damage to a brain, which destroys memory, but not the other way around. [Granted this was 35 years ago, but these objections--and all variants like Ebonmuse's argument from mind-brain unity--fail to engage the "two-way-interface" concept of dualism]
Stevenson: I feel that’s one of the issues here–whether memories can, in fact, survive the destruction of the brain.
Taylor: Professor Stevenson, do you have any evidence, other than these reincarnation cases, that memories can survive the destruction of physical tissue? [what, the reincarnation cases don't count? How does that work?]
Stevenson: No, I think the best evidence comes from the reincarnation cases.
Taylor then brought up the well-known cases of people who lose all or most of their memory as a result of brain injuries. Stevenson was not fazed. [As he shouldn't be, because the argument from brain damage is lame duck]
Stevenson: Well, it’s possible that what is affected is his ability to express memories that he may still have.
Taylor: But you are suggesting, in fact, that memories are in some way nonphysically bound up, and can be stored in a nonphysical manner?
Stevenson: Yes, I’m suggesting that there might be a nonphysical process of storage.
Taylor: What does that mean? Nonphysical storage of what?
Stevenson: The potentiality for the reproduction of an image memory.
Taylor: But information itself involves energy. Is there such a thing as nonphysical energy?
Stevenson: I think there may be, yes.
Taylor: How can you define it? Nonphysical energy, to me, is a complete contradiction in terms. I can’t conceive how on earth you could ever conceive of such a quantity… [dguller reasons along these lines here, but to me, such an approach seems like an argument from incredulity]
Stevenson: Well, it might be in some dimension of which we are just beginning to form crude ideas… we are making an assumption of some kind of process that is not, and maybe cannot be, understood in terms of current physical concepts.
Edwards remarks, “These exchanges bring out very clearly what is the issue between those who accept the body-mind dependence argument and the supporters of the instrument theory.” Later Edwards recalls the debate and reminds us, “Professors Cohen and Taylor regarded the notion of extra-cerebral memories as totally absurd.” As his last words on the subject, he concludes, “As for Stevenson’s nonphysical storage depot of extra-cerebral memories–‘the dimension which cannot be understood in terms of current physical concepts’–it must surely be dismissed as nothing but a vague picture which is of no scientific value whatsoever.” [Edwards reminds me of those who scoffed at telephony and aviation as "impossible" and "unscientific." Why do so many skeptics have this tendency to castigate whatever doesn't line up with their cherished views of reality?]
Remarks On The Debate
A televised debate is hardly the best place to attempt to settle a subtle problem philosophers have wrestled with for centuries, but some comments on the remarks from the debate quoted above seem to be in order at this point.
By “nonphysical,” Stevenson seems to be referring to something “not …understood in terms of current physical concepts,” which seems to be the right usage in this context.
With regard to Taylor’s objection to the notion of “nonphysical energy,” our notion of energy started with the idea of mechanical energy, which was changed when electrical energy was discovered, a discovery that violated Newtonian mechanics. This led to a reconstruction of physics in which electricity became basic and mechanics derivative with respect to electricity. But then other forms of energy were discovered, such as light, chemical, and nuclear energy, and the law of conservation of energy had to be generalized whenever the physical world was enlarged. [This is what we were talking about here, here, here, here, and here. Each of those are great comments from Crude, Ronin, clamat, and I suggest reading them. dguller referenced Carrier here, but I wasn't too persuaded. The argument seems to deny mental events that are not caused by non-mental processes] Remarking on this point and its relevance to the mind-body problem, Popper commented that the history of the conservation law “makes it very much easier to assume the possibility of interference from outside–from something as yet unknown which, if we want physics to be complete, would have to be added to the physical world.” So to rule out the idea of energy “not …understood in terms of current physical concepts” as “a complete contradiction in terms” is to adhere to the old fallacy that our current understanding of physics is complete.
After taking these considerations into account, is the notion of extra-cerebral memories “totally absurd?” Should it be dismissed as “nothing but a vague picture which is of no scientific value whatsoever?” [Carl Sagan wrote, "At the heart of science is an essential tension... an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counter intuitive they may be, and the most ruthless, skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new." Apparently some skeptics didn't get the memo!]