Tag Archives: Materialism

Stephen C. Meyer and Peter Atkins debate intelligent design

This dialog occurred in 2010 on the Unbelievable radio show.

I made a rough transcript, so please see below for that.

The MP3 file is here. (60 minutes)


The documentary film “Expelled” is presented by US Actor Ben Stein and makes the case that scientists who question Darwinian orthodoxy and support Intelligent Design are being “expelled” from academia.

As the UK edition of the DVD is released we ask “Is freedom of thought at stake or is Intelligent Design out of bounds when it comes to biological science?”

Stephen C Meyer is co founder of the Discovery Institute in the USA and a major proponent of Intelligent Design.

Peter Atkins is Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University and an outspoken atheist.

They both feature in “Expelled” and join Justin to debate the pros and cons of Intelligent Design theory.

Mark Haville who is bringing the film to the UK also joins the discussion.

Note: The transcript below is quite snarky and may include paraphrases of Dr. Atkins for the sake of humor.

My rough transcript of the Meyer-Atkins debate

Stephen Meyer:
– started researching on ID while doing his PhD at Cambridge
– the question is whether the information-bearing properties in DNA require a designer
– what cause is adequate to explain the digital code that in the simplest living cell
– alternative explanations like self-organization and RNA-first have failed
– so the best explanation for functional sequences of parts is an intelligent designer
– Darwinists have responded to this argument with insults and suppression of dissent

Peter Atkins:
– intelligent design is creationism
– there is no science at all in it
– information can emerge without an intelligent designer
– structures emerge spontaneously, no agent is needed to generate the structure
– information in DNA is also a structure

Stephen Meyer:
– structure and information are two different things
– many structures emerge spontaneously
– structure may be like the vortex that occurs when water goes down a drain

Peter Atkins:
– the vortex is information

Stephen Meyer:
– structures are different from functionally-specified digital information
– in DNA, there is a 4-digit alphabet that is used to create code sequences
– the thing to be explained is where do the functional sequences come from

Peter Atkins:
– information can grow without an agent
– the second law of thermodynamics
– the universe is falling into disorder
– but there are local abatements of chaos that create information
– evolution can cause the amount of information to grow

Stephen Meyer:
– that’s just an assertion
– I agree that energy flow through a system can produce spontaneous order
– but spontaneous order is not the same thing as information

Peter Atkins:
– spontaneous order is the same as information

Stephen Meyer:
– it’s not order that needs to be explained it’s specified complexity

Peter Atkins:
– what do you mean by specified complexity?

Stephen Meyer:
– the chemical bonds that connect to each letter do not determine the letter
– the chemical bonding sites will accept any letter as easily as any other
– any one of the 4 bases (letters) can attach at any place along the backbone

Peter Atkins:
– the selection of which letter comes next is determined by evolution

Stephen Meyer:
– that is just an assertion
– there is no physical process that sequences the letters to have a function

Peter Atkins:
– do you believe in evolution? YES OR NO!

Mark Haville:
– for him to answer the question you have to define the word
– do you mean macro or micro? biological or stellar? directed or undirected?

Peter Atkins:
– undirected molecules to man evolution by natural processes

Stephen Meyer:
– but even Dawkins doesn’t believe in evolution then
– you’re including the origin of life from non-living matter in evolution
– Dawkins says that there is no known naturalistic explanation for that

Mark Haville:
– you need to define your terms

[They discuss of the movie Expelled and the case of Richard Sternberg]

Stephen Meyer:
– the problem is people don’t want to talk about the science
– they denounce dissent as unscientific
– they will not debate about whther natural causes can explain the information
– I want to talk about the science

Peter Atkins:
– ID people raise interesting questions for naturalists to work on
– but you want to tell us what the answer is (intelligence) before we begin
– you start from the idea that an intelligence was involved

Justin Brierley:
– but you start with the idea that natural mechanisms can explain everything!

Stephen Meyer:
– for Dr. Atkins, only explanations based on material processes are valid

Peter Atkins:
– that is correct

Stephen Meyer:
– but we think that the activities of mind can explain some effects
– e.g. – the best explanation of the Rosetta stone is a mind

Peter Atkins:
– but we naturalists think of minds as material as well

Stephen Meyer:
– that’s a materialist pre-supposition on your part
– we would have to have a debate about mind and body

Mark Haville:
– I think that the materialist position is socially dangerous
– the problem with naturalism is that it is an ideology
– the ideology pushes absurdities, e.g. – the universe came from nothing uncaused
– and naturalists exert power over others to force them to believe nonsense

Stephen Meyer:
– science progresses as the result of scientists disagreeing
– both sides agree to the facts
– the debate is about the interpretation of those facts
– and one side is being ruled out a priori based on the pre-supposition of materialism

Peter Atkins:
– why do you say that an intelligence is involved in DNA but not general relativity

Stephen Meyer:
– it is always logically possible that intelligence can be invlved in any effect
– the main thing is that explanations based on intelligence should not be ruled out

Peter Atkins:
= well you can’t appeal to any non-material process in expaining anything
– those are the rules

– what does intelligent design have to do with religion?

Stephen Meyer:
– creationism is about understanding the istory of life using the Bible
– intelligent design is about using the same method of inquiry as Darwin
– we know that information arises from intelligent causes
– humans create information all the time by using intelligence to sequence parts

– are intelligent design proponents disreputable?

Stephen Meyer:
– what’s disreputable is shutting down debate by setting arbitrary rules

Peter Atkins:
– we are both interested in the same questions

– why won’t you let Stephen publish his papers then?

Peter Atkins:
– because it breaks the pre-suppositions of naturalism and materialism

Stephen Meyer:
– you’re shutting down inquiry by using an arbitrary definition of science

Mark Haville:
– we need to define the word science
– science should be based on what we can observe empirically
– we can observe micro-evolution empirically
– but Darwinism goes beyond what is observable to postulate macro-evolution

Peter Atkins:
– but paleobiology is replete with evidence

Stephen Meyer:
– paleobiology uses a method of inference that I think is valid
– but intelligent design uses the same mode of reasoning which is also valid

Peter Atkins:
= you’re intellectually lazy
– we’re smart, we’re using our brains

– you’re saying that appeals to intelligent causes ends science?
– is ID the view that some things are too complex to be explained with naturalism?

Peter Atkins:
– yes, and to teach children that materialism is false is child abuse

Stephen Meyer:
– let’s drop the insults and the rhetoric and focus on the arguments
– the ID argument is not based on what we don’t know, it’s based on what we DO know
– first, we can ask what undirected natural processes can and cannot do
– second, we can ask what we know about intelligent causes from our own experience
– what we do know seems to me to require an intelligent agent as a cause

Peter Atkins:
– GOD! Do you mean God!? Do you mean God!?

Stephen Meyer:
– I personally mean God, but all that the arguments proves is a generic intelligent cause
– and I am using the same method of investigation that Darwin used to get there
– what we know from our experience is that a mind is needed to create information

Peter Atkins:

Stephen Meyer:
– in my book, I list 10 predictions made by ID, so it’s not a science-stopper
– furthermore, the enterprise of science began with th goal of understanding God
– consider the earliest scientists, people like James Boyler and Johannes Kepler

Peter Atkins:
– that was 300 years ago, we’ve moved on

Mark Haville:
– what about Max Planck then?

Stephen Meyer:
– how about James Clark Maxwell?

Mark Haville:
– we need to focus on the facts

Peter Atkins:
– what do you mean by the facts?

Mark Haville:
– well the fact is that Darwinism has no mechanism to produce new information

Peter Atkins:
– well copying errors introduces beneficial mutations

Stephen Meyer:
– let’s focus on where we get the first information from the simplest organism
– you can’t account for the first organism by appealing to copying errors
– to add functionality to a program, you need new lines codes from an intelligence
– once you have life, you can generate some new information
– but you can’t generate macro-evolution either

Peter Atkins:
– if we give you your explanation for teh origin of life, will you give this up

Stephen Meyer:
– of course! I’m a former theistic evolutionist
– but right now the evidence is not there for it
– we have to decide these questions based on what we see with our own eyes today

Peter Atkins:
– but I pre-suppose materialism as the starting point of all explanations
– you’re just intellectually lazy to abandon my pre-supposition

Stephen Meyer:
– why is it is less intellectually lazy to insist that materialism is true
– we are making plenty of predictions, and isn’t that what science is about?
– consider Junk DNA – you guys said it had no use
– now we know it has a use

Peter Atkins:
– naturalists were open to the idea that junk DNA might have a use before ID

– Dr. Meyer, what about the wall that locks out intelligence as an explanation?

Stephen Meyer:
– if these are interesting questions, then we should allow freedom of inquiry
– that’s how science advances

Peter Atkins:
– for all their science-talk really they are just saying God did it
– people who don’t agree with me are not using their brains, like I do
– to give up on my pre-supposition of materialism is a denial of humanity

Mark Haville:
– there are important issues that are affected by our view of origins
– everyone who hasn’t seen Expelled movie should definitely see it

Stephen C. Meyer and Keith Fox debate intelligent design and evolution

How did life begin?
How did life begin?

From Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable” podcast.


Stephen Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design who directs the Centre for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. His [first] book “Signature in the Cell” claims to show that the DNA code is the product of intelligent mind, not naturalistic processes. Keith Fox is Professor of Biochemistry at Southampton University. He chairs the UK Christians in Science network but disagrees strongly with ID. They debate how life could have originated and whether design is allowed as an explanation in science.

Summary: (stuff in italics is my snarky paraphrase)


  • background and how he got interested in intelligent design
  • his research focus is on the origin of life – the first replicator
  • summarizes the history of origin of life studies
  • authored the book “Signature in the Cell”
  • the DNA enigma: where did the information in DNA come from?
  • naturalistic explanations of the DNA information have failed
  • but intelligent agents are known to be able to produce information
  • the best explanation of the information in DNA is that an intelligent agent authored it
  • Meyer’s book was named by atheist philosopher of science Thomas Nagel as a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2010
  • why is design so controversial? Many people think that Darwin explained why nature appears design
  • the Darwinian view is that nature can create the appearance of design using mutation and selection
  • however, Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain the origin of the first living cell, it assumes replication, and the origin of life is about where the first replicator comes from


  • Meyer’s argument is not about the evolution of life after the first cell
  • Meyer’s case for design is about the origin of life
  • naturalists do not know a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life
  • there are a number of naturalistic hypotheses for the origin of life, like the RNA-first hypothesis
  • maybe in a few years one of them will turn out to be correct
  • what intelligent design is arguing from a gap in our current naturalistic knowledge to infer that God intervened in nature


  • that’s not what intelligent design is at all
  • the approach ID theorists use is the inference to best explanation
  • you evaluate all explanations, non-intelligent causes and intelligent causes
  • you prefer the best possible explanation
  • we know that minds are capable of producing information just like the information we find in DNA


  • living cells replicate, so they have the ability to introduce mutations as they replicate and then some of those mutations can be selected
  • so maybe the process of replicating that living cells do created the first living cell
  • maybe the first living cell created itself, X brought X into being, self-creation, what’s irrational about that?


  • the issue is the origin of life – where did the first living cell come from?
  • you cannot appeal to the operations that a living cell can perform to explain the origin of the first living cell
  • there was no first living cell operating before the first living cell
  • there was no replication, mutation or selection before the first living cell
  • in fact, in my book I show that there is no known naturalistic mechanism that is able to produce the information needed for the first living cell
  • nothing can create itself, that is self-contradictory
  • Well, you are just saying that because something is complex that God did it
  • Sadly, no. What I actually said needed to be explained was the information, not complexity
  • And we know from software engineering that the process of adding information to code is performed by programmers
  • in the absence of any adequate naturalistic explanation for information, we are justified in taking the explanation that we are familiar with – namely, intelligent agency – based on our uniform, universal experience of what causes information
  • well, maybe we can appeal to the mutation and selection in existing living cells to explain the origin of the first living cell
  • maybe there were living cells before the first living cell, and then these other living cells created the first living cell
  • we can’t keep invoking mutation and selection when those processes are not operating prior to the origin of the first living cell
  • well maybe some bare-bones self-replication molecule was a precursor to the first living cell
  • even to generate very limited replicator would require a large amount of information
  • the argument I am making is – where does the evolution come from?
  • well, maybe we will think of an explanation for information that is naturalistic in 20 years
  • we’ve thought of explanations to things that were NOT information before
  • so maybe we will be able to think of something to explain information based on our ability to explain NOT information before

Moderator: Change topics: the Dover decision


  • the Discovery Institute opposed the policy that causes the trial
  • the wording of the statute was poor
  • the judge was completely wrong in his decision
  • young earth creationists used the phrase “intelligent design” to cover their agenda
  • intelligent design is an inference using the normal methods of science
  • intelligent design is a science stopper because it stops looking for a naturalistic explanation
  • everything in nature must have a naturalistic explanation
  • everything has to be explained using matter and time and chance
  • it just has to be that way!!!!
  • well, what luck would you have explaining an effect like Mt. Rushmore?
  • can you explain that using matter,time and chance?
  • Mt. Rushmore was the product of intelligence, not wind and erosion
  • similarly, there is information in the cell, and we know that intelligence causes information
  • So you are saying that we don’t understand and therefore an intelligence is necessary?


  • no I am saying we DO understand and we are making an inference based on that understanding
  • you are the one who is insisting on a material explanation because you pre-suppose materialism
  • we know that minds have causal powers, and we can infer mind as an explanation from information
  • well nature is a seamless chain of material causes and effects
  • agents can act without violating the laws of nature
  • even humans can act as intelligent agents to create information in books, and they don’t violate the laws of nature
  • intelligent causes are real, and they explain effects in nature
  • you’re trying to impose on science something to do with meaning and purpose
  • no that’s not what we’re doing, we’re inferring from from the fact that we ourselves are known causes of information to the fact that an intelligence cause is the best explanation for information in the cell
  • but I am a materialist, I need a materialist explanation
  • mind IS an answer to the how question
  • we infer to mind in many other scientific disciplines, like cryptography, archaeology, etc.
  • a materialist might accuse an archaeologist of engaging in a “scribe-of-the-gaps” argument, but the best explanation of an artifact with information is a scribe
  • we are inferring that mind is the cause from the nature of the effect: information
Moderator: is it appropriate to call DNA “information”


  • well DNA is just a molecular polymer, any reference to information is just by analogy
  • DNA is a molecular polymer, but it also exhibits the property of specified complexity
  • the arrangement of bases, which function as machine instructions in a software program, for performings task in the cell
  • we have observed that the property of specified complexity always comes from an intelligence
  • well, maybe there are other sequences that would work, so maybe it’s really not uncommon to develop functioning sequences by chance alone, without an intelligence
  • you can measure how precise the functional specificity is in DNA and proteins

Moderator: is Shannon information the same as functional information


  • Shannon information refers to the sequences of digits or symbols that do not necessarily have any function, i.e. – a four character string QSZX has as much Shannon information as WORD. However, only the latter is functional against the pattern of the English language. There are arrangements of DNA bases and amino acids that have the same number of symbols/characters as a functional sequence would have, but they have no biological function – they do not exhibit specified complexity
  • Well, maybe there are lots and lots of sequences of DNA and proteins so that it is fairly easy to get a functional one by chance


  • DNA sequences that are functional are extremely rare, protein sequences are even more rare
  • this is not my opinion, this is what the research shows – functional protein sequences are rare
  • well maybe there are other functional sequences that are occur before the first functional sequence that are precursors to the first functional sequence
  • maybe there are billions of years of replication, mutation and selection before the first replication, mutation and selection


  • you can’t get to the first selectable functional sequence by appealing to precursor selectable functional sequences – there are no selectable functional sequences before the FIRST one
  • you have to get the first selectable functional sequence by chance alone, because there is nothing to mutate or select before the first replicator
  • the chance hypothesis has been rejected because the minimal amount of information for the simplest replicator is too high to get by chance alone, given the resources, including time, that are available

Moderator: Keith are you confident that naturalism will be able to substantiate these naturalism-of-the-gap speculations that you offer in response to Meyer’s actual science that we have today? 


  • well, it is hard to know for sure because it was just a fluke event
  • but there’s nothing irrational or unscientific or miraculous about it – the fluke would have a material explanation
  • there is nothing that we can detect that would implicate God, my speculations about a fluke which I cannot observe or measure or test would all be compatible with an atheistic worldview that omits God as a causal entity


  • where are those material processes that could account for this fluke then?
  • the whole point of this argument is that the information in DNA transcends the material components in the sequence
  • it’s the arrangement of the material parts/letters/characters/symbols/instructions that needs to be explained
  • Well, I just have a different philosophy of science that rules out intelligent causation a priori


  • Yes, that’s the difference between us – you pre-suppose that all explanations of natural phenomena must exclude intelligent causes

There is a bit more where Meyer talks about how parts of the cell are implementations of various design patterns (Gang of Four design patterns) that are used by software architects who design software.

Find more posts on Stephen C. Meyer here.

Stephen C. Meyer lectures on intelligent design and the origin of life

A MUST-SEE lecture based on Dr. Stephen C. Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell“.

You can get an MP3 of the lecture here. (30 MB)

I highly recommend watching the lecture, and looking at the slides. The quality of the video and the content is first class. There is some Q&A (9 minutes) at the end of the lecture.


  • intelligent design is concerned with measuring the information-creating capabilities of natural forces like mutation and selection
  • Darwinists think that random mutations and natural selection can explain the origin and diversification of living systems
  • Darwinian mechanisms are capable of explaining small-scale adaptive changes within types of organisms
  • but there is skepticism, even among naturalists, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the origin of animal designs
  • even if you concede that Darwinism can account for all of the basic animal body plans, there is still the problem of life’s origin
  • can Darwinian mechanisms explain the origin of the first life? Is there a good naturalistic hypothesis to explain it?
  • there are at least two places in the history of life where new information is needed: origin of life, and Cambrian explosion
  • overview of the structure of DNA and protein synthesis (he has helpful pictures and he uses the snap lock blocks, too)
  • the DNA molecule is composed of a sequence of bases that code for proteins, and the sequence is carefully selected to have biological function
  • meaningful sequences of things like computer code, English sentences, etc. require an adequate cause
  • it is very hard to arrive at a meaningful sequence of a non-trivial length by randomly picking symbols/letters
  • although any random sequence of letters is improbable, the vast majority of sequences are gibberish/non-compiling code
  • similarly, most random sequences of amino acids are lab-proven (Doug Axe’s work) to be non-functional gibberish
  • the research showing this was conducted at Cambridge University and published in the Journal of Molecular Biology
  • so, random mutation cannot explain the origin of the first living cell
  • however, even natural selection coupled with random mutation cannot explain the first living cell
  • there must already be replication in order for mutation and selection to work, so they can’t explain the first replicator
  • but the origin of life is the origin of the first replicator – there is no replication prior to the first replicator
  • the information in the first replicator cannot be explained by law, such as by chemical bonding affinities
  • the amino acids are attached like magnetic letters on a refrigerator
  • the magnetic force sticks the letters ON the fridge, but they don’t determine the specific sequence of the letters
  • if laws did determine the sequence of letters, then the sequences would be repetitive
  • the three materialist explanations – chance alone, chance and law, law alone – are not adequate to explain the effect
  • the best explanation is that an intelligent cause is responsible for the biological explanation in the first replicator
  • we know that intelligent causes can produce functional sequences of information, e.g. – English, Java code
  • the structure and design of DNA matches up nicely with the design patterns used by software engineers (like WK!)

There are some very good tips in this lecture so that you will be able to explain intelligent design to others in simple ways, using everyday household items and children’s toys to symbolize the amino acids, proteins, sugar phosphate backbones, etc.

Proteins are constructed from a sequence of amino acids:

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein
A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

Proteins sticking onto the double helix structure of DNA:

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone
Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

I highly, highly recommend this lecture. You will be delighted and you will learn something.

Here is an article that gives a general overview of how intelligent design challenges. If you want to read something more detailed about the material that he is covering in the lecture above related to the origin of life, there is a pretty good article here.

There is a good breakdown of some of the slides with helpful flow charts here on Uncommon Descent.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Angus Menuge’s ontological argument against naturalism

Dr. Angus Menuge
Dr. Angus Menuge

(Note: this is NOT the ontological argument, which I do not use, and do not recommend. This is the ontological argument from reason, and it’s a good argument which I would use in a debate. If you’re not good at science, use the moral argument and this argument – you can do pretty well with them!)

Here’s some information about Dr. Menuge:

Dr. Angus Menuge joined Concordia University Wisconsin in 1991. He earned his BA from the University of Warwick, England, and his MA and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied philosophy, computer science and psychology. Menuge’s dissertation was on the philosophy of action explanation, and his current research interests include philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and Christian apologetics.

In 2003, Menuge earned a Diploma in Christian Apologetics from the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights, which meets each July in Strasbourg, France. His thesis, a critique of scientific materialism, went on to become the book Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).

Menuge has also edited volumes on C. S. Lewis, Christ and culture and the vocation of scientist, and has written several Bible studies. He is currently working with Joel Heck (Concordia Texas) on a collection of essays defining Lutheran education for the 21st century, entitled Learning at the Foot of the Cross (Concordia University Press, forthcoming).

A frequent speaker, Menuge has given presentations on Christianity and culture, science and vocation, philosophy of mind, C. S. Lewis, Intelligent Design and the case against scientific materialism. He is a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

Dr. Menuge presented a paper at a recent Evangelical Philosophical Society conference for students and professors of philosophy, and you can download the paper here in Word format. (here’s a PDF version I made). I got these straight from the source, and got permission to post them, too.

Here is the introduction to the paper that Dr. Menuge read at the EPS conference:

The argument from reason is really a family of arguments to show that reasoning is incompatible with naturalism. Here, naturalism is understood as the idea that foundationally, there are only physical objects, properties and relations, and anything else reduces to, supervenes on, or emerges from that. For our purposes, one of the most important claims of naturalism is that all causation is passive, automatic, event causation (an earthquake automatically causes a tidal wave; the tidal wave responds passively): there are no agent causes, where something does not happen automatically but only because the agent exerts his active power by choosing to do it. The most famous version of the argument from reason is epistemological: if naturalism were true, we could not be justified in believing it. Today, I want to focus on the ontological argument from reason, which asserts that there cannot be reasoning in a naturalistic world, because reasoning requires libertarian free will, and this in turn requires a unified, enduring self with active power.

The two most promising ways out of this argument are: (1) Compatibilism—even in a deterministic, naturalistic world, humans are capable of free acts of reason if their minds are responsive to rational causes; (2) Libertarian Naturalism—a self with libertarian free will emerges from the brain. I argue that neither of these moves works, and so, unless someone has a better idea, the ontological argument from reason stands.

The paper is 11 pages long, and it is awesome for those of you looking for some good discussion of one of the issues in the area of philosophy of mind. The thing you need to know about Dr. Menuge is that he is quite strong and forceful in his writing and presentation, and to me, that is an excellent thing for a scholar to be. Very direct, and very confrontational. You can even read an account of his debate with that radical atheist nutcase P.Z. Myers in 2008 here.

By the way, the epistemological argument from reason (P(R) on N & E is low) is the argument made by the famous Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. I blogged about that argument before. It’s good to know BOTH of these arguments. They both work, and they are both awesome. If you put these two arguments together with William Lane Craig’s moral argument, that’s three strong philosophical arguments that are easy to use, but backed by solid analytic philosophy.

Powerpoint slideshow

But there is more than just the paper! At the EPS apologetics conference, which is meant for lay people as well as scholars, he presented this Powerpoint slideshow, (here’s a PDF version I made) . The slides are easier to understand than the paper, but the paper is not too bad.

And here is another article by Dr. Menuge on intelligent design.

Study by UCLA neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz falsifies materialist determinism

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Here’s a summary of the research of UCLA professor Jeffrey Schwartz, authored by William Dembski.


Schwartz provides a nonmaterialist interpretation of neuroscience and argues that this interpretation is more compelling than the standard materialist interpretation. He arrived at this position as a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD sufferers recognize obsessive-compulsive thoughts and urges as separate from their intrinsic selves. For instance, after a few washings, the compulsive hand-washer realizes that his hands are clean and yet feels driven to keep washing them. It was reflection on this difference between the obvious truth (the hands are clean) and the irrational doubts (they might still be dirty) that prompted Schwartz to reassess the philosophical underpinnings of neuroscience.

From brain scans, Schwartz found that certain regions in the brain of OCD patients (the caudate nucleus in particular) exhibited abnormal patterns of activity. By itself this finding is consistent with a materialist view of mind (if, as materialism requires, the brain enables the mind, then abnormal patterns of brain activity are likely to be correlated with dysfunctional mental states). Nonetheless, having found abnormal patterns of brain activity, Schwartz then had OCD patients engage in intensive mental effort through what he called relabeling, reattributing, refocusing, and revaluing (the 4 Rs). In the case of compulsive hand-washing, this involved a patient acknowledging that his hands were in fact clean (relabeling); attributing anxieties and doubts about his hands being dirty to a misfunctioning brain (reattributing); directing his thoughts and actions away from handwashing and toward productive ends (refocusing); and, lastly, understanding at a deep level the senselessness of OCD messages (revaluing).

Schwartz documents not only that patients who undertook this therapy experienced considerable relief from OCD symptoms, but also that their brain scans indicated a lasting realignment of brain-activity patterns. Thus, without any intervention directly affecting their brains, OCD patients were able to reorganize their brains by intentionally modifying their thoughts and behaviors. The important point for Schwartz here is not simply that modified thoughts and behaviors permanently altered patterns of brain activity, but that such modifications resulted from, as he calls it, “mindful attention”-conscious and purposive thoughts or actions in which the agent adopts the stance of a detached observer.

So mind-brain interaction is not a one-way street. Everyone knows that you can alter your consciousness, beliefs, moods, sensations, etc. by changing your brain, e.g. – with drugs. But it turns out that you can also will to focus your thoughts on certain things in order to change your brain chemistry. So the causation is not just bottom-up, but also top-down.

Now mindfulness therapies – which are documented in the research papers published by Schwartz (like this one and this one and this one)- assume the existence of free will. Naturalists don’t like these scientific publications because naturalists don’t believe in free will, as the famous naturalist philosopher Alex Rosenberg explained in his debate with William Lane Craig.

This post from Uncommon Descent explains the naturalist conundrum.


The issue, for Schwartz, turns on whether or not there is such a thing as free will. The assumption of free will is critical to mindfulness therapies for practical purposes.

Philosophies and religions have various opinions about ultimate free will. The therapist must ask, is my patient capable of carrying out a program that requires that he choose to focus his attention on A and not B? In practice, this turns out to be true for many patients, which makes the therapy useful. There is neuroscience evidence for brain reorganization as a result, showing that it is not merely an imagined effect.

Now, if someone wishes to claim, as many outspoken advocates of Darwinian evolution have, for example, that free will is impossible, the only thing that a mindfulness therapist can say is, go away. Either they are mistaken or the research results from mindfulness therapies are.

By the way, if you like this topic, and want a resource to show your friends, be sure and get a hold of the debate on mind vs. brain between Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Michael Shermer.