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.

5 thoughts on “Study by UCLA neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz falsifies materialist determinism”

  1. Can’t the materialist just say, “well you’re simply assuming that the mind is a separate substance. If so, then these results simply show that one set of brain activity had an effect on another set of brain activity.” How could a dualist show that these mental efforts cannot simply be brain events, (since this is what the materialist believes.)

  2. Think of the ramifications of this discovery! I think this proves that my computer has free will too! Just the other day I noticed that was running an unnecessary and resource intensive function at boot and it couldn’t stop itself from doing, it even though the function was pointless. So I said to my computer, “hey now, why don’t I input a command to not run that program at boot anymore” and voila! Suddenly with that suggestion my computer was able to recognize and discontinue it’s poor behavior. And at no time did I need to open up the tower case and solder any new connections into the motherboard to do it. I never modified the physical computer, so that means it must have been an act of free will by the computer and not the product of determinism.

    1. All right. So that was pretty sarcastic, but I think this study only seems to address the question of determinism vs free will because of the rather poor definitions for those terms used by the author. By these definitions, I can claim that my computer has free will, since I can input commands into its self-regulating elements to change it’s ongoing behavior, without in any way directly modifying the hardware. That a human brain can be influenced by experiences and that parts of the brain can alter behaviour of other parts has never been questioned by determinism and is in no way inconsistent with a determinist worldview. I’d say that of all the claims this article makes, the one most in need of citation is that “Naturalists don’t like these scientific publications.”

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