I have updated my web page on Skeptical Fallacies to include the section The Filter Model of The Brain is Falsifiable and Scientific. An explanation of the filter model of the brain can be found here.
A skeptic might say that the filter model of the brain is not scientific because it cannot be falsified. Any change in mental function can be explained by it. If conscious faculties are increased, as occurs during an NDE, it is explained by less filtering, if conscious faculties are decreased, as may occur after a stroke or during sleep, it may be explained by increased filtering. The theory accounts for any possibility and therefore it can't be falsified.
This is a misrepresentation of falsifiability.
For a theory to be scientific it must be supported by evidence. For a theory to be supported by evidence it must pass a test that could demonstrate the theory is false.
If a theory makes predictions and you can design an experiment or make observations to test the correctness of those predictions empirically, then you can test the theory. If the experiments or observations show that the predictions are incorrect, then you have falsified the theory. This is the meaning of falsifiability. If the experiments or observations show that the predictions are correct then the theory has passed the test and can be considered to be supported by evidence and is therefore scientific.
The filter model of the brain makes three correct predictions:
- The brain might be damaged in a way that is like a clog in the filter which should cause loss of some conscious capability.
- The brain might be damaged in a way that is like a hole punctured in the filter which should result in new or improved capabilities of consciousness.
- If the filter is removed from consciousness, then there should be unfiltered, expanded consciousness.
The way to test the first two predictions is to observe the effects of brain damage. If you can find cases where damage to the brain causes loss of function and other cases where damage to the brain causes increased function, then those observations prove the first two predictions are correct. There are some forms of brain damage that do cause loss of function, for example, amnesia or senility in the aged. There are also cases of brain damage where there new or improved capabilities of consciousness are produced, such as ESP or in acquired savant syndrome. The third prediction is proved to be correct by near death experiences where people who come close to death experience leaving their body and experience unfiltered expanded consciousness. The evidence for the second and third predictions is detailed in the previous section.
For a theory to be falsifiable, the theory must make specific predictions that can be tested with empirical observations. The filter model makes specific predictions about what types of effects on consciousness can be produced and those effects can be empirically measured. Brain damage can be detected by various methods such as MRI. Changes in functions of consciousness can be observed. Paralysis from a stroke, or new talents in the case of acquired savant syndrome are easy to observe. The reports of people who have veridical near death experiences are empirical observations made by the experiencers.
The confusion over what an unfalsifiable theory is, is best understood by looking at this excerpt from Science, Pseudo-Science, and Falsifiability by Karl Popper, 1962, which explaines how an unfalsifiable theories is always confirmed:I may illustrate this by two very different examples of human behaviour: that of a man who pushes a child into the water with the intention of drowning him; and that of a man who sacrifices his life in an attempt to save the child. Each of these two cases can be explained with equal ease in Freudian and Adlerian terms. According to Freud the first man suffered from repression (say, of some component of his Oedipus complex), while the second man had achieved sublimation. According to Adler the first man suffered from feelings of inferiority (producing perhaps the need to prove to himself that he dared to commit some crime), and so did the second man (whose need was to prove to himself that he dared to rescue the child). I could not think of any human behaviour which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory. It was precisely this fact -- that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed -- which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favour of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.
The difference between the filter model of the brain and the psychoanalytic theories in the above excerpt is that the filter model of the brain makes specific predictions about brain damage and its effects that can be empirically observed. In the above excerpt, the description of the Adlerian theory does not involve testing predictions empirically. Drowning and saving are both predicted by feelings of inferiority and there is no mention of any empirical measurement of inferiority, the need to prove oneself or that this need caused the behavior. If one accepts the theory without empirical tests, then any behavior could be explained by inferiority. In the example of the Freudian explanation of the behavior, empirical measurements of the sublimation and repression are not mentioned either. Sublimation and repression are simply assumed as necessary to explain any behavior. However, if there were empirical measurements taken of repression, and sublimation, in real occurrences of behavior, then the Freudian theory could be tested.
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