Feb 22 2008

Dr. Egnor Won’t Give Up – Finds a New Way to Get It Wrong

Controversies and debates are a great way to learn about logic and the functioning of science. Opponents wrestling over how to interpret the evidence and painstakingly pointing out the logical errors on the other side in a great intellectual exercise. That is primarily why I am enjoying so much my debate with Dr. Michael Egnor, who is writing over at Evolution News and Reviews – the blog of the Discovery Institute, an organization created to promote Intelligent Design.

Today he published his latest response in our ongoing discussion about strict materialism (the mind is the brain) vs dualism (the mind is the brain plus something else undefined). This is his attempt to respond to my direct challenge for him to name a prediction of materialism that has failed. He now claims he has done so, but actually he has completely failed to do so and had instead just added more logical errors to his argument.

Dr. Egnor has two main points in his latest entry. The first is that I am being dogmatic is saying that every prediction of materialism has been validated. Let me put this one to rest. Dr. Egnor is following the general creationist strategy of portraying scientific confidence as dogmatic, he is therefore trying to take the open-minded highground.

First, anyone who has read a significant sampling of my writing knows that I often point out that science is messy, the evidence does not always give a clear answer, and that we must interpret the totality of evidence. Dr. Egnor and I agree that science progresses generally by the preponderance of evidence, that no theory is perfect or complete, and that scientific progress requires constant questioning of prior conclusions.

However, Dr. Egnor is misinterpreting my prior statements to give a different impression. Since I have already corrected him on this I can only guess at his motives for persisting in his accusations. I wrote that:

The materialist hypothesis— that the brain causes consciousness — has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated.

I stand by this statement. Dr. Egnor, however, has seized upon the “every single” statement and won’t let go. He is claiming that all such statements are dogmatic. His premise is that it is never true that all of the predictions that flow from a scientific theory turn out to be true. This is a critical point – he is claiming that it is never true. I agree that it is generally not the case, but there are times when theories make only true predictions.

This requires specific clarification, because Dr. Egnor has exploited misunderstanding about what I am actually saying. I am not saying that any particular theory is complete, beyond modification, or that there are not deeper levels of understanding. Science generally progresses by deepening, rather than invalidating, prior understanding. Also, this does not mean that every data point of every study or observation will be in concordance. That is a straw man. However, each prediction (once all the data is looked at) will be found to be true.

For further clarification I previously pointed out that I was discussing evidence that “bears upon the basic question of whether or not the theory is true.” This is an important distinction – because often the claim is made that because we have incomplete knowledge of the mechanism of a claim that the claim itself is not true. For example, creationists often point to disagreements about the mechanism of evolution as evidence for doubt about the historical fact of biological evolution. Likewise dualists point to the fact that we cannot currently explain exactly how the brain creates consciousness as evidence that it does not create consciousness. But these are separate questions.

All of this was a huge distraction engineered by Dr. Egnor from the only real point of contention – does existing evidence support strict materialism or dualism? I maintain that it supports materialism – that all of the predictions that flow from the fact of strict materialism that have been resolved have been resolved in the favor of materialism and against dualism. This brings us to the second (and the more important) point in Dr. Egnor’s rebuttal.

Following my prior posts, he writes:

If dualism is true and the mind is partly the product of the material function of the brain and partly the product of something else, then:

1) There will be some mental phenomena without brain function
2) As brain function is altered, the mind will not necessarily be altered
3) If the brain is damaged, then mental function will not necessarily be damaged
4) Brain development will not necessarily correlate with mental development.
5) We will not always be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it

He then goes on to discuss the fMRI study that I brought up in my previous post – a study by Owen et al where they examined thebrain activation in normal controls and a 23 year old patient who was clinically in a persistent vegetative state. The study found the same pattern of brain activation in the subject when compared to normal controls when asked to imagine herself playing tennis and when asked to imagine herself walking through her home.

Dr. Egnor concludes from this:

Dr. Owen’s evidence is in accordance with the dualist prediction. The most parsimonious conclusion was that she was conscious, despite a diagnosis, based on traditional neurological examination, EEG, and neuroimaging, of persistent vegetative state, which is defined as the absence of consciousness. This panoply of neurological tests predicted different — and incompatible — things. Standard brain tests indicated that she had no mind. fMRI testing indicated that her mind was indistinguishable from that of a normal person. Recall that Dr. Novella insists that “every single prediction” of materialism has been verified. That’s not possible with tests that yield contradictory results.

Dr. Egnor’s conclusions are hopelessly wrong on many levels. He is partly playing with words, and partly proceeding from a false unstated major premise. First he says that the patient was conscious despite being vegetative, which is defined as the absence of consciousness. This is subtly deceptive – it excludes the very important fact that clinical diagnoses are based upon clinical criteria, they are not absolute statements about reality. In fact all diagnoses are based upon some criteria – we are always using some method to infer what is really going on. In the case of persistent vegetative state, this diagnosis is based upon the neurological exam – the absence of any evidence on exam of conscious awareness in the patient, while maintaining automatic functions like breathing and roving eye movements.

The neurological exam is not a direct examination of brain function but rather is an examination of reflexes and voluntary actions in order to infer brain function. But neurologists and neurosurgeons typically understand the limitations of the exam. In fact, that is the very purpose of this study – to see if a more sensitive way of looking at brain function displays residual conscious function that the exam cannot detect.

This gets at the major flaw in Dr. Egnor’s entire argument – the various methods of examining brain function are not necessarily “contradictory”, as he claims, but rather the different results reflect their varying sensitivity to brain function. EEG, for example, is a very crude method of looking at brain function (it looks at net electrical activity). The neurological exam is unable to examine the higher cortical functions of a patient if they are not awake enough to follow commands or attend to the exam. MRI scanning shows us only anatomy, and does not look at function.

The exciting thing about fMRI is that it is a new tool that is so far the most sensitive in imaging in detail blood flow and metabolism in the brain, from which we infer brain activity in real time. It is far more sensitive than any previous method, and that is exactly why Owen and his coauthors wanted to see if it revealed cortical activity missed by older methods. To give an analogy of Dr. Egnor’s illogic, this is like saying that if we point a larger telescope at the sky and find objects that were missed by previous smaller telescopes, that the new findings are “contradictory” to the older findings and call into question astronomical theories.

What about his claim that this fMRI study showed that “her mind was indistinguishable from that of a normal person?” This is highly misleading. The study was designed to see if the woman had any residual conscious activity, it was not designed to look at overall brain function. You cannot conclude from this study that her brain function was the same as a conscious person, and therefore consciousness is not completely a product of brain function.

Other fMRI studies, however, have looked at this question. A published review of this question concludes:

Moreover, several studies have reported residual local and specific brain activation patterns in vegetative state patients, whereas long-range neural integration observed during conscious processing was lacking (S. Laureys et al., Brain 123, 1589 (2000). N. D. Schiff et al., Brain 125, 1210 (2002).

So the “preponderance of evidence” that Dr. Egnor champions shows that patients in a persistent vegetative state lack brain activity that is specifically linked to conscious processing. It is important to recognize that the brain is very compartmentalized – different areas serve different functions. It is clearly established that parts of the brain can perform their processing unconsciously and automatically. So it is no surprise that even vegetative patients will retain some subsets of conscious processing.

It is also helpful to recognize that consciousness is not an all-or-nothing state. There is a spectrum of consciousness from fully awake to fully vegetative. It is not uncommon for patients who are barely in what we call a minimally aware state (one categorical notch above persistent vegetative) to be misdiagnosed as being vegetative. The real implications of this study (and the necessary follow up studies – it’s difficult to extrapolate from one case) is that fMRI may be a more sensitive tool for distinguishing subtle or minimal consciousness from no consciousness. Obviously, the neurological exam alone is an imperfect tool for inferring this distinction.

Dr. Egnor has failed to meet my challenge, and his claim to victory is premature. The predictions he laid out for the dualist position have not been validated by his example – Dr. Egnor’s conclusions are based upon the common mistake of failing to add the caveat: within the sensitivity limits of the tools used. This is an important concept in science, and most scientists learn to add this caveat routinely. We see no phenomena -within the limits of this telescope to see, or within the statistical power of this study to detect, etc.

When we look at all the evidence we can conclude that when you damage the brain you damage the mind, when you change the brain you change the mind, and there are no mental phenomena separate from brain phenomena – within the limits of our tools to detect such things.

59 responses so far

59 Responses to “Dr. Egnor Won’t Give Up – Finds a New Way to Get It Wrong”

  1. pecon 22 Feb 2008 at 4:04 pm

    “when you damage the brain you damage the mind.”

    OR “when you damage the brain you damage the mind’s ability to interact with the physical world.”

    How can you differentiate these? We all know, whatever our philosophical preference, that the mind depends on the brain in many ways.

    “there are no mental phenomena separate from brain phenomena”

    That IS a dogmatic statement, and it has no basis in evidence or observation. How can you possibly demonstrate it?

    Regarding the patient in a vegetative state: if there was no activity in the sensory cortex, how did she hear and process the instructions? Isn’t it possible that her mind was intact, but she had no way to communicate without a functioning sensory-motor system? Why can’t this kind of thing be investigated using fMRI?

    There are many anecdotes of patients hearing conversations while unconscious, during surgery. Why not use brain imaging to study this?

  2. mattdickon 22 Feb 2008 at 4:09 pm

    I am a software engineer. Is it possible that I am *that* much more qualified to analyze scientific data on neurological studies than a practicing neurosurgeon?!?

  3. Physicaliston 22 Feb 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Egnor also seems not to recognize that most physicalists (like me) insist that consciousness supervenes on brain activity, but we shy away from the claim that the two are identical (b/c this leads to the sort of confusions that Egnor has fallen prey to). To say that consciousness supervenes on the brain is to say that any change in consciousness must be accompanied by a change in the brain, but it does not imply that all changes in the brain yield a change in consciousness. This much should be obvious, because obviously there are minor alterations in the brain that are irrelevant to higher-level (mental) states.

    Egnor’s claim that “strict materialism” claims, “As brain function is altered, the mind will be altered,” is simply wrong. What we’re actually committed to is the claim that as the mind is altered, the brain will be altered. He hasn’t given us any reason whatsoever to doubt that this holds.

  4. daedalus2uon 22 Feb 2008 at 4:46 pm

    As an aside, what I find most exciting about fMRI (particularly of the BOLD type), is that it is directly measuring the effects of NO release. It is NO that causes the local vasodilation in the local regions of brain activity that cause the increased blood flow that increases the O2Hb level and decreases the deoxy-Hb level that is the signal measured by fMRI. I think that NO is doing a lot more than just causing local vasodilation, that the NO is an important player in the details of what is going on, particularly in how large the activated volume is. The range of the NO signal causing the vasodilation is going to depend on the basal NO level. The range is going to determine the details of what is going on.

  5. Roy Nileson 22 Feb 2008 at 5:51 pm

    I suspect both sides here are using a form of syllogistic reasoning that relies on the inference that the conclusions to be reached must be either true or false. If so, then both sides will inevitably lose to a process devoted to assessing which position is the more reliable. (Assuming of course we have found such a process that is in itself reliable.)

    The concepts of “true” and “reliable” are not interchangeable. Someone once said that “We might find more truth in a search for reliability, than find reliability in a search for the truth.”

    In any case Dr. Novella’s positions are clearly the most reliable, and that’s the conclusion our rational brains would reach, absent any influence from our emotions, as that’s essentially the way such mechanisms were “designed’ by evolution to operate – determine from the available evidence the most reliable answers to the questions at hand.
    Some will protest that we were meant to search for truth above all, but in my view that’s simply a dualist fancy – or fantasy?

    And science at bottom rests on a caveat that echoes the one in the initial post – that we can expect nothing to be known to an absolute certainty.
    Those caveats need to be more explicit than implicit when dealing with the Egnors of this world.

  6. pecon 22 Feb 2008 at 6:47 pm

    People who disagree with materialism should not be labeled as “dualists.” I am not a materialist, and I find the whole concept of “materialism” impossible, since we do not know what matter is. But I am not a dualist either, since I don’t think there are two separate things — mind vs. matter. I think there could very well be all kinds of energies and substances that science currently knows nothing about. It is utterly unscientific to claim that science already knows all possible forms of matter and energy.

    Alternative scientists generally think there is much more to the mind-brain than the cells, chemicals and processes that make up the physical brain. We just don’t have a good understanding of what that might be. It would be close-minded to say there can’t be more to the mind-brain than what science has already studied.

    It’s true that alternative science does consider the observational evidence of human cultures at all times and places, of mind acting separately from the brain. But a real scientist, alternative or not, would withhold judgment on these observations, as long as they have not been confirmed by modern scientific methods.

    Both alternative scientists and mainstream scientists should be skeptical about either materialism or dualism. The reality may turn out to be neither.

  7. pecon 22 Feb 2008 at 6:56 pm

    “any non-material something interacting with any material something would necessarily require the non-material something exchange mass/energy with the material something.”

    Your mistake, daedalus2u, is thinking a something must be either material or non-material. Are electromagnetic fields, for example, material?

    20th c. physics has shown that matter is not made of anything we could reasonably call material. Your mind is stuck in a pre-20th c. mode, where matter is made out of some kind of stuff.

    Anyway, we know that energy can interact with a “material” something, so your whole argument is kind of odd. The mind could be some kind of energy — well who knows? We certainly do not know at this stage.

    What we do know is that there is no evidence for the predictions of materialism, contrary to Novella’s certainty. If the brain is damaged, the mind appears damaged, but it’s just as likely that it’s only the mind’s ability to communicate that is damaged. There might be ways to separate these possibilities, but Novella doesn’t even try. He has no skepticism regarding materialism.

  8. Roy Nileson 22 Feb 2008 at 7:54 pm

    I can see that pec has zeroed in on Dr Novella’s statements that, if the words such as “true” are given their most literal meaning, are that much more difficult to defend.

    This may come from using a system to demonstrate the accuracy of another system that doesn’t purport to have the degree of accuracy that he’s trying to defend in the first place.

    Pec now has been able to assert something that makes him appear to be in the right, and it’s catch 22 if Dr. Novella now tries to back off a little in what has appeared to be an argument from certainty.

    (This has been another gratuitous observation from the designated peanut gallery)

  9. Roy Nileson 22 Feb 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Did someone just say “reliable predictions?” Was this a revision by proxy, based perhaps on a solicitous impulse?

  10. ZIONDUBon 22 Feb 2008 at 8:48 pm

    The main problem I see with Dr. Egnor’s approach to the analysis of the fMRI study is that he took a set of general predictions and used them to analyze a specific experiment.

    As I understand the materialist position the prediction for this experiment would be – there will be residual brain function (mind??) since there is still “brain”. The experiment demonstrates that this is the case. In fact the findings from the other methodologies used could have been used support a dualist position. Instead what we find (maybe not surprisingly) is that the other methods used to assess “consciousness” lacked sensitivity.

  11. pecon 22 Feb 2008 at 9:03 pm

    “f this unknown and unnecessary extra thing does not behave exactly as if brain function is the mind, then how is it different? What observation can we make or experiment can we run to tell the difference?”

    You could try using brain imaging technology on patients who are unconscious because of brain damage or anesthesia. You could determine whether they are able to hear and understand by determining what brain areas are activated. This would be similar to the research you described, where a brain damaged patient was able to respond to verbal commands.

    Without this kind of imaging technology, that patient would never be able to communicate. Now all kinds of interesting experiments could be done. Patients might learn to signal “yes” or “no” by activating parts of their brains that still function. You might find that patients whose brains are too severely damaged to conceivably generate consciousness, are actually conscious in some way.

    I think that would be fascinating research, and it would help settle this controversy.

  12. pecon 22 Feb 2008 at 9:19 pm

    “conservation of mass/energy makes a non-material object interacting with a material object impossible”

    This is not a problem if you stop thinking in terms of material vs. non-material.

  13. daedalus2uon 22 Feb 2008 at 9:28 pm

    pec, I don’t understand your point? You have been postulating a non-material mind. Are you giving up that position and saying the mind is material?

  14. pecon 22 Feb 2008 at 9:55 pm

    “You have been postulating a non-material mind. ”

    No I have not. You didn’t read my comments.

  15. daedalus2uon 22 Feb 2008 at 10:09 pm

    pec, so what are you postulating?

  16. pecon 22 Feb 2008 at 10:30 pm

    “If the patient was sufficiently revived that there was brain activity, that brain activity could be the cause of any mental activity.”

    It depends on which areas are damaged and which are still functioning.

    A communication system could be worked out with “yes-no” answers. It might be possible, eventually, to find out if unconscious, vegetative, patients actually have a normal level of consciousness. If so, this consciousness may not be generated by the brain at all. A patient whose brain is severely damaged, but who seems to have normal consciousness, would be evidence against the materialist theory of mind.

    But this would probably be difficult and expensive research. I hope someone does it though.

    There was a news story not long ago about a severely autistic women who was considered profoundly retarded. Her whole life suddenly changed when someone decided to give her a keyboard, which allowed her to communicate. It turned out she is very intelligent, and was attending college at the time of the story.

    So I wonder how many people who are assumed to be retarded, brain-dead, vegetative, etc., are actually just unable to communicate. I wonder if the brain is an instrument used by the mind to communicate with other people and interact with the physical world.

    Maybe imaging technology will eventually help us find out.

  17. pecon 22 Feb 2008 at 10:33 pm

    “pec, so what are you postulating?”

    I already said — there may be energies and substances beyond current scientific knowledge. I said that what we call “matter” isn’t material. We don’t know what matter is — so why distinguish between matter and non-matter? It doesn’t make sense.

    We just don’t know at this time. I do not think the mind is created by the brain, but the question needs to be scientifically investigated. Right now it’s mostly opinion and informal observation.

  18. Physicaliston 22 Feb 2008 at 10:50 pm

    @ pec:

    I’ll agree with you about this much, the label “materialism” is misleading and should be discarded. It harkens back to either the discarded Aristotelian notions of form & matter, or perhaps to the also discarded mechanistic philosophy of the moderns.

    That’s why I call myself a physicalist instead (and I welcome you to join me in this view). Physicalism asserts that all processes in the world obey physical laws — that there are no non-physical processes or entities in our universe. This is an easily understood claim, and one for which we have an immense amount of evidence (and no counter-evidence).

    pec said, “I think there could very well be all kinds of energies and substances that science currently knows nothing about. It is utterly unscientific to claim that science already knows all possible forms of matter and energy.”

    Yes and no. On the one hand, there clearly are things we don’t understand — dark energy/matter, for example. However, we now do know quite conclusively that all biological entities here on Earth (ourselves included) are composed exclusively of atoms, which obey the well-known laws of quantum mechanics. While we do expect to find new physics, we have overwhelming reasons to believe that such physics will be completely irrelevant for all processes involved in life and cognition. We know this because biological processes never involve the extremely high energies that are required for such new physics to kick in.

    We can never be absolutely certain about such empirical matters of course, but our evidence is getting to the point where it is on par with that which supported the prediction of this week’s lunar eclipse.

  19. Will I amon 22 Feb 2008 at 11:25 pm

    pec, you and Dr. Egnor are ignoring the fact that a lot of science has already been done, and the preponderance of mulitple converging lines of evidence indicate a material cause for all observed phenomena. You seem ignorant of that fact. Dr. Egnor seems willfuly so, almost as if he is insulted in some way by the findings of modern science. Just because we don’t agree with the facts doesn’t make them go away.

  20. daedalus2uon 22 Feb 2008 at 11:27 pm

    Physicalist, I think your definition of physicalism is indistinguishable (to me) from my conceptualization of materialism. My definition of materialism uses mass/energy in the Einsteinian sense as the definition of “material”. I think it is indistinguishable from Dr Novella’s conceptualization as well (but I will let him speak for himself). I think he used the term “materialism” more as a common term in discussing Egnor’s dualism which posits a non-material mind. I think Egnor is living in an Aristotelian time frame (i.e. ~350 BCE) so Dr Novella’s use of the term is not inappropriate.

    I think I might define our Universe as that region where those (as yet undefined) physical laws hold, rather than say the physical laws are what hold everywhere. But that is essentially indistinguishable from your definition.

  21. Roy Nileson 23 Feb 2008 at 12:01 am

    Physicalist: Humans solve day to day problems using a form of intuitive logic that comes closest to what we now call abduction, or inference to the best explanation. Mathematical means of measurement were first developed by humans though that process of intuition, even before the more formal logical systems were developed.
    Success at developing the science of astronomy owes as much to abductive reasoning as to the formal and syllogistic systems preferred in this forum.
    Abductive argumentation has also been vital to development of evolutionary theories. And the empiricism you have subtly made reference to may owe as much to abduction as to any of these other systems.
    Also the difficulty of solving what are essentially mathematical problems cannot or at least should not be held as comparable to the difficulty of solving vastly more complicated social, physiological, and and yes, philosophical problems.

  22. daedalus2uon 23 Feb 2008 at 12:34 am

    Physicalist, no I was thinking about black holes, and does our Universe stop at the event horizon (I think it does) or somewhere inside. Some sort of former or future causal connectedness is important too.

  23. Aaron Son 23 Feb 2008 at 4:29 am

    Physicalist: You hit the nail on the head as far as the materialism vs. physicalism confusion. I think it helps to focus on the word “material” rather than “matter”.

    Material things are publicly observable, mathematically constrained phenomena. Using methodological naturalism and induction, multiple scientists can observe some relation/object and it’s properties, and make falsifiable predictions which should be consistently reproducible.

    A falsifiable theory of mind must make the mind public. Materialism makes in a state of the brain to solve this. Since as well all (except Egnor) know, brain states totally correlate with mental states. For the sake of science then, one might as well just speak in terms of brain states. Because of the problem of other minds, relative to any observer, nothing can distinguish a conscious or unconscious object. So, any belief about other minds would be inherently unfalsifiable. Dualism or Idealism can never be scientifically proven at all then (it is funny to watch people here try to come up with evidence to prove it).

    As Novella said, that doesn’t mean they are wrong, but that they are unfalsifiable and thus inherently unscientific.

  24. Aaron Son 23 Feb 2008 at 5:49 am

    The problem is, without induction, you literally can’t say “jack diddly shit”. I wouldn’t be able to make the working assumption that patterns that held somewhere sometime would hold somewhere else and/or tomorrow.

    I’d be stuck in Solipsism land where my response to every statement of science would be “you can’t prove induction, so that may not hold over *here* and/or *anymore*”.

    Popper’s mistrust of induction is interesting, but scientist don’t seem to care for it. I remember when I was young and I first heard of him – I thought he layed out most of modern science. Not really. But part of his ideas about falsificationism are used at least as a razor in science. That is to say, a charge that a belief is “unfalsifiable” is not to be taken lightly for a scientist.

  25. pecon 23 Feb 2008 at 9:40 am

    “Physicalism asserts that all processes in the world obey physical laws – that there are no non-physical processes or entities in our universe.”

    People are also using calling it “naturalism,” and “physic” comes from a Greek work for “nature,” I think.

    So all naturalism or physicalism means is the belief that nature is natural. It’s better than calling it “materialism,” which is outdated, but it still doesn’t mean anything.

    The concept “supernatural” is part of the problem, since “natural” is meant to contrast with “supernatural.” I think we could think more clearly if we abandon both of these concepts.

    Everything is part of nature, of course, and everything — the known and the unknown — is physical.

    But there is nothing whatsoever in current physics or biology that denies the possibility of things we have traditionally called “supernatural.” I think some of those things may be real, but are not part of current understanding.

    That happens to be the opinion of many alternative scientists. There is a lot of research going on in “new physics” and consciousness. You would not hear about it in mainstream science courses, so you would never think to learn about it.

    There is absolutely nothing in current physics that would preclude the existence of other planes of existence, or “subtle” substances or energies. There is the “implicate order” idea of the physicist David Bohm.

    There is no shortage of interesting ideas in alternative science. Many alternative scientists had long successful careers in mainstream science, and some of them won Nobel prizes.

  26. pecon 23 Feb 2008 at 9:43 am

    Submitted too soon.

    So the point is, it’s wrong to assume a person suddenly went from being a respected scientist to a pseudoscientist just because they stopped being a materialist.

    There is a whole world of ideas outside of mainstream science, and it has been there all along. You just don’t hear about it, unless you search.

    Of course now, because of the internet, things are so much easier to find.

  27. Nitpickingon 23 Feb 2008 at 10:53 am

    Pec’s argument: “Since it’s possible there are things (which I won’t bother to define) that are not understood by science, I will assume they exist until you disprove them.”

    It’s the “invisible pink unicorns” argument all over again.

  28. Aaron Son 23 Feb 2008 at 3:37 pm

    @Roy Niles: Oh god, not Logical Positivism again… 😀

    It is rational to assume induction, even though “proof” by induction is not logical. Pretty sure Hume or someone showed this. My problem with empiricism/LP is:
    a) It ignores this and requires an impossible burden of proof. No science can exists because we cannot come up with formally valid arguments to 100% support any scientific idea.
    b) We cannot fully define our terms and langauge completely (see Godel), so statements cannot be converted into context-free strict and precise formal symbolic statements. We can’t even fully define an Integer. This means that since statements by others/books have a taste of subjective and uncertain nature to them, you cannot fully know what they are saying and hence whether it is true or not. The answer to everything ends up being “null”.

    Interestingly enough, and more related to the topic (we have really digressed in these 100+ messages), LP was associated with a form of mental monism called “Phenomenalism”.

  29. Aaron Son 23 Feb 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Oh, really funny article:


  30. Roy Nileson 23 Feb 2008 at 5:17 pm

    On the inverse scale of relative nonsense, logical positivism would trump physicalism easily.
    But you keep shifting your premises around to fit your conclusions – naughty, naughty. Because you know I’m not advocating logical positivism. So just put your red herring over there with your jack diddly’s other produce.

    As to induction and abduction, I’m sure you know I’m actually claiming they haven’t been given ENOUGH credit. “Little credit” implies dismissal as inconsequential. If you’ve really been reading all these posts, you will have seen little in the way of dismissal OR acknowledgment.

    Find somewhere that anyone other than you or I has really done more than touch on this subject. The focus has been on whether or not something is a fallacy when used as part of the deductive reasoning process.

    But if another process is considered, the dismissal of arguments as fallacious will require a different set of tools. That set is notably absent from the box here. For example your red herring is a multi-purpose tool. Argument from authority, such as dropping the name of Hume, is not a fallacy in this instance. You have simply tinkered with the premise, which Bertrand Russell (to drop another heavy weight) has said is the best way to prove anything by logic. And, I might add, by all its forms.

    And if you guys really had the courage of your convictions, you wouldn’t need to use nonsensical means to either advocate or defend them. Or maybe your biggest task is to shore up the self-delusion that always seems to be a necessity when the only way to make a point is to delude your audience as well.

    All this is Just meant as observation, not condemnation, as there are a lot more harmful theories floating around, and I’m not all that concerned about your sanity.

  31. daedalus2uon 23 Feb 2008 at 5:42 pm

    It has been over 30 years since I studied formal logic, but one of the things I remember about what was called “scientific induction” was that while it couldn’t be proven that “scientific induction” was reliable, it could be proven that if any system of induction was reliable then “scientific induction” would be reliable, and if “scientific induction” was not reliable, then no system of induction would be reliable.

    Of course it wasn’t quite clear what “scientific induction” actually was, but there are quite a few things that it isn’t.

  32. Aaron Son 23 Feb 2008 at 5:48 pm

    @Roy Niles: I really have no idea what you are talking about anymore. When you said “empiricism”, I thought you meant LP, as the words are used synonymously. Additionally, the criticism of LP and the rationality of science still relate to abstract criticisms of science not being logical and/or not critical enough. If you were talking about practical science, then that is another issue 🙂

    If you meant something else (not LP/empiricism), and this is just vocabulary confusion, then please explain it. I didn’t intend to through around “red herrings” or strawmen. If it seems that way, then one or both of us probably just don’t know what the other is talking about.

    And *what* premise is being shifted?

    Anyway, you’d be right to ask Steven to clarify a bit on what he means by his favorite two words: “logical fallacy”. If he means literal fallacies, then all of science could be dismissed as a fallacy. “Scientific consensus” would be an Appeal to Authority/Popularity. However, I think he means “fallacy” is a scientific sense. What he really means is “unscientific” or “unreasonable”. For example, the difference between “plausibility” and a negative “argument from ignorance” is only a scientific one, and not a pure logical one. All criticisms he makes come from a rationalistic scientific paradigm, rather than LP or such.

  33. Physicaliston 23 Feb 2008 at 5:58 pm

    @ Roy Niles: I quite agree that abduction is a (perhaps even “the”) foundational form of inference in science. I don’t quite see how this fits into the Egnor silliness, but I get the impression I may be stepping into a pre-existing debate w/o knowing what the sides are.

    @ daedalus2u, who says: “I was thinking about black holes, and does our Universe stop at the event horizon (I think it does) or somewhere inside”

    It’s extremely unlikely that the event horizon of a black hole would be the end of our universe, for this would seem to be in conflict with the effective validity of General Relativity. The central singularity is a different issue, as curvature etc. goes to infinity there and our current physics breaks down. However, for a large enough black hole, the event horizon should be quite unremarkable — a freely falling observer should notice nothing out of the ordinary there at all. Indeed, for all we know, the Earth might be passing through the event horizon of an extremely large black hole right now. We wouldn’t notice anything at all until we neared the central singularity (at which point, of course, we’d die a horrible death). But perhaps this isn’t the proper forum for this topic.

    @ pec: You’re right to say that people often equate physicalism with naturalism. In general, I’m OK with this, but (as with the term ‘materialism’) I’m inclined to think that this sometimes leads to confusion. The nice thing about appealing to physics is that we have a pretty good sense of what we’re talking about: namely the phenomena that physicists deal with. Naturalism, on the other hand, is a broader concept: one might believe that there are irreducible natural laws of biology (based on elan vital, or whatever). Such a position is OK with the naturalist (they’re still natural laws, after all), but not with the physicalist.

    pec says: “everything – the known and the unknown – is physical.” I’m glad to hear you endorse this, but I don’t want you to think it’s trivial. To say that it’s physical is to say that it obeys the laws of physics, and we now know with great precision what these laws say about all the processes that underlie life, cognition, etc. It might have turned out that these laws were limited — e.g., that they would fail to apply when physical particles came together to form a living organism. It is a marvelous scientific discovery that this is not the case.

    ped also says” “But there is nothing whatsoever in current physics or biology that denies the possibility of things we have traditionally called “supernatural.”” Depending on what you mean by “things traditionally called supernatural,” I think I’m going to have to disagree pretty strongly here. It’s true that we don’t (yet?) have a complete fundamental theory of physics. On the other hand there are many things that we now can rule out on the basis of biology and physics. For example, we can be quite sure that no one has the ability to instantaneously read a distant person’s mind by telepathy, for this would violate special relativity’s prohibition on faster-than-light signals.

    Further, now that we have discovered that biological processes are all nothing but physical processes, and that the energies involved in these processes is low enough that only well-known familiar physics will come into play, we can also rule out the possibility telepathy by human beings all together: there just is no physical mechanism that would allow my brain to directly get information about your brain (without looking, I mean).

    Remember that if anyone could reliably produce evidence to the contrary, they would win $1 million from Randi. It just isn’t going to happen; and this claim is very well grounded by our knowledge of physics.

    Most of the “reasearch” going on in “new physics and consciousness” is foolishness. Bohm did advance a viable hidden variable interpretation of nonrelativistic quantum mechanics, a feat that most physicists of his day (perhaps even of this day) thought was impossible. And he offered some interesting ideas about how we should understand the universe based on his novel interpretation. However, I think it’s only going to lead to confusion to see this as opening a door to ‘things traditionally called supernatural.” Quantum theory certainly did destroy the old mechanistic picture of the world (field theory did so too, in its own way). But it’s a mistake to think that this undermines materialism/naturalism/phsyicalism. One just needs to understand what phsyics is.

    @ Aaron S, who said: “I think it helps to focus on the word “material” rather than “matter”. Material things are publicly observable, mathematically constrained phenomena.”

    I’m inclined to agree with your general suggestion, but I see that suggestion as speaking more to what makes something scientific (a matter of epistemology) than what makes something physical/material (a matter of ontology). Again, the nice thing about physicalism is that you can go pick up some physics texts to find out what physics is. I’m also not super kean on emphasizing the criterion of “observable,” since nobody’s ever seen (e.g.) a quark — though we clearly have very strong evidence for their existence.

  34. Aaron Son 23 Feb 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Physicalist: right, it is hard to really come up with a specific idea of “material” that covers all the bases, though I am sure there are some betters ways of looking at it out there.

    The problem with ontology is that there isn’t really a conceivable way to know “something is there” beyond the observations (including relations). You can’t observe an ontology. The whole area of ontology is quite a mess really 😉

    Nothing is really directly observable either. My vision uses a complex system of light, lenses, cones, rods, a visual cortex, and so forth. If I look at bacteria in a microscope, it is perhaps less direct. From experiments, induction, math ect., various relations and phenomena strongly suggest the existence of other phenomena with various specific attributes. It helps to give these things names, like “electron”, “quark”. At any rate, the data and methods used to obtain it should be publicly available. If no other scientist can validate it because they can’t observe that data or disagree with it’s methodology, then it becomes a problem that needs to be worked out (possibly by ditching the theory). Things that are defined to be private like souls are easier to dismiss (from science, not from being true), simply by following from their definition.

  35. Roy Nileson 23 Feb 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Aaron S: Straight from the Skeptics Dictionary:

    logical positivism
    Logical positivism, also known as logical empiricism, is a philosophical attitude which holds, among other things, that metaphysics, more or less, is bunk. According to the positivists’ “verifiability principle,” a statement is meaningful if and only if it can be proved true or false, at least in principle, by means of experience. Metaphysical statements cannot be proved by means of experience. Therefore, metaphysical statements are meaningless.
    Critics of logical positivism have pointed out that since the verifiability principle itself cannot be proved true or false by means of experience, it is therefore meaningless.

    Empiricism is a theory which holds that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience. The term also refers to the method of observation and experiment used in the natural sciences. Often, empiricism is contrasted with rationalism, a theory which holds that the mind may apprehend some truths directly, without requiring the medium of the senses.
    Empiricists tend to emphasize the tentative and probabilistic nature of knowledge, while rationalists tend to be dogmatic and assert they have found a method to discover absolutely certain knowledge. Empiricists see philosophical skepticism as limiting what the human mind can hope to accomplish and as a guide to those areas of inquiry we can usefully apply our talents towards. Rationalists see skepticism as something which must be refuted on every count in order to establish a sure footing for absolutely certain knowledge.
    There is great irony here since historically it was the rationalists (Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) who had the vision of a knowable universe, of laws governing all the parts of the whole, of a unified whole, of minds made for knowing this universe, which is essentially today’s vision of science. On the other hand, the empiricists’ (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) vision of subjective perceptions limiting knowledge, of the need for faith to believe anything beyond immediate perceptions, of minds incapable of knowing much of anything, of dire skepticism, is the vision of anti-science.

    In short logical positivism and empiricism are not the same, and the term logical empiricism was apparently meant (uneducated guess on my part) to transfer some of the respect earned by empiricism to logical positivism without actually having to earn that respect.

  36. Aaron Son 23 Feb 2008 at 6:51 pm

    OK, well that certainly clears up some confusion.

    By the way, did you know that if you spelled “rationalism” as “Rationalism” it would probably mean something different (ask Isaac Asimov). This is why I don’t like philosophy vocabulary, it is too easy to mix things up. >:(

  37. Roy Nileson 23 Feb 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Aaron S: I agree about the easiness of mixing up terms with meanings. You may also agree that a lot of this has been intentional.

    I also want to add, since we both had referred to Hume earlier, that I think the Skeptic’s Dictionary got it wrong in trying to condense what Hume really thought as the role of faith and religion. He was less supportive of it’s utility than the above quote would seem to indicate.

    I was introduced to Hume at UC Berkeley ages ago, and credit that with my introduction to atheism, and conversion to same.

  38. Aaron Son 23 Feb 2008 at 11:15 pm

    @Roy Niles: hmm, looking at that definition of empiricism, it seems to have a lot in common with my own leanings.

    Oh, and objectivism and Objectivism (Ayn Rand) to name another 😉

  39. Eric Thomsonon 24 Feb 2008 at 2:43 am

    They didn’t do the proper control in that study: do the same experiment in subjects under general anesthesia, subjects we have good reason to think are not conscious. If they have the same neuronal dynamics, then that is evidence that the researchers simply observed the neuronal correlates of unconscious processing of information. We discussed this a bit over at Brain Hammer.

    So, while I agree with your point (if the subject is conscious, that doesn’t suggest dualism is true: they used neuroscience to argue that she was conscious, for goodness sake), I think taking the interpretation of their study at face value is a mistake.

    On another topic, daedalus2u brought up the popular conservation of energy argument against dualism:
    As I mentioned before, any non-material something interacting with any material something would necessarily require the non-material something exchange mass/energy with the material something.

    The ‘conservation of energy’ argument against dualism is not as knock-down as you might think. We could imagine a nonphysical mind causing changes in the brain that preserved the total energy, but such that the changes would not have happened if nature were just cruising along without mental intervention. That is, as long as the change in energy at one place is offset by a change elsewhere in the brain, conservation of energy holds. This approach is outlined in some detail in this paper.

    So, to avoid all that philosophy of physics, I’d rather just say that interactionist dualism requires the violation of physical law, but that violation wouldn’t necessarily be of the conservation of energy (which, incidentally, is violated all the time once you get into nonclassical physics and look at the physics of “the vacuum”).

    On the other hand, the mind could even get in through the quantum door in a different way. That is, on individual trials the mind could cause an electron to be spin up or spin down, but do so in a clever fashion, so that the overall spin statistics predicted by quantum mechanics are preserved. There is no way we could experimentally refute this.

    Note I am not advocating any of these positions. I think the brain roughly behaves classicallly (e.g., the Nernst equation can be derived from classical statistical mechanics, and its predictions about ionic behavior around neuronal membrane are born out by experiment), and don’t see any evidence that we need nonphysical influences to explain behavior.

  40. Roy Nileson 24 Feb 2008 at 3:11 am

    There’s also moral objectivism which is possibly where Ayn Rand got the idea to come up with her own version – both being about as inconsistent with operant strategies of our own natures as, say, communism.
    And then there’s metaphysical objectivism, not to be confused with the objectivity akin to the scientific method – except that it is.

    And then we have methodology being confused here and there for philosophy, and vice versa.

    It seems the possibility of coming up with original ideas in these fields has seemed daunting when thousands of students and professors are in competition to produce such material – and when their careers seem to depend on it.
    So the definition of original has come to include an original way of saying essentially the same old thing, the more unintelligible the better. And if one can mix and match, and steal a bit of respectability by imaginitive labeling, they’re fairly safe in knowing the stuff can’t really be put to the test – as it is either unstestable or comes with a claim it has already passed muster.

    But I digress.

  41. davidsmithon 24 Feb 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Physicalist said,

    “Physicalism asserts that all processes in the world obey physical laws – that there are no non-physical processes or entities in our universe. This is an easily understood claim, and one for which we have an immense amount of evidence (and no counter-evidence).”

    How would you go about gathering evidence for an aspect of reality that is non-physical?

  42. Physicaliston 24 Feb 2008 at 2:12 pm

    @ davidsmith, who asks, “How would you go about gathering evidence for an aspect of reality that is non-physical?”

    In short, you’d need to find some phenomenon that reliably violates the laws of physics, and it would be preferable if that phenomenon could be understood (i.e. was predictable) on some clearly non-physical grounds.

    A couple toy examples: (1) Suppose that we found that the development of embryos and healing of wounds involved processes that had atoms behaving in ways prohibited by chemistry and physics: Hydrogen atoms fall out of water molecules even though there’s no input of energy, and then they fuse into carbon atoms without giving off energy, etc. Further, suppose that we cannot replicate these processes in any non-living entity (e.g., on the lab bench); the parts just behave differently when they compose a living organism. These processes would be non-physical (as I use that term — of course, we’re still assuming that critters are “made” of molecules, etc.), but we still might be able to develop a science of such non-physical (vitalistic, let’s say) biology.

    (2) Suppose a ghost shows up and is willing to talk to us, go on TV, help scientists with experiments, etc. The ghost tells us she can instantaneously teleport anywhere in the universe. To prove it, she zips off to Mars and writes her name in the sand. Five minutes later (the amount of time it takes light to reach us from Mars), we see through our telescope that she’s right. This would be good evidence for a “non-physical aspect of reality.”

    Perhaps I should quickly add two points: (i) I’m not particularly concerned with abstract entities, etc. — so if someone wants to claim the number 5 is non-physical, I’m OK with that. I’m mostly concerned with things that are causally relevant to the world, and I’m concerned to argue that consciousness is one of these causally relevant things. (ii) I don’t pretend to refute skepticism, resolve Hume’s problem of induction, or what have you. If we all living in the Matrix, then the justification I appeal to goes out the window. But I think the evidence we have for physicalism rivals the evidence we have for other scientific theories that any rational well-informed person should accept.

  43. Eric Thomsonon 24 Feb 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Re potential evidence against physicalism.

    Non-subtle miracles on a massive scale would convince most naturalists they were wrong. Of course defining ‘miracles’ is tough, as the die-hards could always say the “miracles” are just manifestations of physical laws we haven’t figured out yet.

    There are all sorts of things that could happen that would make the naturalist waver. Long-dead people coming back to life. Many amputees’ limbs suddenly appearing. Unfortunately, such gross miracles just never happen. This reminds me of Russell’s quip that, if he were wrong in his skepticism and had to face God for judgment, he would say “You should have given me more evidence.”

  44. Physicaliston 24 Feb 2008 at 6:02 pm

    @ pec, who says “There could be substances and energies that have not been studied by mainstream science.”

    Well, in the sense that the entire world could be a computer-generated illusion (called by some “The Matrix), you’re certainly right. But these sort of possibilities do not undermine the fact that we have very strong scientific evidence for the fact that all processes here on Earth are governed by well-understood physical laws. And as I say above, we also have a pretty good understanding of when and where the presently unknown physics will come into play. (And, as I also say above, I think we can make pretty good sense of what it would mean for some presently unknown law to be a “law of physics,” thus we can easily conceive of non-physical processes and things.)

  45. Steve Pageon 25 Feb 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Pec wrote: “I think that would be fascinating research, and it would help settle this controversy.”

    There is no controversy; there is the accepted view of mainstream science and there are the incoherent, pointless ramblings of those who oppose them. Actually, I’m being too harsh. Let’s extend this: Perhaps more investigation should be done to settle the Flat Earth controversy once and for all…

  46. gregoryon 25 Feb 2008 at 5:40 pm

    thanks god for the last sentence of the post…

    a yogi would see both sides in this argument as being partially right… and equally dogmatic …

    the last sentence of the post at least allows for a continued growth in understanding

  47. Eric Thomsonon 25 Feb 2008 at 6:37 pm

    I said, of the conservation of energy (COE):
    [COE]is violated all the time once you get into nonclassical physics and look at the physics of “the vacuum”.

    I realized I said this based on some popular science I read, so I asked a physicist friend whether it was actually true. He said the claim about it happening in a vacuum is controversial, but that COE violation can indeed come up in quantum mechanics. Namely, time and energy are paired in an uncertainty relation like position and momentum, and in a very small time window you could have a violation of conservation of energy, but it is something we could never observe. There is a very good discussion of all this here.

    However, he said the popular image of energy appearing (and then disappearing) in a vacuum is not necessarily accurate (though he even wasn’t completely sure, and started drawing Feynman diagrams and I was sort of lost at that point).

    I frankly don’t understand the ins and outs of this, so to avoid the necessary physics and philosophy of physics I’d rather just use my claim above: whether or not it is COE that is violated, clearly interactionist dualism violates some physical law.

  48. pecon 25 Feb 2008 at 7:21 pm

    “we have very strong scientific evidence for the fact that all processes here on Earth are governed by well-understood physical laws.”

    This statement is just astonishing. It sounds like something you might learn in a freshman intro course, I guess. But even then, it’s hard to imagine anyone, in the light of 20th c. physics, thinking that physical processes are well-understood.

    I thought it had long been accepted and acknowledge that we are able to use things like electricity, for example, without actually understanding it. And of course we are all constantly aware of gravity, but we have no real scientific explanation of what gravity is. You could describe gravity in many detailed ways, but describing is not the same as understanding.

    Most of the areas of scientific research are full of concepts that are not understood, although they might be used in practical applications, and some of their aspects may be described in detail.

  49. Roy Nileson 25 Feb 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Pec: Saying that physical processes are “governed by well-understood physical laws” is somehow not the same as “thinking that physical processes are well-understood.”

    The “cognitive science” that you claim as your specialty should have taught you that believing otherwise is symptomatic of cognitive dissonance.

    It seems that whether you are discussing either physics or cognition, you are speaking from a part of your anatomy that is clearly not the alley of yours where either subject should be right up.

  50. Physicaliston 26 Feb 2008 at 12:55 pm

    @ pec: We know how stable atoms are formed from subatomic particles; we know how molecules are formed from these atoms, and we know that cells are formed from these molecules (and we know a fair bit about how this formation takes place). We also know that quantum chromodynamics and quantum gravity are irrelevant to molecular and biological phenomena.

    Certainly current physics presents us with many difficult and exciting questions at the level of philosophy and ontology (maybe even epistemology). But these questions are irrelevant to understanding the quantum mechanical explanation for why (e.g.) salt dissolves in water and reforms when the water evaporates, for how long protein chains can be assembled, etc. etc.

    The application of these laws to explain higher-level phenomena is very well understood, and that’s all we need to establish physicalism.

  51. Roy Nileson 26 Feb 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Physicalist: When you say we “know”how stable atoms are formed from subatomic particles, etc., you give people like pec, whose main impetus is the frustration of not being even close to “knowing” such matters, the excuse he needs to mount these feeble attacks. You pull the trigger of his pop-off gun, so to speak.

    Because to say you “know” something implies that you completely understand it as well, when I’m sure you “know” in another sense of the word that there are aspects of these things we may never understand.

    And philosophical questions about such matters are never completely irrelevant, because any question that remains about any aspect of science will be a philosophical one at bottom.

  52. Physicaliston 26 Feb 2008 at 3:15 pm

    @ Roy Niles: Fair enough.

    “to say you “know” something implies that you completely understand it”

    Were I to restrict myself to this usage of “know” I’d never be able to say I know anything. (I almost allowed myself the simple mathematical knowledge of “2+2=4,” but then I realized I don’t completely understand the ontology of numbers.) I take it this is precisely your point.

    I agree that at the end of the day there will always be philosophy. I won’t ask whether that’s a good thing . . .

  53. Roy Nileson 26 Feb 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Actually 2+2=4 is merely a demonstration of the use of measurement as an analytical tool. It’s not even a self-evident truth as it’s never exactly true when applied to the material world. Dealing with apples, for example, no set of four apples can ever be expected to exactly equal any other set of four, apples included.

    That’s a philosophically inspired observation. Is it a good thing?
    Well, we would never even be able to ask that question without philosophy – there are otherwise no such operative concepts as good and evil in the physical world.

  54. […] Simply quoting other people only gets you so far – you actually have to engage in the problem! Give me a break. Here’s a quote for you. […]

  55. skidooon 26 Feb 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Dr. Novella wrote:

    If this unknown and unnecessary extra thing does not behave exactly as if brain function is the mind, then how is it different? What observation can we make or experiment can we run to tell the difference? Can we isolate the physical brain from it in any way? If not, that does not make it wrong – it makes in unnecessary.

    Reminds me of one of my favorite anecdotes of late (paraphrased):

    LaPlace delivers a text that explains the cosmos and the solar system and the orbits of the planets and whatnot to Napoleon.

    Napoleon asks, “Where does God come in?”

    LaPlace responds, “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

  56. pecon 26 Feb 2008 at 8:09 pm

    “LaPlace delivers a text that explains the cosmos and the solar system”

    LaPlace had some knowledge, but not enough to realize the immensity of his ignorance.

  57. Roy Nileson 26 Feb 2008 at 9:07 pm

    You and he would have had a lot in common.

  58. bajon 27 Feb 2008 at 1:33 am

    Pec: “The alternative science ideas are backed up by research and mathematics, in the same way mainstream science ideas are.”

    i’m relatively new here. what is considered “alternative science”? if their ideas are supported by evidence in the same way as “mainstream science” then isn’t it just “science”?

  59. […] altogether – but Egnor does so subtly, without ever drawing attention to it specifically. In fact I have already dealt with this criticism from Egnor, who has not responded to my existing […]

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