I toyed with the idea of staying away from this one. I have been writing quite a bit about Michael Egnor, a neuroscience and evolution denier who blogs for the Discovery Institute, and I try not to give too much attention to any one crank. I have focused on his nonsensical version of dualism (shocking for a neurosurgeon) and so was going to let PZ Myers and Orac deal with his latest bit of illogic – partly because Egnor is directly attacking PZ and because the topic is cancer treatment which is Orac’s specialty. They both did a fine job of deconstructing Egnor’s absurd claims.
But this is the NeuroLogica blog and there were a couple of logical nuances that PZ and Orac did not focus on, so I just couldn’t stay away.
Here is the bit I want to focus on:
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I’m assuming my readers are enjoying reading a debate about neuroscience and dualism between a creationist neurosurgeon and a skeptical neurologist. I hope you are enjoying reading it at least as much as I am writing it. One of the best ways to learn about a topic is to confront your own misconceptions about it or those of others. I have therefore found this ongoing debate between Dr. Egnor and myself to be quite instructive.
Dr. Egnor has issued his latest response, and it is chock-full of instructive misconceptions and misrepresentations. The debate is about a particular version of dualism, which Egnor defends, that states that the functioning of the brain does not and cannot account for everything we observe and experience as our mental selves – consciousness. Therefore something else is needed – something not physical, spiritual if you will. I take the materialist neuroscientific position – that the brain is a completely adequate explanation for consciousness and so far the evidence points consistently in that direction. Further – Egnor’s version of dualism (and perhaps all versions of dualism – more on that later) in fact add nothing to our ability to explain consciousness, in precisely the same way that Intelligent Design adds nothing to our ability to explain the diversity of life.
Confused About Chalmers
Egnor builds his latest blog entry, The Hard and Easy Problems in the Mind-Brain Question, around philosopher David Chalmers. If one relied upon Egnor’s article to understand the dualism debate or David Chalmer’s position in it, this would lead only to profound confusion. Egnor writes:
David Chalmers, a leading philosopher of the mind and a particularly lucid thinker on the matter of consciousness, published a paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in 1995 entitled “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” This seminal paper has given rise to much debate, and I believe that Chalmers clarifies the issues in the mind-brain debate in a very important way.
Chalmers, who is probably best described as a property dualist, notes:
Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given.
Egnor makes it sound as if Chalmers is defending his position, but he isn’t. Egnor notes that Chalmers would be considered a property dualist, but he does not define property dualism nor explain how it is related to the version of dualism Egnor promotes – Cartesian Dualism. Cartesian dualism, named after Rene Descartes, holds that mind substance is something different than brain substance or physical matter. The mind (at least part of it – that part that cannot currently be reliably measured by science – i.e. god-of-the-gaps) is non-materialist – not matter, and cannot be fully explained by matter.
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Dr. Egnor, writing for the Discovery Institute blog, has some more tortured logic for us. He is desperately trying to defend his justification for dualism – the claim that the mind is more than the functioning of the brain, and like the creationists with whom he has found a home, he will not discard an argument simply because it is false.
In our latest exchange I first wrote that a recent bit of neuroscience research showed that brain activity comes before any evidence for mental activity. This is not an isolated result of this one study, but is generally what we find when we correlate brain function to mental function – the brain function comes first.
This point is relevant to the materialist-dualist debate. One of the lines of evidence for the materialist theory that the brain entirely causes the mind is that brain function correlates with mental function. The dualists employ a tactic of denial by arguing that this is merely correlation and therefore not evidence for causation, and that this correlation could result from the mind causing brain activity. While logically correct (correlation does not prove one specific causation), you can still infer causation from multiple correlations, and they ignore the many independent lines of evidence that suggest the arrow of causation is from the brain to the mind. Continue Reading »
Dr. Egnor must be tired of always being wrong – or at least he would be if he had the insight and intellectual honesty to see how persistently wrong he is. Alas, so far he has not demonstrated such insight. I have been engaged in an ongoing blog debate with Dr. Michael Egnor, who writes for the propaganda blog of the Discovery Institute, over the question of whether the scientific evidence supports the strict materialist hypothesis of mind, or the dualist hypothesis – that the mind is something more than the function of the brain.
Egnor has mangled most of his arguments, has misrepresented my opinions, has cruelly assaulted logic (as you can see he has a proper home at the Discovery Institute) – but now he demonstrates that he is incapable of reading a simple sentence and comprehending its meaning.
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The one utility of the Evolution News and Views blog of the Discovery Institute is that it frequently demonstrates that ID proponents do not understand science and logic (or they simply don’t care, or some combination of the two). Dr. Michael Egnor is especially adept at demonstrating this critical lack of understanding, and he’s done it again. His most recent post lays out a few of the classic ID misdirections and misconceptions.
In response to my post in which I pointed out that the question is not whether there is design in nature but whether or not their is top-down (intelligent) design or bottom-up (evolved) design. Egnor argues:
No. Design is always the result of intelligent agency — by definition. It’s always top-down. Design is a mental act. Complexity can arise without intelligent design, but complexity is not the same thing as design. All design arises by intelligent agency, because that’s how design is defined. Consider the definition of design:
He then pulls the classic desperation maneuver of someone who is relying upon a semantic misdirection as if it were a logical argument – quoting a dictionary definition; as if a colloquial definition is relevant to the science. Egnor is presenting the typical “design gambit” of the ID crowd. They start with the premise that there is “design” in nature – but they don’t define design operationally or scientifically. Then they use a colloquial definition of design – that it implies an intelligent agent – and conclude that by definition life was designed by an intelligent agent. By using this purely semantic argument they bypass the actual scientific question – is the end product of life on earth the result of purposeful intelligence or did it emerge through blind natural processes?
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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.
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I have been having a blog debate with Dr. Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon who advocates for Intelligent Design and dualism, the notion that we need to hypothesize something other than the physical brain in order to explain the mind. On Monday I responded to Egnor’s most recent post in which he claimed that I was being dogmatic (a favorite tactic of creationists) because I maintain that all of the evidence so far supports the materialist hypothesis of mind. I concluded:
If he wishes to persist in his claims, then I openly challenge Egnor to name one prediction of strict materialism that has been falsified. To be clear, that means one positive prediction for materialism where the evidence falsifies strict materialism. This does not mean evidence we do not currently have, but evidence against materialism or for dualism. I maintain that such evidence does not exist – not one bit. Prove me wrong, Egnor.
Well, Dr. Egnor has not taken long to respond. However I will note that Dr. Egnor has not answered my challenge – he has not given a single example of a failed prediction of materialism nor has he given any evidence for dualism. I guess he’s still hunting around for an example, since I have shot down all of his prior arguments.
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Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon who has been shilling for the Discovery Institute – an intelligent design (ID) propaganda organization that smilingly sells itself as a “think tank” or research organization. I have had some fun picking apart his ridiculous mental shenanigans in his attempts to defend ID. Most recently he has taken to defending dualism – the notion that the mind and the brain are separate things – and attacking strict neuroscience materialism. His arguments are reassuringly childish, even silly. He has lowered the intellectual bar further with his latest entry – this time replying to critics of his previous piece.
The core of the article is a response to PZ Meyers’ analysis of Egnor’s prior argument that altruism has no location. Meyers responded that altruism does have a location – in the brain. Egnor quotes Meyers thusly:
“His altruism does have a location. It’s the product of activity in his brain. Where else would it be, floating in the air, in his left foot, or nonexistent?”
Egnor grossly misinterprets this quote from Meyers. Whether the misinterpretation was deliberate or just intellectually sloppy I will leave up to the reader to decide, but not far down Meyers made another statement that clearly shows what he meant:
“We also know that a sense of altruism is generated by patterns of electrical and chemical activity in a material brain; modify the patterns, change the feeling or action.”
But Egnor distorts Meyer’s quote into a straw man that he then props up to represent the materialist position. Egnor now write:
“If altruism is located in the brain, then some changes in location of the brain must, to use a mathematical term, ‘map’ to changes in altruism. That is, if you move your brain, you move your altruism in some discernable way. And ‘moving’ altruism means changing its properties. It won’t do to say that moving altruism changes its property of ‘location,’ because ‘location’ of altruism is the issue.”
Egnor expands on this theme that altruism has no physical location, while the brain does. Therefore the brain cannot be or cause altruism, by which he means the mind. Therefore the mind is not the product of the material brain, therefore it is spiritual – and you have dualism.
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Michael Egnor, the neurosurgeon who has made a series of embarrassingly ridiculous claims about evolution and intelligent design (ID), now has turned his sights on consciousness and materialism. Actually, he is revealing the true underlying beef that ID proponents/creationists have with modern science – methodological materialism. It’s really just whining about scientists not letting supernaturalism play in their sandbox. They fail to recognize (or care) that methodological materialism is not just an arbitrary choice. Rather, supernaturalism won’t fit in science’s sandbox – the two are fundamentally incompatible.
Egnor has chosen as his latest topic that of human consciousness. This is a favorite topic for the woo crowd, and it is interesting that the fundamentalist Christians, who traditionally are at ideological odds with new age and occult beliefs, are finding common ground over consciousness. It is not a surprise as the phenomenon of consciousness is poorly understood and even more difficult to articulate, and pseudoscience thrives in the fertile ground at the edges of current scientific knowledge (witness the other favorite woo topic of quantum mechanics).
“There is no shared property yet identified by science through which brain matter can cause mental acts like altruism. Material substances have mass and energy. Ideas have purpose and judgment. There is no commonality. The association between brain function and ideas is fascinating, and the association of ideas with regions of the brain is a proper object of scientific study. But where there is no commonality of properties, association cannot be causation. Ideas must be caused by substances that have properties common to ideas- such as purpose and judgment.
“Materialist neuroscientists confuse association with causation.”
This is utter rubbish on many levels. Egnor’s basic point is that the material brain cannot cause mental activity, which is immaterial. But he does not establish that premise, he merely assumes it and his justification is nothing more than semantics. He then accuses material scientists of assuming that mental functions are brain functions, while essentially dismissing a huge chunk of modern neuroscience as “interesting” but irrelevant by falsely invoking the “correlation is not causation” argument.
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Yesterday I wrote about our struggle to promote and defend the teaching of evolution, and good science in general, in the public school science classroom. My overall point was that, while we are winning on the legal battleground, we are not making much headway in the broader cultural context, and perhaps we need to step back and think about our strategy.
To my delight, Michael Egnor made an appearance in the comments, and it seemed he truly wanted to engage (at least for a while). Dr. Egnor, if you recall, is a neurosurgeon who rejects what he calls “Darwinism.” He blogs on his own blog and for the Discovery Institute, and we have occasionally crossed swords on our respective blogs.
I was also pleased that the conversation remained polite and civil, allowing us to drill down to the core issues. I want to summarize our exchange here and expand on my responses in the comments.
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