Aug 05 2011

The Motivated Reasoning of Egnorance

If you want to see many examples of motivated reasoning, pay a visit to Michael Egnor’s blog, Egnorance. He’s the evolution-denying neurosurgeon that I have sparred with over the last few years, mostly about evolution and dualism. Motivated reasoning is what most people do most of the time – start with a desired conclusion and then find reasons to support it (humans are very good at that). However, the whole point of philosophy is to rise above this tendency and follow strict rules of logic, while the point of science is similar but also to follow the evidence. Egnor can’t seem to do either, as he rants against non-believers, misinterprets study after study, and attacks those who do not share his particular faith.

A few weeks ago he wrote a response to a blog post of mine about materialism. This is familiar ground, but he does nicely reveal his tactics in the article so I thought I should eventually respond. He starts by misrepresenting the very topic of the discussion:

He put together six assertions that he claims are proven scientifically and thus prove his theory that the mind is caused entirely by the brain.

The materialist theory of mind is not my theory – it is the overwhelming consensus of neuroscientists and the result of over a century of research. But Egnor would have his readers believe it is my own quirky “bizarre” theory. This is, of course, nonsense. It is Egnor who is out on the fringe of neuroscience with his antiquated dualist beliefs. But far more important are the actual arguments themselves (I make this point mainly to demonstrate how Egnor constantly rewrites reality).

In our previous discussions I outlined six lines of evidence that clearly establish that the mind is what the brain does – the most parsimonious interpretation of all available evidence is that the mind is a manifestation of the brain. Egnor, however, would rather believe that there is something magical to the mind that cannot be explained by the matter of the brain, and so the motivated reasoning ensues.

My first line of evidence (a prediction made by the materialist hypothesis) is that brain states will correlate with mental and behavioral states, to which Egnor responds:

We can’t scan you and tell what you’re thinking, no matter how we image your brain. Period.

His point is that the correlation between brain activity and mental states is “very loose”. I have already addressed this issue – Egnor is failing to account for the limitations in our current technology. I never claimed that we could look at the brain and tell what someone is thinking. We do not yet have a detailed enough model of the brain nor the ability to measure brain activity with sufficient resolution or calibration to come anywhere near such a task. Neither is that necessary for my argument to be valid.

The point is – to the extent that we are able to visualize brain activity, it correlates nicely with mental activity, within the resolution of our instruments. This has held up with better tools, like fMRI. We can correlate activity in different brain regions with different types of mental activity. The materialist hypothesis of the mind further predicts that as our technology and model of the brain improve, this correlation will hold up. It has so far.

In other words, Egnor is confusing the limitations of our resolution to see brain-mind correlation with evidence for a lack of correlation. These are not the same thing.

He continues:

What does Novella mean by “brain maturity”? Mylenation? If so, then there is a vague correlation. Babies are immature, and their brains are incompletely mylenated. What else could he mean by “brain maturity”? Size? Dendritic complexity? Anatomical (gyral) complexity? None of those brain states correlates in any reliable way with mental and emotional maturity. There are mentally/emotionally mature people with brains of all sizes and shapes and structures. There isn’t the least bit of correlation.

Gross disease states can correlate, somewhat. A patient with advanced Alzheimers will have brain changes at autopsy that would lead the pathologist to predict that the patient was “immature” in behavior. But aside from gross obvious brain pathology, there is no consistent correlation.

Contra Novella, you can’t do an MRI of your prospective spouse to determine how mature/immature he/she is.

I honestly have no idea what Novella means by “brain maturity will correlate with mental and emotional maturity.”

It’s just a stupid assertion.

Egnor’s lack of understanding is not an actual argument, even though he confuses it for one.  Here I am not talking about personality, but the development of the brain as we grow and the fact that this brain development correlates with neurological maturity. The most obvious example is the brain of a baby or child. Babies act like babies because they have a baby’s brain – it’s not just the lack of worldly experience. As parts of their brain mature (developmentally speaking) then they gain new abilities. They cannot walk until their cerebellum develops sufficiently.

I was also referring to research into the teen brain. Scientists followed children over years and imaged their brains while doing specific tasks. This is what they found:

Another series of MRI studies is shedding light on how teens may process emotions differently than adults. Using functional MRI (fMRI), a team led by Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd at Harvard’s McLean Hospital scanned subjects’ brain activity while they identified emotions on pictures of faces displayed on a computer screen.5 Young teens, who characteristically perform poorly on the task, activated the amygdala, a brain center that mediates fear and other “gut” reactions, more than the frontal lobe. As teens grow older, their brain activity during this task tends to shift to the frontal lobe, leading to more reasoned perceptions and improved performance. Similarly, the researchers saw a shift in activation from the temporal lobe to the frontal lobe during a language skills task, as teens got older. These functional changes paralleled structural changes in temporal lobe white matter.

In other words, teens act differently than adults partly because their brains function differently. Their emotional immaturity correlates with functional immaturity in the brain – it’s not just lack of life experience.

It gets worse (words in italics he is quoting from me):

Changing the brain’s function (with drugs, electrical or magnetic stimulation, or other methods) will change mental function.

Sometimes yes, most times no. There are all sorts of induced changes in brain function that have no effect whatsoever on mental function. I’ve had MEP stimulation as an experimental subject, and while it made my arm twitch, it had no effect on my mental function. Magnetic fields change brain states, without necessarily changing mental states. Anti-epileptic drugs change brain states, and often do not change mental states (they are often well-tolerated by patients).  Some seizures change brain states on EEG without discernible changes in mental states (so-called occult electrographic seizures).

This is a similar “resolution” confusion to what Egnor made above – and again he entirely misses the point. I could summarize what he is saying as this: if you change the brain a lot, you change the mental state a lot. If you change the brain a little, you change the mental state a little, and it may too subtle to be obvious or even notice. Amazingly Egnor gives the example (now remember, he’s a neurosurgeon) of his own MEP experience. I don’t know the details of this experiment, but he reports that his arm twitched. I wonder (hmmmm) if they were stimulating the motor cortex that correlates with his arm.

He next argues that antiepilepsy drugs do not always change brain states. So why, in his version of reality, does it sometimes change brain states? These drugs alter the neurotransmitter function in the brain, mostly by increasing inhibition. Put anyone on a high enough dose of these drugs, and their mental state will change. They will become drowsy and eventually comatose. That is very predictable. But of course, people metabolize drugs at different rates, and their receptors may be slightly different and respond differently to the drug. So at any given dose there will be variable effects – but the effects become predictable, 100%, if you make the dose high enough. Also some patients only need a low dose to stop their seizures, and this dose may not be high enough to cause noticeable side effects.

In fact the literature is quite clear – therapeutic doses of AEDs “often” cause cognitive and behavioral changes, and potentially changes in mood. “Well-tolerated” does not mean no effect. For those of us who actually treat seizures medically we can tell you that just about every patient on AEDs will notice some effect on their cognition. Further, when studies actually carefully measure cognitive ability in patients taking AEDs they find a consistent dose-related effect on cognition.

Egnor also notes that some seizures do not cause noticeable changes in mental states. Which seizures would those be? Perhaps they are focal seizures that occur only in a small part of the brain, and not a part that would cause obvious signs. If your entire brain is having a seizure – 100% of the time you are unconscious. A generalized seizure of any type is incompatible with consciousness. Focal seizures cause symptoms that predictably correlate with where they occur in the brain. And yes – some focal seizures are subtle – but that does not mean they have no effect at all.

Next he addresses my argument that damaging parts of the brain cause predictable changes in mental function:

I see damaged brains on a daily basis– trauma, tumors, stroke, etc. Sometimes I cause the damage myself (by placing a catheter in the brain to drain fluid). The specific mental deficits are highly variable, not the least predictable and very often there are no deficits at all. I’ve personally inserted at least 3000 catheters into patients’ brains, and I’ve not once seen a change in a mental state from a catheter insertion that passes deep through brain tissue.

Wow – this is just stunning coming from a neurosurgeon. Deficits are “not the least bit predictable” from the location of trauma? By the time a neurology resident gets half way through their first year I expect that they will be able to examine a patient who just had a stroke and then predict with remarkable accuracy precisely where the lesion will be on the MRI scan. The correlation of anatomy (and therefore pathology) to specific functions and deficits is what first alerted neuroscientists to the fact that the brain has specialized regions with specific tasks. We have now mapped the brain quite extensively. There is a vast experience and literature documenting the close correlation between location of brain injury and specific neurological deficits. It’s hard to emphasize how at odds with reality this assertion by Egnor is.

He further gives the example that he has placed many catheters deep into the brain without causing noticeable changes to the patient’s mental function. What he is not telling you is that surgeons will typically place these catheters through the non-dominant (right side in most people) frontal lobe. There is a reason for this – this is the most redundant part of the cortex. You need to cause damage to both sides of the frontal lobes to cause deficits. The location is chosen specifically to minimize the deficits that result from the procedure. Does Egnor stick his catheters willy-nilly through any part of the brain? I bet not – I bet he follows the standard of care and is very specific about where he places the catheter – because brain anatomy does correlate with function.

Further – the fact that there is no obvious effect does not mean there is no effect. Unfortunately, there isn’t much research looking at the cognitive effects of catheter placement, but the one study I could find showed, “The present study revealed persistent cognitive inefficiencies in memory and executive domains in patients post-ETV intervention. ”

Egnor’s assertions here are just astounding, but mostly he once again  is making the mistake of confusing the limits of our resolution (or just not looking closely) with that of correlation between brain and mind. But further he just flat out misrepresents the current state of the evidence.


There will be no documentable mental phenomena in the absence of brain function.

I don’t know, and neither does Novella. There have been tens of millions of people (at least) who have had near-death experiences in which they had mental experiences during cardiac asystole and lack of brain perfusion.

If neither of us know, then there aren’t any clearly documented cases. If there were – we would know. Egnor here is using speculative and controversial claims as a premise – not exactly solid ground. I have written about NDE before and won’t repeat it here. I argue that the evidence does not support the conclusion of mental activity without brain activity. Egnor, however, is intent on repeating his non sequitur and following up with a straw man.

I don’t know if any of these are real. Neither does Novella. But his statement that there are “no documentable mental phenomena in the absence of brain function.” is rank b.s. There are tens of millions of people who’ve had these experiences, and many have been documented and corroborated.

Are they all nuts? Are they all lying? Are they all deluded? Dr. Novella thinks so, but his opinion is based on his bias, not on any evidence.

Again – if we don’t know whether or not they are real, then they are not evidence – not documentable phenomena.  I also never stated and do not believe that all patients who experienced an NDE are “nuts,” “lying,” or “deluded.” I think they had profound experiences during a life-threatening event. I just further think that these experiences can be explained as brain experiences, the effects of hypoxemia and hypercapnea mixed with memories from the period of recovery.


When the brain dies, mental function ends.

Ditto.  If Novella has scientific evidence proving that there is no afterlife,  I’d love to see it.

This is an attempt to shift the burden of evidence. I also further never said that I can prove there is no afterlife. My position is that there is no evidence for an afterlife, nor is there any evidence for mental activity in the absence of brain activity. If  Egnor thinks he has such evidence, I’d love to see it.

Egnor finishes up with a typical rant, partly writing:

As for Novella, his “proofs” are a tangled mess of scientific ideological assertions that actually make the case opposite the one he thinks they do… if they are to be taken seriously at all, which they shouldn’t be.

Several of his claims, coming from a practicing neurologist, are simply lies.

He keeps putting the word “proofs” in quotation marks. That implies that I used the word “proof” when writing about it. I didn’t (at least not in the article he links to)- I used the phrase “clearly establishes” which I stand by. In any case – he follows with pure ad hominem fantasy. I will let the reader decide who is making unsupported ideological assertions, and who is being loose with the facts.



175 responses so far

175 Responses to “The Motivated Reasoning of Egnorance”

  1. banyanon 05 Aug 2011 at 9:20 am

    “He next argues that antiepilepsy drugs do not always change brain states. So why, in his version of reality, does it sometimes change brain states?”

    This seems to be a pretty big hole in a lot of Egnor’s assertions. What we have is a correlation: Y seems to follow X a lot. Egnor seems to be arguing that Y doesn’t follow X in a way that we can perfectly predict every single time. Well, so what?

    Egnor would do better to argue that some third variable was causing the robust correlation between mind and brain. Maybe the soul causes both. At least that claim would be non-falsifiable, and thus spare him a lot of back-peddling later.

    The burden of proof issue seems to be a problem for him as well. I find this is often the issue with religious people; they see their position as the default one because it’s based on beliefs lots of people hold, but that’s not the standard for a good theory. When Michael Behe was interviewed on Point of Inquiry, he ended by saying, “It is the appearance of design that evolutionists have to overcome” (paraphrase from memory). I think that statement sums up the dispute pretty well.

  2. Marshallon 05 Aug 2011 at 9:50 am

    Dr. Novella, this sounds unbelievably frustrating. It’s a shame that people like this exist–people who are so tied to their beliefs that they will resort to nearly ANYTHING to make their case–even if it requires ignoring evidence and logic to such an extent that it makes them appear to have the cognitive capacity of a first grader.

    I go through cycles of “giving up” on these people, to “trying to make a difference.” Convincing individuals that they’re wrong rarely works, especially through argumentation, and it really only ends up making my blood broil. Do you really think that, if you presented an unbelievably clear, evidence-supported, logical argument that left absolutely no trace of uncertainty to you conclusion, that Egnor would say, “Hi Dr. Novella–you’re absolutely right, and I’ve been wrong this whole time. I’ll change my stance on dualism because I’m obviously wrong.”? Not in a million years!

    I understand that these people serve as good examples for the general public of how the mind can be so easily deluded by belief, and the truth shrouded. Examples serve to make good educational points, and I’m glad you continue to do what you do. But it’s SO HARD to not to just get angry with these people for being so goddamn STUPID, and it’s difficult not to resort to their level of ad homine and baseless insults–that’s what our emotional brains are driving us to do. It takes strength to rise above this tendency.

    But still, it’s so FRUSTRATING.

  3. daedalus2uon 05 Aug 2011 at 9:59 am

    None of the NDE experiences show mental activity in the absence of brain activity. Even if we assume that all of them are 100% accurate, all they show is the memory of mental activity during a period of reduced brain activity. The memory may have been constructed at another time and the perceived timing of that memory altered to correspond to the period of reduced brain activity.

    I can change the origin date on files on my computer to before the time that my computer existed. Does that mean my computer is “remembering” pre-construction experiences?

  4. Tantalus Primeon 05 Aug 2011 at 10:16 am

    Thanks for the reasoned treatment; I have no doubt it will fall on deaf ears.

    “In other words, teens act differently than adults partly because their brains function differently. Their emotional immaturity correlates with functional immaturity in the brain – it’s not just lack of life experience.”

    I used a similar example as a rebuttal to Egnor as well; the variability of dopaminergic activity within the frontal cortex seems to account for some of the maturational changes in risk assessment.

    (Blatant self promotion)

  5. SteveAon 05 Aug 2011 at 10:58 am

    “Several of his claims, coming from a practicing neurologist, are simply lies.”

    Pure libel. I can almost hear the lawyers drooling.

    PS If any of you see ever Egnor trying to put a catheter into my brain, please hit him with a shovel.

  6. Steven Novellaon 05 Aug 2011 at 10:59 am

    I have no expectation of convincing Egnor of anything. The reply is mainly just exploiting a “teachable moment.” Further, Egnor is a neurosurgeon and an unfamiliar reader might confuse his ramblings for actual science, so I feel it’s important to set the record straight.

  7. roadfoodon 05 Aug 2011 at 11:37 am

    It always surprises (and dismays) me when someone, in reference to something like an NDE, says, “Are they all nuts? Are they all lying? Are they all deluded?”.

    It makes me wonder if that person has ever experienced a simple optical illusion. For example: When a person looks at that and says that they see the wheels rotating, is that person lying? Of course not, they really and truly do see the wheels rotating. Are they nuts? Certainly not. Are they deluded? No. They are simply experiencing an illusion that appears profoundly real. NDEs are profoundly real, but nonetheless illusory.

  8. roadfoodon 05 Aug 2011 at 11:38 am

    My last line above should have read “NDEs appear profoundly real, but are nonetheless illusory.”

  9. daedalus2uon 05 Aug 2011 at 12:17 pm

    roadfood, that is an excellent point. Optical illusions are flaws in the unconscious processing of sensory data. Cognitively we can know that they are illusions because we have a robust and independent understanding of reality that doesn’t depend on those direct sensory inputs.

    What scientists appreciate is that all cognitive processes are subject to the same types of data processing flaws. Our data processing systems didn’t evolve to always produce 100% correct outputs (which we can demonstrate via optical illusions). We should not expect them to be 100% correct unless we can independently verify them.

  10. PhysiPhileon 05 Aug 2011 at 12:56 pm

    “Motivated reasoning is what most people do most of the time – start with a desired conclusion and then find reasons to support it (human are very good at that).”

    This rings very true with me. I often catch myself rationalizing an emotional decision I have made, and have to force myself to realize that the ultimate reason for the chosen action is emotional and not a result of logical deduction. I unintentionally switch those two events in time.

    Intelligence seems to increase the amount that people fall pray to motivated reasoning. In my social sphere, the intellects will use reasoning when explaining why they did something when they didn’t even consider that reason before hand, ergo, their action was not a result of reason but emotion. Where as, if I asked my guitar buddies (who are less intellectual), they will readily admit emotions were the driving reason for their action. When asked, they did that because they were angry, happy, horny, or whatever – not some post hoc rationalization.

  11. rezistnzisfutlon 05 Aug 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I always find it fascinating that people who call themselves scientists will cling so fervently to beliefs that have no evidence whatsoever, yet proclaim a certitude about them as if they’re pure fact. There’s a certain intellectual honesty that’s missing, which I’ve also seen in proponents of woo and religion, that they simply can’t seem to admit that what they believe is just that, belief, with no evidentiary support for them, yet they claim there is and will go to incredible lengths to try to push their delusions to the point where they really believe the evidence is actually there, which then compromises the scientific process (not following the evidence, forming conclusions first, and accepting evidence that otherwise cannot withstand scientific scrutiny).

    Their arguments also seem to often end at the same spot, shifting the burden of proof, often after arguing from ignorance.

  12. Cherylon 05 Aug 2011 at 2:57 pm

    I read your original article, Dr. Novella, and as a lay person, it made a lot of sense. While I would love our mind or consciousness to continue after we’re gone, the concept that there is no mind without a brain really sticks with me. And I’ve been turning that over in my mind quite regularly.

    In order to get to an after life, this inconsistency must be reconciled, and I just haven’t seen it. For me, I think if the mind was not correlated to brain, then we would see odd things like one mind inhabiting two different bodies. But we don’t.

    Egnor’s transference is classic:
    “As for Novella, his “proofs” are a tangled mess of scientific ideological assertions that actually make the case opposite the one he thinks they do… if they are to be taken seriously at all, which they shouldn’t be. Several of his claims, coming from a practicing neurologist, are simply lies.”

    He’s accusing you of exactly what he is doing. I”m thinking he went into neurology to PROVE there’s an afterlife, and now that he can’t, he’s gone into denial and is on the offensive.

    If he weren’t a practicing neurosurgeon, I’d have compassion for him. But as it is, I’m appalled he’s still licensed to practice medicine.

  13. mufion 05 Aug 2011 at 4:50 pm

    the concept that there is no mind without a brain really sticks with me

    If I recall correctly, Carl Sagan reflected in one of his books on the concept of an afterlife. What was interesting about it was that he didn’t just rule out an afterlife on the basis of the mind’s dependence on the brain and end there (although I think he mentioned that, too). He illustrated some of the problems associated with trying to pick out an essential “self” from all of the different mental states that occur during one’s life time – especially at the end, if one’s mind has virtually been lost – say, to of dementia from Alzheimer’s disease – and then project that into a post-mortem scenario.

    Of course, his observation applies during life, as well. Whatever the mind’s ontological status, it is a process, such that an individual’s conscious state at one point in space & time is non-identical with a conscious state at some other point in space & time. But, whereas the body unites and helps to constrain those states during one’s lifetime, what can possibly unite and constrain them after the body dies? And would an individual suffering from dementia at death do so eternally? or would s/he be restored to some younger condition?

    These questions are more philosophical than scientific in nature, but I think they lend some credence to an embodied understanding of the mind – even without a detailed knowledge of neuroscience.

  14. tmac57on 05 Aug 2011 at 5:08 pm

    One wonders, just what is it that Egnor thinks is the source of the mind. Does he view humans as some sort of antenna,pulling the unique self out of the ether,only to later return it after death? Does he see the brain as having any part at all in consciousness,and if so, what does that mean for that consciousness after the brain ceases to function?

  15. Cherylon 05 Aug 2011 at 6:31 pm

    “pulling the unique self out of the ether”

    OK, so the other thing that has been rolling around in my head lately, is the rapid acquisition of scientific knowledge in the past 100 years. Most Americans probably don’t know that the best scientific minds in the 19th century believed space was filled with ether, the medium on which light could travel.

    I can’t quite recall the physics experiment that proved all this wrong, but it was only 100 years ago. Can you imagine die-hard ether believers just saying “no” to the evidence? Maybe they did, but we never hear about them. The unfit idea that didn’t survive.

    Gotta love the scientific method. Ether is out, but it does make for a great allegory.

  16. roadfoodon 05 Aug 2011 at 6:44 pm

    “And would an individual suffering from dementia at death do so eternally? or would s/he be restored to some younger condition?”

    For me, this is one of the biggest problems with the idea of an afterlife.

    I mean, let’s postulate for a moment that the Christian ideal of an afterlife is true. For someone who is of completely sound mind at death, everything is great. Your soul moves on to heaven with all of the personality, knowledge, memories, etc. that you had at the moment of death.

    But what of someone who dies at the end of a long slide into Alzheimer’s? There are only two possibilities, either that person spends eternity in heaven with the mental faculties they had at the moment of death (an idea that, I’m sure, any Christian would find abhorrent and impossible to accept), or they are magically “restored” to full mental acuity.

    But then the next problem is, what exactly would that mean? If the mind does not arise from the brain, then doesn’t that mean that the Alzheimer’s deterioration resides in the mind? Or do believers somehow rationalize that the physical deterioration of the brain has that horrible effect on the mind, but then once the mind is freed, it springs back to “normal”? What would “normal” mean in this context? The way your mind was before the Alzheimer’s started? How do you define the exact moment it started? Would the person lose their memories of the intervening time? In the early stages, a person with Alzheimer’s suffers intermittent short-term memory loss; their personality is still all there, they experience life and joy and all that. It can take years to get to the point that they have difficulty functioning. Does the soul get deprived of all the memories of those times? Or in the after life, does your soul get restored to what it was when you were 10% into Alzheimer’s? 25%?

    But let’s even put Alzheimer’s aside and go back to the person who is of completely sound mind at death. What does it even mean to be of “completely sound mind”? Doesn’t everyone, as they age into their sixties, seventies, and beyond, suffer from some decline in mental acuity and/or memory function? Do you live eternally in heaven, forever forgetting where you put your car keys?

  17. nybgruson 05 Aug 2011 at 7:18 pm


    Shhhhh! You are asking tough questions. Ones which we can’t answer. They are simply too complex for our feeble human minds to understand. Just relax, stop worrying about it, and be content that goddidit with magic. It woudln’t be respectful to do otherwise. There there now…. isn’t that better?

    As for Egnor’s quote:

    The specific mental deficits are highly variable, not the least predictable and very often there are no deficits at all. I’ve personally inserted at least 3000 catheters into patients’ brains, and I’ve not once seen a change in a mental state from a catheter insertion that passes deep through brain tissue.

    So in about 6 weeks when I have an exam covering neuroanatomy and I have a 15 mark short answer question that asks me to localize a lesion in a stroke patient and explain the mechanism of why, can I just write in “this is not in the least bit predictable. QED.” and move on? I should totally get full credit for that, right?

    And the last bit, about the catheters, made me immediately think what you wrote next, Dr. Novella. I should hope the catheter insertions don’t cause profound cognitive changes! If they did, that means you’re doing it wrong Egnor!. Mind boggling really.

    When I was back in the ER, and I was doing wound care and suturing, do you think it would have been a good line of argument to say, “Well, I’ve done this thousands of times and I have never had the wound become infected. Therefore, germs don’t exist.”

    He is the epitome of why I am forced to tell people that having “MD” after your name in no way means you can’t be a flaming idiot.

  18. Mlemaon 05 Aug 2011 at 8:21 pm

    the argument is irrelevant to good medicine practice. Both parties reveal their bias of attitude: one is frustrated because he can’t make the case for a non-material thing using materialist methods, the other is asserting a philosophical stance based on a “mind-of-the-gaps” argument. Of course, both are overlooking the possibility that they have different definitions of what the mind actually is. Is it the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, sensory experience, etc.? Or is it the “soul”? What is a soul? They could as easily argue about whether a person even has a soul. Then we’d see more clearly how this debate is pointless (to find a conclusion, not necessarily to have). I’d like to point out, too, that the reductionist tendency of materialism may prevent its strongest adherents from properly evaluating evidence contrary to what they would expect to find, based on their viewpoint. But, an allowance too broad on the other side will similarly impair proper evaluation. I encourage scientific people who think they might be engaged in an area of research that would be affected by personal philosophies to do their very best to set those opinions aside as they seek, gather and evaluate evidence.

    Also, reading the comments, it seems that many people have very simplistic ideas about afterlife, soul vs. cognition, etc.. There are many volumes theorizing about the nature of “man”, including whether or not he possesses an eternal nature and what that might be like, and whether or not it belongs to everyone. These questions have been pondered for eons (because we have no way of finding empirical answers). But if you don’t believe that there is any possibility that man has a soul, for instance, then why do you wonder about what the soul’s “afterlife” might be like and what the problems would be with your concept of that afterlife? If you’re using those questions, instead, to decide that there is no afterlife, then it seems to me you’ve dismissed the possibility pretty simply. Hey, that’s fine. I personally don’t think it makes any difference to what’s going to happen to you.

  19. nybgruson 05 Aug 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I disagree Mlema.

    I’d like to point out, too, that the reductionist tendency of materialism may prevent its strongest adherents from properly evaluating evidence contrary to what they would expect to find, based on their viewpoint.

    The contrary position (the one Egnor defends) essentially asserts that some intangible metaphysical thing must be the option. The point is that if it is intangible and therefore de facto impossible to test or observe empirically then the physical materialist stance is quite simply “It doesn’t matter.” You can claim all the soul, god, metaphysical meaning, eternal nature you want… if it is unable to be observed empirically its existence is exactly equivalent to not existing.

    There are many volumes theorizing about the nature of “man”, including whether or not he possesses an eternal nature and what that might be like, and whether or not it belongs to everyone. These questions have been pondered for eons (because we have no way of finding empirical answers).

    They have been pondered for eons because early man was willing to ascribe magic and mystical thinking as valid explanations for natural phenomenon. Lighting was from Zeus. Prometheus gave us fire. The tide is controlled by Poseidon. The universe was created by Yaweh. We find that for every such “godly” explanation we have managed to find a perfectly natural explanation that requires no supernatural forces. Those questions that as of yet remain unanswered could be explained in the same way of magical thinking. But history has shown us precisely zero evidence of anything supernatural and precedent shows us that further investigation removes the mysticism of things once thought to by magical. Intellectual honesty demands, therefore, the assumption that the remaining things unexplained are not explained by magic, but simply that we do not yet know.

    Roadfood’s questions are exactly the point and while not sufficient evidence to reject an afterlife, pose significant enough problems to make the concept ridiculous to explain.

    The mind/brain duality issue is exactly the same. We are learning more and more about the specific physical attributes of the brain which generate the specific cognitive attributes of the mind. The only bias here is on Egnor’s part in ignoring and obfuscating the evidence.

    Obviously this doesn’t prevent “good medical practice” since apparently Egnor can manage to not kill patients left and right. But that doesn’t mean he is right and it doesn’t mean that such thinking doesn’t preclude great medical practice. I mean really, can you imagine if the stance of neuroscience/surgery was actually as Egnor states it?

    “The specific mental deficits are highly variable, not the least predictable and very often there are no deficits at all.”

    That means we should just give up on the whole neuroscience bit. If it is “not the least bit predictable” then WTF is he doing with his surgical interventions? How did he know to stick that widget in that spot? Or conversely not to stick that widget in that particular spot? He is reaching for a way to justify his religion which dictates a soul that demands a mind/brain duality to exist. Claiming that there is no predictable correlation fits with the conclusion he likes, but it does not fit with reality

  20. rezistnzisfutlon 05 Aug 2011 at 9:34 pm


    The point isn’t what the idea of an afterlife is, but whether there is an afterlife/soul/conscious outside the brain at all. None of us here have found any reason to think any of that exists because there isn’t any compelling evidence. It’s not a matter of ideology or preconception, but skepticism in the light of no evidence.

    Personally, I could care less if a person wants to pontificate on a soul/afterlife, though I think it’s ridiculous to want to put so much stock in the belief in something that has no evidence for it, rather than trying to find out what’s really true; I’d much rather spend my time on finding out what’s really true based on the evidence than spending my time trying to find evidence for my beliefs.

    I really don’t see what’s “preconceived” about going by what the evidence indicates.

    Also, I’m concerned that a scientist in his position spends so much time with the apparent belief that such things exist, to the extent of claiming the things as fact rather than simply indicating it’s a belief