Jun 05 2007

Egnor Dishes on Meat and Materialism

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).

Egnor writes:

“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.

First, he is treating mental function as a pure abstraction – but in so doing he is assuming his conclusion and therefore is making a tautological argument. He simultaneously argues that abstractions are real when he writes: “Altruism is obviously something very real; many people’s lives depend on it.” This is a muddled semantic argument. He is saying it is real but immaterial. He needs to define “real” however. Altruism, like “commerce” and “the economy” is an idea, a concept. Commerce is more than just money and goods, but it is certainly caused by the exchange of these things – it describes the pattern of such exchanges, it emerges from all of the factors that lead to the exchanging of money, goods, and services. Similarly, altruism is a higher level concept that describes an abstract pattern of thoughts and behaviors, but those thoughts and behaviors are still comprised of neurons firing.

He argues that the material brain cannot cause the immaterial abstraction of thought and feelings because there is no connection. But there is a connection – and that connection is information. The brain is meat that can store, receive, and process information. The processing of information in the brain, and the reception (and then further processing) of information from outside the brain then results in new information which adds to the continuous loop of information processing that we experience as our own consciousness. We are simply assigning abstract meaning to patterns in that information processing, but that does not mean that the abstract meaning is separate from the pattern of information it describes because information is material and abstract concepts are not (the crux of Egnor’s argument).

But what is consciousness really? Egnor is treating it as if it is this immaterial thing that exists. But really there is no argument or evidence that requires that consciousness is any more than an abstract description of the ongoing activity of the brain – an emergent phenomenon just like the economy is an emergent phenomenon of material transactions.

Let’s look a bit further at the evidence Egnor is dismissing as mere correlation. First of all, it is true that correlation alone does not prove causation, but it also certainly does not rule it out. We can infer causation if there are multiple independent correlations all pointing toward the same causal relationship. (I wonder if Egnor believes that smoking causes cancer, given that this is only inferred from correlations.)

For example, we can look at brain function in real time with a functional MRI scan (fMRI). When people think of something this correlates with a specific pattern of brain tissue becoming active. There is a one to one correlation – the brain does not fire without the thought and the thought does not occur without the brain firing. This is a compelling correlation for which the only plausible hypothesis is that the brain firing is causing the thought. If there were a “ghost in the machine” this correlation would be unnecessary and could be violated.

There are also numerous ways in which neuroscience has documented that brain damage, or lack of brain function, correlates with specific cognitive deficits. If someone damages their frontal lobes, this changes their personality, who they are, fundamentally. I have seen many patients who recount that they are simply not the same person they were prior to their injury. In disease states, like Alzheimer’s disease, everything we have come to associate with a person’s consciousness – their memories, ability to pay attention, ability to process information, their personality, etc. – slowly fades away over time as their brain atrophies and their brain cells die.

We can also alter brain function pharmacologically – use drugs that inhibit the activity of certain parts of the brain, and this can result in an altered state of consciousness. We now also have the technology to do this using transcranial magnetic stimulation, to more selectively turn off parts of the brain and then observe the state of consciousness that results.

No matter how we choose to look at it, altering brain function alters consciousness. Further, there is absolutely zero evidence of consciousness existing outside the context of brain function. There is one hypothesis that is consistent with all the evidence – brain function causes consciousness.

Egnor’s lame and confused semantic arguments are little more than apologetics for supernaturalism. ID/creationists desperately want to change the very necessary rules of science that do not accommodate supernatural notions. They are probing for weaknesses everywhere they can. It is no surprise that consciousness – a concept that is very difficult to understand and for which we lack adequate terminology to satisfactorily describe – is a target. It is also interesting that this is a page apparently torn out of the new age woo woo handbook.

If they can get supernaturalism through the door of science, that is (by their own description) the thin edge of the wedge. That will open the door, they hope, to all of their religious beliefs. Make no mistake, this is a calculated and deliberate attack upon the fundamental pillars of science. It is an attempt to subvert science to the purpose of fundamentalist religious dogma.

Michael Egnor has shown that he is not just a neurosurgeon who happens to be a creationist, he is fully on board with the fundamentalist anti-science agenda. They have failed to make their case against evolution. They may have an easier time with consciousness because the relevant science is more arcane, and therefore the public will be easier to confuse. Also, as much as some people may not like the idea that we are evolved primates, it is an even tougher sell emotionally that we are nothing more than sophisticated meat.

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