Feb 15 2008

Dr. Egnor Misses the Point Again

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.

What motivated him to respond so quickly is that he thought he caught me in a serious error in my previous blog entry. What he actually caught me in was a minor error which I had already corrected. In discussing special relativity I at first gave the year in which Einstein proposed this theory as 1914. That was incorrect: Einstein proposed special relativity in 1905 and general relativity in 1914. This error was pointed out to me by my fellow blogger Jon Blumenfeld, and after confirming the date I made the appropriate correction.

Egnor, having no legitimate points on his side, has decided to parlay this minor error into a major treatise. But in so doing he just once again proves that he does not get it. His summary of the progress of physics over the last century is accurate enough (although he mischaracterizes how some advances were made and refers to some highly speculative theories), and it is true that the inadequacies of current theories often leads to their refinement or to new theories to plug the conceptual holes. However, this is not inconsistent with my position, as Egnor falsely claims.

You see, although I occasionally will make mistakes and typos in this blog (it is challenging to blog daily about scientific topics, without a copy editor, and not make mistakes), I try to be careful in how I frame specific claims. I wrote:

It is also historically true that many scientific theories have been validated “by every single” piece of evidence that bears upon the basic question of whether or not the theory is true.

Egnor, who is apparently as sloppy and careless a reader as he is a thinker, missed the caveat that I so carefully placed in this claim: “that bears upon the basic question of whether or not the theory is true.” He then goes on to enumerate some of the inadequacies of the theory of special relativity. But what he missed is that none of his examples of the inadequacies of special relativity “bears upon the basic question of whether or not” special relativity is a valid theory. Last time I checked the community of physicists still considered the basic tenets of special relativity to be an accurate description of reality.

Of course special relativity is not a complete description of the nature of time and space. Einstein knew when he proposed the theory that it was not designed to account for gravity – that is precisely why he called it “special” relativity, because it only applied in the special case where gravity was eliminated from consideration. Special relativity does not make predictions about gravity – a more general theory of relativity was needed for that.

Likewise, physicists know that special and general relativity do not describe quantum states, and so physicists are searching for a unified theory of quantum gravity. None of this is evidence against special relativity or general relativity – it is simply an understanding of what the theory does and does not do.

There is no evidence, and no experimental result, which cannot be accommodated by special relativity – no evidence that is incompatible with special relativity or proves it is wrong. If Dr. Egnor is aware of any such evidence, then he should name it. All of the predictions made by the theory of special relativity (meaning predictions of what must be if special relativity is true) have been validated. No one has been able to propagate anything – not matter, energy, or information – faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. The time dilation effect predicted by special relativity has been observed in every experiment designed to detect it.

This is not a minor point, it bears upon the nature of scientific progress. No theory (yet) is a complete description of reality. After an initial phase where the basics are worked out, science progresses and matures mainly by making finer and finer modifications to existing theories. Typically this will deepen our understanding of nature and increase the precision of our ability to describe it. But basic theories, once well established, are only rarely overturned.

It is likely that special relativity will never be overturned, it is too well established (although we may one day discover exotic conditions that create exceptions to the theory). But we know that it is not a complete description of reality and deeper theories are required. Likewise we know that DNA is the basis of inheritance – a fact that is likely never to be overturned. Although we are discovering epigenetic factors that influence heredity, therefore refining our knowledge.

Likewise (getting back to the actual point of this discussion) the hypothesis that the functioning of the brain is entirely responsible for the mind has been upheld by all available evidence. I still await Dr. Egnor’s counter example (but I’m not holding my breath).

It is true that we cannot completely describe how the brain functions, and how specific physical brain states translate into mental experiences. But if we focus on the basic question of whether or not brain function is what we experience as the mind – all the evidence points to the answer being yes. This is now the third (by my count) time I have carefully made this distinction, and Egnor still doesn’t get it. He keeps finding new ways to demonstrate that he does not get it.

He also shows the degree to which he is steeped in the creationist culture. The ID movement has recently been focusing its propaganda on accusing evolutionary scientists of being “dogmatic.” They do this partly by interpreting statements that accurately reflect the high level of scientific certainty that we now have regarding certain conclusions, like the fact that life on earth evolved, as dogma. Scientific confidence built upon mountains of evidence is not dogma.

Likewise Dr. Egnor accuses me of being dogmatic because I claim that all the evidence supports the materialist theory of mind, and yet he cannot name a piece of evidence that refutes this conclusion. Dr. Egnor and his creationist buddies demonstrate nicely that being dogmatic means sticking to a conclusion when the evidence does not support you.

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