Dec 18 2014

Egnor Doubles Down on Incoherent Nonsense

Egnor continues his dualist neuroscience denial in two follow up posts, mostly responding to PZ Myers’ take down of his original post. Egnor has also been writing separately about computers, arguing that they have no memory and will never be intelligent (have agency).

In all of these posts Egnor is following the same basic intellectual strategies – use words in a vague and confusing way to befuddle your reader, and assume your conclusion (dualism). Ironically, he writes:

The contemporary criticism of such phrases as “memory is stored in the brain” and “the brain evaluates propositions” and “the occipital cortex perceives images” — criticism made by neuroscientists and philosophers like¬†Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker¬†among others — is in keeping with the salient critiques by ordinary language philosophers who insist that we need to be honest and careful with the meanings of words in our scientific discourse. Ordinary language philosophy in neuroscience is an appeal to conceptual hygiene.

The projection is truly amazing. Science denial is pseudoskepticism – all of the form with none of the actual substance.

As far as I can tell, Egnor has two actual points to make. The first is that memories (or representations of memories – whatever that means) cannot be stored in the brain, because then the brain would need to know the location of each memory, and the location of the location, with infinite regression. Therefore the notion of physically storing memories collapses under its own logical impossibility.

This point, at least the extent to which one can derive a point from his incoherent nonsense, is demonstrably wrong. Egnor even contradicts himself on this point:

No one doubts that the brain can store representations or at least things that seem like representations — proteins and dendritic arrays and electrochemical gradients and the like. Much of modern neuroscience is the study of these things.

If he acknowledges that the brain stores some useful information that neuroscience can study, wouldn’t any such information fall prey to his alleged infinite regression problem? If there is a solution to this problem for some brain functions he does not find ideologically objectionable, then why not for memory itself?

Also, as many commenters have pointed out, if Egnor were correct then computers could not function. Computers store information that must be retrieved as needed and don’t seem to have any difficulty reliably doing so, without running into any infinite regression problems.

Also, in all Egnor’s various follow ups and side posts, he has not addressed the key factual objection to his position – that the brain stores information in multiple overlapping patterns of neurons. A prominent feature of brain function is that it learns largely by association, so you can get to a memory through the many other associated memories, without the need for the brain knowing the physical location of the memory. Memories are not isolated discrete things, but integrated, overlapping, analog things in the brain.

The alleged infinite regression problem is Egnor’s only new point in his recent spasm of blog posts. It is demonstrably wrong on multiple levels. If Egnor had any intellectual integrity he would acknowledge that he made a mistake and this point is not valid. He has largely ignored it in his follow ups, however.

Egnor’s second point is the tired old dualist claim that mental phenomena are not physical, therefore dualism. I have already pointed out that this amounts to little more than assuming one’s conclusion. It is pure circular reasoning. He writes:

Often, unintelligible assertions in neuroscience are simply the careless use of metaphors. We say metaphorically that we store our memories in our photo albums or on our hard drives or in our brains. But memories are psychological things. They have neither mass nor volume nor location, and the assertion that they can actually be stored in anything is unintelligible — no less unintelligible than the assertion that the square root of a number can be a color or that mumbles can be stuffed in pockets.

Egnor does not explain in any scientific or operational way what he means by a “psychological thing” other than that it is not physical. But that is, of course, the very question of the philosophy of mind. It cannot be assumed as a given in order to prove the dualist position of the philosophy of mind.

As an aside, it is true that our everyday language does not contain terms that precisely deal with the concepts necessary to have a meaningful discussion of the philosophy of mind. That is why scientists and philosophers have to invent precise technical terminology, and use metaphors when explaining their concepts to an audience not familiar with the technical jargon. Egnor dismisses all of this, in a manner that amounts to anti-intellectualism, in my opinion. Speaking of the ordinary language philosophers he writes:

They seek to clear up the morass of conceptual confusion in science and philosophy caused by use of language that did so much violence to the ordinary meanings of words that it had become nonsensical. In their view — a view to which I hold as well — the idiosyncratic use of words, divorced from logic and common sense, reduces to an attempt at private language, which Wittgenstein proposed was incoherent.

What is interesting is that it is Egnor who is using language as a weapon of confusion in order to make it seem as if neuroscience is incoherent. He dismisses the technical language necessary for precision, then dismisses the metaphors necessary to translate the technical language into ordinary language, and then argues that the whole thing is a mess – but it’s a mess of his making.

The key to his argument is that memories are not physical and therefore cannot be stored, and that representations of memories cannot be stored because of the infinite regression problem (which I have already demolished).

Egnor does not address the actual position of philosophers of mind, like Daniel Dennett, who have already dealt with this issue (if he disagrees, he should address their arguments, not just ignore them). As I have pointed out numerous times myself – mental phenomena are functional active things. They are based in the physical substance of the brain, but they are not just the physical substance – they are what results from the function of the physical substance. The mind is what the brain does.

To use another metaphor, the mind is like fire and the brain its fuel. The fire is not the fuel, it is a chemical process happening to the fuel. Take the fuel away and no fire. Stop the fire and you still have the fuel, but it is not burning.

The brain is a biological organ that is comprised of 87 billion neurons with trillions of connections to each other, capable of making electrical discharges that affect each other. Neurons fire in synchrony, organized in functional networks and pathways. The brain is also plastic – it can dynamically change the strength, number, pattern, and modulation of these connections, functionally changing the firing of neurons.

After more than a century of neuroscience, which is progressing at an accelerating rate, we have every reason to believe, and no reason to doubt, that all mental phenomena (including memory) do not simply correlate with the firing of neurons in the brain – they are the firing of neurons in the brain. The mind is the fire of the brain.

Egnor has provided no reason at all to doubt this elegant conclusion of neuroscience. He certainly has not demonstrated this conclusion to be incoherent or false.

What Egnor has demonstrated only is his overwhelming hubris – that in a rhetorical flicker he can disprove the work of thousands of scientists carefully building a scientific discipline over decades of careful thought and research.

As always, he does provide a useful demonstration of the power of motivated reasoning. If you desire a specific ideological conclusion strong enough, even someone with an advanced education (perhaps especially) can use their cognitive skills to produce sophisticated nonsense.

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