Jun 09 2008

Michael Egnor, Cartesian Dualism, David Chalmers, and the Hard (non)Problem

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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.

Property dualism is quite different – it states that the mind is fully a property of matter, but that it cannot be reduced to the the simple processes of the brain. There is some non-reducible aspect of consciousness that requires a separate (but physical) explanation other than neurons firing and exchanging neurotransmitters. It is astounding that Egnor would use the arguments of a property dualist to support his cartesian dualism – without ever making the distinction clear. Egnor uses a tactic well-known to his creationist buddies – mine for quotes that can be made to seem as if they support your position, when they don’t.

Ironically, Egnor falsely accused me of doing just that when he wrote previously:

[Quoting me] The problem with [dualism] is that it is unnecessary – it is adding an unnecessary step and violates Occam’s razor.

William of Occam was a 14th Century English scholastic philosopher and a father of modern epistemology. He was also a Franciscan friar, and by his vows (God is Spirit, and man is created from dust and in God’s image), he was a dualist.

So even dualists end up, posthumously and incongruously, in the materialist camp. Denialists are everywhere.

I pointed out that I was simply invoking the principle of Occam’s razor – that when confronted with multiple possible solutions to a problem, the simplest (or more specifically the one that introduces the fewest new assumptions) is most likely to be correct. Egnor then twisted this, arguing that by invoking Occam’s Razor I was somehow claiming that Occam himself must agree with my specific position. This is transparently absurd (and Egnor has yet to own up or respond to my calling him out on it). Now he adds to the hypocrisy by doing exactly what he falsely accused me of doing – invoking Chalmers as if he defends cartesian dualism when he doesn’t.

First let me summarize my understanding of Chalmers’ position, then I will reveal other quotes from his article to support this (quotes you won’t see in Egnor’s article). Chalmers believes that the brain fully explains consciousness, but he thinks we need to divide consciousness into two kinds of things – those things we can measure (functionality), and those things we can only experience. He claims that anything we can measure – behavior, reportability, information processing, perceptions – is the “easy” problem of neuroscience and can be reduced to specific parts of the brain firing patterns of neurons. Our subjective experience (what philosophers call “qualia”), Chalmers argues, cannot be reduced to neuronal firing. It has been established that the brain can function and process information without us experiencing it – so what, exactly, is the difference. Why do we experience some things and not others? But more importantly, why do we feel or experience at all? This is what he calls the “hard problem.”

Chalmers outlines the existing responses to this question. Some have tried to explain consciousness with conventional neuroscience, but Chalmers rejects these as just answering the easy problem and not addressing the hard problem. For example, someone may explain our ability to report our feelings, but this is not the same as having the feelings in the first place. Others say that there is something non-physical that causes subjective experience (this would be Egnor’s position). Chalmers specifically rejects such appeals to magic as not actually answering the question and not presenting anything that can be approached either philosophically or scientifically.

Others state that the hard problem is actually a non-problem. (I count myself in this camp.) Specifically, that once you have entirely solved the easy problems of explaining everything consciousness does, you have solved the hard problem by extension. Our subjective sense of existing is an emergent property of all the reducible components of brain function. There is nothing extra. Chalmers rejects this solution.

The current debate within neuroscience and philosophy is actually all about this last point – is subjective experience just the net effect, an emergent property, of all the reducible and observable things the brain does, or is another phenomenon required? I do not pretend to know the answer to this question. I find the “emergent property” position to be the most compelling, and I have not yet heard any argument for why another phenomenon is required. But I could be wrong – we may discover that something else is going on in the brain, something thus far not conceived.

But here’s the kicker – either way Michael Egnor is wrong, for both positions reject cartesian dualism. David Chalmers is not arguing that the extra phenomenon is spiritual or non-materialist. He thinks it is a higher order property of certain organizations of matter (i.e. the brain) that cannot be reduced to its simpler parts. He doesn’t know what this higher order phenomenon is, but he thinks something is necessary. He thinks it could be a new law of matter – not spiritualist magic. In other words, Chalmers is advocating for a non-reductive solution to consciousness as opposed to a purely reductive (reducing a higher order problem to its simpler components) solution, and Egnor is misrepresenting this as arguing for a non-materialist solution to consciousness.

In the same article Egnor quotes extensively (and selectively), Chalmers writes:

In the second half of the paper, I argue that if we move to a new kind of nonreductive explanation, a naturalistic account of consciousness can be given.

That’s right there in the introduction. He is simply advocating a nonreductive explanation of the hard problem – not a non-naturalistic one. He later writes:

I suggest that a theory of consciousness should take experience as fundamental. We know that a theory of consciousness requires the addition of something fundamental to our ontology, as everything in physical theory is compatible with the absence of consciousness. We might add some entirely new nonphysical feature, from which experience can be derived, but it is hard to see what such a feature would be like. More likely, we will take experience itself as a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge, and space-time. If we take experience as fundamental, then we can go about the business of constructing a theory of experience.


Indeed, the overall structure of this position is entirely naturalistic, allowing that ultimately the universe comes down to a network of basic entities obeying simple laws and allowing that there may ultimately be a theory of consciousness cast in terms of such laws. If the position is to have a name, a good choice might be naturalistic dualism.

Chalmers quickly dismisses any notion of a “nonphysical feature” and instead is arguing that experience is something physical and fundamental, like mass or charge. I guess Egnor was confused by Chalmers’ use of the word “dualism”, or perhaps he doesn’t know what “naturalistic” means. Lest there be any doubt that Chalmers is a materialist, he writes:

If the causal patterns of neural organization were duplicated in silicon, for example, with a silicon chip for every neuron and the same patterns of interaction, then the same experiences would arise. According to this principle, what matters for the emergence of experience is not the specific physical makeup of a system, but the abstract pattern of causal interaction between its components. This principle is controversial, of course. Some (e.g. Searle 1980) have thought that consciousness is tied to a specific biology, so that a silicon isomorph of a human need not be conscious. I believe that the principle can be given significant support by the analysis of thought-experiments, however.

That’s right, Chalmers argues that a “silicon isomorph” of a human brain would be conscious in the same way that we are conscious. A soulless artificially intelligent robot would be fully conscious.

Confusing Explanation and Causation

Egnor is confused on many levels, not just about Chalmers’ form of “naturalistic dualism.” In fact, Chalmers’ paper is entirely tangential to our debate. Egnor and I have been discussing causality – does the brain fully cause the mind. I believe it does, he thinks it only partially causes the mind and that something mysterious is also needed. This is an argument about causality. Chalmers’ paper is not.
In other words, the Hard Problem that Chalmers is discussing is figuring out HOW the brain causes consciousness. I agree that we have not fully explained how the brain works and how it results in all mental activity. We are doing pretty well, and continue to make steady progress, but our explanations will likely always be incomplete. But understanding how brain activity results in consciousness is a separate question from DOES the brain cause consciousness. The evidence, I maintain, points consistently in the direction that the brain causes mind (not a mere correlation, but a demonstrably causal relationship). We can confidently conclude that the brain causes mind before we can fully explain how the brain causes mind.

Further, in arguing that the brain does not fully cause the mind Egnor has been largely referring to evidence that falls within the easy problem. For example, he wrote:

Keep in mind that materialism posits that mind states are always identical to brain states, because mind states are brain states, entirely. The materialist prediction is that the correlation between mind state and brain state must be 100%, minus experimental error. Dualism posits that the correspondence between mind states and brain states is not exact, because there are aspects of mind states that are not identical to brain states. Dualism predicts that the correlation is less than 100%, and that this lack of correlation cannot be explained away entirely as experimental error.

We were discussing fMRI studies – neuroscience that is addressing what Chalmers calls the “easy problem” – correlating brain activity to measurable mental functionality. Egnor is essentially arguing that because our current technology shows less than a 100% correlation between mental function and brain function, the difference is explained by cartesian dualism – something non-physical also causing mental function. This position is weak because it fails to account for the limitations of our technology and experimental design. (Egnor mentions “experimental error” but fails to specify what, exactly, he is referring to and if it accounts for the observed lack of correlation.) It is much simpler to conclude that the correlation is within the precision of our technology.

Therefore, Egnor is saying that neuroscience has imperfectly explained the easy problem, therefore dualism must be correct. Now he is also saying that the easy problem is not the evidence for dualism, but rather Chalmers’ hard problem is the evidence for dualism – but misses the fact that Chalmers is talking about naturalistic dualism, not Egnor’s “ghost-in-the-machine” spiritual dualism. Egnor’s position is incoherent and not even self-consistent. He seems to cherry-pick whatever arguments seem to support his position at the time.

Misrepresenting the other side

Not surprisingly, Egnor completely misrepresents my side of this debate. He does so in a way that is utterly consistent with the typical methods of the creationists with whom he co-blogs. The purpose of the Evolution News and Views blog is not to engage in honest and diligent scholarly discussion, but to provide a layer of plausibility for those who already believe. Egnor’s job, therefore, is to paint the materialists as dogmatic, controversial, emotional, and radical. All of his replies to me repeatedly make such characterizations – and as I have demonstrated, even if that means using absurd arguments, quoting out of context, or blatantly misrepresenting my position (i.e. Occam’s razor above).

In his latest entry he writes:

Dr. Novella wrote:

Dr. Egnor…is referring to another common fallacy used to dismiss the undeniable evidence linking brain function to mental function – retreating to philosophy, or more specifically to a conceptual realm that is not empirical and which defies common language…[p]hilosophers have asked what is probably a meaningless question – why is it that we “feel” that we exist, that we experience ourselves and the world – a phenomenon they refer to as “qualia.” I say this is meaningless because it does not yield any specific predictions or distinctions from a purely materialistic world.

Dr. Novella’s description of the origin of our subjective experience as “a meaningless question” should leave the reader gasping. It’s hard to imagine an assertion more misguided. We are subjects, not merely objects. First-person ontogeny is the aspect of our minds with which we are most familiar.

Now that I have explained some of the background and some of my position, it should be obvious that Egnor completely misses my point. I wrote that the question of qualia is a “meaningless question” in the same sense that Chalmers’ critics use – the hard problem may be a non-problem, and therefore a meaningless question because it contains a false assumption. Perhaps all of the mental functionality that Chalmers relegates to the easy problem is consciousness, and there is, in essence, no hard problem. (This will be the topic of my blog post tomorrow.) Even if you disagree with this position and agree with Chalmers, it should be clear that I am not saying the question of consciousness is not important, as Egnor implies. It is clearly very important to neuroscience, regardless of the final answer. If consciousness is an emergent property of mental function, that’s an important insight – as important as Chalmers’ position that there is a yet-undiscovered higher order process going on.

Egnor goes on:

This hard question about subjective experience in the relationship between the mind and the brain has been at the core of the most active and contentious issue in analytic philosophy in later 20th century and early 21st century. As science is a branch of philosophy (natural philosophy), scientists must grapple with these profound philosophical issues. Contra Dr. Novella, it’s not a matter of applying or not applying philosophy to this scientific debate. It is a matter of applying good philosophy or bad philosophy to this debate.

Egnor tries to grab the philosophical high ground, but he merely stumbles and falls on his face. I never denied the philosophical underpinnings of science – epistemology (how we know what we know) is a critical discipline to science. But science is not relegated to a branch of philosophy, as Egnor would have you believe. Science has its own empirical methods. Once you understand the underlying philosophy of science and are asking questions within scientific methodological naturalism – tangential philosophical questions may indeed be meaningless. I am not denying the proper place for philosophy, on the contrary Egnor is confusing philosophical questions with scientific ones. He reinforces my original point – he is doing so in order to dodge the scientific questions he finds inconvenient – namely the success of neuroscience as an explanatory model of mental function. Egnor uses philosophy like a magician uses hand gestures – for distraction not illumination.


As we can see, Dr. Egnor is profoundly confused on multiple levels. He has confused different types of dualism, he has misrepresented Chalmers’ arguments and position, he has mischaracterized my position in multiple ways, he has confused philosophy and science, and he has confused different scientific questions – most notably the question of “does” the brain cause consciousness with the question of “how” the brain causes consciousness.

In my opinion it is no coincidence that he writes for the Discovery Institute. These types of intellectually sloppy and dishonest behaviors are the norm among ID/creation proponents. In fact the very strategies of denial are the same, whether it is evolution or neuroscience that is being denied. The purpose, I believe, is also the same – to provide intellectual cover for a religious ideology.

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