Jan 15 2009

Sorry, Egnor, Your Pillars Are Still Shattered

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Michael Egnor, the creationist neurosurgeon who blogs over at the Discovery Institute, has been a busy beaver lately. He has written several entries on his side of the materialism vs dualism debate we’ve been having. I have been reading them, waiting for him to say something new I need to respond to, but mostly he is just reiterating the same points I have already refuted. Putting an old argument in a new form, or citing a new source, does not change the argument nor is it a response to refutation.

But now he has specifically responded to my previous post on the topic (although still not really addressing my points), and so a response from me is in order.

In a post titled, “It’s Time for Me to Unshatter My “Three Pillars of Neuroscience Denial,” Egnor tried and failed to refute my summary of his core logical fallacies.

Dualism of the Gaps

My first pillar was to characterize Egnor’s position as “dualism of the gaps” meaning that he is inserting a metaphysical dualist conclusion into our current gaps in the understanding of neuroscience. This is now a common strategy of the creationists – calling evolution “materialism of the gaps.” This further seems to me to be part of a broader strategy by them to simply turn the language of skepticism that is being applied to them back against the defenders of evolution and neuroscience.

In this vein Egnor writes:

Dr. Novella proposes materialism to fill the “gap.” I propose dualism to fill the “gap.” Dr. Novella and I share the gap in common; my views are no more or less “dualism of the gaps” than his views are “materialism of the gaps.” It’s our gap, and we each propose a different way to fill it.

This is one of those statements that is not even wrong – it just misses the point. Yes – there are gaps in our understanding of neuroscience and the mind. I have never denied that. There are gaps in our scientific understanding of pretty much any complex topic. At least so far, there seems to be always deeper levels of knowledge to attain. That is one of the fascinating things about science.

My “dualism of the gaps” point, however, is that lack of complete knowledge does not justify inserting a magical answer. Our lack of complete knowledge about life does not justify inventing a vital life force to explain it, our incomplete knowledge of evolution does not justify inventing an intelligent designer who miracled life into existence, and our current state of neuroscience does not require inserting a non-corporeal mind separate from the brain.

Further  – you cannot logically justify a positive claim based upon a lack of information. Where is the evidence for a vital force, or an intelligent designer, or the ghost in the machine? There isn’t any, such claims are based entirely on perceived gaps in knowledge.

The same does not apply to the materialist model of mind. I am not inventing anything new. We know the brain exists, we know its anatomy and function closely correlates with mental function and ability. At this point it is clearly established, in my opinion, that the brain causes mind.

The gap in our knowledge is in how the brain causes mind. I am open to any hypothesis that is scientifically testable and is compatible with existing established scientific knowledge.

To put it another way – Egnor would have you believe that any scientific hypothesis is the same as a “god of the gaps” argument, but they are not. A hypothesis is testable. A”god of the gaps” argument simply inserts a final and untestable answer into a current gap in our scientific knowledge.

Denying the inferences of correlation between brain and mind

Next Egnor moves onto my criticism that he ignores the proper implications of the rather strong correlation between brain and mind. He writes:

I don’t deny the inferences from brain-mind correlation. Unlike Dr. Novella, I draw inferences that are supported by data, and I avoid pronouncements that my ideology is proven and the battle is over. Both dualism and materialist monism hold that the brain and mind correlate. The issue at hand is causation, not correlation.

Egnor is being typically incoherent. It must first be noted that he has specifically denied the correlation between brain and mind. In a prior post he wrote (characterizing his own position):

If dualism is true and the mind is partly the product of the material function of the brain and partly the product of something else, then we will not always be able to correlate brain activity with mental activity – no matter how we choose to look at it

He then lamely tried to make the case that brain function only partly correlates with mental function, and therefore that part which does not correlate is caused by something other than the brain. I responded that the mind-brain correlation holds up within the sensitivity of our equipment and research methods to measure both things. Egnor never responded to that point.

Now he seems to be acknowledging the correlation, but simply denying its implication. He says correlation is not causation. Well – correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but it can be due to causation.  In the case of brain and mind, all the correlations we would expect to see from the brain-causes-mind hypothesis we do see. The brain hypothesis is the current best explanation for the correlation between brain and mind.

Instead of really addressing this point, he side steps it with a couple of non sequiturs. He writes:

The issue of causation is subtle, and evidence can be interpreted in several ways. Dualist neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz has pointed out that there is abundant neurophysiological evidence that mental states can alter brain states, which is consistent with dualism.

This is the same argument put forward by dualist, Deepak Chopra.  This, however, is not evidence for dualism. This is just an example of the brain interacting with itself. If it is the brain that is thinking, that brain activity can beget other brain activity – thinking can affect brain function. This is compatible with the conclusion that brain causes mind, and not an argument against it.

Grasping for more support from neuroscientists, Egnor writes:

Benjamin Libet, 20th century’s leading neuroscientist in the study of the relationship between the mind and the brain, held a view of the mind-brain relationship that is best described as property dualism. In the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Libet wrote:

If it is proposed that subjective experience and the phenomenal self are constructed illusions, then we should ask “Who is observing this illusion?” … [We] must not accept the panicking fear, of most philosophers and probably cognitive scientists, that any theory must exorcise any implied “ghost of agency”. Theories that avoid any “ghost” have not successfully or convincingly explained the unity of conscious experience and the experience of conscious control of voluntary acts. Postulating a subjective “ghost” need not be incompatible with the laws of nature, as Schroedinger pointed out…The conscious mental field (CMF), that I have postulated to account for the unity of experience and an active role for conscious intention to act, could be viewed as a sort of “ghost”. However, it is supposed to emerge from suitable natural activities of cerebral neurons, but with *de novo* properties not evident in the physical neural elements from which it derived. Some people may wish to call this dualism, but let us not be frightened off by name calling. The CMF does not represent the dualism of Descartes, who described the mind as a separable substance. My CMF proposal is of course very speculative. But I do not know of any existing evidence that contradicts the proposal, and, furthermore, it is amenable to a direct experimental test of its validity.

Benjamin Libet — the leading neuroscientist in the study of the mind-brain relationship — explicitly rejected strict materialism, and invoked a “ghost of agency” — property dualism — to explain subjective experience.

Wrong. Egnor just completely misrepresented Libet’s position. Read his full post. Egnor is glossing over the very meaningful differences between what he is calling Libet’s “property” dualism, and his own cartesian dualism. Egnor is defending the position that there is something other than the brain that partly causes the mind. Libet is saying that the brain causes the mind, but through a higher-order physical process that is more than the simple function of neurons communicating with each other.

Egnor did the exact same thing to David Chalmers, citing him as support for his form of dualism when Chalmers specifically rejects it, and instead was simply referring (as Libet is) to a higher order and as-yet undiscovered property of the physical brain causing mind.

The real debate that is going on among consciousness experts is whether or not subjective consciousness can be thought of as simply an emergent property of brain function (the information processing and communication of some brain cells – the position of Daniel Dennet and the argument that I find most compelling), or does some new type of higher-order phenomenon (yet still materialist and centered in the brain) have to be invoked.

And yet Egnor has the temerity to bristle when I characterize his incoherent and self-contradictory ramblings and intellectually dishonest.  Despite the fact that Egnor desperately tried to dodge the point that the strong correlation between brain function and mind is extremely compelling evidence that the brain causes mind, he could not avoid being damaged by the flak of this “shattered pillar of denial.”

Confusing the question of how the brain causes mind with if the brain causes mind.

As I have pointed out already, Egnor consistently confuses the question of how the brain causes mind with if the brain causes mind. In the “dualism of the gaps” pillar, Egnor gets the gap wrong – he is filling in the wrong gap. In the “correlation” pillar, Egnor misrepresents discussion about how the brain causes mind with doubt as to whether the brain completely causes mind.

We may not know exactly how evolution works (although we have a pretty good idea), but the evidence that evolution occurred is overwhelming. By the same token there is much debate about how the brain creates conscious subjective experience, but this is a separate question from that of does the brain cause the mind.

I have argued that the evidence strongly supports that it does. That was the basis of my famous quote that Egnor can’t seem to get over that every prediction that flows from the hypothesis that brain causes mind has been validated. I have numerous times given the specific list – all the ways in which brain function correlates with mind function and that the arrow of causation appears to go from brain to mind, not the other way around. Change the brain, you change the mind. You can reliably produce a subjective experience by poking the brain (physically, electrically, chemically).

As is typical, Egnor once again fails to address this point. Instead he side-steps it.

Dr. Novella elides the central problem with strict materialism in the mind-brain problem. The first question isn’t “how the brain causes the mind” or “does the brain cause the mind.” The primary question is this:

can the brain cause the mind?

He then  reiterates a failed point he has been harping on in numerous posts.

In order to subject a theory to empirical test, it must first be logically coherent. Materialism fails as logic. What does it mean to say, “The brain causes subjective experience”? There is nothing about the physical scientific description of the brain that invokes subjectivity. The salient qualities of the mind — free will, restricted access and incorrigibility, qualia, intentionality, persistence of self over time, and unity of consciousness — are not properties of matter.

This strategy is very similar to the strategy of some creationists to say that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. Forget arguing about all the fossil and genetic evidence – I can slay evolution with a single logical stroke.  Egnor hopes to replicate the single-stroke method with his argument above.

Of course, it completely fails. Egnor has not even come close to proving that the brain cannot cause the mind. He is retreating to a rather unsophisticated and quaint philosophical position – which essentially amounts to the position that there is no higher order properties of matter. A rock cannot have subjective experience, therefore neither can a brain – because subjective experience is not an inherent property of matter itself. Hogwash.

It is ironic that he cites Libet and Chalmers for defense of his dualism, since their position is premised on matter having higher order function that cannot be reduced to the property of matter itself. Now Egnor is rejecting that position (an example of Egnor’s shoot-from-the-hip ad-hoc rationalization).

I already answered Egnor’s point about matter here:

But the brain is not static matter, like ink. The brain is a dynamic organ. It is alive. It can use energy to do stuff, like process information, communicate with itself, receive outside stimulation, and even activate itself.

Egnor responded in a separate post:

Of course all sorts of things are living and “use energy to do stuff” — my kidney for example, but are not imputed to have intentionality. Living matter is still matter (unless one is a proponent of vitalism), and “using energy to do stuff” gets us nowhere with the problem of intentionality. My car uses energy to do stuff.

Egnor is confusing “necessary” with “sufficient.” I never said that “using energy to do stuff” was a sufficient criterion for consciousness – only that it was necessary. Rocks and ink lack the basic necessary properties to have consciousness, so it is absurd to say that a brain cannot do what they cannot.

I also mentioned that the brain can process information, receive sensory input, and communicate with and activate itself. Kidneys and cars cannot do that, so that analogy is absurd and misleading.

But I will even do Egnor one step better – all of the additional properties I mention are also, by themselves, necessary but not sufficient for consciousness. By example, the cerebellum is alive, it uses energy, it processes information, receives input, and communicates with itself. It is also about as complex as the cortex. Yet the cerebellum is not conscious.

Parts of the brain appear to contribute to consciousness and other parts do not appear to do so. They all have the properties I listed above. So what’s the difference? That is a very interesting question, and I do not pretend to have the answer to it.  Yes – this is a current gap in our understanding.

But as I stated above – we have lots of information that leads to the conclusion that certain parts of the brain are necessary for consciousness. Being necessary for consciousness is a very strong indication that their function contributes to consciousness, and taken together they are consciousness. There are interesting and viable theories about what exactly is different about those parts of the brain that contribute to consciousness. I think it has something to do with attention – which parts of the brain are actively participating in a self-generating loop of receiving and manipulating information.

But clearly it is more complex than that. At this point, we simply don’t know. But it is an active area of research. That does not translate into, as Egnor wants you to believe, that materialist neuroscience is “collapsing”, anymore than disputes over the mechanism of evolution means evolutionary theory is “collapsing.”

But Egnor still wants is knock-out punch. He writes:

Materialism can’t explain subjective first-person experience, because materialism posits the existence of only third-person objective things.

Here he is just assuming his conclusion – materialism cannot explain subjective experience because it doesn’t.  Materialism itself, however, does not have any a-priori stance toward subjective experience. That is the very question we are debating –  can brain function explain consciousness? Obviously I think consciousness is part of materialism.


Egnor is simply going around in logical circles. He contradicts his own positions, misrepresents the true debate and the position of others, and fails to properly address my criticisms of his points. He has done nothing to deflect my smashing of the pillars of his incoherent position.

I recently learned the word casuistry, which means:

Specious or excessively subtle reasoning intended to rationalize or mislead.

I cannot think of a more perfect description of Egnor’s writing. He does nicely demonstrate, however, how the strategies of the creationist/ID movement can be grafted onto the question of the mind and brain.

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