Jan 15 2009

Sorry, Egnor, Your Pillars Are Still Shattered

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Comments: 76

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.

76 responses so far

76 thoughts on “Sorry, Egnor, Your Pillars Are Still Shattered”

  1. mannik5000 says:

    What a maroon.

  2. calinthalus says:

    Let me see if I follow this. According to the dualist philosophy, since consciousness is not a property of matter, matter cannot contain consciousness…regardless of the structure of said matter?

    How do they know that consciousness is not a property of matter? Since consciousness, or a sense of self is strictly subjective, how can you prove that a rock isn’t conscious?

    Back up. How do we demonstrate that a man has qualia? He moves, speaks, thinks etc. All of these observations we make are of his matter. You cannot see a soul, so how can you say a rock doesn’t have qualia…it just cannot be expressed in an observable fashion?

    Otherwise, if your proof of the existence of someone else’s qualia is based on observances, how can you say it isn’t a property of matter…since matter is all you can observe? This strikes me as tautological.

  3. sonic says:

    Dr. N, It seems Egnor’s main point is that there is no reasonable mechanism to create the effect that you claim is created (mind from matter). You often claim that science needs a plausible mechanism, but in this case you may not realize that you are arguing against that notion. This seems to go against all your thinking and argumentation regarding evidence-based medicine and science in general.

    You maybe unaware that what Egnor is advocating (interactive dualism) is in fact the basis for modern physics.

    Here is how a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley labs- has explained it to me recently
    “So within QM thinking, and also Cartesian philosophy, and also
    deep-seated intuition, our free will stands in some sense outside the
    “external” physical world, but can influence it via its “free” choices.
    You may not be completely satisfied with this way of thinking, but it works well in quantum mechanics, and it is where the physicists are coming from.”

    The main reasons for disallowing dualism in science are historical and are well covered by Dennett in “Consciousness Explained”. But his section titled “Why dualism is forlorn” would be better titled “Allow me to demonstrate my ignorance of physics”.

    I appreciate the position of the materialist and the desire for ‘all to be one’. But what Egnor is advocating (some sort of inter-active dualism) is actually more in keeping with physics as it is understood and practiced by actual physicists working today. This does not mean it is correct, but it should not be rejected based on ‘science’ (as our most experimentally validated science is in fact ‘interactive dualist’).

  4. Michelle B says:

    How does the non-materialist part of the duality approach work? Can I say that Thor imbues me with a mind that exists separately from my body? Or any other kind of spiritual being? When does my insisting that my mind comes from a spiritual source become a problem? When does it mean that I am insane? These fools do not get it, do they? And he is a neurosurgeon? Sigh.

    All Egnor is doing is being an intellectually dishonest fool. However, your responses–though wasted on the fool–are excellent in terms of educating others, like me, who are eager to improve their understanding of emergent properties.

  5. sonic – My position is that dualism is unnecessary, which is different than saying it is wrong. Also – Egnor is trying to argue that it is impossible for the brain to create the mind, but his arguments fail on a logical basis.

    I disagree with your interpretation of physics. Of interest, I just interviewed Michio Kaku last night (you can hear it on an upcoming episode of the SGU) and he expressly disagreed with your position. QM does not allow for the non-physical causes you are talking about.

    I think you are cherry picking your physicists.

  6. Hmm, one side admits limited knowledge and honors and follows the evidence. The other side selects out perceived supportive data, misrepresents perceived authority, points at knowledg gaps and declares “here there be gods!”, and pretzels it all up with incredibly twisted attempts at logic. Hmm.

  7. superdave says:

    Dr. Egnor’s arguments just suck, plain and simple.

  8. Chris Noble says:

    Here is how a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley labs- has explained it to me recently

    You are presumably talking about Henry Stapp.

    His views about consciousness and quantum mechanics are not held by a majority or even a significant number of physicists.

    Importantly Heisenberg and Bohr did nor share Stapp’s views. Your comments about the foundation of modern physics being dualistic is unfounded.

    Stapp is entitled to his own personal view but he is not entitled to speak for physics or physicists.

  9. Steve Page says:

    By “busy little beaver”, I assume that you are using the slang term, which is remarkably apropos when referring to Egnor.

  10. CKava says:

    Sonic> Got agree with Chris Noble. After having a long discussion with my physicist brother on the issue I can say that at least in his opinion the position you outline is not mainstream in modern physics.

  11. Michael Hutzler says:

    Matter acquires new properties in increasingly complex arrangements. An atom in isolation does not have all the properties of an atom in a molecule or a structural arrangement such as a crystal, metal or semiconductor. The semiconductors in his computer switch based on properties that are not found in the individual atoms. Either there is a dualism in his computer or Occam’s razor becomes ignored only when convenient.

  12. RickK says:

    The human body and brain, the natural world, the universe around us – it’s all so damned amazing. You don’t have to introduce magic to make it interesting.

    So many people only seem interested in the made up magic they can wish into the world, and aren’t really interested in the world itself.

  13. sonic says:

    Ckava, Chris Noble,

    1) I know of no description of physics that actually works that does not involve a mind-matter or observer-observed or knower-known duality.
    I would not mind if such an intepretation exists.
    What is it? (I’ve looked high and low for one…)
    (Michio Kaku is a string theory specialist. String theory does not work. Why would the opinion of a guy who is working on a theory that does not work take precidence over what actual scientists do everyday to run experiments? Read any actual experiment. See how it is analyzed.)
    Again, if you know of such a theory or intepretation PLEASE LET ME KNOW!!!

    2) I’m not suggesting that I know one is correct and the other not. What I am suggesting is that there is room in science for both. There are lots of questions as to how matter becomes mind (notice that nobody has an answer to that) and there is ample evidence for all sorts of experiences that are best described as ‘spiritual’.
    Different people seem to see different evidence.
    This is a good thing.

  14. Chris Noble says:

    I know of no description of physics that actually works that does not involve a mind-matter or observer-observed or knower-known duality.


    Most interpretations do not have a role for an observer.

    The originators of the Copenhagen interpretation did not believe this.

    Heisenberg is quite clear in “Physics and Philosophy” that he does not believe that the conscious mind influences the atoms that are observed. The “collapse” of the wave function is not a description of an objective change in the particle but merely the observers knowledge of it.

    Likewise Bohr states in Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge:
    “It is certainly not possible for the observer to influence the events which may appear under the conditions he has arranged”

    The founding fathers of quantum mechanics did not propose the “what the bleep do you know” interpretation.

  15. eiskrystal says:

    – 1) I know of no description of physics that actually works that does not involve a mind-matter or observer-observed or knower-known duality. –

    Oh i see, physics just stops happening when you aren’t around then. Sigh, the media have a lot to answer for over the QM observational effect.

  16. I am disturbed by the unscientific nature of this debate. I agree with Libet that something is unexplained about mind (see The Nature of the Soul. I also agree with Novella that there is a scientific explanation for the explanatory gap. However, Novella’s arguments are not very convincing and on the basis of this debate I might “vote” for Egnor.

    Novella’s suggestion that emergentism of some kind will resolve the debate is probably true but not very helpful. All of science deals with the form of phenomena (ie: the geometrical relationships between things) so proposing an emergent solution is the same as proposing a scientific solution.

    Novella’s support of Dennett’s extraordinary theory that mind may occur in a “logical space” rather than a physical space seems odd. Dennett’s theory is extraordinary because there is no information without physical representation so Dennett is a closet dualist! Do you (Novella) really support dualism? (See review of Dennett’s philosophy in the Wikibook on Consciousness.

    The real problem here is Whitehead’s old chestnut of the use of “Alexandrian” ideas in philosophy of mind (see Whitehead’s Concept of Nature: time.

    Those who support “materialism” are actually supporting a pre-twentieth century physical understanding. Modern physics allows non-material effects such as space-time curvature and magnetic attraction as a result of electrons occupying a new slice of space-time when they move. (You can see this in the comments above where quantum theory is discussed in the context of a 3D Euclidean space and no mention is made of quantum field theory that combines modern ideas of space-time with QM.)

    Those who support dualism are also applying Alexandrian ideas, finding them wanting and simply declaring that therefore “science” cannot provide any answers (see Dualism is a physical problem.

  17. john – you seem to be using a very narrow definition of “materialism”. I am not proposing that matter is all there is. In fact, the kind of matter that makes up people is only about 5% of the universe (as far as we know, it may be less). There is also energy, dark matter, and dark energy. There may be things yet undiscovered.

    If we discover that Chalmers is right – that there is something else going on that does not reduce to neurons, so be it. That still is not the dualism that Egnor is talking about – the word “dualism” is sufficiently broad to allow Egnor to create confusion by enlisting naturalistic dualists to allegedly support his spiritual dualism.

    My position is that of operational naturalism – scientific ideas must be scientific – they must be testable. That’s it. But, of course, that does not fit the DiscoTute’s “materialist ideologue” script.

  18. “DiscoTute”….. Har, lol.

  19. Gated Clock says:

    I think I’ll start the Divide-By-Zero Institute.
    what the hell….

  20. Gated Clock says:

    Here’s Egnor, looking puzzled…..

    something’s wrong. what could it be?


  21. Fifi says:

    RickK – “The human body and brain, the natural world, the universe around us – it’s all so damned amazing. You don’t have to introduce magic to make it interesting.
    So many people only seem interested in the made up magic they can wish into the world, and aren’t really interested in the world itself.”

    I agree but most people seem to be interested (well the tenacious beliefs mostly) in made up magic because the real world scares them and made up magic allows them to feel more in control or as if their life has meaning beyond just to themselves. Well, that and being dissatisfied with the reality of their lives makes fantasy attractive. Add in that it’s a form of play and most people don’t integrate much play in their lives (being entertained isn’t playing) and it’s quite easy to see the appeal. (Personally I enjoy playing and make-believe and “what if?” – “what if?” being a game lots of people into science play 😉 – I just like to be aware of what is make-believe and what isn’t! 🙂

  22. Eric Thomson says:

    Thos interested in consciousness should read Chalmers’ article Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness. Nobody is representing his view well. He doesn’t believe in Cartesian dualism, but he also doesn’t think consciousness is a feature of brains (whether lower level or higher level emergent). He doesn’t have a positive story really, but when he has speculated he thinks conscious experience is a fundamental property of the universe that can’t be derived from any combination of matter or neurons.

    Eignor is clever to focus on the fact that we both have gaps in our knowledge. And as I’ve said before, unlike the case of evolution we don’t have a potential mechanism in place like natural selection. We (neuroscientists) have little positive to say about how neural processes are related to the subjective (“first person” as some people like to say) aspect of consciousness.

    Of course we know they are related. Everyone sane agrees to the correlations. It is the explanation of the correlations where the disagreements start. I discussed this topic here.

    Instead of coming off too strong here, just admit there are questions, and we’ll see in 50 years who looks more reasonable. I guess that would be easier to do if the Egnor-types displayed such restraint and intellectual honesty.

  23. David Weisman says:

    [quote= Egnor]Materialism can’t explain subjective first-person experience, because materialism posits the existence of only third-person objective things.[/quote]

    Hiding in the gaps, as you said. We don’t know how empiricism will explain our unitary experience, but of course, that’s hardly the same as saying that empiricism can’t.

    Spiritualism (let’s not fool ourselves, the anti-thesis of the materialist position are is a dualism that doesn’t credit the brain for much) has much deeper explanatory problems. They can’t explain the simplest aphasia, dementia, neglect, or agnosia. The explanatory powers of spiritualism consists of nothing, so this charge is at the height of idiocy.

  24. TheBlackCat says:

    @ Gated Clock: I don’t think that is a very good idea:


  25. pec says:

    “Spiritualism (let’s not fool ourselves, the anti-thesis of the materialist position are is a dualism that doesn’t credit the brain for much)”

    The brain, like the body, is essential for our earthly existence. So I would say it gets a lot of credit. You can’t see without eyes, or without a visual cortex.

    “They can’t explain the simplest aphasia, dementia, neglect, or agnosia.”

    Language and memory, in this world, depend on a functioning brain. That doesn’t mean the brain actually creates the ideas that it allows us to express in language.

    The brain is an interface that connects the mind (whatever the mind is; we do not know) with the body.

    The Discover article I linked to suggests that life, mind and brain are all a lot more complicated than most biologists have ever imagined.

  26. Fifi says:

    pec – You’re the one pushing simplistic ideologies, biologists are busy applying themselves to understanding more about the complexity of biology (neruobiologists to the complexity of neurological biology) and readily acknowledge that there is much more to be investigated and understood regarding biology in general. You’re also the one leaping to put God into the gaps that biologists are quite content to admit are gaps (but you’re not, you see and promote them as proof of spiritualism).

  27. pec says:

    There is nothing simplistic about anything I said. I do not claim to know how life began and evolved — unlike materialists such as Dawkins, who do claim to know. I believe that matter is an expression of mind, while you materialists believe mind is a by product of matter.

    There is nothing simplistic or unscientific about my belief.

    Yours on the other hand — the belief that mind is created by matter — is a gigantic assumption based on ideology, rather than scientific evidence.

    The idea that matter is an expression of mind looks increasingly plausible, to those of us whose minds are still open.

  28. sonic says:

    Chris Noble-
    Thank-you for trying. I asked for something that works- what you have is a list that includes things that don’t.
    What I am suggesting is that the ‘orthodox’ interpretation as is actually used by experimental physicists is essentially dualistic. I realize that there are many theories and philosophical musings. There are many ways this duality presents- it does not have to mean ‘spiritual’ beings.
    Certainly we could agree that consciousness (whatever that may be) seems to have an effacacious role in the world in which we live.
    I know of no test for consciousness (do you?) and this is what the problem seems to stem from.
    Perhaps Bohr’s ‘complimentary’ is the more appropriate way to discuss this.

  29. David Weisman says:

    “The brain, like the body, is essential for our earthly existence. So I would say it gets a lot of credit. You can’t see without eyes, or without a visual cortex.”

    Agreed so far.

    “Language and memory, in this world, depend on a functioning brain. That doesn’t mean the brain actually creates the ideas that it allows us to express in language.

    “The brain is an interface that connects the mind (whatever the mind is; we do not know) with the body.”

    1. Well, that’s fine if you assume you have a soul. But that’s your assumption. This sort of argument might work with a member of your church theology group, but it won’t find traction here. The fallacy is called begging the question. Look it up.

    2. The fact that “ideas” (in addition to vision, language, motor functions, memories, and all the rest of our worldly experience) do depend on a functioning brain speaks strongly to the apparent fact that the brain does indeed generate them. An unbiased look at neuroscience with no preconceived ideas does not lead one to posit the idea that the brain is an interface. It leads one to believe that brains cause minds. The idea here is called Occham’s razor. Look it up.

    3. Your brain has forgotten the issue at hand. Spiritualism does not posses any explanatory power, so must pretend to get real by putting on the two hats of dualism. And then you can use the material portion of dualism for some explanatory power. But the reason the spiritual side of dualism has no explanatory powers escapes you.

    4. Yes, the brain is complicated.

  30. Chris Noble says:

    What I am suggesting is that the ‘orthodox’ interpretation as is actually used by experimental physicists is essentially dualistic.

    The ‘orthodox’ interpretation used by experimental physicists is ‘shut up and calculate’. This interpretation is as effective as any other.

    If you are going to claim that this is inherently dualistic then it would be appropriate to present some evidence. There is no evidence that favours one interpretation over another. My personal opinion is that people like Henry Stapp (and Egnor) start with the assumption of dualism and insert it into the gaps in our knowledge. This tells us more about what Egnor and Stapp wish were true rather than anything about th ‘real’ world.

    Quantum mechanics is not inherently dualistic in the sense that Egnor and Stapp assert. The direct quote from Bohr should give you some clues.

    Perhaps you are confusing wave/particle duality with mind/body dualism.

  31. PaulG says:

    Pec said > “I do not claim to know how life began and evolved — unlike materialists such as Dawkins, who do claim to know.”

    Dawkins has never claimed to “know how life began”, as with any real scientist, he has said many times that he bases his interpretations of evolution on what he considers to be a “balance of probabilities”. Which, really, is all that anybody can do if they’re working with testable evidence.

    For example, (to put it in a very basic format) Dawkin’s refutation of God creating the universe, rationalising that a creator is (from all available evidence), more complex than the creation (in The God Delusion). This is – and he clearly states this – based on a balance of probabilities. He doesn’t claim to “know”.

    Pec said > “Yours on the other hand — the belief that mind is created by matter — is a gigantic assumption based on ideology, rather than scientific evidence.”

    Entirely untrue. For example, damage or influence very specific areas of the brain (matter) and you will get very specific effects in the way people think or remember.

    As Dr. Novella has pointed out on many occasions (elsewhere in this blog), scientific predications of how the mind will operate on the basis of physical manipulation of the matter, have been borne out by scientific evidence at every turn.

    How is this basing a belief on an ideology rather than evidence? The materialist approach, as with Dawkins previously, bases hypotheses and the theories which follow, on the balance of probabilities indicated by observable, testable, replicable experimentation.

    This is the scientific approach.

  32. pec says:

    “The fact that “ideas” (in addition to vision, language, motor functions, memories, and all the rest of our worldly experience) do depend on a functioning brain speaks strongly to the apparent fact that the brain does indeed generate them.”

    Yes and the fact that we need a visual cortex in order to see means the visual cortex generates all the images we see. Oh wait …

  33. pec says:

    [Dawkins has never claimed to “know how life began”,]

    Well then you have not read, or understood, him. And he “knows” with complete certainty how life evolved.

  34. PaulG says:

    Pec – “Well then you have not read, or understood, him. And he “knows” with complete certainty how life evolved.”

    That’s just patent nonsense. He has said repeatedly that he simply does not KNOW these things, but that he BELIEVES them to be true on the basis of evidence and probability.

    Now here’s what you misunderstand… a scientist may believe something to be true based upon evidence. For example…

    “I believe my mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) is inherited from my mother, because investigations have shown that each person’s mitochondria come from the cytoplasm of the mother’s egg and are not inherited from my father’s sperm.”

    I will continue to believe this, and espouse it firmly to be utter fact, because this evidence appears to be conclusive.

    However, if next week another scientist comes along and publishes an experiment, in a peer-reviewed, credible scientific journal, that is then picked up by scientists worldwide and replicated reliably, such that the consensus shows that my belief is untrue – or at least, “is a bit more complicated than that”, then I will be the first to stand up and proclaim, “Sorry, what I said was wrong, look at this new research! It’s great and shows that what we thought we knew was all wrong!”

    I’ll bet you next months salary I won’t be doing that, but that’s what probability is all about.

    Scientists do this. It’s the nature of science. It is how we learn and improve our knowledge.

    It is not an ideology that is based on a set belief system.

    I have read Dawkins, I have been lectured by him whilst an undergrad’ in the UK, I have been lectured by his peers (including a great-grandson of Charles Darwin himself, Francis William Darwin [1932-2001] at King’s College London), and I can tell you that each and every one will tell you, or would have when they were alive, that science is based on probabilities and not certainties.

    Dawkins is a scientist that has put forward some pretty cogent arguments and I don’t see many people offering much in the way of credible counter-arguments (in my opinion – I favour Dawkins over Gould for example); and if you can’t grasp the difference between “we know this because we have observed X, therefore I believe X+1 to be true”, as opposed to “we know this to be true because we believe Y”, then you have completely misunderstood the scientific method and it’s you that needs to do a bit more reading.

  35. TheBlackCat says:

    “Yes and the fact that we need a visual cortex in order to see means the visual cortex generates all the images we see. Oh wait …”

    There is very strong evidence of light in the absence of eyes. There is very strong evidence of pressure waves in the absence of ears. There is very strong evidence of air and food-borne chemicals in the absence of taste or smell. There is very strong evidence of solid objects in the absence of touch. But there is no evidence for thoughts or emotions in the absence of a brain. Do you see the difference here?

  36. cwfong says:

    Actually there is no evidence of images existing without some semblance of a brain. No brain, no mind and no “imagination.”

  37. HHC says:

    Neurologists and physicians frequently use impressionistic methods for evaluation of brain and behavioral relationships. This is different than the structured, standardized experimental testing procedures used in psychology.

  38. cwfong says:

    Consciousness is the experience of being alive. If you want to posit that it exists outside of life, you will be talking of something else entirely, having assumed without evidence that consciousness has come to you outside of your experience.
    All we can safely conclude is that there is no consciousness without life, just as there is arguably no life without some form of consciousness.
    There is almost surely no free-floating consciousness out there in the cosmos, quantum or otherwise. But perhaps conversely there are almost surely entities out there that are able to have some form of related experience.

  39. daedalus2u says:

    cwfong, are you saying that plants are conscious? Plants are certainly alive. Bacteria are certainly alive too. Are they conscious? If what you mean by “conscious” includes bacteria, then your definition is quite different than mine, and I think of most everyone else on this thread.

  40. cwfong says:

    daedalus, I thought you’d never ask!
    Plants, bacteria, etc, have sensory apparatus. These are where consciousness begins, or began, if you prefer. We don’t tend to connect our sense of consciousness to the feelings of “lower” life forms, but it didn’t just kick in with the evolution of the more sentient beings. All life forms have sensory experience. That’s where our more sophisticated form of consciousness comes from – although in our culture the inference would be that it comes from a creator and arrived at about the time our so-called souls became part of our human makeup.
    Which is why we prefer theories that see consciousness as a universal quality – or some sort of cosmic phenomenon. I’m confident that it’s not. Its nature is determined by the quality, depth, and breadth of an organism’s experience.
    I’m aware that few will agree with this. But what we call being “conscious” is only a part of the broad spectrum of consciousness or conscious experience. We have arbitrarily divided our sense of it from the way other creatures feel their experience. But our version or form of it is merely a step on a continuum. Just as our life itself is a form of the original version. If we didn’t spring from the wand of a creator, neither did our vestigial (if that’s the right word) consciousness.
    How it changed and grew is another story. But it did evolve, and I don’t think you will deny that was its genesis.

  41. daedalus2u says:

    So according to your definition of consciousness, anything with a sensory apparatus that can act based on that sensory apparatus is “conscious”?

  42. Fifi says:

    cwfong – “But what we call being “conscious” is only a part of the broad spectrum of consciousness or conscious experience. We have arbitrarily divided our sense of it from the way other creatures feel their experience. But our version or form of it is merely a step on a continuum. Just as our life itself is a form of the original version. If we didn’t spring from the wand of a creator, neither did our vestigial (if that’s the right word) consciousness.
    How it changed and grew is another story. But it did evolve, and I don’t think you will deny that was its genesis.”

    I tend to agree, we privilege human consciousness (though some cultures don’t nearly as much as ours does). Quite a lot of the idea that humans think and feel while other animals don’t comes from the Jewish/Christian/Muslim tradition that separates man from nature and attributes all positive, social human traits to the divine and all traits seen as “sin” to the devil (an animal or half human entity related to Pagan religions). Now, human consciousness seems to be one end of the spectrum but we are, now that some biases and prejudices have been dropped, discovering that many of the abilities and feelings we claimed solely for humans are shared by other mammals and creatures (including some human behaviors that we judged previously as “unnatural”).

  43. David Weisman says:

    “Yes and the fact that we need a visual cortex in order to see means the visual cortex generates all the images we see. Oh wait …”

    I’m still waiting to see if you can come up with a single thing dualism gives us in terms of explanatory power. You’ve just mentioned something that neuroscience explains: how we see. Keep up the good work, you’re making progress and soon you’ll make a good materialist.

  44. daedalus2u says:

    As I understand it, what dualism “explains” is why you should obey and give money to certain self-proclaimed experts in things which cannot be detected by any means.

  45. cwfong says:

    daedalus asks:
    “So according to your definition of consciousness, anything with a sensory apparatus that can act based on that sensory apparatus is “conscious”?”
    That’s not the logical conclusion that would follow from what I wrote, since not even we lofty humans are always conscious. But anything with a sensory apparatus that feels is conscious of that feeling. That’s where it all started.
    Otherwise why don’t you tell us your version of the onset of consciousness in life forms?

    By the way, “most everyone else on this thread” doesn’t include Fifi, whose concurring opinion is always gratifying.

  46. Fifi says:

    cwfong – Thanks for the flattery! I’m sure some other people see me agreeing with them as the kiss of death so it all balances out.;-) I’m certainly no expert so my opinion about evolution and consciousness shouldn’t be given much weight, it just seems to me that we discover more interesting things about being human and the natural world when we remember we’re just animals and let go of the religious ideas that have shaped much of our cultural perspective and beliefs about being human. We do ourselves a disservice when we forget we’re animals. (Though I suspect that part of the prejudice against considering “consciousness” in animals and even more simple life forms is that we have a hard time conceiving of consciousness as being anything but what we personally experience – with the concurrent assumption that other people experience the world just like we do, which is useful for empathy and communication but obviously untrue in many ways and can also lead to miscommunication and xenophobia.)

  47. cwfong says:

    Fifi, our problem may be that we are the first of the animals to have reached a stage where we are conscious of our consciousness. Thus we are the first to be perplexed by the phenomenon.

  48. I dunno. I spend a lot of time on the ocean off the NC coast, Outer Banks, Crystal Coast, etc., and all those dolphins I see are clearly contemplating something.

  49. cwfong says:

    They are contemplating each others navels rather than just their own.

  50. cwfong says:

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  51. pec says:

    We are animals, and we are conscious, and other animals are conscious. And the whole universe is conscious. But we don’t know what we mean by the word “conscious.”

  52. daedalus2u says:

    pec, if you don’t know what a term means, then you should not use it because you are not conveying any meaning when you do.

  53. cwfong says:

    Well, the word wouldn’t mean anything if the whole universe had that capacity or perspicacity. It involves life examining its own experience.
    It’s meant to differentiate life from inert matter by calling attention to that phenomena. If, as you seem to believe, the universe is also a feeling and purposive entity, you would do well to try to differentiate the nature of that feeling – to say it’s essentially identical to the sensation of being alive begs the question of how life is then different from non-life.
    You seem to prefer seeing the heretofore imponderable as having some supernatural origin. We surely don’t know what we mean when we use that as an explanation.

  54. pec says:

    A living, conscious, creative universe generates life, consciousness, creativity. A dead and mindless universe would not.

  55. cwfong says:

    Well pec, that’s just silly, as if something that could happen was the only explanation for what did happen, because in your view one of the alternatives could not have happened.
    But what does “dead” actually mean except the absence of the very life that the universe gave birth to? And arguably forms of life in the universe have existed somewhere as long as the cosmos itself. (Which may go back in “time” forever, but that’s another imponderable.)
    What we actually “know” is that the universe is replete with energy and that life is an energy system that, at least on earth, has evolved in that great randomness to replicate itself and find ways to adapt to all other energy systems in a survivable fashion.
    Energy serves no purpose for itself in doing this – what has happened could be described as retrospectively inevitable.
    And the form of energy that we are a part of, and that we call life, has not died. The only “death” of energy occurs at the end of a particular organism’s experience of being a part of life. And it’s a cessation of experience, not really a death of energy itself.
    Death is one of our human concepts. The universe is neither dead nor mindless, but if it has consciousness, it’s in the aggregate of sensed experience and not some amorphous universal quality.

    Of course you will persist in thinking otherwise, as your particular experience in the realm of the supernatural seems to have included a meaningful encounter with the hobgoblin of foolish consistency.

  56. sonic says:

    All living things need something outside of themselves to survive. (We all have to eat). All living things seem to be able to discern the difference between ‘me’ and ‘it’.
    Awareness of awareness might be the difference between what people consider conscious and ‘just aware’.

    It is not unreasonable to consider that the life-forms are just a means by which a consciousness can experience the physical.

  57. cwfong says:

    Whatever people consider consciousness to be, it’s an emergent property, not a source or infusion of energy. Life forms need a source for renewing loss of energy, and need their sensory apparatus in part to aid in finding the source safely and identifying it as safe, etc. When something is felt, we say they have become conscious of that feeling.

    We could say there is “recognition” of something, but that’s essentially describing the same phenomenon.

    I’m not sure how your scenario was meant to be carried out as there is nothing reasonable about positing such feelings as emanating from whatever the organism touched, smelled or sighted rather than from the mechanism all organisms have that assesses the totality of what its sensory apparatus picks up on.

    Or are you are saying that this consciousness was placed in life to cause or allow its sensory apparatus to be formed? Even sillier.

    Nature clearly has the potential to experience comsciousness, but frankly the idea that it has that quality in abeyance and purposely created life to experience it, knowing in its non-existent gut that life had it to offer, is patently ridiculous.

    You need to ask yourself why you want to believe what would be completely improbable absent some need you aren’t fully aware of that requires it to be probable.

  58. ddr says:

    It just all comes down to evidence.

    There is evidence that damage to the brain equals damage to that thing we call “self.” The damage that Alzheimer’s does to a brain not only takes away a person’s ability to recall facts and faces, it takes away the ability to reason and to interpret the world around them. It erodes consciousness; it erodes “self.”

    Materialism lets us look at damage done to the brain and make predictions about how that will effect consciousness and “self.”

    Dualism adds nothing. It gives no explanation to how Alzheimer’s can affect consciousness if it is something apart from the brain. It makes no testable predictions. It just offers some mystic missing piece that some people seem to need to make them feel better.

    If dualism is able to offer some testable predictions then they should do so. But up to this point their position seems to be “I can’t believe that that is all there is to it.”

    Show me the evidence. Evidence. Not philosophy.

  59. slayersaves89 says:

    @ Sonic

    But even if the brain was a quantum device it would still not indicate free will and also would not require the invocation of dualism.
    In QM a single outcome is not determined, but the probabilities for a certain set of outcomes are still determined. It is not just random crap, QM makes predictions that are staggeringly accurate and there is still no evidence of anything in the brain which has the ability to alter the set potential outcomes that the theory predicts. This discovery, if made, would indicate a degree of free will. But this does not seem likely to me.

    You seem to be defining free will as there being two or more potential outcomes to a situation. This means that anything which behaves quantum mechanically (photons for example) would have free will, which seems odd to me. I think a better definition of free will is there being two or more potential outcomes, and we have a choice between them, and QM does not give us choice, only probability.

  60. cwfong says:

    Whether we have a modicum of free will or not, our mechanisms requires us to make choices, and we are not free to choose not to make them.

  61. cwfong says:

    Should have chosen “require” not requires.

  62. sonic says:

    You think I don’t know these objections?
    Stenger has a book
    “Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes”
    From a review of the book-
    Is time really reversible? Physicist Victor Stenger say yes, arguing that at its deepest level reality is literally timeless. And, with this reality, it is possible that many universes exist with different structures and laws from our own.

    So it is OK with Victor that there are many universes operating on laws different from our own. He just doesn’t seem to like the idea that they can effect this one in anyway– Perhaps we live in different universes all ready—

    You can look at the work of Jeffrey Schwartz as a start.

    Thank-you for the sermon. I’m glad that ’emergence’ covers all currently difficult phenomena.
    I didn’t know.

  63. cwfong says:

    sonic, as usual you make assumptions from the littlest degree of evidence. The concept of emergence may be presently beyond your ken. Check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence

    After that, you might try to tackle this one:

  64. cwfong says:

    And sonic, I apologize for not having found any book review of the subject that would have been a more concise if not more credible source of information.

  65. HHC says:

    Humans: Brain functions include reasoning, judgment,abstraction, ability to analyze complexities, and communicative language skills.
    Lower animals: Brain functions are difficult to differentiate; language is limited.

  66. cwfong says:

    Demonstrating what? Differences in degree or some magical insertion of cosmic consciousness that differentiated us from the beasts forever?

  67. JimV says:

    I once asked Dr. Sean Carroll (the physicist) in a comment over at “Cosmic Variance” whether QM interpretation has any requirement for a conscious observer to “collapse” a wave function. I did not get a reply, perhaps because the question was too elementary for that blog, or worded poorly. My sense from posts there and other reading was that it did not. My great thanks go to Chris Noble (whose comments I have appreciated many times, here and elsewhere) for confirming that impression explicitly.

    (I also proposed a test to confirm my impression to at least first level. Run the classical two-slit diffraction test using automated equipment to count the photons a) going into each slit and b) hitting the target screen – but have the slit-counting turned on or off for different trials according to some random function whose results are unknown to the experimenters. Prior to looking at the screen-count results for the trials, erase all slit-counts from computer memory, and see whether the proportion of interference results to non-interference results matchs the expected statistics of the random function.)

  68. sonic says:

    Jim V-
    Does consciousness cause collapse?
    Here are a couple recent attempts to discern this–


    Apr 20, 2007
    Quantum physics says goodbye to reality

    Some physicists are uncomfortable with the idea that all individual quantum events are innately random. This is why many have proposed more complete theories, which suggest that events are at least partially governed by extra “hidden variables”. Now physicists from Austria claim to have performed an experiment that rules out a broad class of hidden-variables theories that focus on realism — giving the uneasy consequence that reality does not exist when we are not observing it (Nature 446 871).

    For more on this try:

    For a different type of experiment try-

    No problems. Emergence is a concept that I know and love. I do get tired of the ’emergence in the gaps’, however.
    What I meant earlier was that if you have two phenomena (a and b) that are strongly correlated you have these possibilities.
    a causes b.
    b causes a.
    c causes both a and b.
    So it is not unreasonable (that is it is inside of the logical reasoning we commonly use) to say that it is possible a ‘consciousness’ is the cause of both brain and mind.
    Of course it is also possible that our logic and current understanding is not fully up to the task of figuring out the truth 😉

  69. cwfong says:

    sonic writes:
    “What I meant earlier was that if you have two phenomena (a and b) that are strongly correlated you have these possibilities.
    a causes b.
    b causes a.
    c causes both a and b.”

    Except we often find that a and b have no meaningful common cause, and even when they do, have no meaningful common effects or purposes.

    Science is about probability You have introduced nothing to your consciousness scenario that makes being even partly a “cause” of brain and/or some ethereal mind either probable or even possible from a rational standpoint. You propose no mechanism, no operative structure, no suggestion of how we might test for it’s substantive existence, etc., etc., etc.

    The present understanding of consciousness as phenomena generated by our sensory apparatus is rational, reliable, and in that sense not only possibly but probably “true.”

    Our logic is quite capable of determining an exceptional degree of probability for virtually any conceivable proposition. What we lack is the capacity to conceive of every possible scenario. Which may explain why some come up with the essentially impossible as a filler.

  70. Eric Thomson says:

    sonic said:
    “What I meant earlier was that if you have two phenomena (a and b) that are strongly correlated you have these possibilities.
    a causes b.
    b causes a.
    c causes both a and b.”

    Other possibilities include:
    –a is identical to b (e.g., lightning is correlated with electrostatic discharge of a certain sort).
    –a influences b and vice-versa (e.g., voltage across a neuron and current through a potassium channel)

    I went through this here.

  71. Chris Noble says:

    Does consciousness cause collapse?
    Here are a couple recent attempts to discern this

    No they don’t.

    Your basic confusion stems from the “common sense” idea of an observation and that from physics.

    An observation is made using a photon or another quantum entity.

    The mind does not send out a “mindon” or any other imaginary part of conciousness to make the observation.

  72. aquademia says:

    What is it with neurosurgeons and dualism? I am reminded of the similar debate, half a century ago, between the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and the neurologist/psychiatrist Stanley Cobb.

  73. AgnosticBoy says:

    The article was good but a point of disagreement that I have is with Dr. Novella’s response to Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz neuroplasticity research. Dr. Novella claims that this research does not support dualism because it involves “brain activity [(thoughts, meditation, etc)] begetting other brain activity.”

    I find that Dr. Novella’s reply Dr. Schwartz neuroplasticity research to be unjustified for several reasons. First off, how does Dr. Novella justify his underlying assumption that subjective experience (consciousness) is ‘identical’ to brain activity as opposed to being a result of (emergence) of brain activity or even a correlation of such? Secondly, why is it so hard for some to fathom that there are certain mental properties that are indeed immaterial, in that they can not be observed?! As far as I can tell, the definition of subjectivity, mind, or consciousness, qualia, or whatever else you want to call it has been fleshed out through centuries of philosophical ramblings, and it stands that mental properties are distinct from physical properties and the FACT that we all experience them so we can’t deny their existence. Can scientists observe what I’m thinking of, like if I think of a good looking woman? Answering with brain correlates is NOT the same as the experience of a woman in my mind nor is it the same as the scientist knowing that I’m observing a woman as opposed to their observation of brain activity.

    Therefore, to accept neuroplasticity research as supporting mind-body dualism would take understanding what the mind means. If we can’t admit that the mind is not observable, and the fact that it’s causing changes in brain structure when influence is supposed to be the other way around, then we’re only blinding ourselves from the implication of neuroplasticity research.

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