Dec 02 2008

The Mind of Egnor

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Comments: 43

Our favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, must have had some free time last week. He wrote a spate of blog entries at Evolution News & Views, each one more absurd than the last. Including this one where he serves up a six pack of logical fallacies about the mind and materialism.

And yet he still has not had time to write his promised follow up on Terri Schiavo. He essentially challenged me to a blog-off on this issue, and I obliged. I am still waiting for his response that he claimed he would post in “a week or so” five months ago.

Anyway, he seems to be the designated hitter for the Discovery Institute’s new ventures into neuroscience – their next frontier of anti-materialist propaganda (because the evolution-denial thing is going so well). Egnor has done two things with this most recent post. The first is to string together a series of outrageous logical fallacies in an attempt to argue that the brain cannot entirely cause the mind. The second is to simply co-opt the language of legitimate skepticism and graft it onto his point of view. It fits as well as a nun’s habit on a vulgar construction worker.

Previously he tried to argue that while the brain “correlates” with observable mental activity, it does not entirely cause it. He makes what is essentially a god-of-the-gaps argument – any uncertainty in our current ability to image brain activity or to quantify mental activity, that is the part of the mind that is not caused by brain activity.  What he has failed to do, however, is show that there is ever any observable mental activity without corresponding brain activity, or that these two things do not correlate within the limits of our current ability to measure both.

He fails to recognize that this battle has already been fought and lost within the scientific arena. Over a century ago the vitalists argued that whatever was not currently understood about biology – that was the role of the vital life force. But eventually our knowledge of biological processes squeezed out any need for a vital force – it simply became unnecessary. The same thing is happening (in fact has happened) with neuroscience. As our knowledge of brain function increases, it is squeezing out any role for a non-material ghost in the machine. A non-material cause of mind is as unnecessary as a vital force.

Egnor is now taking a different tactic – he argues that there are six features of the mind that are incompatible with matter as the sole and ultimate cause. He begins with “intentionality”, about which he writes:

Intentionality is the “aboutness” or meaning of a mental state, the ability of a mental state to refer to something outside of itself. Ink on paper has no meaning unless it is conferred by a mind, which wrote it or read it. Matter may have intentionality only secondarily (“derived intentionality”). The problem of intentionality is believed by many philosophers of the mind to be the most serious challenge to materialism. “Meaning” is imparted to matter by a mind; matter isn’t the source of meaning. Therefore matter (brain tissue) can’t be the entire cause of the mind.

Yeah. It’s that bad – and it gets worse. If that’s the greatest challenge to materialism, then materialism is doing just fine. His argument is entirely based upon a false analogy. Ink on a page is matter, and it has no meaning without a mind to interpret it. Therefore, he concludes, the material brain can have no intention without a non-material mind.

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, however, would have you believe that claiming these functions of the brain, when taken together, constitute the mind is the same thing as believing that a rock has inherent intention within its inert matter.

Yep – that’s all he’s got.

Next he discusses “qualia”.

Qualia is subjective experience, which is first person ontogeny. You can describe pain, using science or literature or whatever. But the experience of pain is something qualitatively different. There is nothing in science which infers subjectivity — no “Newton’s Fourth Law” by which objective matter produces subjective experience. No material law or principle invokes subjectivity, yet subjectivity is the hallmark of the mind.

This is just a non-sequitur. There is very little in science that reduces down to a specific law. His argument, in fact, is a good example of using hyperreductionism as a straw man. There is higher-order complexity in the natural world – emergent phenomena that are more than the sum of their parts, that cannot be reduced to fundamental laws. Consciousness is one of those things.

He also incorrectly uses the term “infer” here. It is true that we cannot measure subjective experience. But we can infer its existence by the behaviors it produces (and from our own subjective experience). We can also say that there is no evidence of subjective experience existing without corresponding brain activity.

What Egnor is actually saying is that anything we cannot directly measure (even if we can infer it) does not exist, and therefore we should attribute any of its effects to non-material magic. By this logic quarks cannot exist, so atoms must be made of pixie dust.

He descends further:

We are the same person throughout our lives, despite a continual turn-over of matter in our brains. The matter that constitutes your brain today is different matter, for the most part, than the matter that constituted your brain ten years ago. Furthermore, your brain matter is organized differently now than it was ten years ago. Yet your sense of identity, which is a fundamental characteristic of minds, is continuous over time. You are you, despite profound changes in brain matter and organization. What property then is the “same” that accounts for you being the same?

That’s right – this guy’s a brain surgeon.  What makes you you is not the particular matter in your brain. On that we can agree. You can swap out every atom and molecule in your brain without changing yourself.

Egnor runs into profound problems, however, when he claims that there are profound changes in brain organization over time. “Profound” is a vague term, but he implies that the changes to the brain’s organization are greater than the changes to your personal identity.  He has absolutely no basis for this claim, however.

In fact the pattern of organization within the brain – the way in which neurons are connected to each other – is exactly what determines your personality and identity. That pattern is relatively stable over time. Has he never compared serial MRI scans of a patient’s brain? Your brain at 35 looks pretty much the same as your brain at 25. There are no “profound” changes. Of course, there are many differences at the microscopic level of synapses, dendrites, and axons – differences that reflect a decade of experiences and maturity. You are different at 35.

As we mature from childhood to adulthood our brains change significantly, but then so do our personalities and identities. We change as our brain changes. If we survive to old age then our brains will likely atrophy and may develop tangles and other marks of senility – and our mental abilities and personality will change too.

Egnor is trying to claim – against all evidence – that our brains are undergoing profound changes while we are not. In fact this is a strong line of evidence for the materialist theory that mind is brain function – brain changes correlate with mental changes within our ability to measure both.

He makes another leap:

Restricted access means that I, and only I, experience my thoughts first-hand. I can choose to describe them to others, and others may be able to explain better than I some of the ramifications of my thoughts, but only I experience them. … Matter does not have this property, and therefore matter cannot be the entire cause of our thoughts.

This is just the same false analogy – treating brain activity like inert matter.  Only a brain can experience its own activity. So what? And this is only true in a limited and self-evident manner – it says nothing about whether or not brain activity is mind. If the brain does cause mind then this is only a current technical limitation. It is not impossible in principle (as his argument requires) for one brain to communicate its experiences directly to another. Technology may someday allow this.

He tries to anticipate this argument it seems when he writes:

Even a lie-detector machine or a functional MRI doesn’t permit other people to experience my thoughts; they are merely material expressions of my brain activity, akin to speech. This is entirely unlike matter.

Non sequitur.  How is this unlike matter? I can’t experience your thoughts because they are produced by the activity of your brain. But if I could create a direct connection somehow, then I could experience your thoughts (admittedly in a limited way – because I would be experiencing them with my brain, which is different than your brain).

In other words – this notion of “restricted access” as it exists is completely consistent with materialist consciousness.

Number five is a re-tread of number four:

Incorrigibility, which is related to restricted access, means the unassailable knowledge of one’s own thoughts. If I am thinking of the color red, no one can credibly refute that fact.

Right – your brain experiences its own activity. Got it. Next…

If the mind is entirely caused by matter, it is difficult to understand how free will can exist. Matter is governed by fixed laws, and if our thoughts are entirely the product of brain chemistry, then our thoughts are determined by brain chemistry. But chemistry doesn’t have “truth” or “falsehood,” or any other values for that matter. It just is.

Egnor spins the logical fallacy wheel and comes up with…tautology.  His argument is that materialism cannot explain free will, and free will exists, therefore materialism is wrong. But he assuming that free will exists – and not only free will, but a particular concept of free will that is incompatible with materialism. So he is saying that if a type of free will that is incompatible with materialism exists, then materialism is wrong, and we know that type of free will exists because materialism is wrong. See?

The philosophical debate about free will is beyond the scope of this article. Briefly, there are those who believe that free will, in fact, does not exist. Others feel that materialism can account for free will. And this discussion depends largely on how you define free will. What is clear is that there is no demonstrable phenomenon, whether you call it free will or not, that rules out pure materialism as a cause of mind.

That’s Egnor’s six bogus arguments against materialism – essentially they all come down to treating the brain as if it were a lump of clay. But his logical shortcomings are not over. He then gives us another logical contradiction.

Of course, on reflection, we wouldn’t expect neuroscience to have important things to say about the material/immaterial nature of the mind. Neuroscience studies correlations between material events and behaviors, which are third-person objective phenomena; it has provided no explanation for subjective-first person processes, which is the essential quality of the mind. The assertion that neuroscience demonstrates the material nature of the mind is an ideological assertion, a misuse of neuroscience to serve a tenuous materialist agenda.

In Wolfgang Pauli’s deathless phrase, the materialist explanation of the mind ”isn’t even wrong.” It’s superstitious nonsense. Materialism can’t explain the mind, because the salient characteristics of mental states — intentionality, qualia, persistence of self-identity, restricted access, incorrigibility, and free will — do not admit material explanations.

He clearly failed to support the claim that he is now using as a premise – that materialism is incompatible with these six features of the mind.  But beyond a false premise, he gets caught in several interesting contradictions here.

I wonder if Egnor realizes that I used the “isn’t even wrong” argument against his position months ago. But he does not seem to understand what this means, beyond being a pithy-sounding phrase. First he says materialism is “not even wrong”, then he says that it’s wrong. I am not nitpicking here – this reveals a major logical problem in his entire essay. He is shifting back and forth between claiming that materialism is outside the realm of science and is wrong within the realm of science – but he confuses these two positions (as he does above), which are at times mutually exclusive.

He starts out by saying that neuroscience cannot even address the material/non-material question of mind, because it is restricted to studying material events and behaviors. In other words, scientific methods are restricted to methodological naturalism – where have I heard that before.  If his premise is true, then within the realms that science can investigate the materialist hypothesis works just fine. There are no contradictions, no measurable phenomena that cannot be explained within materialist neuroscience.

On the one hand he argues that neuroscience does not even deal with the phenomena he says it cannot explain, and then he concludes that materialism is “nonsense” because it does not explain the things it does not deal with. If he wanted to be at least internally consistent (or intellectually honest), then he should argue that neuroscience works within a materialist paradigm, and that it is consistent and workable within that paradigm. But that there are phenomena that cannot be explored by science that require a philosophical/spiritual approach.  But then he couldn’t call materialism “superstitious nonsense.”

Of course, this argument is not sound either because it is based on a false premise – his six mental features not explained by neuroscience. As I detailed above, these features are not incompatible with materialism. They are not even outside the realm of materialism, once you realize that the brain is a living functioning organ and not a rock (did I mention this guy operates on brains).

Here is his irony-laced conclusion:

Superstition is “a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.“ The foundation of the scientific revolution is the repudiation of the inference that matter has will, emotions and desires.

Egnor should be familiar with maintaining notions despite contradictory evidence.  His following hyperbole is laughable. Really? The foundation of the scientific revolution? Clearly he does not understand the nature of science or its history. And, as is often the case with Egnor, the insertion of a little word could make sense out of his nonsense – inert matter has no will or emotions. Living matter clearly does.

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