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.

43 responses so far

43 thoughts on “The Mind of Egnor”

  1. Susanne says:

    Hi! I really enjoy your blog, and this entry in particular. The subject of dualism vs materialism has always been one of my favourite skeptical topics.. I can’t believe how ignorant Egnor is (no pun intended), and the blatant logical fallacies he uses. He *has* to know.. Incredible. And you nailed it as always.

  2. w_nightshade says:

    I have said it before, and I will say it again – I love watching you put Dr. Egnor in his place, one-sided though the fight may be.

    I think you should have your own comic book, with Dr. Egnor (and if that is not a super-villain name, I don’t know what is) as your nemesis. I would subscribe.

  3. I like the method of considering Egnor’s arguments in the spirit within which they are given while countering with excellent, focused criticism given with a high degree of personality.

    This combination allows the reader to actually understand Egnor as he portrays his own view while waiting [if only briefly] to incisively highlight the critical conceptual or factual error.

    I also wonder to myself….and perhaps you can explain this…how a brain surgeon would come to Egnor’s conclusions. If my knowledge base is correct, a brain surgeon would have a professional lifetime experiencing the direct connection between the material brain and the function of mind. It seems to me that one of the major foci of a brain surgeon is to limit collateral damage during surgery for the specific purpose of limiting an affectation in the patient’s mind.

  4. Skeptico says:

    Egnor writes:

    Matter may have intentionality only secondarily


    “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. (My bold)

    Two totally circular definitions.  The “therefore” I highlighted shows where his logic (such that it is) breaks down – his conclusion is stated in the premise.

    Most non-materialistic arguments are of this kind, in my experience.

  5. superdave says:

    Even for Egnor, that post was just lame. His arguments amount to “Oh Yeah?!”

  6. Aaron says:

    An analogy I think is useful for the mind/brain subject is to think of the mind as a company and brain cells as the people who work for the company. Just as people join and leave a company so do brain cells grow and die. Just as every person in a company can be replaced over time, including the CEO, president, etc, and the company is able to remain so can every cell in the brain be replaced over time with new cells and the mind is able to remain. Catastrophes can occur that could end the existence of the company or the mind yet the existence of the people or the brain cells would remain. Less catastrophic incidents in company personnel or the health of brain cells can effect the ability of the company or mind to perform it’s function. I think more similarities can be drawn from this analogy.

  7. Blake Stacey says:

    I am continually amazed by the professional creationist’s ability to multiply the truth by -1 and say the result with a straight face.

  8. superdave says:

    Aaron that is a good analogy. I think Egnor would respond to that by saying but companies have offices and make tangible products and exist in physical space while the mind doesn’t. Which of course totally misunderstands your analogy of course.

  9. mat alford says:

    These adversarial posts are great.

    Egnor’s argument would be pretty much dead in the water if only we knew that damage to the physical, material brain caused changes to the “mind” or “personality” of an individual….

    Oh, hang on…. We do know that. We know that very well.

  10. Magnus says:

    Hopefully many fence-sitters read debates like these. The leaders of the ID movement/dualists just egnor any refutation.

  11. MKandefer says:

    Hi Steve,

    Good post, I just have some criticisms and some questions. For the record, I believe the brain causes consciousness, and the knowledge we acquire through studying it will be enough to explain it. I’m also using this definition of emergentism:

    The position that “emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them”, and that emergent entities exist.

    You said,

    “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.”

    Are you suggesting that consciousness is more than the functioning brain? That is to say, that we cannot reduce/explain consciousness to/with hypercolumns, cortical columns, neurons, chemicals synapses, or pick your flavor of granularity; and the communication mechanism(s) between them? These things aren’t laws, but they are probably all the parts of consciousness.

    I’ve never been a proponent of emergentism, mostly because I’m not certain what really qualifies as an emergent system, and how we can tell it is one. A prototypical example of an emergent system, which I reject as one, is an ant colony. In this example, the parts of the ant colony are treated to be the ants and their network of tunnels with chambers, and the emergent property is claimed to be their organized behavior. However, when put under scrutiny the ant colony example is forgetting a necessary component, the chemical pheromones and their interpretation by the cognitive ants which enable the organized behavior in the ant colony. Without them no communication can exist between the ants, and the colony falls apart. Ergo, there is no need to treat the organized behavior as emergent, but as fully explainable through reduced parts of the system (such as ants, their networked tunnels, and their chemical signals).

    I think, most alleged emergent systems that we have sufficient understanding of when put under similar scrutiny could be found to have necessary components that are actively contributing to the alleged emergent phenomena, and that there is no need to say that these properties just emerge when all these things get together. I think the same could be said of consciousness eventually. Perhaps this is “greedy reductionism”, and I’d agree it is, if I were to posit some explanation for consciousness using only what we know about consciousness and the brain currently, but I don’t find the emergent position very satisfying.

    You also said,

    “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.”

    Previously, you wrote a post on the Turing Test where you seemed to claim behavior was not enough to infer subjective experience in computers that behave like humans, and that they would need the underlying brains structures for us to even begin to consider them conscious. Here I would include behaviors such as making reports about subjective experience, such as the feeling pain or imagining the ski slopes on the east coast. Have you switched your position, or is this a gross misinterpretation of your Turing Test post?

  12. MKandefer,

    I am not saying that there is something other than the brain causing consciousness. By non-reducible emergent phenomenon I mean a higher-order system whose behavior cannot be explained or predicted simply by considering the action of its components.

    You can explain the activity of an ant hill by understanding the behavior of individual ants (as far as I know – unless there is a layer of complexity here I am not aware of).

    However, you cannot predict the actions of a person based upon an understanding of how neurons work. You have to understand the emergent phenomena of personality, culture, psychology, and sociology. While these things may be caused by neurons firing, they do not reduce to them.

  13. And regarding inferring subjective experience – the bit you missed is that we can infer this from behavior AND the fact that I experience my own subjectivity. Occam’s razor favors the inference that other humans exhibit conscious behavior because they are conscious in the same way I am, rather than through some different mechanism.

    I cannot make this inference about a non-human entity, however. How can I know if a computer is subjectively aware or just acts as if it is without knowing anything about how it functions?

  14. MKandefer says:


    Do you think we’ll ever be able to predict and model human behavior through neuronal models (within an adequate embodiment), or will we always have to rely on higher level cognitive psychology concepts? If not, why do you think this is the case?

  15. JGordon says:

    I just wanted to stop by and say that I really enjoy reading your blog. I’m in the medical research community, and absolutely LOVE all of your articles on alternative medicine/anti-vaccination efforts/etc. The time you take to dissect and analyze opposing theories is refreshing in the blog world, and you clearly put a lot of thought into each post. I can only hope that other bloggers take a page from your book and post such well-reasoned, well-researched arguments and rebuttals. Keep up the good work!

  16. What do you mean by “within an adequate embodiment?” Is this something that will recreate the higher-order effects as well?

    I don’t think we will be able to model human behavior just by looking at how neurons communicate to each other. Behavior requires context – that context is higher order.

  17. daedalus2u says:

    Any system consisting of more than a few coupled non-linear parameters is inherently chaotic and not predictable long term.

    Neurons certainly qualify as coupled and non-linear and neural networks with more than a few neurons are inherently unpredictable (unless operated in regions where the coupling between them is reduced).

    I think there is essentially no possibility of calculating human behavior from a first principle neuronal model. Even if you could exactly simulate an existing human brain in exact detail, the simulation would diverge from the “real” brain very quickly.

    People do simulate other people’s “minds”, and this is essential for communication. Effectively all that can be communicated is an internal mental state. The data stream of language is subjected to pattern recognition by an individual’s “theory of mind” (the neural mechanism by which other minds are simulated), until the pattern recognition picks out a previous pattern of thought or a new pattern and that is the idea being communicated. All communication is the transfer of a mental state of one individual to another individual. It takes both a sender and a receiver, and if communication fails, the failure cannot be attributed to only one of them.

    I have blogged about this in the context of autism spectrum disorders, which I see as a developmental trade-off of a “theory of mind” (necessary for all communication), and a “theory of reality”, (necessary for understanding reality in non-anthropomorphic term (i.e. as it actually is, not as a “theory of mind” misinterprets it to be). The anthropomorphizing of realty is a type 1 error, a false positive. I think this is why people with Asperger’s tend to be good scientists; it is easier to think in non-anthropomorphic terms (i.e. not make the type 1 error) when your theory of mind isn’t so strong and compelling. But a weak theory of mind requires a lot more data to make the detection and avoid the type 2 error (false negative), and the fidelity of the ideas that a weak theory of mind can hold isn’t as high. I speak as someone with Asperger’s.

  18. MKandefer says:

    By adequate embodiment, I mean one that has sensory perceptions as well as actuators for interacting with the world, but not necessarily everything you categorized as “emergent phenomena”. However, I think I understand your position better. Would it be fair to “label” your position as an ontological reductionist, but epistemological anti-reductionist with respects to cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience? Meaning, cognitive processes, like consciousness, are a product of the functioning brain, but that our theories of cognitive psychology (i.e., these higher level processes) cannot (and never) be reduced to our theories of neuroscience (i.e., how neurons function and communicate).

  19. Nick says:

    I, too, share MKandefer’s concern about this term “emergent phenomena”. This mostly stems from my utterly frustrating reading of Kapra’s book “The Web of Life,” so a term like self-organization is also ruined for me.

    Referring to chaos theory does nothing but confuse the situation for me. Is it that “emergent phenomena” are the equivalent of the qualitative statements that can be made about the evolution of chaotic systems (since precise prediction of such systems is impossible)? Or is it that since a reductive theory leads to a chaotic model, one must, as a hack, invent a new model at a higher level with less direct reference to the lower (more basic) level which led to the difficulty, and to hell with the philosophical issues?

  20. yannisguerra says:

    Very nicely written refutation of his arguments.
    Also I like how you explain them bit by bit so he may have a chance of actually understanding what you are saying…will he change his thought pattern? Sadly it is unlikely.

  21. Brian English says:

    An excellent article. Well done.

  22. eiskrystal says:

    Animals don’t have souls (according to the christian faith).

    Therefore anything animals do, think or feel is not done by the soul.

    Animals have intention, feel pain, plan, create and use tools and learn.

    Egnor – shut up.

  23. Clinton Huxley says:

    If brain matter is not the entire source of the mind, that leaves the door open for any object that does not possess a brain to have at least some aspect of a mind. Perhaps the Discovery Institute should change it’s name to the Animism Institute.

  24. daedalus2u says:

    The chaotic system that is the brain has metastable states. In chaos theory these are called strange attractors. The chaotic system moves between these metastable states. Because the system is chaotic, there are many paths to go from each state to every other state, many with only differential barriers, that is it takes essentially zero activation energy to change from one state to another. This is the ideal state for the brain to be in, because then it can be reconfigured quickly and at very low metabolic cost to do other tasks.

    The different brain states are the different thoughts, ideas, memories, etc. everything that the brain can experience or do. The number of brains states that a brain can experience is not small, vastly larger than what can be experienced.

    Part of the maintaining of the brain in a chaotic state relates to the functional connectivity between neurons. As the connectivity in a neural network changes, at the percolation threshold (where everything first becomes connected), there is a mathematical critical point, that is the properties of the network diverge exponentially with respect to connectivity.

    This relates to my NO research because it is NO that regulates that functional connectivity. The fMRI BOLD signal that is used to infer brain activity and hence functional connectivity is caused by changes in the level of oxyhemoglobin caused by local vasodilation. That local vasodilation is caused by neurogenic NO release. A slight change in the basal NO level shifts the setpoint of where the critical percolation threshold is. If that drops the neural network below the critical percolation threshold, the functionality of the network drops exponentially. In people with ASDs that is called having a meltdown.

  25. Eric Thomson says:

    I treat these dualists like I treat creationists. They point out some things, often very interesting things, that we don’t yet understand. More science is needed, to be sure, before we have a grasp on things like consciousness.

    It is when they add, “And reason X is why neuroscience will never explain Y” that things get out of hand. X is never compelling. It always trades on intuitions and predictions about how they will feel in 200 years once neuroscience actually has something to say about Y.

    As for intentionality, I discuss the biological dimensions in a post Biorepresentations at the philosophy of brains blog.

  26. JimV says:

    “I Am A Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter explains his notion of emergent behavior with some simple examples. In my words not his, interactions of large numbers of simple things give rise to higher-order types of behaviors. He uses the example of a gas in a container. The individual molecules that comprise the gas do not have pressure and temperature in the sense of the Ideal Gas Law. These are higher-order behaviors which make sense as descriptions of the total system. Extreme reductionism (describing everything based on its components down to a microscopic level or beyond) is not only not always possible, it often makes things more difficult to understand rather than clearer. Although the Ideal Gas Law can be derived statistically from the mechanics of individual molecules, it is easier to understand and apply using the concepts of pressure and temperature. And there are many higher-order phenomena which we can not yet derive from elementary particles and forces (and we may never be smart enough to do so).

    I would have called myself a reductionist before reading his book. Now I am not so sure. It is a bit like thinking that all one needs to be a great chess player is to undertand the basic rules.

  27. sonic says:

    A number of points-
    First it is true that the mind-body issue (one that has been with us for 7000 years) is a hot topic today and materialism is losing.
    From philosopher Searle in 2007 (Dualism Revisited)-
    “I think in the last couple of decades the weaknesses of reductionism and eliminativism have become apparent to most workers in the field. However, an odd thing has happened: dualism has gradually come to seem intellectually respectable again.”
    (If you don’t know who Searle is, do some study- you don’t know enough about the issues to make an informed judgement)
    So the problems of a material explanation of the mind are very real in the world of philosophy. Note that the raise of dualism is associated with the acknowledgement that the material explanations are weak.

    Egnor brings up six weaknesses. It seems he assumes the reader has some knowledge of the issues- and he is probably mistaken on that point.
    Example- intentionality.
    Materialism posits that the universe is made up of purposeless, thoughtless matter.
    The basic question is this- “How can something that is purposeless and thoughtless (matter) become purposeful and thoughtful (mind)?”
    To say the difference between something with a mind (a brain) and something without a mind (a rock) is that the brain is alive is a vitalist explanation. (More on vitalism later)
    “Emergence!” Is vacuous.
    How gullible would I have to be to believe that the answer to the mind-body problem is “emergence”? How stupid would I have to think the great philosophers of history were?

    Egnor takes up qualia. Here he uses the word “infer” correctly.
    The basic problem is this-
    Materialism posits that the only thing that exists is defined, objective particles in space. (We know this isn’t true from physics, but nobody wants to believe what physics has found, so…)
    The question is “How does one infer the existence of a subjective reality from a universe that is made up of objectively real entities?”
    “Emergence” is a vacuous explanation that disrespects all the philosophers of history as well as those that are working on this issue today.
    Egnor takes up four other issues. I’m done for now—

    About ‘vitalism’. It is true that biologists have not used this hypothesis for decades now. That does not mean biologists will not use it in the future.
    For sometime light was thought to be a particle. Then it was discovered to be a wave. Then it was discovered to be a particle. Then it was thought to be both. Currently it is thought to be neither a particle nor a wave.
    Science changes with discovery. To say that an idea is gone and gone forever is a most anti-scientific statement one could make…

  28. cwfong says:

    If you claim to have studied Searle, you might be a bit more careful in representing what he actually argues. You failed to note that he concluded the remarks you cited with the following:

    “All conscious states, without exception, are caused by neurobiological processes in the brain. We now have an overwhelming amount of evidence for this, …”

  29. daedalus2u says:

    Sonic, the vacuum is now understood to be exceedingly complex with virtual particles flashing into and out of existence. The complexity of the vacuum state is not fully understood, and is the subject of intense research.

    Is that what you meant when you said “emergence is vacuous”? That emergence is exceedingly complex and is not well understood?

    As for how gullible you would have to be to believe in emergent properties; so far as we know, all properties of all macroscopic objects are emergent properties that microscopic constituents do not exhibit.

    Individual subatomic particles do not exhibit the properties of atoms.
    Individual atoms do not exhibit the properties of molecules.
    Individual molecules do not exhibit the properties of bulk solids, liquids, gases.
    Bulk materials do not exhibit the properties of composite matter assemblies.

    Sub-cellular organelles do not exhibit the properties of cells.
    Single cells do not exhibit the properties of organs.
    Single organs do not exhibit the properties of organisms.
    Single organisms do not exhibit the properties of populations.

    I do not expect a brain to exhibit properties only observed in its constituent neurons. When it is observed that a brain does exhibit properties not observed in its constituent neurons, I don’t feel the need to postulate some non-material mystical essence that imbues that brain with properties the neurons don’t have.

    So you think you need to be less gullible to believe that properties observed in macroscopic objects are due to some non-material essence that has mystically imbued those specific properties on that specific object, and for which you have no evidence other than the macroscopic object exhibits properties its constituent parts do not?

  30. Clic_br says:

    After these last two comments regarding Sonic’s comment, I am sorry, but I feel obligated to regress to my adolescence and say: BUURN!
    Excuse me. I hope to come up with more intricate thoughts in a next contribution, this time cfwong and daedalus have said it all.

  31. sonic says:

    cwfong, you are right about Searle’s conclusion. My point was that it is not correct to assume that there is no problem for materialism given the actual state of affairs. I was using Searle’s statement of this fact as evidence.

    daedalus2u, by vacuous in mean “devoid of substance”. I don’t think the greatest philosophicqal question in the history of mankind is well represented by saying, “We solved it, it’s emergence!”

    I asked specific questions- any answers?

  32. Sonic – you make the same mistake that Egnor makes and that I addressed on previous posts on this topic – confusing “if” with “how”. We know the brain causes mind from multiple independent lines of evidence, that cannot be accounted for by any other testable hypothesis that anyone has yet devised.

    That is different than knowing how the brain causes mind, which is still a thorny issue, although not intractable within materialism.

    We can know that the brain causes mind without knowing exactly how. That is the current state of affairs. Egnor confuses these issues, as you have.

    Saying that what makes the brain different than a rock is that it is alive is NOT vitalism. I immediately clarified what that meant – the brain can use energy to do stuff. It is dynamic in a way that a rock is not. No need to invoke vitalism.

    And it is absurd to characterize any statement regarding scientific ideas that have been rejected as being unscientific. We will not discover tomorrow that the earth is flat.

    Also – it is a straw man to characterize what I said as you have. I often refer to current scientific conclusions, but it is understood, and I am usual careful to state things as such, that all conclusions in science are based on current knowledge and subject to revision. But some things are so well established, like a non-flat earth, that we can treat them as facts, unless and until there is a very good reason not to.

    Your persistent error is to bring up quantum weirdness as if it calls into question the non-flatness of the earth.

  33. sonic says:

    You are making statements about what the philosophy of materialism can deal with.
    It is my experience (and the experience of most workers in the field according to Searle) that materialism does not do a good accounting of these areas. Are you saying these people don’t know what they are talking about?
    You do not address the philosophical issues at all.
    I would say it would be fine to say- yeah it is a weakness of the philosophy- who cares?, but when you say the philosophy is good for something it isn’t…
    You are asking for questions and attacks that you don’t want.
    (Notice that nobody in the history of mankind has ever actually answered the questions I posed)
    If you ask for evidence that the mind and the brain are the same thing– that is a different question than the philosophical question.

    To find evidence that the mind can operate without brain function start here-
    For a neuroscientist who came to the conclusion that the mind and the brain aren’t the same thing try Wilder Penfield.

    But note the science and the philosphy are not about the same questions or issues.

  34. daedalus2u says:

    Sonic, the link you provided is not compelling evidence. Some brain inactivity is not the same as brain death. Brain cells did not die in the case discussed. If brain cells did not die, there was no brain death.

    A person recently died, Henry G. Molaison, the patient known as HM.

    In 1953 he was treated for epilepsy by removing parts of his brain. He never again remembered a new experience. If the loss of those parts of the brain prevented the production of new memories, then complete inactivity of those same brain areas should also prevent the formation of new memories.

    The patient discussed in your link is reported to have produced new memories while her entire brain was (reportedly) inactive, presumably including those parts of the brain essential for producing new memories.

    My conclusion is that the NDE did not occur when the brain was totally inactive because (as the well documented experience with HM illustrates) activity in some regions of the brain is essential for long term memory. Either her brain was active during the operation, or the memory occurred at another time when her brain was active and she confused the timing of the memory. It is probably the latter. With HM, because his loss of the brain structures was permanent, there is no opportunity for memories of events to be produced and the timing confabulated. With the patient with the NDE, she could produce long term memories during a time when her brain was active and misremember those memories as having occurred when her brain was inactive (a time she could not form memories).

  35. li3crmp says:

    I think sonic brings up SOME good points while Steve has addressed others quite well.

    What is still philosophically troublesome is — if anything — I think highlighted by Steve’s comments above re the distinction between ‘if’ vs. ‘how’.

    Steven Novell said, “We know the brain causes mind from multiple independent lines of evidence, that cannot be accounted for by any other testable hypothesis that anyone has yet devised.

    That is different than knowing how the brain causes mind, which is still a thorny issue, although not intractable within materialism.”

    I think this is all true, but misses the philosophical debate; as you said, the brain may well *cause* the mind (this is all but indisputable) but is the mind REDUCIBLE to just the brain?

    That is, nothing so far touches on dualism!

    The brain may well be one substance and the mind another WHILE still one, the brain, might well cause, be necessary for, (be a substratum for?) the other, the mind. This in no way denies — so far — that the mind is, nevertheless, a separate thing from the brain.

    The above example of cells and organs serves us well here: this heart X is not JUST the aggregate of this set of heart (et al.) cells here. It is more than that. It is this, in a certain configurations, probably also given a certain history and causal path through the world. Indeed(This analogy may not be the best one, but I think it BEGINS to make the point, which is a thinly disguised supervience one).

    Now, I expect Steve would rightly concede that not just ANY brain cause just any mind, that it is, as I’ve described, this *particular* brain, given its particular structures (at various levels), and its particular history that gives rise to a particular mind.

    Ok, but would Steve (or his apologist, etc. ) mean by “gives rise to” cause? is identical to? I think this is where dualism digs in and tries to make its case. Can’t the SAME mind might “emerge” (more on this infelicitous language below) from different functionally equivalent systems? Doesn’t this begins to reify the dualist’s point? That more than one brain-system can “give rise to” the same mind means that mind and brains are not SIMPLY identifiable. And it isn’t SIMPLY the matter or its configurations that ARE a given mind, even if the mind is still nothing more than these.

    Notice, that both dualism and materialism can be true on this reading. It’s *reductivism* that’s the real issue. And there IS still a traditional “dualist” problem lurking here in explaining just how the one thing really does give rise to the other. Just how DOES the mind seem to have properties (intensionality, qualia, etc.) that the other doesn’t or couldn’t? How do or could neural structures code for the qualia of red above and beyond the mere red information.


    The emergence talk suggests that Steve is NOT being a reductive materialist here — or at least not a straightforward reductivist (by which no deception is implied, only that if there is reductivism here, it lies somewhere in how “emergence” is fleshed out.)

    Indeed, I take sonic’s best point to be that “emergence” talk tend to boil down to handwaving, “then a miracle happens” type explanations — at best these are a place holder for further work.

    And over the last 20+ years or so, “emergence” talk has given way to more subtle and sophisticated philosophical alternatives …

    BUt this is long enough, no?


    (Talk of NDE is non sequitur and irrelevant so far as I can tell.)


    Steve: I LOVE the SGU, listen weekly (actually more as I’m still catching up on past episodes), and do consider myself a skeptic; and as such, I worry that on issues both philosophical and ethical you and yours sometimes get a bit out of your depth (not that all your commentators fairly call you on this…). E.g. it’s not obvious to me (as you sometimes assert) that issues of value are subjective and not open to rigorous or objective argument — that they’re issues of “mere” value. Scientific reasoning is NOT the only method to objective truth (just ask a mathematician)!

    But, you want to limit the scope of your discussions; fair enough.

    And, all that said, this is meant as praise by faint damning! Even when out of your depth, you’re skeptical metholdogy serves you well!

    Keep up the excellent work!

  36. li3crmp says:

    I should add that I’d need to do a fair bit more thinking about both Egnor’s philosophical arguments (and Steven’s responses to them) to really have an informed philosophical critique; I worry that Steve is not giving enough philosophical credit to certain positions (fairly given how it seems they’re being misused, poorly argued, and biasedly employed) and that Egnor’s agenda is not to advance the truth some much as score points in a pissing match between neurologists (is a neurosurgeon a kind of neurologist?)

    I’m just not sure that philosophy of mind has been or could be so easily solved by neuro- or cognitive science. Some of these issues (including that of dualism) are more philosophically intractable and the subtle than the treatment given here.

    Indeed, I suspect the real problem is analogous to pseudo-science; perhaps pseudo-philosophy being used for a religious agenda?

  37. daedalus2u says:

    li3crmp, it isn’t “and then a miracle happens”, it is “and then something we don’t understand happens”. There is a gigantic difference. There are lots of things we know how to do which cannot be done. I know how to count to a quadrillion but counting to a quadrillion is not something I am capable of doing.

    The dualists have been acting as if “the mind” of an individual is a unique object which is self-identical with “the mind” of an individual over that individual’s entire life span. There is no actual data to suggest that is the case.

    To me, objects are only identical if they can be put in a one-to-one correspondence at every point. No “material” objects are identical unless they can be put into a one-to-one correspondence and are indistinguishable. So far as we know, only elementary particles are identical. Macroscopic objects are not.

    Obviously as a person ages, their body and their brain change and the brain of an individual at one age is different than the same individual’s brain at another age. Is their mind the same? Presumably not because if the mind didn’t change it would have no capacity to learn or to adapt.

    A non-dualist (such as myself) would say that as the brain changes, so does the mind, and vice versa. The brain is an extremely complex assembly of matter, with a few hundred billion neurons with a few hundred trillion connections that are all in a dynamic state of change. Each change in the matter of the brain, results in a “new” mind, a mind that is different from the mind represented by the earlier matter assembly. The number of possible states this assembly of matter can be in is not small. At least on the order of (10^11)! ((that is 10 raised to the 11th power) factorial). Maybe it is more like ((10^11)^(10^4))! Many of these different minds are likely not distinguishable from each other by any techniques that we have. There are more than enough degrees of freedom for an individual to have a different and unique mind at every moment of their life. Which one of these is the “real” mind? I would say that they are all real, and any of them are just as much the real mind of the individual as any other.

    The dualists have the problem of the mind changing but staying the same; the problem of normal development and sub-fatal injury changing and degrading the functionality of the mind without fatal injury degrading that functionality to zero. The problem of how such a mind would/could evolve coupled to a material body. Evolve both in the sense of via common descent in human and other species and also in individuals human and nonhuman.

    If you were able to reproduce an identical brain, with identical neurons connected in identical geometry, I would say that you would reproduce the mind contained in that brain identically. The two identical minds would only stay “identical” for a tiny fraction of a second before they changed and diverged along different paths because the physical processes involved in the brain are non-linear and coupled.

  38. sonic says:

    Notice how one example (HM) is elavated to ‘proof’ whereas one example is usually called an anecdote.
    Notice how many 1000’s of examples (NDE) are ‘explained’ by saying the witnesses are mistaken.
    Regarding ’emergence’– if I told you that an immortal, infinite, non-physical being was an emergent property of electromagnetism- what would you say and why?
    Just curious…

  39. sonic says:

    I agree with you completely- well one disagreement. The talk of NDE is an example of evidence as opposed to philosophy- and that is the point I was trying to make- that there is a difference.
    I wonder if you understand the concept of “emergence in the gaps”.
    I’m thinking of adding it to my vocabulary.

  40. li3crmp says:

    While I reserve all caveats re wikipedia as a source, most of the following can be better understood following


    If I understand your notion of identity (over time) — and I may not — then there are few if any interesting objects that persists over any significant length of time; and certainly no persons, minds, or brains.

    Personal identity certainly IS a sticky wicket; at various times I too have been skeptical whether there is such a thing. That said, I’m not yet ready to abandon the notion (ala Hume).

    While there certainly are signifignat problems with the notion of personal idenity over time, a strict one-to-one correspondence of all points, parts, or relations certainly is incompatible with change over time. Thus, most conceed that change is possible — the trick, then, is to makes sense of change of times as happaneing to one thing.

    Consider Theseus’ Ship? Do you take it to be the same despite its repairs and physical changes throughout its voyages?

    What if they recovered all its discarded original pieces and built a (quite worn, admittedly) ship out of that; would IT be the Thesues?

    Indeed, the metaphysical alternatives seem, on the one, that there is identity but that things cannot change over time at all and that what seems to be change is merely the succession of quite similars or, on the other hand, that personal (etc.) identity and change are BOTH possible, albeit within certain kinds of limits(and perhaps admitting of fuzzy boundaries).

    Certainly personal identity can break if there enough or the right kind (wrong?) of changes. Permanent wides spread amnesia? Significant or radical personality change through TBI (Mr. Phineas Gage)? “Changing your mind” or opinions and beliefs over time, though, seems more akin to Theseus’ ship — same vessel on the same journey (to speak roughly) despite its physcial replacement and even, perhaps, upgrades.

    And this goes for the brain too — it’s recycled and changes over time, but barring identity breaking changes of note, it’s the same brain despite of (indeed, perhaps because of) the normal and to be expected changes it undergoes.


    As (not so subtlety) implied above, I’m (I suspect) more of an “anomalous monist” or “property dualist” . But these are neither her nor there re your points. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure how these bare on the above except re supervenience, which is, admittedly, a hard subject to get clear on, but not one that requires any of the difficulties I think you are suggesting above.

    It seems that the same mind could supervene on many different possible brain states; but this does NOT mean that change in the supervened on state (the brain) wouldn’t thereby require a change in the supervening one (the mind) — depends on the kind of change!

    The other way ’round, ANY change in the mind, as the supervening state, would thereby require a change in the substratum (the brain).

    Consider a table. And change in the table necessarily changes the atomic and chemical substructures it supervenes on. But you’d count it (or at least many would) as the same table if you made some kinds of changes to the substratum — hells, you wouldn’t even notice most such changes!

  41. daedalus2u says:

    sonic, I would say you have a very poor understanding of electromagnetism.

    No one has suggested that emergence could lead to properties that are infinite. A variety of very well established physical principles suggest that could not happen, including conservation of mass/energy and the finite speed of light. The observed expansion of the universe suggests that it will have a finite duration.

    Postulating multiple infinities when none are actually known is not credible.

  42. daedalus2u says:

    sonic, HM is an example of a person where inactivity (via removal) of a certain part of his brain stopped the formation of new memories. The loss and its effects were extremely well documented. HM is not the person reporting what happened. HM had no financial interest in the results of the research that was done on him. HM had no financial or other interest in any aspects of the reporting of his condition.

    The NDE industry is run by people who are making money off of it, selling books, videos, all manner of stuff. There is no independent corroboration of any of the subjective experiences of those reporting the NDE other than by confederates also making money off of the NDE industry.

    The report is that the person experiencing the NDE had “zero” brain activity although it was never reliably measured. The reports of HM are detailed and span over 50 years. During that entire time he never produced long term memories despite having brain activity except for the parts that were inactive due to them being missing.

    HM is not the only case of amnesia induced by brain damage. People with damage to their visual centers can’t see even with intact eyes. According to the NDE industry, people with inactive eyes that are closed and an inactive brain can still “see”. Why is there such a thing as blindness if seeing is so easy to do without eyes or an operating brain? Why is there not a single example of a person without eyes being able to see? With an active brain, it should be easier to couple the visual experience of an immaterial mind with that of the brain. Since blind people have many years to try and achieve such a connection and enormous incentive to do so, why has there been not a single reliable report of it happening? If that state is so easy to enter that it happens in unprepared individuals undergoing emergency life saving operations under near death circumstances, it should happen with individuals who are blind who are in that state for many years. Even if blind individuals only get a partial effect, with practice they should be able to get better at it, and with years to practice and enormous incentive to do so, why has it not happened?

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