Jun 15 2007

More Dualism Nonsense from Michael Egnor

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon who has been shilling for the Discovery Institute – an intelligent design (ID) propaganda organization that smilingly sells itself as a “think tank” or research organization. I have had some fun picking apart his ridiculous mental shenanigans in his attempts to defend ID. Most recently he has taken to defending dualism – the notion that the mind and the brain are separate things – and attacking strict neuroscience materialism. His arguments are reassuringly childish, even silly. He has lowered the intellectual bar further with his latest entry – this time replying to critics of his previous piece.

The core of the article is a response to PZ Meyers’ analysis of Egnor’s prior argument that altruism has no location. Meyers responded that altruism does have a location – in the brain. Egnor quotes Meyers thusly:

“His altruism does have a location. It’s the product of activity in his brain. Where else would it be, floating in the air, in his left foot, or nonexistent?”

Egnor grossly misinterprets this quote from Meyers. Whether the misinterpretation was deliberate or just intellectually sloppy I will leave up to the reader to decide, but not far down Meyers made another statement that clearly shows what he meant:

“We also know that a sense of altruism is generated by patterns of electrical and chemical activity in a material brain; modify the patterns, change the feeling or action.”

But Egnor distorts Meyer’s quote into a straw man that he then props up to represent the materialist position. Egnor now write:

“If altruism is located in the brain, then some changes in location of the brain must, to use a mathematical term, ‘map’ to changes in altruism. That is, if you move your brain, you move your altruism in some discernable way. And ‘moving’ altruism means changing its properties. It won’t do to say that moving altruism changes its property of ‘location,’ because ‘location’ of altruism is the issue.”

Egnor expands on this theme that altruism has no physical location, while the brain does. Therefore the brain cannot be or cause altruism, by which he means the mind. Therefore the mind is not the product of the material brain, therefore it is spiritual – and you have dualism.

The argument is absurd almost beyond description – but not quite, so I will describe the absurdity. When neuroscientists say that “altruism” is “in” the brain, of course we are not referring to the physical locality of an abstraction. Altruism, like love, personality, aggression, etc. are all abstractions to describes patterns of mood, thought, and behavior. Those moods, thoughts, and behaviors are demonstrably produced by the electrical and chemical activity of the brain.

Neuroscience has progressed to the point that dualism is no longer viable. Every aspect of mental activity can be mapped to the brain. We can correlate it to brain activity that we can visualize with functional MRI scanning and other techniques. In fact, Egnor’s example of altruism has itself been mapped to specific brain regions – parts of the prefrontal and mesolimbic cortex. We can change personality and behavior by removing parts of the brain. We can alter mental states with drugs. We can document changes in mood in response to various types of injury to the brain – and with increasing specificity. In short, there is no aspect of mental function that cannot be shown to correlate with brain activity and cannot be altered by altering the material of the brain. The mind IS the brain, and there is simply no room for dualism.

Egnor has no legitimate argument to make against this sizable body of scientific evidence, which is why he is making his absurd arguments which are little more than semantic distractions from the real issues. In fact, he felt compelled to admit the following:

“Clearly matter can influence ideas (ethanol makes us think differently), and ideas can influence matter (we can move our legs on purpose). No one knows how matter and ideas influence each other.”

The first sentence is correct, but a gross understatement. Matter does not just “influence” ideas, it creates them. He is trying to avoid the consequences of his admission by understating the case. He also fails to see that in this simple admission he has torpedoed his own premise – that matter and mind are separate.

He tries to dismiss the implications of his admission by falsely stating that no one knows how matter and ideas influence each other. His own example contradicts this – alcohol acts on brain cells to alter their physiological activity. With some drugs we have an exquisitely reductionist understanding of how they are affecting the mind – we know what receptors in which part of the brain they are binding to and how that binding affects the activity of specific neurotransmitters which in turn affect the firing rate of other neurons, etc.

But here is a more simple example – I can take a purely material bat and bash apart someone’s physical brain until it can no longer function, and their mind will vanish. All manifestations of that person’s consciousness will end along with the physical destruction of their brain.

Egnor concludes:

“Acceptance of free will and intentionality is a precondition for any meaningful discussion of reality. Strictly materialistic neuroscience is nonsense, because it inherently denies the existence of free will and of intentionality, and it entails basic category errors, such as the belief that ideas have locations. A strictly materialistic explanation of the mind is an oxymoron, because the mind isn’t material. A real understanding of the mind must be open to immaterial causes.”

His first statement is nothing more than an assumption. He is assuming his own conclusion – that free will and intentionality exist. It is quite possible that free will and intentionality separate from the biological functioning of our deterministic brains are not part of reality. It’s difficult to just touch on the topic of free will, because it is very complex. But suffice to say that the brain can explain what we experience and understand as our free will and our intentionality. What these things actually are on a deeper level is philosophically interesting, but irrelevant to the discussion.

He then repeats his straw man that materialists are treating ideas as if they have a physical location – when in fact that is Egnor’s misinterpretation, not our misunderstanding.

And finally he ends with a nice tautology – a mere restatement of his initial assumptions – that the mind is not material. Not only did he fail to make this case, his own admissions contradict it.

His core fallacy is in treating the mind as a static thing that exists. Rather, it is an abstraction of a dynamic process – a process that is demonstrably a function of the material brain. Until the dualists can produce a shred of evidence for any mental activity that is independent of the biological activity of the brain – all they have are logical fallacies and misdirection through semantic legerdemain. And Egnor isn’t even good at that.

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