I’m assuming my readers are enjoying reading a debate about neuroscience and dualism between a creationist neurosurgeon and a skeptical neurologist. I hope you are enjoying reading it at least as much as I am writing it. One of the best ways to learn about a topic is to confront your own misconceptions about it or those of others. I have therefore found this ongoing debate between Dr. Egnor and myself to be quite instructive.
Dr. Egnor has issued his latest response, and it is chock-full of instructive misconceptions and misrepresentations. The debate is about a particular version of dualism, which Egnor defends, that states that the functioning of the brain does not and cannot account for everything we observe and experience as our mental selves – consciousness. Therefore something else is needed – something not physical, spiritual if you will. I take the materialist neuroscientific position – that the brain is a completely adequate explanation for consciousness and so far the evidence points consistently in that direction. Further – Egnor’s version of dualism (and perhaps all versions of dualism – more on that later) in fact add nothing to our ability to explain consciousness, in precisely the same way that Intelligent Design adds nothing to our ability to explain the diversity of life.
Confused About Chalmers
Egnor builds his latest blog entry, The Hard and Easy Problems in the Mind-Brain Question, around philosopher David Chalmers. If one relied upon Egnor’s article to understand the dualism debate or David Chalmer’s position in it, this would lead only to profound confusion. Egnor writes:
David Chalmers, a leading philosopher of the mind and a particularly lucid thinker on the matter of consciousness, published a paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in 1995 entitled “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” This seminal paper has given rise to much debate, and I believe that Chalmers clarifies the issues in the mind-brain debate in a very important way.
Chalmers, who is probably best described as a property dualist, notes:
Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given.
Egnor makes it sound as if Chalmers is defending his position, but he isn’t. Egnor notes that Chalmers would be considered a property dualist, but he does not define property dualism nor explain how it is related to the version of dualism Egnor promotes – Cartesian Dualism. Cartesian dualism, named after Rene Descartes, holds that mind substance is something different than brain substance or physical matter. The mind (at least part of it – that part that cannot currently be reliably measured by science – i.e. god-of-the-gaps) is non-materialist – not matter, and cannot be fully explained by matter.
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Dr. Egnor, writing for the Discovery Institute blog, has some more tortured logic for us. He is desperately trying to defend his justification for dualism – the claim that the mind is more than the functioning of the brain, and like the creationists with whom he has found a home, he will not discard an argument simply because it is false.
In our latest exchange I first wrote that a recent bit of neuroscience research showed that brain activity comes before any evidence for mental activity. This is not an isolated result of this one study, but is generally what we find when we correlate brain function to mental function – the brain function comes first.
This point is relevant to the materialist-dualist debate. One of the lines of evidence for the materialist theory that the brain entirely causes the mind is that brain function correlates with mental function. The dualists employ a tactic of denial by arguing that this is merely correlation and therefore not evidence for causation, and that this correlation could result from the mind causing brain activity. While logically correct (correlation does not prove one specific causation), you can still infer causation from multiple correlations, and they ignore the many independent lines of evidence that suggest the arrow of causation is from the brain to the mind. Continue Reading »
The one utility of the Evolution News and Views blog of the Discovery Institute is that it frequently demonstrates that ID proponents do not understand science and logic (or they simply don’t care, or some combination of the two). Dr. Michael Egnor is especially adept at demonstrating this critical lack of understanding, and he’s done it again. His most recent post lays out a few of the classic ID misdirections and misconceptions.
In response to my post in which I pointed out that the question is not whether there is design in nature but whether or not their is top-down (intelligent) design or bottom-up (evolved) design. Egnor argues:
No. Design is always the result of intelligent agency — by definition. It’s always top-down. Design is a mental act. Complexity can arise without intelligent design, but complexity is not the same thing as design. All design arises by intelligent agency, because that’s how design is defined. Consider the definition of design:
He then pulls the classic desperation maneuver of someone who is relying upon a semantic misdirection as if it were a logical argument – quoting a dictionary definition; as if a colloquial definition is relevant to the science. Egnor is presenting the typical “design gambit” of the ID crowd. They start with the premise that there is “design” in nature – but they don’t define design operationally or scientifically. Then they use a colloquial definition of design – that it implies an intelligent agent – and conclude that by definition life was designed by an intelligent agent. By using this purely semantic argument they bypass the actual scientific question – is the end product of life on earth the result of purposeful intelligence or did it emerge through blind natural processes?
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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.
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Science makes predictions. That is inherent to the scientific process. It’s what makes hypotheses testable – they make predictions about what will be observed in nature, about the outcome of experiments, and about future trends and events. Scientific theories are really models that allow us to predict the behavior of the world, and they are judged on their utility for making such predictions, rather than whether or not they are objectively “correct” (because we can’t know that).
This was a simple point I was trying to make, with respect to evolutionary theory, in a recent post on feathered dinosaurs. Egnor, who fancies himself an evolutionary gadfly, has tried to counter my arguments but only manages to create a confusing mess. In my original post I made the point:
After Darwin published his theory of evolution one of the early challenges to the idea of evolution, which includes the claim that all life on earth is related through common ancestors, was that there were significant gaps between major groups of living creatures. Birds, for example, seem to be their own group without a close connection to any other group. They are, of course, related to vertebrates. But if evolution were true then there must be fossil evidence connecting birds to another group, such as reptiles.
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Michael Egnor has responded to my prior post in which I outlined his numerous failings in logic and misrepresentations of neuroscience. His response continues to be incoherent, but does offer some further teaching points.
One of the main points of contention is this – what can we infer from the relationship between damage to the brain and resulting neurological signs and symptoms. My position is that, if the mind is entirely caused by the functioning of the brain, then damage to the brain will damage the mind. I maintain that this is true, as far as we can tell from our current technology and understanding of neuroscience.
Egnor maintains that this is not true – that the relationship is “not the least bit predictable.” Further, that this lack of total correlation is evidence for dualism, that the mind is produced, at least in part, by something immaterial. There are both factual and logical problems with his position. To my criticism of his claims, he writes:
Mental deficits — specific defects in reasoning, judgement, planning, memory– are highly variable. One cannot look at a CT scan done after a head injury and predict with any certainty that ‘this person will have an inability to remember numbers’. High level mental function localizes very poorly to specific brain regions. This is odd, if, as Novella claims, the material brain is entirely the cause of all mental function.
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If you want to see many examples of motivated reasoning, pay a visit to Michael Egnor’s blog, Egnorance. He’s the evolution-denying neurosurgeon that I have sparred with over the last few years, mostly about evolution and dualism. Motivated reasoning is what most people do most of the time – start with a desired conclusion and then find reasons to support it (humans are very good at that). However, the whole point of philosophy is to rise above this tendency and follow strict rules of logic, while the point of science is similar but also to follow the evidence. Egnor can’t seem to do either, as he rants against non-believers, misinterprets study after study, and attacks those who do not share his particular faith.
A few weeks ago he wrote a response to a blog post of mine about materialism. This is familiar ground, but he does nicely reveal his tactics in the article so I thought I should eventually respond. He starts by misrepresenting the very topic of the discussion:
He put together six assertions that he claims are proven scientifically and thus prove his theory that the mind is caused entirely by the brain.
The materialist theory of mind is not my theory – it is the overwhelming consensus of neuroscientists and the result of over a century of research. But Egnor would have his readers believe it is my own quirky “bizarre” theory. This is, of course, nonsense. It is Egnor who is out on the fringe of neuroscience with his antiquated dualist beliefs. But far more important are the actual arguments themselves (I make this point mainly to demonstrate how Egnor constantly rewrites reality).
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Remember Michael Egnor – the creationist neurosurgeon who made a second career out of embarrassing himself with nonsensical blog posts over at the DiscoTute’s blog, Evolution News and Views? His crowning achievement on this score, in my opinion, was his argument that if evolution were true brain cancer should result in improvements in the brain.
I haven’t heard from Egnor in a while, but now I learn that he has his own blog, called “Egnorance.” The name is a nice touch on his part – some bloggers have been using the term “egnorance” to refer to Egnor’s particular brand of nonsense. It is sometimes successful to take a term meant to be derisive and adopt it as your own in order to turn it around. At the least it can take the wind out of the sails of your critics. Unfortunately, the content of the blog is a bad as ever.
This came to my attention because Egnor wrote a blog post responding to my recent post about Michele Bachmann’s creationist stance. Egnor (true to his style) thought he could get a blog post out of my use of the term “creationist” by projecting his own intellectual dishonesty. Egnor does provide an excellent example of the apologist form – exploiting any vagueness in meaning to create confusion and the appearance of sinister intent on the part of those with whom he disagrees.
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This is low, even for Dr. Michael Egnor, who has been an active apologist for the nonsensical anti-evolution propaganda over at the Discovery Institute. Egnor cannot seem to resist when he thinks he has caught someone in an error, and so he throws whatever faint whisper of logic or scholarship he has overboard (hardly noticeable, really) and sinks to new lows of intellectual buffoonery.
In this case he is responding to my discussion of the evolutionary tree of life – the fact that the fossil record and genetic evidence support the conclusion that all life is related through a pattern of branching descent. He refers to my summary of the current consensus of scientific opinion as an “astonishing gaffe.”
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Our favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, has published his ill-informed and logically-challenged opinions on evolution in a business journal. Darwin’s day is just around the corner (February 12th is the 200th anniversary of his birth and this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of the Species), and so it’s a good time for a creationist smack down. As usual Egnor gets everything wrong. He clearly does not understand evolutionary theory, or simply does not care if his straw men are accurate or not as long as he gets to regurgitate the standard anti-evolution propaganda.
In his article he makes a number of wrong or misleading statements, some in question form. He substitues assertion for evidence, and fallacies for logic. His objections to evolution begin with this:
The fossil record shows sharp discontinuity between species, not the gradual transitions that Darwinism inherently predicts.
Wrong. First, I must point out that Egnor insists on referring to evolutionary theory as “Darwinism.” As many others have pointed out before, this is a propaganda tactic to attempt to diminish evolutionary theory to the quaint ideas of one guy. It is also misleading, for the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory differs in significant ways from strict Darwinian theory.
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