Egnor, the smug creationist neurosurgeon, is babbling again, but this time, it’s on a subject that he might be expected to have some credibility: the brain (he has one, and operates on them) and the mind (this might be a problem for him). It’s an interesting example of the religious pathology that’s going to be afflicting us for probably the next century — you see, creationism is only one symptom. We’re seeing an ongoing acceleration in scientific understanding that challenge the traditional truisms of the right wing religious culture warriors, and represent three fronts in our future battles.

  • Evolution. Evolutionary biology gives us an explanation of where we came from and our relationship to other organisms in the world that directly contradicts traditional explanations. It was a first strike against truth by dogma, and we’ve been fighting this one for over a century.

  • Reproductive and developmental biology. These fields are blurring our biological identity and eroding the old tribalisms. They challenge old beliefs about what being human means and who we are; they also open up radical possibilities for modifying ourselves. We’ve been struggling with this conflict for decades on a very crude level, abortion rights. Stem cells are an early harbinger of future changes—it’s going to get scary and fierce when cloning organs and human individuals becomes feasible, and just wait until gene therapy and radical body repair and modification become possible.

  • Neuroscience. Neuroscience is building up a detailed picture of our minds, our consciousness, our selves as the products of purely material agents. It’s mostly been under the radar, but I’ve seen some signs of the religious right quivering in trepidation (or perhaps, anger): neuroscience is going to blow away concepts of the soul and the afterlife, root our thoughts in material processes, and as we’re seeing now, open up the mind to pharmacological manipulation.

The evolution-creation wars are only the first line of defense. I’ve sometimes been accused of putting too high a priority on other issues, like the conflict between religion and science, at the expense of the immediate tactical needs of keeping creationism at bay. I will agree, up to a point: we absolutely must not let the creationists get their way in our public schools, and losing that fight would cost us the rest, but at the same time we can’t lose sight of the fact that even if we were to overcome creationism decisively, we still have to face other reactionary forces. And if the way we overcome creationism is to compromise with religion, we’re only going to strengthen our opponent for the next front. It’s our job now to bleed them heavily, in addition to preventing them from making inroads into education and greater government influence.

What has all this got to do with Egnor? His latest missive is a feeble stab at the third front, neuroscience. I’m not seeing a lot of effort by the DI in this direction yet — they do have another fellow, Jeffrey Schwartz, who’s been talking in this direction with little fanfare or attention — but I’m keeping an eye on it. I’ll also mention that in my last conversation with Paul Nelson, he was also worked up over the idea that he couldn’t see a physical connection between intent and action in the operation of the human body, so I’m fairly sure this kind of belief is taken for granted in the phantasmagorical halls of the Discovery Institute.

Egnor’s hangup is similar—he thinks that thoughts are in a different class from other physical states—that an idea cannot be embodied in a pattern of neuronal activity. His example is altruism.

Altruism, in contrast, has no matter or energy. It has no ‘location’, no weight, no dimension, no temperature. It has no properties of matter. Altruism entails things like purpose and judgment, which aren’t material. Altruism has no parts, in the sense that there is a ‘left-side’ of altruism and a ‘right side’ of altruism. There are, of course, left sided and right sided parts of the brain, which may be associated with acts of altruism, but there is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ to altruism itself. Of course, objects (like human brains or bodies) that have location, weight, etc. can mediate or carry out altruistic acts, but the altruism itself doesn’t have a location. Altruism isn’t spatial. ‘My altruism is three inches from the edge of the table’ is a nonsensical statement.

That’s extraordinarily weak. He’s a neurosurgeon—you can’t possibly become a neurosurgeon without having read about the case of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who had a frontal lobe lesion and lost self-control and sociability and became noticeably less altruistic. The denialism blog makes a similar argument: people intentionally modify the way their brains work with psychoactive drugs, but how does that work if thoughts and ideas are immaterial? He could argue that “personality” also has no location, weight, dimension, or temperature, that it is this strange, pure abstraction that has no discrete connection to the brain, but he’d be wrong: it’s clearly a product of the ordered connections and pattern of activity in the brain, and that disrupting those physical elements changes the expression of that instance of the abstraction.

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? You know where he wants to trace its source: to the supernatural. He’d like to pretend something like altruism (or lust or intent or wonder or anything else he can assign to an abstraction) is the product of a supernatural agent. A soul. Of course, he can’t say that—he’s following the creationist paradigm of not saying anything specific about his hypothesis, and instead skirts about the issue, arguing what it is not.

Yet many things in the world, including our ideas and even our theories about the world, are not matter or energy. Altruism is obviously something very real; many people’s lives depend on it. We don’t know exactly what it is, but we know, by its properties, what it’s not. It’s not material. It shares no properties in common with matter. It can’t be caused by a piece of the brain.

Of course it is caused by a piece of the brain—Phineas Gage, remember? 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. If he wants to argue for some other agent outside the material body that is adjusting those patterns, he’s going to have to make a case for the agent’s existence, rather than just stupidly asserting the brain isn’t the source of feelings.

But…uh-oh. This is rather like one of those cartoons where the character is out on a tree limb, sawing it away. He’s already refuted his own argument!

For one process to cause another there must be a point of contact, in the sense that the processes linked in cause and effect must share properties in common. In biology, the liver contains molecules of enzymes and bilirubin and cholesterol, which cause the secretion of molecules of bile. In physics, a moving billiard ball collides with another billiard ball, causing each to change course. Each billiard ball starts with momentum, and momentum is exchanged when they collide. The transfer of momentum mediates the cause and effect. ‘Cause and effect’ presupposes commonality of at least one property- enzymes or bilirubin or cholesterol or momentum. Without commonality, there is no link through which cause can give rise to effect.

So we need some causal link, hmmm? Where is the causal link, equivalent to the action of an enzyme mediating the chemistry of two reactants, between a burst of action potentials traveling down an effector neuron and his invisible, immaterial, zero-energy spirit, soul, or ghost? Does his soul carefully reach in and change the conformation of a g-protein, phosphorylate CREB, or open an ion channel? If he’s going to postulate a supernatural agent outside the material brain, by his own reasoning, he’s also going to have provide a link through which that magical cause can give rise to a mundane effect. No such link exists — and its proponents will quickly backpedal away from any consideration about how that link would work, because that makes their ghost a material and testable presence in the world.

Brace yourselves, people. These cranks and religious weirdos are not going to provide better, smarter, more interesting arguments as they work their way through the three fronts I mentioned at the beginning. What we’re going to get is ever more stupid, illogical, and fact-free rationalizations for their religious presuppositions. We have to wrestle with them as they come up — that is the rationalist’s obligation — but we also have to address the root cause directly. And you all know what that is, boys and girls…

The damned curse of supernatural and religious thinking.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    June 4, 2007

    represent three fronts in our future battles

    Together with neuroscientists computer models these are some of the fronts. I would list cosmology, theoretical physics and astrobiology (extraterrestrial planets and their life signs) as other fronts.

    But here it is perhaps only the later that is currently moving at the same pace. Seems biology in the larger sense rules, at least for now. (Did I really say that?! :-o)

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?
    June 4, 2007

    It is completely true that Buddhists are happier. The meditating they do produces NO in their brains, and that NO makes them happier and healthier.

    Nitrogen monoxide?

    Do you realize what you are saying about Viagra?!?

    I ever say how much i hate philosophers that forget to check their blather against real-world data?

    But… but… if they did that, they wouldn’t be philosophers any longer. They’d be scientists.

    The production of subjective experience by objective matter “may be the hardest philosophical problem out there” because neither the answers nor the questions lie wholly or even primarily within the realm of philosophy.


    – what biological fact about humans could convince them that humans were conscious, and not just mindless robots?

    Here we are back at the problem of artificial intelligence. Not that I had a lot of opinion about that, but you simply assume here that AI is impossible. Why do you start by assuming what could be your conclusion? Maybe it’s not a philosophical but a purely technical question whether robots are necessarily mindless, or whether the term “mindless” even makes sense in the first place.

    (Remember who solved the paradox of Achilles and the turtle. Not the philosophers.)

  3. #3 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    June 5, 2007

    Subjective experiences and qualia are irrelevant for a complete description of my actions.

    Subjective experiences seems to consist of a system describing itself, with only black box access (or more correctly, constrained channels mostly monitoring and postdicting outward actions) to itself and similar systems.

    In that respect, it could be part of the descriptions in neuroscience. “Consciousness” and “qualia” is perhaps folk psychology, it seems there are no good correlates.