Pharyngula

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 4, 2007

    Oh, come on, let’s go easy on the bloke. After all, he’s only twenty-four hundred years out of date.

    Thank you, PZ, for raising the issue of creationism and neuroscience. I’ve been meaning to write about this, but nothing had spurred me into activity until this drivel from Egnor, and now I see that you’ve said what I had planned to say.

  2. #2 Torbj÷rn 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)

  3. #3 Sastra
    June 4, 2007

    I agree with Vaughan, in that this sort of argument is not a “more stupid, illogical, and fact-free rationalizations for … religious presuppositions.” On the contrary, I think it cuts much more deeply into the common intuitions which form the basis for supernaturalism in the first place. We’re getting closer to the bone here. We’re getting deeper than the God-idea, and into what distinguishes naturalism from spirituality. It will certainly draw a line between theistic evolution and just plain evolution.

    Mind vs. matter — it’s not just the sophisticated, neurological, philosophical conundrums at issue here. Normal human beings seem to have an innate tendency to reify abstractions. Thoughts, values, concepts are all seen as somehow “above” matter, but still as things in themselves. The subjective/objective distinction throws folks for a loop, and supernaturalism, which posits that mental properties somehow precede, ground, or integrate all of nature, seems to make sense. If intelligence is reducible to material processes, then God disappears — so it isn’t, which is what we all intuitively “knew” all along. How nice to have a neurologist confirm it.

    I think gg, in post #7, nailed it pretty well — it doesn’t have to be altruism, or even anything having to do with the mind. You can’t hold, see, or measure “chair-iness” or liberty, or love, or softness, or hardness, or or or. Abstraction is a process of pulling out similar aspects –qualities or behaviors — from concrete particulars, but our minds tend to confuse categories. If it’s not material, it must be “beyond matter” –and therefore naturalism is false. This is so easy a child can see it (which is why a scientist should know better.)

    The fact that there are different versions of materialism and naturalism which take abstractions and mind into account is usually ignored. Nuances are not as satisfying as magic, and the only valid form of reduction supernaturalists seem to acknowledge is Greedy Reductionism — which they accuse the naturalists of using so they can knock it down.

    It’s an interesting problem, but it needs to be approached scientifically. I like where Ramachandra seems to be going, ,yself. When theists like Egnor try to use it to justify God’s existence through neuroscience it simply turns into a more sophisticated version of PZ’s old favorite:

    “Ya, so try to find LOVE with your microscope, Mr. Smarty-Pants-Scientist!”

  4. #4 Ichthyic
    June 4, 2007

    The question really boils down to “can the properties of mental events be adequately reduced to the properties of physical events” and it’s not clear that they can.

    except for all the examples of anomalies and direct injuries that suggest otherwise, or perhaps you would prefer analogies in the world of animal behavior that have been studied ad nauseum?

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

  5. #5 Ichthyic
    June 4, 2007

    To be clear, even if we grant Egnor his claim for the immateriality of concepts, and then take the huge, unjustified leap to some sort of substance dualism, that still doesn’t get him God. Even if there is a non-physical world in which thoughts, ideas, numbers, etc. reside, the existance of that world does not require a god to explain it, as it evidenced by the academic disciplines that study such things (such as mathematics, logic, semiotics, certain areas of linguistics, philosophy, and cognitive science).

    to summarize:

    Even if we grant Egnor his preconceptions and assumptions not based on evidence, his argument becomes indistinguishable from a standard god-of-the-gaps argument.

  6. #6 Tulse
    June 4, 2007

    To be clear, I think there are indeed profound questions about how objective matter produces subjective experience (it may be the hardest philosophical problem out there), and there are interesting philosophical issues involved in characterizing the nature of entities like numbers and concepts. But Egnor doesn’t really address those issues in any new or interesting way, and, as Ichthyic deftly summarizes, his arguments don’t get beyond the standard god-of-the-gaps.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 4, 2007

    Tulse (#51):

    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. You can’t attack the problem without knowing biology — and, probably, big blocks of mathematics.

    One problem with creationists, besides their difficulties with truth and evidence, is that they’re not very compatible with subtlety. As soon as they can find a seeming contradiction, they shout “Godddidit!” and the conversation is over — whereas contradictions between preconceptions and reality are just where the conversation should begin. There’s wonderful debate to be had explaining how mind comes from matter and soul from flesh, but people like Egnor who obfuscate at the very first step of the discussion are not helping.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 4, 2007

    So yes, consciousness, or at least how matter produced subjective experience, is a primarily philosophical problem, and no amount of fMRIs and neuroanatomy will provide any final answer.

    My apologies for being unclear. I didn’t want to say that philosophy is irrelevant; I did want to state that the interesting philosophical questions are informed by and to some extent reliant upon physical, chemical, biological and mathematical knowledge. Sure, fMRIs won’t give a “final answer,” but they and similar tools are sure helpful in finding good questions to ask.

    People who try to short-circuit the entire discussion — and, incidentally, deny the very means of gaining new factual knowledge — get on my nerves. I qualia at the thought of what they’re trying to do to my civilization.

  9. #9 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.

    Bingo.

    – 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.)

  10. #10 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.

    Bingo.

    – 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.)

  11. #11 Ichthyic
    June 4, 2007

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

    touche.

  12. #12 Ichthyic
    June 4, 2007

    To make the case that is trying to be made about the triumph of some sort of reductionist functionalism to explain the operations of the mind requires that the first person public experience of consiousness can be explained as an entirely third person public experience.

    so, to explain how the mind works at all, we have to explain the nebulous term of “consciousness” first?

    that’s a goddamn ridiculous premise, and you know it.

  13. #13 The Sci Phi Show
    June 4, 2007

    “Science does not permit the concept of the supernatural at all.”

    Then you should point out to PZ that his claims of science getting rid of the soul, where the soul is supposedly inherently supernatural, is impossible, because you are defining it in a way that excludes the possibility by fiat.

    You can do this if you like, but you do need to be consistent on that point. Even Dawkins has abandoned this conception of science.

  14. #14 Norman Doering
    June 4, 2007

    Ichthyic wrote:

    …so, to explain how the mind works at all, we have to explain the nebulous term of “consciousness” first?

    that’s a goddamn ridiculous premise, and you know it.

    While “The Sci Phi Show” is full Chopra-woo-woo and a very confused person, (who will soon be telling us about the Chinese Room I assume) we actually do have to explain nebulous terms like “consciousness,” but NOT necessarily first.

    Marvin Minsky, the patron saint of A.I., says we should consider “consciousness” to be a suitcase term. You have to open it up and unpack it. Then you look at its component parts. For example, is consciousness possible without any form of memory? No, it’s not — but memory alone isn’t consciousness, but it is a necessary part of it.

  15. #15 Sastra
    June 4, 2007

    Unless the “supernatural” is defined as “that which cannot be discovered or explored by science,” I don’t think there’s any reason to consider it to be something science has no say in, one way or the other. It’s just that making a distinction between “in nature” and “outside of nature” rapidly turns natural/supernatural into unrecognizable mush, as Caledonian has noticed, since the lines on what is part of Nature can always be moved.

    I think those definitions which pin down the supernatural as “pure or uncaused mental entities” work better. Religious and spiritual views always seem to grow out of an innate dualism, a top-down view of reality where mind or values are creative forces or Force giving shape to the physical. A supernatural event is therefore any event involving pure mind over matter — which seems to fit everything from animism to Taoism.

    This would mean that scientifically verifiable ESP, OBE’s, PK, and NDE’s would all falsify materialism and naturalism, and support the existence of the supernatural.

    So fine — would one of the supernaturalists please tell us what would falsify supernaturalism? If you’re going to snip about materialism being “assumed,” please show that you’re not doing the same.

    And I think Azkyroth is asking a very good question. What conceivable evidence would you accept as evidence for brain/mind causality and dependence? Which is, I suppose, another way of asking the first question — what falsifies substance dualism? Or does it always just piggyback along behind whatever materialistic correlations the neurologists find?

    Kagehi: You have my sympathy.

  16. #16 Ichthyic
    June 4, 2007

    I move that his claims be judged immaterial in a slightly different but closely-related sense of “not mattering”.

    seconded

  17. #17 Sastra
    June 4, 2007

    The Physicist wrote:

    I can give you many non scientific documents explaining it, but you won’t believe, or I can give you the actual documents that you won’t understand.

    Others have wondered about the last part of this sentence, but I think it’s interesting that you think the science-minded folk here would not “believe” what you’re calling a perfectly reasonable scientific finding –”the minimum speed of gravity is some 300 times that of the speed of light.” I know little to nothing of physics, but something’s fishy. Why would we not want to believe a legit discovery?

    I smell woo.

  18. #18 Ichthyic
    June 4, 2007

    Which would require that this first person private experience of consciousness in your mind that you have can be reduced to a third person public observation of the behavior of your brain. Yet this has not been done and has generally been an aspect of the problem that has simply been ignored in practice by assuming that correlation == causation.

    so much woo. so little time.

    so are you trying to say that all of the observations on the function of the brain, as relates to observation and behavior, based on the study of anomalies or injury are all correlative, with no causative data or analysis?

    If that’s where you stand, you’re no better than a creationist, claiming there is no evidence for evolution other than correlative.

    as to your whole 3rd party premise, your example is just as easily explained by shared experience.

    3rd parties recognize an object being pointed to because they themselves have learned what it is.

    seriously, you’re injecting woo.

  19. #19 Ichthyic
    June 4, 2007

    The problem in this case is that the conclusions go beyond what the evidence demonstrates.

    couldn’t agree more. You’ve just applied your reasoning to the wrong end.

    physician, heal thyself.

  20. #20 Torbj÷rn 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.

  21. #21 Ichthyic
    June 5, 2007

    I can’t be mistaken – my computer having a soul is logically equivalent to its not having a soul. So proving me wrong only proves me right!

    LOL

    can’t argue with that.

    literally.

  22. #22 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 5, 2007

    Sonja, Ginger Yellow and I clearly have our microtubules tuned to the same wavelength. ;-)

    (Incidentally, optical tweezers can be used to manipulate microtubules, and genetic engineering can certainly control the way proteins are produced. I’m hard pressed to think of a reason why we could not in principle manipulate these intracellular components to build our own devices which harness whatever hypothetical hyperquantum computation properties they may have. Wouldn’t that put Penrose’s thinking somewhat in opposition to Searle’s?)

  23. #23 Ichthyic
    June 6, 2007

    I eagerly await the chain of LSD outlets that rivals Starbucks.

    wonder what it will be called?

    can’t wait for my first acid frappucino.

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