Michael Egnor, tiresome little lackey of the DI that he is, is asking his readers to help me find out where altruism is located. I’m not going to link back to him—sorry, but I’m afraid it would only encourage him, and I don’t want to be an enabler—but I will try to address his flawed question.

He wants to know precisely where altruism resides, and he bizarrely illustrates his question with this diagram.


That makes the answer easy.


Are we done now?

Of course not. We must plumb the depths of lunacy … because it is there! Especially since Michael Egnor gives the worst rationalization for dualism ever. Trust me. This is really bad.

Brace yourself. Here is his argument that altruism cannot be located in the brain.

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. That begs the question.

Does altruism have location? The brain does; it can move in space by moving in any of six degrees of freedom: in a Cartesian system, it can move in the x, y, or z direction, or it can pitch, yaw, or roll. These are the movements possible for a material body.

Now moving your brain through ‘x,y,z’ or ‘pitch, yaw, or roll’ does change its material properties, which are located in the brain. The pulse pressure in your brain tissue is greater when you’re recumbent than when you’re standing (pitch). The venous pressure is lower when you’re standing than when you’re recumbent. Tilting your head to the left (roll) tilts the vector of carotid arterial blood flow to the left. Even material things that are less tangible, like neuronal action potentials, change with brain movement. Action potentials have direction, and can be described using spatial vectors. When you tilt your head, you tilt the vectors along which your axons transmit action potentials. When you turn your head 30 degrees to the left (yaw), you turn the direction of propagation of action potentials 30 degrees to the left too. In this sense, material changes in the brain can map to changes in location of the brain.

But how does moving your brain change your altruism? Do properties of altruism, like benevolence, have pitch, yaw or roll? Is generosity measurably and reproducibly different when you (and your brain) are on the north, rather than the south, side of the room? Are you measurably more or less charitable if you tilt your head 30 degrees to the left? If you walk around the room does your altruism change in a reproducible way? If you stand up, is your altruism different that when you’re sitting?

For altruism to be located in the brain, changes in altruism must map, in some reproducible way, to changes in brain location. But it’s obvious that no property of altruism maps to brain location. If no property of altruism maps to brain location, then altruism is independent of brain location, and it’s nonsense to say that altruism is located in the brain. Altruism is completely independent of location, so it can’t be located in the brain, or anywhere. It can’t be ‘located’ at all.

I read the first paragraph and thought he must be building to something clever and subtle; no one could possibly be making an argument that stupid. I read on, and I realized I was being far too charitable, and yes, he really is making an argument that stupid. Because my altruistic feelings are not left behind in my chair when I get up and walk across the room, they must not be located in my brain. In Egnor’s mind (which is safely situated in a remote location, far, far away from the entity doing the typing), if properties of the mind do not have an absolute location in coordinates of latitude, longitude, and altitude, they cannot possibly exist in your brain.

I’m typing this on my laptop, on my text editor. I’d better not pick up my laptop, swivel around on my office chair, and move it to the other desk behind me, because I might leave the text editor floating in space above my computer desk. Or worse, maybe the text editor will change properties and become a spreadsheet, or one of those programs that control a nuclear missile, or the software interface to a microwave oven. Alternatively, the fact that the text editor still works when I move my laptop must mean that the program actually doesn’t reside in my computer — it’s being beamed in from the Software Soul Sanctuary located somewhere in another supernatural universe.

Here’s another concern. One of the many functions of my liver is to regulate glucose metabolism. Where is the regulation of glucose metabolism located? Well, I’d have to wave my hand vaguely over this great big spongy, bloody organ in my guts, and I’d also have to admit that it’s a property of many interacting systems—the circulatory system is essential, of course, as are peripheral tissues, glands and hormonal regulators, even the brain. Does the fact that it is currently located at 45° 35′ 19″ N, 95° 54′ 6″ W have anything at all to do with its function? Does the fact that changes in glucose metabolism do not map in any reproducible way to the absolute physical location of my liver in any way imply that my physiology must be off-site somewhere?

Of course, to normal people, the idea that the properties of the brain, a computer, or a liver are associated with those objects is not contingent on whether I’m in my chair or on the other side of the room, because when I move around I bring my brain and liver and (usually) my laptop with me. I would agree that my concept of altruism would change if getting up meant my brain would slither out of my cranium to plop onto my chair when I got up — but again, that reinforces the notion that properties of the mind are associated with the brain.

Ultimately, his argument rests on this deeply and obviously faulty analogy, and simple assertion.

Myers makes a category error. Matter and ideas share no properties. Ideas like altruism aren’t material, so they can’t have a location. Altruism has no yaw or pitch or roll. Location is a property of matter, not ideas. Benevolence is a property of ideas, not matter. Matter can’t be benevolent, and ideas can’t have location. And matter can’t, by itself, cause ideas, because they share no properties.

Of course they can share properties. We know that chemicals and the physical integrity of the brain can affect your thoughts, and vice versa. These material agents can change your personality, your perceptions, your behavior—they can make you less benevolent or more benevolent. For a neurosurgeon to claim that the mind shares absolutely no properties with that gelatinous blob he operates on is rather frightening; is he even aware of the consequences to his patient’s mental state if he tears through it? Does he think he’s working on a ball of phlegm, and that he mainly has to worry about those delicate arteries running through it?

Now what I really want to see Egnor do is return to his little diagram. I’ve said where altruism and mind are located, and done so fairly unambiguously, I think. Now it’s his turn to tell me where the satellites and transmission towers and central transmitter of the soul are located.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007

    Everything which Egnor says about altruism apply equally well to, say, grammar and punctuation skills. Is my ability to conjugate verbs, split infinitives and put two spaces after every period my connection to the plane of spirit, eternity and God?

    Carl Sagan would never call someone a demented fuckwit, but I know myself, and I, sir, am no Carl Sagan!

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007

    Where, in the United States, is the presidential election located?

  3. #3 Sastra
    June 14, 2007

    At some level most arguments for the supernatural turn out to be category errors (which they ironically accuse us of!) Egnor is reifying abstractions, and turning them into immaterial, supernatural, spooky “objects.” Liberty, Love, Mind, Beauty, and, in this case, “Altruism.”

    Egnor should do another chart and start us working on the hard problem of where the ‘speed’ goes when the car stops. If it didn’t drop off by the side of the road, it must be part of the spirit realm.

  4. #4 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    “Dammit, Smithers! This isn’t rocket science – it’s brain surgery!”


    why is it that indeed the simpsons appear to be the quintessential reference that comes to mind when creobots speak?

    It’s like it was designed for the purpose…

  5. #5 Andrés Diplotti
    June 14, 2007

    I need volunteers for my candy bar flavor experiments. Volunteers will eat candy bars holding them in different positions, and in different locations too. If the bars taste always the same, that’ll be an evidence for my hypothesis that flavor is not material, is not a property of candy bars and can’t be said to have a location either.

  6. #6 Karen
    June 14, 2007

    PZ, you must be amazingly generous and patient to have actually bothered to address his “argument”.

    I spend a fair chunk of time reading early and classical and Neoplatonic philosophy (which I love), but Egnor’s writings sound like the very very very worst of their semantic catergory-shifting play-trickery. Like someone took Proclus and lobotomised him. With an ice-cream scoop.

    I can’t believe an educated person, a scientist, can actually fool themselves into believing the claims he’s making. What he’s writing about is stuff that 14 year old kids sort out after quarter of an hour of reasonable thinking. Sastra and AL knocked it totally on the head – he’s taking an abstraction and trying to locate it. Physically. WTF? And he’s an educated person? He’s a scientist? He’s a neurosurgeon?????

    He’s gonna be so embarrassed a few years from now.

    It’s almost as though creationists like this are publically disembowelling themselves, and the pendulum is about to swing back to common sense, because, surely, they can’t write anymore stupid than this and still expect people to bother to read them. It’s just getting too stupid to bother! It reminds me of that South Park episode where the concerned parents protest, and die, by catapulting their bodies against a building.

  7. #7 David Marjanovi?
    June 14, 2007

    Carl Sagan would never call someone a demented fuckwit, but I know myself, and I, sir, am no Carl Sagan!

    Blake Stacey for Order of the Molly. Again.

    “Where, in the United States, is the presidential election located?”

    Easy: in the office of Katherine Harris.

    Scratch that. Ginger Yellow for Order of the Molly.

  8. #8 David Marjanovi?
    June 14, 2007

    Carl Sagan would never call someone a demented fuckwit, but I know myself, and I, sir, am no Carl Sagan!

    Blake Stacey for Order of the Molly. Again.

    “Where, in the United States, is the presidential election located?”

    Easy: in the office of Katherine Harris.

    Scratch that. Ginger Yellow for Order of the Molly.

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?
    June 14, 2007

    This is a truly impressive display of Egnorance.

    If this term has yet to be coined, then I claim origin.


  10. #10 David Marjanovi?
    June 14, 2007

    This is a truly impressive display of Egnorance.

    If this term has yet to be coined, then I claim origin.


  11. #11 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    I thought Michael Egnor was a parody.

    there were rumors…

    it’s just so damn hard to tell by looking at their writing any more, ain’t it?

    I know you know there really is a Michael Egnor, but I know what you mean, and do recall there being some posting on the issue a while back; that maybe all these posts are parody, if not the man himself.

    Still, it’s not like we haven’t seen extremely similar arguments from other creobots before, so if they ARE all parody, the joke ends up still being on the DI anyway.

  12. #12 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    Egnor’s brain is responsible for all dishonesty everywhere throughout all of history and even dishonesty that has never or will never occur.

    sorry, i like the idea the quotemine of your statement represents so much I just had to.

    forgive me.

  13. #13 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    I think he’s saying what creationists and IDiots say all the time – we can’t explain it, therefore goddidit.

    except, in this case, altruistic behavior has a very long record of testing and investigation in the realm of both animal behavior and human physiology.

    hence the argument from egnorance mentioned many times.

    hell, I thought Francis Collins did a better job of making shit up in his most recent book, where he tried to use altruism to argue for a larger issue of “moral law” that in his mind was the prime evidence for special creation.

    It wasn’t a much more reasoned argument, but at least it was slightly more fleshed out.

    there was a decent analysis of where Collins went wrong with his moral law argument (and right with his genetics argument in support of the ToE) here:

    scroll down and read the section titled:

    The Irreducibly Complex Moral Law

    if you want to skip the genetics part (but do go back to it later, as there is good stuff there too).

  14. #14 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    I do have to say, though, that at first I pictured a whole bunch of folks building for Habitat for Humanity, each with his or her head tilted at precisely the right angle for maximum altruistic hammering and sawing.

    who knows? you might be dead on as to how folks like Egnor envision the concept of altruism in their minds. He certainly has left the issue open to speculation as to wtf he means when he uses the word.

    thankfully, I’m not blessed with the ability to visualize creobot babblings in my own mind, so I just go with what the rational world decided the word means, and then proceeded to study the phenomenon.

  15. #15 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007


  16. #16 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    Most doctors aren’t actually very well equipped to critically examine medicine. They aren’t taught to question it, they’re taught to practice it.

    did you just define a church attendee, or a student in medical school?

    oh wait, both!

    hey now, that explains a lot.

  17. #17 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    Can you imagine how incredibly still Egnor must have been keeping his brain while he was writing down his argument for the location of altruism?

    I’m actually thankful that I can honestly say:

    no, I can’t.


  18. #18 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 14, 2007

    In my rebuttal of his first bit of neuro-woo, I mentioned Phineas Gage and also described an “anti-Gage” whose case history appeared in an old issue of Discover.

    I also highly recommend Steven Novella’s reply to Egnor, which Melusine links in my comment thread.

  19. #19 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    Phineas Gage had a tamping iron pass through his skull. No one thought to say, “God Bless You!”, which is what you’re supposed to do in that circumstance.

    ah. thanks.

    learn somethin’ new every day.

    I’ll have to remember that the next time I encounter someone who’s had a tamping iron embedded in their skull.

    would it be proper for tire iron embedding as well?

  20. #20 Ichthyic
    June 14, 2007

    “What the bloody effing hell are you talking about? What is ‘the altruism itself’?

    oops. you looked too closely at his argument. be watchful of brain tumors in the near future.

    that kinda stupid does permanent damage, or so i hear.

    you should be more careful!

    I figured PZ was using a mental filter to make Egnor’s latest at least comprehensible, and similar in form to the one that Collins made in his book.

    guess not.

    I can feel the stupid creeping in on me as i read you try to relate the actual argument he is trying to make….

    time to drink some beer.

  21. #21 Ichthyic
    June 15, 2007

    actually he said quite a lot…

    then he name called.

    It was also my reading that Egnor was definetly saying there was NOT a locatable source for altruism in the brain. That seemed essentially his core argument, AFAICT.

    but then, I’m seeing all sorts of nuances of idiocy that i hadn’t noticed before TM started pointing them out, so at this point I’m just ready to throw my hands up and chalk it up to nothing more than the usual severe ‘tard from Egnor.

  22. #22 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    June 15, 2007

    Egnor isn’t cut out to be an armchair philosopher. He may make it as a footrest though.

    Ultimately, his argument rests on this deeply and obviously faulty analogy, and simple assertion.


    Let us give Egor some credit for finally learning PZ’s name. In return I will endeavor to learn Igor’s. He must be awfully tired of seeing Ignor misspelled by now.

  23. #23 Ichthyic
    June 15, 2007

    Pretty thin skin it seems.

    meh, he gets like that. You should have seen the argument we had about Wiki a while back. There’s another poster on PT that is the same way.

    both intelligent guys, often make very salient points, both very prone to utilizing vehement expletives.

    just keep working on the points and ignore the rest, if you want to continue, or roll with it and do what I do and insult him back.

    it’s kinda fun, actually.

    to tell the truth, at first reading I thought you were insulting him via his handle too, but then realized you were just making a random comment that had nothing to do with anything but trying to figure out where the handle came from.

    I see what you mean that he set up essentially a strawman argument for the “placement” of altruism in the brain to argue with, but it seems a tiny strawman to use to prop up his larger argument that altruism doesn’t even “exist” in the “material realm” for want of better terminology to describe his inane rant with.

    so, a casual reader doesn’t come away with the idea that he was arguing against any specific location, but rather that he is arguing FOR a non-materialistic property of “altruism”.

    really, when the inane fluff is stripped away, this does indeed look much like Collins’ argument.

  24. #24 ichthyic
    June 15, 2007

    I would automatically consider anyone calling themselves “truth machine” to be a liar.

    ah my bad, I thought you were just curious.

    roll on.

  25. #25 Ichthyic
    June 15, 2007

    er, in my previous post, the paragraph starting with “I see what you mean that he set up…”

    the “he” refers to Egnor, in case it wasn’t obvious.

  26. #26 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 15, 2007

    My rebuttal of Egnor’s follow-up is now available, in full glorious color.

  27. #27 Ichthyic
    June 15, 2007

    Egnor’s God is a category error.

    on the nosie.

  28. #28 Ichthyic
    June 15, 2007

    nice summary, Blake.

  29. #29 Brownian
    June 15, 2007

    Are we to believe our bodies are nothing more than receivers for some sort of (undetectable) broadcast? We’re nothing more than radio-controlled vehicles doing essentially nothing, in the service of nothing, at the whim of some (undetectable) controlling heaven-bound soul-entity that steers our flesh and bone around for a few decades before it wears out? Are these entities nothing more than voyeurs? Or parasites?

    That was my reading too, Kseniya. Does anyone else wonder if Egnor that his argument also attributes the problem of evil not to humans but to god (because where in the brain does evil reside?)

    Thank you Dr. Egnor, for demonstrating conclusively that god is responsible for hate, violence, greed, rape, murder, theft, torture, genocide, and people sticking gum in payphone coin return slots.

    Are we sure he’s not secretly on our side?

  30. #30 Brownian
    June 15, 2007

    “Does anyone else wonder if Egnor that his argument…” should read “Does anyone else wonder if Egnor has considered that his argument…”

    Thanks for making me make a typo, god.


    Great. Thanks for making me call god an asshole, god.

  31. #31 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    June 15, 2007

    Don’t insult Doctor Eggnog like that!

    Okay, how do you like to insult him? :-)

    It was probably my last chance to make fun of his name, given what I said, so I had to get it out of my system. Now I will have to ridicule his arguments instead… oops, nothing there. Now what?

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