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 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.

  2. #2 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.

  3. #3 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.


  4. #4 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.

  5. #5 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?