Aaron Kinney tells me that Egnor is still going on and on about dualism. He’s still floundering; are you surprised?
P.Z. Myers’ reply to my observation that ideas like altruism have no physical properties, like location, leaves a thoughtful observer to wonder: why do materialists have so much difficulty with this basic philosophical principle? It’s clear that ideas share no properties with matter. Ideas have no mass, or length, or temperature, or location. They’re immaterial. Clearly, under ordinary circumstances the brain is necessary for our ideas to exist, but, because matter and ideas share no properties, it’s hard to see how the brain is sufficient for ideas to exist.
It certainly is not clear that that is the case at all. He seems to be confusing a Platonic abstraction with the instantiation of an idea. Ideas in our brain are accompanied by crass, earthly chemistry: variations in metabolism, blood perfusion rates, chemical release, and patterns of electrochemical change. Ideas do not exist in our crania without those phenomena; they are not only necessary, but since there doesn’t seem to be any other kind of activity going on (at least, that is, ghostly soul-transmissions haven’t been detected), they also seem to be sufficient.
Egnor does make me laugh with his next example, though.
Yet Myers insists that altruism is located in the brain. He’s had some trouble with my previous thought experiments, so I’ll try another:
Imagine that we can do complete split brain operations. We can separate the hemispheres of the brain completely, and not just partially as we can do now with corpus callosotomies. We can then further subdivide the tissue, keeping the brain parts biologically alive, in quarters, eighths, etc. Ignoring for the time being what would happen to the person’s consciousness (which brain part would mediate the first person experience of the original person, if any?), what would happen to the original person’s altruism? Would each one-eighth brain have one-eighth the altruism? Would each lobe contribute one-eighth of the previous brain’s annual contribution to the United Way? Would the altruism stay in one of the lobes- the left occipital lobe, and leave the other lobes heartless? What if we kept dividing? Is there an altruism neuron? The question seems nonsensical. Altruism, as an idea, doesn’t have ‘parts’. Unlike matter, ideas can’t be divided or localized.
Egnor’s conception of how the brain works is so naive it’s embarrassing. You could apply his same logic to the function of the heart: we say it’s a pump for blood, but where is the pump? If we chopped the heart up into quarters and eighths, would each piece then be able to generate part of the pressure? Or would the pumping activity be found confined to one fragment? Can we find a single pumping cardiac muscle fiber? Obviously not, the whole premise is nonsensical. Therefore, we must conclude, the pumping activity of the circulatory system is not of or in the heart—the only alternative is that there must be a supernatural locomotor force in operation.
What really made me laugh when I read his example, though, are the echoes of Hans Driesch. Driesch was a great developmental biologist, who, in the 1890s, carried out a series of experiments that quaintly drove him into the arms of vitalism. He took a sea urchin embryo, and divided it into quarters and eighths (I think you see the similarity), and asked what each fragment would do. To his surprise, each piece developed into a complete (if small) sea urchin larva. This was mind-blowing at the time. It meant the potential of the whole was present in smaller portions of the embryo, and that one embryo contained the potential for many different individuals.
It drove Driesch
mad to philosophy and natural theology. He proposed that there was a kind of vital spirit to the organism, called entelechy, that was above and beyond the material elements of the egg. He became one of the leading proponents of vitalism, espoused the existence of the soul, and even published some work in parapsychology — he went a little wacky. (But make no mistake, he was a good embryologist, and his idea that each cell had the potential to become a full adult has been vindicated).
Of course, now we know that Driesch’s experiments did not imply any supernatural agent at all—we know that each cell contains a copy of the complete genetic information for the whole in its nucleus. The larva itself is not the product of some maternal blueprint preformed in the egg (a point Driesch favored), it is not guided by an external agent (Driesch’s alternative), but it is produced by perfectly natural material interactions during development between the cells. There is no homunculus. The absence of a discretely localizable internal agent does not imply the existence of a force or blueprint outside of the embryo, though, because a modern understanding of developmental processes reveals that later complexity is an emergent property of complex interactions between the components of the genome and between individual cells. No magic needed.
Egnor’s silly dismantling of the human brain illustrates similar features. There is no “altruism neuron”, or “altruism nucleus” — altruism is the product of many interacting parts of the brain. That doesn’t make it supernatural.