Egnor babbles some more

Michael Egnor has replied to my dismissal of his claims that memories can't be stored in the brain with a curiously titled post, Understanding Memories: Lovely Metaphors Belong in Songs, Not Science. I was a bit confused, at first…I don't recall using any song lyrics or poetic metaphors in my post on the subject, but then as I read his post, a light dawned. He's talking about himself.

I'm reminded of a phrase from one of my favorite songwriters, Paul Simon, in "The Boxer": "I've squandered my resistance for a pocket full of mumbles."

A lovely metaphor (I lived in New York City at the time and took the lyrics to heart). But a neuroscience proposal for a laboratory investigation of pocket-able mumbles would be unlikely to get NSF funding, and would perhaps warrant a psychiatric evaluation of the lead investigator. "Memories stored in the brain" is no less unintelligible than "a pocket full of mumbles."

So I tell him the state of neuroscience and cite Nobel-prize-winning work on memory formation, and he fires back with a lovely metaphor from a song and tells me that lovely metaphors aren't science. OK. They aren't science. And then he tells us all that research on memory is unintelligible and unlikely to get funding.

You know, we can check that last claim against the evidence. You can search the NSF awards data base for proposals on memory and the brain pretty easily. Here are the first ten relevant titles it returned, from 100 pages of 30 entries each.

CAREER: Neural processes that influence the contents of working memory

In Vivo Functional Analysis of the Role of 14-3-3 Isoforms in Drosophilia Learning and Memory


Oscillatory Models of Short-Term Memory

Neuroendocrine Regulation of Memory Storage

EFRI-BSBA Integration of Dynamic Sensing and Actuating of Neural Microcircuits

CAREER: Roles of hippocampal/neostriatal systems in multiple forms of memory

Neural basis of the memory for sequences of events: A synergistic approach in rats and humans

Influence of SK Channels on Hippocampal Memory

Octopamine Functions and Underlying Mechanisms for Associative Learning and Memory of Drosophila Melanogaster

I could go on for page after page, but I think the point is made: Egnor is factually wrong.

The gist of his remaining argument is to cite some philosophers who argue that we have to be careful and precise with our words and definitions, which is nothing new -- Francis Bacon made the same point. But it's Egnor who is being sloppy in his terms and trying to confuse the reader -- throwing around bizarre colloquial understandings of the nature of memory (They have neither mass nor volume nor location, when actually, there certainly are physical correlates for memory, and memory doesn't exist without a functional substrate of the brain) and rejecting in incomprehension the scientific explanations.

By the way, Steven Novella has also addressed Egnor's claims.

Egnor is playing word and logic games, not making a serious analysis of the science of memory. In fact, he appears to be largely ignorant of the neuroscience. He uses vague terms in a confusing way (reflecting his sloppy thinking) to force his desired conclusions.


I've been predicting for some time that the next challenge creationists will face are the discoveries of neuroscience, which are rapidly blasting folk notions of 'soul' and consciousness into vapor. I can see that the responses they muster are as ignorant and silly as those they make to evolution.

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That's a rather revealing selective quotation of Simon. Let's look at the whole stanza:

I am just a poor boy
Though my story's seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles
Such are promises.
All lies and jest!
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.

The third line from the end (describing the mumbles metaphorically filling the narrator's pocket) is also an apt description of Egnor's work, and the last two describe him to a T.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Dec 2014 #permalink

What is velocity? It has "neither mass nor volume nor location". Then how is your car capable of velocity? Show me the location in the car of velocity. Which part is responsible for velocity? So clearly velocity is not a physical phenomenon! Perhaps someone should explain to Dr. Egnor the concept of emergent properties.


What really irks me about this is the dishonesty in Egnor's argument. There is no place in a computer's memory where a movie exists as a movie. The structure of the data itself is a collections of compressed blocks dispersed throughout the drive. Yet he does not assert that computers have a magical soul that turns the 1s and 0s into "Frozen".

He has to know this. Why does he persist with this malarkey? Is it really just about keeping the rubes dumb and willing to fork over cash?

By Scott Fanetti (not verified) on 23 Dec 2014 #permalink