Conversations with Egnor, Part II

Dr. Egnor responded to my e-mail sooner than I expected. Here is part II. I want to reiterate that these are direct e-mails. I’m not including the header information for privacy purposes. Part I is here.

Sarting withDr. Egnor’s response:

Danny,

Thanks for your reply. I’ll give my comments after each of your points.

“Actually, the real question I have is, how can you say that subjective experience is not linked to biological causes when it obviously is? The redness of red, the loudness of loud, etc., can all be explained by physiological processes in the eye, the ear, etc. The fact that we can subjectively say “redder than this” or “louder than that” merely means that we have a brain that can differentiate between more/less intense stimuli. The fact than you can’t explain scent to someone with no sense of smell only further supports the heavy reliance on biological processes.”

“Redness” isn’t explained by physiology. Physiology is chemistry, biology, etc. Redness is an experience, which is not any part of chemistry or biology. Obviously subjective experience is linked to biological causes to a significant extent, at least in our ordinary experience. But this is the problem with inferring that the material biological processes are the entire cause of the subjective experience: in accordance with our current scientific knowledge, we can give a complete scientific description of the brain, sense organs, etc .without any reference whatsoever to subjective experience. More formally , nothing in objective ontology implies subjective ontology. Neurophysiology can be described in as much detail as you20wish without recourse to subjective experience. In philosophy of the mind, this is called the ‘conceivability of zombies’ argument. We could explain (and theoretically  construct) a complete human brain and body without any invocation of subjectivity. Just mix carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, minerals properly. From our current state of knowledge, there is no point at which subjective experience arises. Subjectivity can only be imparted ad hoc. Nothing in a materialistic understanding of man intrinsically explains or predicts first-person ontology. Parenthetically, I am not a property dualist. I believe that the most reasonable way to understand the mind-brain (or the soul-body) relationship is hylomorphic dualism (sometimes called Thomistic dualism or personalism) (see my post http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/01/daniel_dennett_call_your_offic.html). In HD, the soul (part of which is the mind) is the Aristotelian Form of the body. This is a very old view (it was held by Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas), and it has a lot to say for it. Succinctly, it invokes all four of the Aristotelian causes (material, efficient, formal and final) to explain the mind-brain relationship, rather than the two causes- material and efficient- employed by contemporary science. There is a succinct description of it in the last chapter of Edward Feser’s Philosophy of the Mind (http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Mind-Short-Introduction/dp/1851683763), w hich is a superb intro and does not have the usual materialist bias of contemporary texts. Hylomorphism has gained quite a few supporters over the past decade, and there are a number of new books applying hylomorphism to the mind-body problem, as well as to the philosophy of science, ethics, etc.

“You stated: “Denial of the reality of corroborated experiences of tens of millions of people requires a solid scientific reason, not merely an ideological commitment to materialism.” But we have so much experience that experiences are not always remembered as they happened.”
 
I’m not talking about obvious hallucinations. I’m talking about corroborated NDE’s, in which patients can describe things that occurred while they were in cardiac arrest that can be checked. These are quite common, estimated to be about a third of NDE’s. With 20 million people in the US estimated (by Gallup) to have had a NDE or out-of body experience, this would be 6 million corroborated NDE’s. I have two neurosurgical colleagues who have told me of patients who have had these experiences. One patient was a woman who had a brain aneurysm fixed under hypothermia and full cardiac arrest for thirty minutes. She told him that she watched the entire operation from the ceiling of the OR. He disbelieved it until she explained the operation to him, in detail, including the appearance of his custom-made instruments, which she had never seen. I had another colleague who had a 5 year old child explain technical details of his own brain operation that he said he watched (the parents were upset because they thought my colleague didn’t use anesthesia on their son!) The literature is full of corroborated reports like this. To dismiss these experiences out of hand is blatantly unscientific, and is motivated simply by a commitment to an ideology that doesn’t admit dualism. I am not claiming that NDE’s are proven to be real; but I am asserting that reports of corroborated NDE’s represent a large body of genuine scientific evidence that warrants being taken seriously.

“Now, to the second issue: Of course people who are blind, deaf, etc. have a diminishment of mind. …We also see behavioral impairment when the corpus callosum is cut. So unless your definition of “mind” is more restrictive than mine, and if it is, by all means, please share, Ithink we can see that changes in the brain create changes in the mind.”

Obviously changes in the brain sometimes change the mind, although in 23 years of practicing neurosurgery, I’ve been amazed at the weakness of this correlation. I’ve removed major portions of the brain under local anesthesia (to facilitate brain mapping) while I was talking to the patient who was under the drapes. Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon who was the father of epilepsy surgery and probably had more direct scientific experience20with brain stimulation, lesioning, and resection than anyone, was an ardent dualist. He concluded that he could alter some aspects of mental function, but there was a component of the mind that seemed to be separate from anything he could manipulate materialistically. He called this “double consciousness”. As for sectioning of the corpus callosum, these people are normal in all ordinary respects. The deficits are subtle, and can only be elicited by careful testing (that’s why Sperry won the Nobel Prize). These people still have only one mind. And I don’t agree with your assertion that people with neurological handicaps have a diminishment of mind. The term ‘mind’ is vague; this debate is about first person ontology and it’s causation. Neurologically handicapped people such as blind people have diminishment of sensory input, etc, but blind people don’t have less first-person ontology than sighted persons. First person ontology is unitary and not quantifiable. Children have fewer neurons, less cognitive capacity, etc. than adults. Yet they have just as much first-person ontology as adults.

No one denies that brain changes can change the mind, or that the mind can change the body. But if the brain is the entire cause of the mind, without remainder, than the salient properties of the mind (which are all subjective) are very difficult to explain as material properties.

“You and others in the intelligent design movement have been known t o show disrespect to scientists by disparaging their work. You refer to evolution as “Darwinism,” despite the fact that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection is merely the most widely-accepted theory of evolution. By using “Darwinist” and “Darwinism,” you attempt to link Natural Selection with other -isms in the world, such as Taoism, Marxism, Maoism, and Leninism. You try to play Natural Selection like it is a religious belief or a political agenda, and your organization deliberately withheld facts and told half-truths in a major documentary in order to align fascism with Natural Selection.

Essentially, your argument is that we should replace one indefensible theory with another indefensible theory. I don’t happen to find materialist explanations all that unconvincing. But let me say this;  the minute you can provide evidence for the contrary, I will turn coat. It’s that simple.

I don’t disrespect scientists. I disrespect ideologues who use science to advance their ideology. The inference that all functional biological complexity (e.g. the genetic code, molecular nano-technology inside cells, etc) arose entirely wi thout teleology is utterly unsupported by the evidence. There is no evidence that random mutation and natural selection can produce codes and machines. I use the term Darwinism to describe this ideological perversion of science. Darwin’s theory is the creation myth of atheists. And I have nothing but scorn for atheists who misrepresent scientific evidence in order to advance their ideology.

Most Darwinists are atheist/materialist ideologues who are using censorship and intimidation to advance their ideology. I call it an “ism” because that is how other “isms” have behaved. The intimidation is obvious. Scientists who question Darwinism are ostracized and driven out of academia. I have colleagues who are basic scientists who are ID supporters, but who will not go public because they know that their careers will be ruined. “Expelled” understated the consequences of publicly doubting Darwinism. People still call my office demanding that I be fired.

As for the connection between Darwinism and eugenics, it is a matter of historical record. (Richard Weikart’s “From Darwin to Hitler” http://www.amazon.com/Darwin-Hitler-Evolutionary-Eugenics-Germany/dp/140397201X and John West’s “Darwin Day in America” are good introductions). Darwin asserted that we became human through a struggle for survival in which the strongest survived. Eugenicists were horrified that compassion for the weak among us would degrade humanity biologically, and recommended taking evolution into our own hands. All scientific eugenicists were Darwinists. Darwin’s cousin (Francis Galton) coined the term eugenics, and Darwin’s son (Leonard) was one to the leading eugenicists of the early 20 th century. Nazi fascism was the explicit application of “applied” natural selection to racial matters and politics. (other kinks of fascism, such as Italian and Spanish fascism, were much less Darwinian and much less eugenic and violent). “Expelled” was exactly right about the complicity of Darwinism in eugenics and Nazi fascism. Read Wiekart’s book, and then tell me what you think.

Thanks for listening.

Mike

Here is my response:

Dr. Egnor,

Thank you for your response. Considering how late I sent that last message, I have to assume you live on the West Coast. I hope you’re having more palatable weather than we have here.

As I mentioned, I am a student of psychology. I took up neurology and neuropsychology as a hobby because I feel too much is missing from the traditional psychological curriculum. I’m only saying this because I know there are specifics that I am unaware of and don’t quite understand yet.

I’ll follow your lead and respond to your points individually.

“Redness” isn’t explained by physiology. Physiology is chemistry, biology, etc. Redness is an experience, which is not any part of chemistry or biology. Obviously subjective experience is linked to biological causes to a significant extent, at least in our ordinary experience. But this is the problem with inferring that the material biological processes are the entire cause of the subjective experience: in accordance with our current scientific knowledge, we can give a complete scientific description of the brain, sense organs, etc .without any reference whatsoever to subjective experience. More formally , nothing in objective ontology implies subjective ontology. Neurophysiology can be described in as much detail as you20wish without recourse to subjective experience. In philosophy of the mind, this is called the ‘conceivability of zombies’ argument. We could explain (and theoretically  construct) a complete human brain and body without any invocation of subjectivity. Just mix carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, minerals properly. From our current state of knowledge, there is no point at which subjective experience arises. Subjectivity can only be imparted ad hoc. Nothing in a materialistic understanding of man intrinsically explains or predicts first-person ontology.

I have two problems with this. The first, redness is explained by physiology. The ability to see red is a sensation that involves wavelengths of light stimulating the red-sensitive cones in the eye. “Redness” would relate to perception, but it is not unexplainable. Light intensity can explain it in part, but comparison with other objects of the same color can also explain it. Dualism cannot explain this unless you hold that every brain, including animal brains, include this duality. My dog can perceive loud and quiet, rough and soft, and pick up on tones in my voice. This is done by comparing memories of vocal tones and determining what occurred, then making decisions based on prior data. I don’t see how non-biological causes need to be invoked to explain this. Besides, we know damage to the brain or the retina can destroy our ability to perceive redness. I would contend that if there was something other than the brain controlling all of this, selective destruction of the retina and the occipital lobe would not destroy perception. This perception issued also explains how hallucinogens work, again, without a non-biological explanation.

 

We also bump up against another philosophical problem here, one that Wittgenstein identified, the problem of using language, which relies on relationships, to try to show or explain facts. As an example, if a child was raised believing that green was red and red was green, that child would not perceive red in the same way that everyone else in the world does. However, this still does not explain dualism. In fact, it refutes it, by showing that knowledge is in itself subjective and not the responsibility of some other source. The child does not misperceive red and green because of some dualistic selective experience, but because of a problem with learning, a process easily explained by physiology. 

I would also contend that we cannot give a “complete scientific description of the brain” because there is a question I have about the encoding of information in memory that I cannot find an answer for. In computer technology, we recognize the bit as the smallest piece of information. So what is the “bit” in human memory? How large is the base piece of human information stored in each neuron? I recognize that this would be different for different things because our memory is specialized in different areas of the brain (i.e., facial recognition, event memory, reading, location.) This definitely has implications for how memory is stored and processed and how information is organized in the brain.\

I’m not talking about obvious hallucinations. I’m talking about corroborated NDE’s, in which patients can describe things that occurred while they were in cardiac arrest that can be checked. These are quite common, estimated to be about a third of NDE’s. With 20 million people in the US estimated (by Gallup) to have had a NDE or out-of body experience, this would be 6 million corroborated NDE’s. I have two neurosurgical colleagues who have told me of patients who have had these experiences. One patient was a woman who had a brain aneurysm fixed under hypothermia and full cardiac arrest for thirty minutes. She told him that she watched the entire operation from the ceiling of the OR. He disbelieved it until she explained the operation to him, in detail, including the appearance of his custom-made instruments, which she had never seen… The literature is full of corroborated reports like this. To dismiss these experiences out of hand is blatantly unscientific, and is motivated simply by a commitment to an ideology that doesn’t admit dualism. I am not claiming that NDE’s are proven to be real; but I am asserting that reports of corroborated NDE’s represent a large body of genuine scientific evidence that warrants being taken seriously.

But the literature is also full of corroborated reports of people witnessing ghost activity and UFOs. There is corroborated “evidence” that there are people who can talk to the dead. That is the problem with anecdotal evidence, even corroborated evidence. Considering that life-saving procedures like CPR are used to keep oxygenated blood flowing to the brain, I would not be surprised to find brain activity going on. I can’t explain these because I wasn’t there to hear the patient’s account and see what happened during the surgery to compare. I don’t know if the surgeons in the two cases you described may have unknowingly exaggerated what happened in an attempt to explain  what happened. But that’s the problem with anecdotal evidence; unless you were there, you don’t know exactly what happened. I can look at a correlation between smoking and lung cancer, read the studies, and assess their quality. Anecdotal evidence is always presented as “This is what happened, now call me a liar.” I can’t, because I wasn’t there. But I also can’t fully believe it because I wasn’t there.

Obviously changes in the brain sometimes change the mind, although in 23 years of practicing neurosurgery, I’ve been amazed at the weakness of this correlation. I’ve removed major portions of the brain under local anesthesia (to facilitate brain mapping) while I was talking to the patient who was under the drapes. Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon who was the father of epilepsy surgery and probably had more direct scientific experience20with brain stimulation, lesioning, and resection than anyone, was an ardent dualist. He concluded that he could alter some aspects of mental function, but there was a component of the mind that seemed to be separate from anything he could manipulate materialistically. He called this “double consciousness”. As for sectioning of the corpus callosum, these people are normal in all ordinary respects. The deficits are subtle, and can only be elicited by careful testing (that’s why Sperry won the Nobel Prize). These people still have only one mind. And I don’t agree with your assertion that people with neurological handicaps have a diminishment of mind. The term ‘mind’ is vague; this debate is about first person ontology and it’s causation. Neurologically handicapped people such as blind people have diminishment of sensory input, etc, but blind people don’t have less first-person ontology than sighted persons. First person ontology is unitary and not quantifiable. Children have fewer neurons, less cognitive capacity, etc. than adults. Yet they have just as much first-person ontology as adults.

Feel free to be more specific when it comes to surgery. What parts of the brain are you removing, and what are you asking? I ask because I can understand how you can remove some portions of the brain and still maintain certain functions that would lead one to believe that nothing has changed. I want to get a sense of what you have seen.

We are using different definition for “mind.” I think of the Mind as the sum of mental activity that we are aware of. In other words, everything that the brain does that does not include the physiological control of bodily function. You’re using mind to refer to first-person ontology. Now that I get down to it, your argument seems to be that subjective experience is irreducible. John Searle proposes the same thing without dualism, stating that we can explain all of the neurological functions involved in consciousness, yet still have the phenomena of first person ontology left to explain. However, I’m wondering if your position, and Searle’s, might not simply be the Vatican arguing for an Earth-centered universe. We do not know everything about consciousness. Even you stumble over the language of describing the phenomena, referring to first-person ontology as unquantifiable in one breath and stating that children have “just as much first person ontology as adults.”

Think about mirror neurons. We have evidence that links these neurons to understanding the intentions of others and empathy. What is there to say that we will not find some part of the brain that codes selective experience? I may be wrong in this, and find out that the mind is dualistic, but I have not seen evidence convincing enough to sway me.

Tell me this: how would you identify someone who displayed less first person ontology than another? Hypothetically, of course.

I don’t disrespect scientists. I disrespect ideologues who use science to advance their ideology. The inference that all functional biological complexity (e.g. the genetic code, molecular nano-technology inside cells, etc) arose entirely wi thout teleology is utterly unsupported by the evidence. There is no evidence that random mutation and natural selection can produce codes and machines. I use the term Darwinism to describe this ideological perversion of science. Darwin’s theory is the creation myth of atheists. And I have nothing but scorn for atheists who misrepresent scientific evidence in order to advance their ideology.

Most Darwinists are atheist/materialist ideologues who are using censorship and intimidation to advance their ideology. I call it an “ism” because that is how other “isms” have behaved. The intimidation is obvious. Scientists who question Darwinism are ostracized and driven out of academia. I have colleagues who are basic scientists who are ID supporters, but who will not go public because they know that their careers will be ruined. “Expelled” understated the consequences of publicly doubting Darwinism. People still call my office demanding that I be fired.

As for the connection between Darwinism and eugenics, it is a matter of historical record. (Richard Weikart’s “From Darwin to Hitler” http://www.amazon.com/Darwin-Hitler-Evolutionary-Eugenics-Germany/dp/140397201X and John West’s “Darwin Day in America” are good introductions). Darwin asserted that we became human through a struggle for survival in which the strongest survived. Eugenicists were horrified that compassion for the weak among us would degrade humanity biologically, and recommended taking evolution into our own hands. All scientific eugenicists were Darwinists. Darwin’s cousin (Francis Galton) coined the term eugenics, and Darwin’s son (Leonard) was one to the leading eugenicists of the early 20 th century. Nazi fascism was the explicit application of “applied” natural selection to racial matters and politics. (other kinks of fascism, such as Italian and Spanish fascism, were much less Darwinian and much less eugenic and violent). “Expelled” was exactly right about the complicity of Darwinism in eugenics and Nazi fascism. Read Wiekart’s book, and then tell me what you think.

I won’t claim that biological complexity can produce machines. Machines don’t reproduce and mutate. And people also call PZ Myers office demanding he be fired. The guys who wrote The Bell Curve were run through a PC wringer because they pointed out that different races and ethnic groups have different average intelligences. They never, at any point, advocate racist policies. (They did advocate policy changed which were included in the Welfare Act of 1996, which ends the practice of paying welfare mothers extra money for each child. I work in social services and even I think this is a good idea.) Steven Pinker points out that no one can get funding to study the cause of homosexuality because conservative funding sources don’t want to hear that it is biological and liberals don’t want to hear that it is learned. This is the problem of science and public policy.

 

Darwin did not say that the strongest survived, he said that the most fit survived. Lenski showed this last year in e. coli, with the development of Cit+ bacteria. In the 1890s-1900s, researchers selectively bred fruit flies to digest sucrose or glucose. As the end of the experiment, the two groups would not eat the opposing sugar and would not male with each other. (You can argue that they are still fruit flies, but there are 1,500 species of fruit flies.) We know that mutations occur within a species. This occurs due to environmental pressures which give one organism an advantage over another. Enough of these changes build up and you eventually get a new species. It is not “nature red in tooth and claw,” it’s just that, as the environment changes or species migrate to new environments, some will have mutations which allow them to survive longer or reproduce more. 

I did an undergrad ethics project on genetics and eugenics, so I am well aware of the background. Galton was a very intelligent man who did a number of things for the early study of psychology, meteorology, and statistics. He also stole the idea of fingerprint identification from Henry Faulds. Smart guy, also a jerk. But the idea that Darwin should be held responsible for his cousin and his son is ludicrous.

 

In 19th century Germany, anti-Semitism was rampant. Frederick Nietzsche’s sister married a famous anti-Semite and they moved to South America to found a pure-German colony. Nietzsche sent a letter to his mother, referring to his sister as a “vicious, anti-Semitic goose.” He devoted one section of Beyond Good and Evil to explaining how the Germans were really the impure race and the Jews were far more pure. He split with Wagner because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism (and the fact that he wanted to nail Wagner’s wife). None of this stopped Nietzsche’s sister from quote-mining his work, publishing The Will to Power, and passing it off to the Nazis. But we can’t hold Nietzsche responsible for that, any more than we can hold Jesus responsible for the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials, or hold Hagel responsible for Stalin’s reign of terror. Hitler would have imprisoned Jews and murdered them without Darwin. Darwin gave him an excuse to call it science. But you can’t hold science accountable for the people who will bastardize science for their own gains. 

I’ve seen Expelled. You cannot sit there and say with a straight face that it didn’t present biased evidence.

 

Thanks again for responding. Hope to hear back from you soon.

Danny

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