This guy is a brain surgeon?

The latest gem from Egnor:

Clearly the brain, as a material substance, causes movement of the body, which is also a material substance. The links are nerves and muscles. But there is no material link between our ideas and our brains, because ideas aren’t material.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but that’s strikes me as the dumbest thing I’ve heard yet. No material link between our ideas and our brains? So I guess when we take a hallucinogen like LSD it works by magic? How could it be that thinking
is separate from “material” as he puts it, when we can ingest material substances that alter our thinking? How is it that damage to specific areas of the brain can inhibit different kinds of thought? Immaterial things like remorse, impulsivity, memory, language can all be affected by “material” brain-damage and “material” drugs. How does the non-materialist explain this? Is it magic?

This goes beyond Egnor’s usual ignorance of science, this is more like Deepak Chopra kind of woo – this idea that our brains are in contact with the divine and that’s where our thoughts and ideas come from. But it’s just magical thinking, there is no evidence of some divine hand in our thoughts, quite the opposite. The evidence is that ideas do have an organic origin, or how else does one explain how damage to the system or specific drugs that interact with it, affects our thinking in predictable and repeatable ways?

And let’s think about what this “non-materialist” view does for the study of neuroscience. Oh wait, nothing. Because if the brain is an incomprehensible magic black box, why study neuroscience? Why try to decode, dissect and discover how neural processes and diseases work if you believe it’s just magic?

** It’s also ironic that this paper – Probabilistic reasoning by neurons – just popped up on Nature AOP and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe Egnor didn’t do a thorough literature review before posting this nonsense.


15 responses to “This guy is a brain surgeon?”

  1. Ribozyme

    A more everyday example of the physical-organic nature of the mind is how lack of food or sleep markedly affects mood and the capacity to think. I guess that’s why this kind of people despise the use of the use of drugs for the treatment of depression, and in its place prefer “the use of willpower” and prayer (alcoholics anonymous is a good example). The positive results of the medication, demonstrating a physical foundation for something so ethereal as mood and happiness is too much for them to handle.

  2. Does this guy know anything about how neurotransmitters work? Or about depolarization in neurons?

    If he thinks that ions and biomolecules have no material existence, I’d like to find out whether any of our tax dollars subsidized any portion of his undergraduate or medical education. Because, if they did, I would like to demand a refund.

  3. You are being a little harsh in dismissing this view as obvious nonsense. It’s actually one of the key issues in philosophy of mind (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for mental causation) and has as its core the question ‘can the properties of mental events be reduced to the properties of physical events’, and it’s not clear that they can.

    Egnor is confused when he uses this to argue against materialism and question whether the brain is “sufficient cause of the mind”, as it is completely compatible with it, but he does pose the general question in the right way.

    For example, it is possible to accept (as most people do) that all mental events are the result of brain function. Nevertheless, this doesn’t answer the question over whether a concept used to describe a mind-level function (e.g. altruism) can be successfully used in a causal model of physical and biological action (e.g. altruistic acts).

    It’s really a problem of concept mapping. Some (like the Churchlands) argue that the mental can’t successfully be reduced to the physical and suggest we should just throw out all talk of mental events and rely solely on neuroscience to solve the problem (see eliminative materialism).

    Probably the most widely accepted approach is property dualism, which accepts there is only one type of material ‘stuff’, but that its action can be explained at different levels of explanation, each of which might use its own concepts and property descriptions.

    This is likely to mean that not all properties of mind-level concepts can be adequately reduced to brain function, without either modifying the concepts, or accepting that there might be several possible models each of which makes links in different places (known as “patchy reductionism”).

    However, Egnor makes ‘Descartes Error’ in assuming that because mind- and brain-level explanations aren’t fully coherent with each other, they must represent different substances. This is just mistaking the map for the territory.

  4. Another thing I have noticed with this “immaterial” view of thoughts: Religious people are all too willing to attribute feelings of joy, acceptance, awe, and what have you to the spiritual. But when they have depression, anxiety, or other negative thoughts and experiences, it is always social and physical. Much like the animal rights activist who protests tests on rabbits but doesn’t care about the snakes, this type of hypocrisy is common and this is one area where it is rampant.

    If the theory is that thought comes from the supernatural, even the bad thought must have the same source. Something’s gotta give.

  5. QrazyQat

    Egnor’s point is a classic argument from ignorance. Because we don’t know the precise way the brain does all that it does, there is no possible way it can be connected to thinking.

    All the other points made here — that we do know some things, and that even if we didn’t have a clue we know that there’s a connection because we see it clearly after some injuries — are also valid. But I think the core is classic argument from ignorance, with the oft-unvoiced conviction that if we don’t know now we never can.

    OTOH, Egnor does provide an example of his thesis, because the connection between his presumably working brain and thinking is not at all evident.

  6. To be fair, I suggest everyone read the full article before commenting, you’ll see that while the author is off, you can still see where he’s not insane.

    The guy talks about altruism as something non-physical, and yes he’s right that our brains don’t “have altruism”. Altruism is an abstract concept, rather, our brains compel us to perform altruistic actions and behaviors, which we ourselves have labeled as altruistic. It’s really just a limitation of syntax- altruism itself is an abstract immaterial thing, but is manifested in entirely physical mannerisms.

    Any mental state or abstract concept is pretty much impossible to describe in a comprehensible fashion without physical actions that exemplify such characteristics- we’ve created such abstract words as really nothing more than convenient categorical phrases. We can be told someone is “angry” and immediately have an idea of the traits that person will likely be showing. But again, “anger” itself is an artificial construct that doesn’t exist materially- it’s only applied to a situation. “I’m so angry” is materially defined as “my cortisol levels are rising, my adrenaline is pumping, I’m stomping about, I kicked a kitten and want to yell at people.” Obviously some things here are below conscious report, and we could get into what “wanting” and free will mean, but I hope my point is made.

    So anyways, simply manifesting actions characteristic of one of these abstract concepts like “being altruistic” or “having an idea” is sufficient for us to identify that as one of our abstract words- traits describe the actions and the actions define the traits. So as a matter of gramatical technicality, no, you can’t “possess an idea”, you are able to conciously report (you become aware of) a series of actions which you could carry out that have the potential of reaching some desired end- which we call an idea. An “idea” is simply our term for those set of actions.

    This is all fine and insightful, but here’s the author’s big mistake. He doesn’t view these abstract concepts as artificial, non-existent in their own right- he sees them as real things which exist, yet are intangible. This big difference has him make the distinction of a neural realm and a mental one- he sees altruism as existing, as being more than a label applied physical actions. Here he goes on a dangerous slope. Altruism is immaterial but real, so clearly ascribing only material causes to an event is flawed, he argues. He goes on to make the important distinction that awareness of performing action is independent from actually performing the action, but again, puts this “awareness” smack into the “immaterial but real” category, deciding that awareness is somehow more than just the physical capability of being able to report something. I’d surmise this (and many people’s) creation of a “mental” self is due to their own existence and experience of life.

    Now, you could say “Wait, here. This is just a matter of opinion, he says there’s a mental, and you say there isn’t. If there is a mental, then the guys got a point- neuroscientists are flawed in looking only for material causes.” Well, that’s the way science works- looking at observable things and making testable statements to arive at a conclusion. Thing is, by manipulating the brain, we change these things you claim exist but be immaterial. You lesion the vmPFC and people will make purely, spock-like, utilitarian judgements- it’s not a matter of the brain not being able to issue signals to tell the mouth to evoke a sympathizing decisions, it’s that “thought” itself has been manipulated; we’ve made someone show one of those supposedly real but immaterial things through material actions. There’s no evidence to suggest that any human action requires the existence of an intangible “mind”, “soul” or “conscience” and by Ockham’s razor, we see no need to include one. If we continue to look for material causes and we can’t explain something, then by process of elimination we decide there must be a “something” there that we can’t directly observe responsible for these actions and go about trying to determine the properties of this something- much like how electrons were known to exist and understood well before we actually had any sort of advanced imaging techniques. Either way, we’re on the right track by trying to pin these things down by looking at what we CAN observe first. At this point, based on the fact that every functional theory up to this point has no need to explain things in terms of truly immaterial, non observable entities, we have no reason to believe the brain is any different. Maybe, yes, we could be wrong by suggesting that what we call a thought is entirely a product of physical entities like everything else, but until we get some reasonable evidence that contradicts our “there is no magical whiffly-woof and all things work in a predictible manner” theory, there’s no reason to throw up our hands and despair “Yep, no point tryin’ to observe things and figurin’ out why things happen. God must’a done it.” Even IF we conclude there is some whiffly-woof at work, we could still go about, and perhaps more interestingly, understand exactly what God (alright, I’m calling the whiffly-woof God) does and doesn’t do- a thought that probably would rankle many zealots.

  7. Ribozyme

    Tym: but I think that the working hypothesis (and the most likely to be right) for much of the research on the neural basis for the mind is that mind and its aspects, such as mood, emotion and thought are configurations of the brain, somewhat as a software program and its processes are configurations of a computer chip. Mind is material if it is defined by the states of the neurons involved, the same way computer software is the configuration of the transistors in the computer, and the electrical impulses being sent among them. Software is also an abstraction. What we get in the CDs and DVDs we buy, or the Hard Disk in which we install it, is a description of the software, but the software itself -i.e., the instructions for the computer- is abstract. That doesn’t make it immaterial as long as it is implemented on some physical storage medium, memory or other computer circuit.

  8. The ‘soul of the gaps’ position? :> Back in the days before science, soul was thought to animate the body, allowing it to move. As understanding grew, scientists figured out how muscles work. The domain of the soul shrank, from the life-force to the mere seat of thinking. Then neuroscience appeared, and the processes of thinking were partly mapped – with each function decided, the area to which the soul could be assigned shrank further.

    Eventually, it hits a wall – the point where to shrink the soul any further would be to render it irrelivent. This is when the soul-meme fights back, as its followers start to either ignore or actively deny the soul-threatening science. Not difficult do to, because by the time its gotten up to exolutionary psychiatry the typical layperson cant understand more then the vaguest idea. The explanation ‘We get out sense of right and wrong from our souls’ is a lot easier than understanding properly such an in-depth field, with its elaborate study of game theory as applied to moral situations and reproductive success.

  9. AdamG

    Wow, I read that first little quote, and I think the people back on the east coast heard my wail of anguish! Completely brain-dead would have to be the description of anybody who believes this nonsense. If you don’t believe the brain generates our thoughts, then what, exactly, does it do? We send 20% of our blood flow here for what reason? We need it to warm the air around our heads a little??

    Mark, for a non-neuroscientist, howcome you were so easily able to spot this complete abuse of logic and reason? Thanks for giving me something to be outraged about today 🙂

    And a further point of interest, seeing that article, I’m reminded that Dr. Shadlen is a graduate from a lab that’s in my building. And I just went to a thesis defense last week that talked about similar ideas – that neurons track probabilities and expectation of rewards. It’s fascinating stuff, and provides just more evidence that (unsurprisingly) our brains are responsible for how we perceive and interact with the world.

  10. Chris Noble

    Stupidity, in contrast, has no matter or energy. It has no ?location?, no weight, no dimension, no temperature.

    Nevertheless, Egnor is full of it.

  11. minimalist

    It’s fascinating stuff, and provides just more evidence that (unsurprisingly) our brains are responsible for how we perceive and interact with the world.

    “I used to think the brain was the most fascinating organ of the human body.

    “Then I thought: Yeah, look what’s telling me that.”

    – Emo Phillips

  12. Kagehi

    prefer “the use of willpower” and prayer (alcoholics anonymous is a good example)

    Actually, its a bad example. AA isn’t about using “willpower”. Its premises work, as Penn and Teller point out on their special on it, more or less like this:

    1. You can’t control yourself.
    2. You never could control yourself.
    3. God can control you.
    4. You must give up your will to God, through the priests.
    5-12. Repeat 1->4 until they either run in terror (this happens with like 95% of the people that “drop out for no reason we bother to find out”) or they become addicted to being told how stupid, incompetent, non-self sufficient and evil they are, without continuing to attend either church or the meetings.

    So, no. Religion when directed to the purpose of “curing” someone, or even in most other cases, is not about given people will power, training them to use it, or in any other way providing them with the means to act independently. Its about robbing them of independence, convincing them of their inadequacy, and training them to cave in to authoritarian pressures. Prayer is just a silly replacement for action, which lets the sheep *think* they still have some control over their lives.

  13. Nick Markogiannakis

    It’s easy for one to understand the concept that “ideas are not formed in the brain” if they think of the brain as a link mechanism or device. And that explains that when the brain is damaged the communication process is severed.

  14. ur findings is currrect

  15. Altruism is something non-physical, and yes he’s right that our brains don’t “have altruism”. Altruism is an abstract concept, rather, our brains compel us to perform altruistic actions and behaviors, which we ourselves have labeled as altruistic. It’s really just a limitation of syntax- altruism itself is an abstract immaterial thing, but is manifested in entirely physical mannerisms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *