Tag Archives: Michael Egnor

Continued insights on the mind-brain problem

Michael Egnor recently authored a new article in First Things on the mind-brain problem titled A Map of the Soul. I am really just putting this up here as a placeholder and reference for use in future discussions. Egnor writes clearly and concisely about something he has studied up close as a brain surgeon. In addition, it is obvious that he has spent time trying to understand Philosophy and Philosophy of mind. He makes a compelling case for a dualist view. Here is an excerpt of some the observations that have informed his belief in the existence of the mind apart from the brain:

Wilder Penfield, an early-twentieth-century neurosurgeon who pioneered seizure surgery, noted that during brain stimulation on awake patients, he was never able to stimulate the mind itself—the sense of “I”—but only fragmented sensations and perceptions and movements and memories. Our core identity cannot be evoked or altered by physical stimulation of the brain.

Relatedly, Penfield observed that spontaneous electrical discharges in the brain cause involuntary sensations and movements and even emotions, but never abstract reasoning or calculation. There are no “calculus” seizures or “moral” seizures, in which patients involuntarily take second derivatives or ponder mercy.

Similar observations emerge from Roger Sperry’s famous studies of patients who had undergone surgery to disconnect the hemispheres of the brain. This was done to prevent seizures. The post-operative patients experienced peculiar perceptual and behavioral changes, but they retained unity of personal identity—a unified intellect and will. The changes Sperry discovered in his research (for which he won a Nobel Prize) were so subtle as to pass unnoticed in everyday life.

Counting atrocities–Is the world getting more atrocious?

Steven Pinker of Harvard University wrote a book titled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. His premise is that, as knowledge has increased, man has become more enlightened and socially evolved in such a way that the world has become less violent. Vincent Torley requires only two well researched blog posts to put the lie to that nonsense. You can read them here and here. The blog posts are extremely well written and very, very interesting–definitely worth the read. That humans are somehow becoming less violent due to increased levels of knowledge and social understanding is a patently absurd.  After presenting and evaluating the salient statistics, here is Torley’s conclusion:

We are forced, then, to the conclusion that the 20th century was a uniquely violent era in history. The history of the 20th century completely explodes Pinker’s thesis that violence is becoming less common over the course of time. The only thing to be said in favor of the 20th century’s level of violence is that bad as it was, the Stone Age was even worse, without 15% of all deaths being due to violence.
There is, however, one routine form of violence which Pinker should have spent a lot more time discussing in his book: infanticide. It is the Abrahamic religions which deserve the credit for ridding most of the world of this scourge. In doing so, they saved the lives of literally billions of people. Secular humanism had nothing to do with it.

It is not only that Pinker is often wrong. His “scholarship” often takes a nasty turn. Here is Michael Egnor’s take on Pinker’s thoughts about medical ethics from an article he wrote for Evolution News and Views:

Which brings us to Steven Pinker, a professor of (evolutionary) psychology at Harvard, who has made a career out of using the popular press to point out the ugly implications of the current evolutionary materialist theory of the mind, and to champion those implications. As the evolutionary theories of the mind change hourly, Pinker has been prolific. His recent essay in The New Republic, “The Stupidity of Dignity,” is the clearest example I know of the materialist understanding of the mind applied to modern medical ethics. Pinker argues that our traditional understanding of human dignity, based as it is on several millennia of religious and philosophical insight, will have to be discarded in light of our new “evolutionary” understanding of human beings and of the human mind, for whom autonomy — the struggle for survival — is paramount. Pinker asserts that autonomy, not dignity, must be the basis for medical ethics, because dignity is antiquated “theocon” religious nonsense. Pinker fails to note that the autonomous are those who least need the protection afforded by medical ethics. It is precisely those who aren’t autonomous who most need protection based on dignity, and they need protection from those who are autonomous. The materialist understanding of man isn’t the basis for a new ethics. It’s the end of ethics.

Betty Blonde #279 – 08/12/2009
Betty Blonde #279
here or on the image to see full size strip.

What the brain does and does not do

It seems like every time one turns around, another neuroscientist has conflated mind and brain. Michael Egnor at the Discovery Institute blog does a great service by calling out the neuroscientific silliness in a NY Times essay by Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano. Egnor’s post titled “Are We Really Conscious?”: A Reply to Dr. Graziano’s Brain is a follow-up to Wesley Smith’s post titled Big-Brained Scientist Says We Aren’t Conscious on the same subject. Egnor points out the conflation to Graziano with impressive clarity in his post. He is a skilled neurosurgeon who knows that about which he writes. Here is an excerpt:

The brain’s visual system consists of neurons, axons, dendrites, neurotransmitters, and the like. Protoplasm. Protoplasm doesn’t make faulty assumptions, and brains don’t reconstruct anything. People make faulty assumptions, and people reconstruct things. It may well be that there are aspects of the brain’s visual system that contribute to our faulty assumptions and to our reconstructions, just as there are aspects of my computer monitor (a smudge) that may contribute to my misunderstanding a word printed on the screen. But my smudged computer monitor didn’t misunderstand the word. My computer monitor has no psychological attributes at all. I misunderstand words. Only people misunderstand.

An apt analogy is the relation of the stomach to eating. Our stomach plays an important role when we eat, but we eat. Our stomachs don’t eat.

We urinate. Our kidneys don’t urinate.

We dance. Our feet don’t dance.

Dr. Graziano commits the mereological fallacy — he mistakes attributes of the whole for attributes of the parts. Our organs do things appropriate to them — our brain has action potentials and secretions of neurotransmitters and blood flow and the like. But our brain assumes nothing and reconstructs nothing. We — not our brain — assume and reconstruct.

Read the whole thing. I can highly recommend Wesley Smith’s article, too.

Betty Blonde #189 – 04/07/2009
Betty Blonde #189
here or on the image to see full size strip.