Michael Egnor = Deepak Chopra? You be the judge!

In blogging, there are some topics that I know that I really shouldn’t bother with; yet, somehow they suck me in. A number of things can cause that. Perhaps it’s a topic that just gets under my skin to the point where I can’t hold back a commentary, even when I know that it might be wiser to remain quiet, be it because of the flak that my commentary will bring (antivaccination lunacy, HIV denialists, certain forms of quackery) or because of the threat to my sanity if I allow the irritation of them to go unanswered.

I address this topic because of the latter reason.

I’ve discussed why creationist neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor (a.k.a. the Discovery Institute’s newest and most enthusiastic recruit) gets under my skin. It’s the sheer embarrassment of sharing a profession with someone who can spew so much creationist nonsense so prolifically. When last I left him, he had just struck out with three rather silly analogy about detecting design and his claim that altruism is not a product of the brain. I’m not the first to liken Dr. Egnor’s latest excursion into dualism (the concept that the mind is something separate from the substance of the brain) is very similar to Choprawoo, that special brand of cosmic woo that only Deepak Chopra can dish out. (Or maybe I am.) However, I never went quite so far as to say what I’m about to say now:

Michael Egnor is Deepak Chopra. I’m becoming increasingly convinced of it. Let’s look at the evidence, shall we?

First up, let’s look at Dr. Egnor’s recent post, Verizon deniers find a cellphone. In this post, he uses quite the odd analogy. He imagines scientists living on an isolated island who have sophisticated science, except that they do not believe that telecommunication is possible. He calls this civilization “Verizon deniers” and then makes this analogy:

One day, they find a cell phone (it dropped from a plane or something). They turn it on, and they hear things. They hear hissing, cracking, and what sounds like voices!

The Verizon deniers are amazed! So it’s off to the lab, and soon the Verizon denier scientists have the answer. They show that all kinds of things — chemicals, mechanical impacts, electrical interference — can change or ablate the voices. They find that certain sounds the voices make are consistently associated with patterns of activation in the cell phone circuits. They found that some aspects of the voices — tone, amplitude, etc. — are localized within the cell phone. They conclude that the voices are simply an emergent property of the cell phone circuits!

However, one of the scientists, a Verizon accepter, isn’t so sure. He says:

“What if the cell phone is necessary for all of the noises, but only sufficient for some? What if some of the noises in the phone are actual voices of living people, and are merely transmitted through the phone, but not caused by it?”

The Verizon deniers say: “How can you prove it?”

Dr. Egnor then goes on to describe how the “Verizon acceptor” does a bunch of experiments that lead him to conclude that the “cell phone is insufficient to fully account for the noises (i.e., the voices) that have meaning, because meaning is not a property of matter. Of course, he’s concluding his own premise in a way; after all, “meaning” is a human construct, and if the brain is sufficient to explain the mind, then “meaning” is arguably a property of matter–the matter of the brain. Egnor simply assumes that the mind cannot be explained by the brain. The only thing that can cause meaning is a person,” concluding:

I propose that any credible theory of the mind must at least provide a basis for discerning that a voice from a cell phone is generated by a person, not the phone. It’s a kind of inverse Turing test — it tests the theory, not the machine. As I see it, none of the materialistic theories of the mind would provide a clear basis for identifying the voice in a cell phone as a person and not as an emergent property of the phone. If a theory can’t get a cell phone right, I don’t trust it with the mind.

Dr. Egnor seems to be making the analogy that the human brain is like a cell phone receiving transmissions from somewhere. Instead of the circuitry of the brain being enough to to account for the properties and activities of the mind, instead of its being the generator that produces the mind, Dr. Egnor seems to be saying, in reality the brain is at least in part some sort of receiver that receives some necessary information of the mind that is somehow expressed as brain activity. Presumably, given Dr. Egnor’s Christian bent, the entity transmitting to the brain is either a soul, which resides he says not where, or perhaps Jesus or God.

There are a lot of problems with Dr. Egnor’s analogy. For example, noises coming out of a cell phone are meaningless without a human being who understands language and emotion is there to hear them. Absent that, they’re just noises. Even so, Egnor’s actually sort of correct; any credible theory of the mind does need to have a basis for discerning whether properties of the mind are inherent to the brain. The problem for Egnor and other dualists is that we do have such a basis for making that call scientifically. Let’s go back to the cell phone example, as silly as it is. If specific alterations in the circuitry of a cell phone could result in substantive changes in what the voices coming through say and the emotions they express, then it would be possible to argue credibly that the voices are inherent to the phone. If changing such circuits could not substantively change what the voices coming through the phone or the emotions being expressed, then the more likely explanation is that the content of the voices coming through is not a property of the phone itself. See where I’m going with this? Specific damage and alterations to the brain do indeed cause changes to the content, emotion, and “personality” of the “voice” of a person. Such changes can involve everything that makes us human: emotion, intellect, sexuality, and, yes, even altruism. Of course, if I really wanted to take it down to Dr. Egnor’s level, I could trash his analogy by simply pointing out that putting a cell phone into a lead container would make the voices go silent, while taking it out would let the voices speak again, pretty clearly indicating that the function of the phone depended on an extrinsic electromagnetic signal reaching it, a signal that lead could block.

But there’s more evidence against dualism. We can study the brain to see if properties of the mind depend upon the intact functions of the brain. We have mapped many aspects of mental activity to specific anatomic structures or groups of neurons in the brain in reproducible ways, and scientists continue to map more and more each year, making the map finer and finer. We know this through functional MRI studies that produce maps of brain metabolism as different mental tasks are carried out or various emotions provoked. We know this from the study of brain injuries to specific structures in the brain and how such injuries result in defined changes in personality and brain function, including–yes–altruism. We know this because we can alter mental states in reproducible ways with drugs, be they antipsychotics, anti-depressants, or recreational drugs.

Of course, Dr. Egnor’s lame arguments for mind-brain dualism, where he seems to be arguing that some essence of the mind somehow dwells outside the brain, remind me very much of some serious woo that I’ve had some fun (and aggravation) before. Yes, I’m talking about Choprawoo. For example, let’s look at this blast from the past:

The mystery of life cannot be solved without answering one essential question. Why are human beings intelligent? In common understanding, we are intelligent because of our brains, our brains are intelligent because of the operation of brain cells, and brain cells operate because of genes. By this reasoning, either genes must be intelligent in their own right, or by some magic of chemistry, molecules that lack intelligence produce it when combined in various ways.

So, is this whole line of thinking false? To a materialist it must be true without question, and any attempt to find intelligence outside the brain–meaning outside DNA–is preposterous. Except that it isn’t.

I’ve dealt with this woo in detail before; so there’s no need to repeat myself. But, here’s some more:

Can we claim that intelligence is simply an illusion? This sounds absurd, but it seems to be a prevailing attitude among certain philosophers and many neuroscientists. Their notion is that consciousness has no ultimate reality but is instead a property thrown off by brain chemicals–the way heat is thrown off by a car engine–creating the illusion of a mind simply because the processes involved are so complex.

I don’t think this theory can stand the test of common sense, because human intelligence is millions of times too complex to be generated by random chemical interactions. Also, as one respondent pointed out, the Cartesian split between mind and body is no longer tenable. The mistake this responder makes, however, is to believe I uphold such a split. I don’t. I am looking for a fusion of ideas that will allow us to have a single brain-mind system. Chemicals can’t give us one, but consciousness can. If the entire universe is an arena of consciousness, there is no need to isolate human intelligence or to argue futilely if genes are smart. By analogy, when a radio plays Mozart, we don’t have to claim that the radio is Mozart, or that Mozart is the radio. The two are meshed–machine and genius find a meeting ground.

I’ve dealt with this woo here.

Truly Drs. Chopra and Egnor appear to be soul-mates, although I will concede that Chopra disguises his belief in dualism as there beign some sort of “universal consciousness” to which the mind contributes and into which it taps.

Still not convinced that Drs. Egnor and Chopra are one in the same? Conveniently, enough, Deepak Chopra has been up to the same sort of stuff as Dr. Egnor in a series of posts called The Mind Outside the Brain. For example, here’s a bit from part one:

By now everyone is familiar with advances in brain imaging and the fascinating insights being produced in many areas of brain research. Much less known are advances in locating the mind outside the brain. Long considered paranormal and therefore easy to dismiss, the reality of many phenomena is being verified. For a long time there has been a popular belief in ESP, clairvoyance, and related abilities. I thought it would be interesting to devote a series of posts to some intriguing studies, but more importantly, there is a major discovery waiting around the corner.

Science is about to realize that intelligence is a field effect and that this “mind field” surrounds us on all sides, like the earth’s magnetic field. It is thanks to the mind field that our brains are able to think and also to connect with other minds, not by physical means but invisibly, the way one magnet is connected to every other on earth.

Here’s a bit from part two:

If it is true that intelligence arises in a “mind field” that surrounds us on all sides, we must all be participating in it. Almost a century ago Carl Jung proposed that our participation takes place in a “collective unconscious,” from which the human race derives its myths and archetypes.

[…]

The assertion that we are embedded in the mind field seems more credible, and if that is the case, then it is more credible that everything we think and do is actually a fluctuation in the field.

But the pièce de résistance, the post that makes me think more than ever that Dr. Egnor must be Deepak Chopra and vice-versa is from part three:

The first two parts of this post brought some highly skeptical responses, generally from those who claimed to have the authority of science on their side when they disbelieved that the “mind field” actually existed. Skeptics are people who demand that you believe them when they don’t believe in anything. Science is an approved method of explaining Nature, but that doesn’t mean that science owns nature. If the mind field exists, we are all inside it, and there is validity in personal experiences beyond what happens in a laboratory.

The concept of a field sounds technical, but it has everyday implications. Many pet owners will attest, for example, to the ability of a dog or cat to know what the owner is thinking. A few minutes before going on a walk, their dog gets excited and restless; on the day when a cat is going to be taken to the vet, it disappears and is nowhere to be found.

He then goes on to describe a story that is, in effect, nothing more than an uncontrolled “study” rife with confirmation bias to demonstrate that pets know when their owners are about to take them to the vet and therefore disappear and hide. If you take Chopra’s series of posts above, and compare them Dr. Egnor’s last couple of posts, including the one linked to above, as well as this one (an article that P.Z. and Steve dealt with quite nicely) in which, incredibly, he claims that, because altruism doesn’t have a location it must be outside of the mind, it’s hard to tell who’s deeper into woo. In fact, come to think of it, if you randomly intersperse all that stuff about a “mind field” (or, as Chopra used to discuss several months ago, a “universal consciousness”) with Dr. Egnor’s more explicitly Christian justifications for dualism, mix up a bunch of Egnor’s posts with a bunch of Chopra’s posts, and then ask people to pick who wrote what, I bet they’d have a hard time telling who wrote which one. The only tipoffs would be that Dr. Egnor’s prose is much more concrete and utilitarian than Chopra’s cosmic woo.

Now that I think of it, I’ve never seen Deepak Chopra and Michael Egnor together. I’ve never even seen a photo of the two of them together. After reading Michael Egnor’s most recent forays into dualism, I’m now not so sure that I can demonstrate to my satisfaction that they’re actually not the same person.

Of course, I could be wrong. After all, Michael Egnor could in reality be Avtar Singh:

The prevailing view in modern neuroscience is that it is the brain that creates the mind. Biological consciousness is treated as an epiphenomenon of the brain under the assumption that there is nothing other than biological consciousness in the universe…Trying to explain consciousness is itself a phenomenon of the human mind. Furthermore, to say that the brain creates the mind is very much like saying that “Radio creates music” or “TV creates news”.

Note the similarity to Dr. Egnor’s whole analogizing the mind to a cell phone. Now that I really think of it, perhaps Michael Egnor, Deepak Chopra, and Avtar Singh are all one in the same person.

It’s an unholy Trinity of Woo, I tell ya! Can’t you see the resemblance?

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I know, I know, they don’t look that much alike. But throw off the shackles of materialism and delve into the mysteries of the soul or God (Egnor) or the universal quantum consciousness (Chopra and Singh), and you will see!

Finally, all of this brings up a point about my reaction to Dr. Egnor’s drivel that has been consistent since he first dove head first into the pool of “intelligent design.” Regular readers know that I’m referring to my sense of shame over a fellow surgeon spewing such inanities to the world, proving once and for all that you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to be a brain surgeon, if you know what I mean. It started with my wanting to put a paper bag over my head after reading each new foray into Egnorance to grandiose plans to forge a more–shall we say?–permanent solution in the form of a replica of the metal mask that Doctor Doom wears to hide his shattered visage, to an even more grandiose vision of a face-obscuring helmet like the one that Galactus, Devourer of Worlds, wears. Now, I have a question for Dr. Egnor:

If my brain is but a conduit for some other “force” that is the real “mind,” then why is that force causing me such extreme embarrassment every time I encounter your arguments, to the point that I come up with such bizarre ideas for covering my face? What is the “soul” or “mind field” that leads me to delve deeply into Egnor’s fallacious arguments, even though I know it causes me mental pain?

My inquiring mind wants to know. Or at least the neurons responsible for my sense of shame do.