Saturday, November 07, 2015

Are All Neurosurgeons Crazy?

I'm beginning to think so, what with Ben Carson claiming that the pyramids were used to store grain, not to bury rulers and that he had a violent past.

So it's not really a surprise to see that walking Dunning-Kruger effect-man, Michael Egnor, claiming that humans can't be apes because "Human beings have mental powers that include the material mental powers of animals but in addition entail a profoundly different kind of thinking" and "Human beings think abstractly, and nonhuman animals do not".

I'm really curious to know how Dr. Egnor knows with certainty that nonhuman animals cannot think abstractly. I guess he is just egnoring all the research that suggests just the opposite. It's not like this is hidden stuff; Egnor could read, for example, the books of Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal.

Maybe not all neurosurgeons are this batshit loony. After all, another thing that Carson and Egnor have in common is that they are both creationists. Maybe that's the real problem. Maybe you have to be immersed in jeebus-juice to believe, like Egnor does, that "Human rationality is different because it is immaterial." I guess our thinking powers are just magic; all that neurocircuitry is just there for show.


Steve Watson said...

You left out Ebon Alexander. Not sure where he falls on the creationism issue, but another data point for "Neurosurgeons are crazy".

Bert Brouwer said...

The pen is said to be the mightiest weapon, but for some the mirror seems to be the most feared.

mregnor said...

Challenge, Shallit:

Explain in a post how it is possible to instantiate (not represent) a universal in brain matter.

We'll debate it online.

Mike Egnor

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Challenge, Egnor:

Explain how you know with certainty that animals don't reason abstractly. Explain why you egnore the evidence provided.

mregnor said...

I know nothing with certainty, Shallit, except that I know nothing with certainty.

Animals don't conceive of universals--they don't think abstractly, as far as we know. The "research" that purports to do so is seriously flawed. (Ray Tallis calls it the "Disneyfication" animal cognitive research.) I will be posting on this. Synopsis: studies purporting to show animal abstract thought merely show perceptual ability (without abstraction) and memory in which the animal is trained by the researcher. Animals are incapable of abstract thinking.

I ask again: Explain in a post how it is possible to instantiate (not represent) a universal in brain matter.

You evade the logical absurdity of your position, in your typically cowardly way. I expect that you will never make any effort at a public argument as to how a universal can be instantiated in brain matter, without presuming the universal to begin with.


N. Manning said...


If the mind is immaterial, please explain why lobotomies or trauma change the way people think or act. Explain why Phineas Gage's personality changed after his accident. If the mind is not a function of the brain, a person's personality, etc. should NOT change regardless of what happens to the brain.

William Spearshake said...

This should be interesting. Michael claims that all spree killings are caused by democrats and gun free zones. He has a history of ignoring all evidence that goes counter to his right wing Christian views.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Animals are incapable of abstract thinking.

Well, isn't that nice! Argument by repetition. Repeating a bogus claim doesn't make it truer.

How about designing an experiment which could test your claim? Tell me how we could determine whether animals reason abstractly or not. Then tell me why the experiments that have already been carried out don't rate.

As for "instantiate a universal", I think you presume I belong to some philosophical school where this makes sense. I don't even believe in universals, at least as conceived of by some philosophers. I'm not a Platonist or Aristotelian, for example, nor am I a realist. Give me a specific example of something you want that cannot be possible under materialism, not vague prattle.

We tried this before, I remember, and you didn't do so well. Remember our old "intelligently designed endpoints" and "teleology-free programs" debate? You couldn't even define your terms! Instead, you preferred to produce word salad, and you were incapable of even defining what you were looking for.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Oh, and it doesn't surprise me that you cite Raymond Tallis - a guy who does an uncanny impersonation of a creationist, without actually being one.

It seems to be a form of crank magnetism.

mregnor said...


[If the mind is immaterial, please explain why lobotomies...]

I explain this carefully in scores of posts at ENV and Egnorance over the years. I don't know why I waste my time with questions like this, but here goes.

The human mind is a composite of material and immaterial powers. Material powers include sensation, perception, imagination, appetite, and memory. Immaterial powers are intellect and will. Lobotomy/Phineas Gage alters the mind by altering the material aspects of thought, which impairs the intellect and will,which, although immaterial in their nature, depend on matter for their proper function. You cannot reason or do math or any inherently immaterial task if you have no sensations or perceptions or imagination or appetites or memories.

This is Aristotle 101. Learn it before you embarrass yourself more.

mregnor said...


I'm submitting a post to ENV answering your questions.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Egnor: Of course you are. That's where you are at your best, in a forum where no one can question you or post responses.

William Spearshake said...

"Egnor: Of course you are. That's where you are at your best, in a forum where no one can question you or post responses."

His last post on his own blog, where comments are allowed, was on October 2. He really does not do well when questioned.

mregnor said...


I get questioned quite a bit, as your blog demonstrates. My first response to you is up at ENV. My second is in queue. I love responding to your missives. Gives me a break from having to deal with thoughtful questions.

Try this approach: I blog on my blog, you respond on your blog.

It's a novel idea, but it might work.

mregnor said...


If you want to light things up, try answering my question:

"Explain in a post how it is possible to instantiate (not represent) a universal in brain matter."

No one denies that universals exist. There is disagreement as to how they exist--but even nominalists admit that they exist as words.

How can universals (as words, or whatever) be instantiated in brain matter?

I would love to read your reasoning, and respond to it.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Actually, there are indeed philosophers who deny the existence of universals in reality. They exist in thought, of course, but these are simply *representations* of universals, which you explicitly said you were uninterested in. As I understand it, this is the position of Kant.

If it turns out you are actually interested in the representation of universals, you can, for example, look at my student's code "Walnut", available on my "Papers" page, where we deal with both existential and universal quantifiers about properties of sequences. There properties are represented by automata.

But I know you are not actually interested in any of this. You have no real intellectual curiosity about anything. Things interest you in direct proportion to how you can use them as a cudgel against evolution and materialism.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I love responding to your missives.

Really? Then how come you never responded to my six questions about "teleological programs" and "intelligently designed endpoints"? I repeat them here for your convenience. Take all the time you want, but please don't lie about how you love to respond.

1. Is "teleological" a property of TM's or a property of a distribution of TM's?

2. What are "endpoints"?

3. What is a single example of a "non-teleological" TM?

4. Why do you insist on a nondeterministic TM, when it is known that a deterministic TM can simulate it?

5. Was my guess about "delta(q,a) = delta(q',a') for some pair of states q, q' and input symbols a, a'" your intended meaning? What is the point of this condition?

6. How would a transition function be "governed" by a random letter/punctuation generator? Give a more precise definition, like the ones found in any introductory theory of computing textbook.

mregnor said...

Pitiful, Shallit.

You really have nothing to say. You are an embodiment of materialism and atheism--half-educated bluster and evasion.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

No answer to my 6 questions.

And I bet you didn't even look at my student's program.

As I said, you have no interest in learning anything. You're a disgrace to your profession.

William Spearshake said...

" Things interest you in direct proportion to how you can use them as a cudgel against evolution and materialism."

And against Democrats and homosexuals.

Bill said...

This is something that has bothered me and maybe I'm just dense, materially speaking.

How can one detect something that's immaterial? And to follow on, why are "will" and "intellect" immaterial but "sensation" material? Where does the immaterial stuff reside and how does it interact with material stuff if it's, well, immaterial?

Are not my thoughts an emergent property of the collective firing of neurons in my brain? Inquiring minds want to know!

The Egnorance is a mind-brain dualist who has to find a place to stick his soul. Otherwise, he's going to Hell in a handbasket or a BMW in Egnor's case.

Andrew Glasgow said...

"Explain in a post how it is possible to instantiate (not represent) a universal in brain matter."

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

hank_says said...

Egnor has just this one horse to ride and ride it he does, whipping it bloody and riding it to exhaustion at every opportunity, stopping only after it drops dead so he can pick up a stick and beat its carcass into dogmeat. I don't know why people continue to engage with such creationist muppetry; clearly they have more patience than I do (to their credit).

CDP said...

I'm unable to give you an explanation of how the brain carries out predicate logic. I'm also unable to give you a genetic cause for autism. Does that mean autism must be caused by evil spirits?

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

I took a look at Egnor's posting, hoping to find a scientific explanation for why he thinks that universals exist. But his references are kind of funny:
"Universals exist. There is genuine debate as to whether they exist in a separate realm (Plato), in particulars (Aristotle), or only in the mind with no independent existence per se (Ockham). But in order to debate universals one must invoke universals, whatever they are.
And whatever universals are (I agree with Aristotle), it is men, and not animals, who contemplate them."

Plato, Aristotle and Ockham are not credible scientific sources. We've gone long ways since Aristotle, correcting many of his mistakes (and admiring many of his achievements), but I was hoping that a neuroscientist would offer a scientific explanation.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Egnor lives in medieval times, in more ways than one. It's pointless arguing someone so stuck in the past.

Piotr GÄ…siorowski said...

But in order to debate universals one must invoke universals, whatever they are.

Leprechauns exist. In order to debate leprechauns one must invoke leprechauns, whatever they are. And whatever leprechauns are, it is men (and maybe women), not animals, that contemplate them.

Bert Brouwer said...

According to modern science animals dream, and according to modern myth androids dream of electric sheep.

ScienceAvenger said...

I know nothing with certainty, Shallit, except that I know nothing with certainty.

As Goedel rolls over in his grave...

ScienceAvenger said...

I guess Egnor has never seen the many species of animals, apes, birds, and my dog for pete's sake, that will fake out other beings for gain, pretending to be otherwise occupied as they wait for the chance to take something from you. He reminds me a lot of a guy I knew in college who claimed animals didn't have souls because of their lack of distinct personalities. I'll bet Egnor has as many pets as that guy.

CDP said...

I've had a look at Egnor's essay "The Fundamental Difference Between Humans and Nonhuman Animals" and think I understand his argument.

Green and Tao proved that there are arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions of prime numbers. A prime number is an abstract concept; there is no neuron in the brain that is identical to the number 23. This implies, according to Egnor, that Green and Tao's mathematical reasoning must have been carried out using something other than, or at least in addition to, their brains: some unspecified supernatural thought device. (The supernatural thought device apparently does not function entirely independently of the physical brain. The brain seems to be needed to do things like crave the coffee that is to be transformed into theorems. This is why your research productivity may decline if you get impaled through the head by a railroad spike.)

Now, furthermore, nothing that any chimpanzee has ever thought about involves an abstract concept, or anything that is not physically present ("instantiated," in his words) in the brain. Therefore, Egnor concedes, chimpanzee thought is carried out entirely by the chimpanzee brain. And this proves that, whatever position you may take on our common ancestry, humans are not chimpanzees! Finally, chimps are not devoting their time to these profundities, which in Egnor's opinion demonstrates the superiority of our species to theirs.

I hope that's a fair summary.

mregnor said...


That's a fair summary. It's the classic Aristotelian understanding of the mind--intellect and will are immaterial, but depend on matter for their normal function.

It remains the most reasonable way to explain the mind and its relationship to the brain.

Shallit tries to deny that there are such things as abstract concepts, but he's obviously wrong, and his motivation is that if he admitted the obvious (that some concepts are abstract and immaterial) than he would have to admit that his strict materialism is false.

Shallit would rather deny the obvious than adjust his ideology to reality.

mregnor said...


[... some unspecified supernatural thought device}

I would disagree a bit there. The immaterial powers of the mind are completely natural, they are just not material.

In this view (hylemorphism), nature has immaterial and material things.

'Natural' does not necessarily mean 'material'. The intellect and will are both completely natural, they're just not material.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Shallit tries to deny that there are such things as abstract concepts

As usual, Egnor is lying. Of course there are abstract concepts, but they do not "exist" in the same way that an atom of hydrogen exists.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

His argument is complete crap. There is no neuron in the brain that is identical to the animal dog, but that doesn't mean that a dog is an abstract concept.

And second, he has no justification to claim that chimpanzees never think about abstract concepts. There is a lot of work (e.g., Frans de Waal) that says that they probably do.

mregnor said...


[Of course there are abstract concepts, but they do not "exist" in the same way that an atom of hydrogen exists.]

Then how do they exist?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

As patterns in brains, of course. If you weren't so stuck in medieval philosophy, even you could have figured that one out.

mregnor said...

What pattern is justice?

What shape is it, how much does it weigh, where is it?

What about it makes it "justice", and not some other universal?

Here's the answer: any "pattern" in the brain that instantiates justice has to presuppose the concept of justice in order to be a pattern of it, just as a map of a city presupposes the city it maps. So then if you do have a justice pattern in your brain, you must have the concept of justice prior to the pattern (prior logically, not necessarily temporally).

Your "pattern theory" presupposes concepts, and therefore does not explain them.

Why are you so allergic to the obvious fact that not all of nature is material? Laws of physics are not material. Why do you insist that concepts of universals must be material?

Let go of your materialist ideology. You can still be an atheist if concepts are immaterial, you just can't be a materialist. Is materialism that important to you?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

You seem completely confused. When you ask "What shape is it, how much does it weigh", you're being just as silly as Stephen Meyer when he asks an analogous question about the information on a computer CD. Pattern is the differential arrangement of matter, but it doesn't make much sense to talk about the "weight" of a pattern. You can talk about the mass of an instantiation of the pattern, if you like.

When Jupiter occults a star, how much does the occultation weigh?

The pattern in our brains that describes justice is an ancient one. I'm going to make this recommendation one final time, even though I know you won't follow up, because you are extremely resistant to learning anything. Read some of the work of primatologist Frans de Waal. "Justice" in our brains is a product of our evolutionary history, and evidence for it, or at least rudimentary versions of it, can be seen in our closest primate relatives. Even very young children seem to have the concept, which is yet more evidence that it part of our evolutionary nature, not something that is learned.

As for your map analogy, have you ever seen a map of a fictional city? How can such a map presuppose a city that doesn't exist? Hence your claim "if you do have a justice pattern in your brain, you must have the concept of justice prior to the pattern" is a non sequitur.

As for the "laws of physics", they are our imperfect models of actual behavior of the physical world. While the physical world and its behavior does not depend on us, the "laws" we create have no independent existence outside our brains. Here is some evidence: what we call the "laws of physics" are not immutable and change with new information. Newtonian mechanics was overthrown in part by Einsteinian relativity. If Newtonian mechanics was an immutable law that existed in some immaterial realm, that wouldn't be possible.

Materialism is not "important" to me at all; it just seems like the most reasonable and sensible interpretation of the world as I see it. When I add in the fact that those, like you, who insist it is false make the silliest arguments against it, that increases my tentative belief in it. If anybody gave any decent arguments against materialism, I'd reconsider my position.

Steve Watson said...

Allow me to recommend to the good doctor a book (actually a compendium of papers by various authors, including De Waal and Damasio (both of them)) that I just happened to have on my computer, in connection with some schoolwork I'm doing:

Changeux, Jean-Pierre, and MyiLibrary. 2005. Neurobiology of human values. New York;Berlin;: Springer-Verlag.

It's even got a chapter on the neurology of math (which I haven't read yet, but is a particular interest of mine).

Jeffrey Shallit said...

That sounds interesting, Steve! Thanks, I'll add it to my reading list.

mregnor said...


Thanks. I'll give it a look.


I'll answer your comment, which raises important issues, on ENV.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Egnor: of course you will. You can't possibly post your uninformed drivel on a place that allows comments. Coward.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

This is probably not the place to comment about it, but since Dr Egnor is the subject of the conversation, maybe it's not totally inappropriate. It is, actually, evidence of his conservatism and irrationality. He is discussing methods for stopping spree shootings and he suggests two action items:
1) Stop reporting spree shootings in the media.
2) Eliminate gun-free zones. Allow responsible citizens to be armed in schools and other places where spree shooters choose to kill.
I can't believe that there exist (educated) people who demand school teachers to be armed. Instead of asking for guns to be reduced/controlled, he's talking about arming teachers and parents. To me, this is the pinnacle of irrationality and, probably, the result of an irrational/nonthinking mind, a mind that conforms to dogmas and instructions given to it by authorities (the conservative party, the church, the god, etc.) If someone abides to these beliefs then how is it possible that he will be able to think rationally with respect to other matters?

P.S. As a matter of fact, his action items are contradictory to his religious beliefs: he states he's a Christian Catholic. He should go ask God's representative on Earth, the Pope, whether he approves of teachers being armed. I bet he won't get the approval he wants.

mregnor said...


Thanks for staying on topic. A great ad hominem argument--"Egnor says things I don't like about gun control, so he's wrong about the immateriality of universals."

Since you bring it up, the Paris shootings make it obvious that disarmed targets are in the worst possible situation. Gun free zones are to spree shooters as light bulbs are to moths.

That's why nearly all spree shootings in the US in the past 70 years have been in gun-free zones--schools, colleges, public transportation, malls, government buildings, churches. Why don't spree shooters shoot up police stations and gun ranges and gun shows and NRA conventions?

I don't "demand" that teachers carry guns--I believe communities should allow responsible people to carry or have access to guns places where spree shootings happen. It's just the right and responsibility of self-defense and defense of innocents under their care.

Spree shooters want 15 minutes of risk-free killing before the cops show up. Liberal morons like you make sure they get it.

mregnor said...


[As a matter of fact, his action items are contradictory to his religious beliefs: he states he's a Christian Catholic. He should go ask God's representative on Earth, the Pope, whether he approves of teachers being armed. I bet he won't get the approval he wants.]

I'm obligated to follow the Magisterium on matters of faith and morals. On political and practical questions, Catholics are free to use prudential judgement and to have different viewpoints. Some Catholics support gun control, some support self-defense.

I do point out that Pope Francis, who I love, is protected by good men with guns 24-7. Our schoolchildren, who we also love, deserve no less.

I do appreciate your religious instruction. Allow me to offer a comment on your religious beliefs vis a vi gun control: all atheist governments removed guns from the population--in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cambodia, in North Korea, etc. Private gun ownership is not a feature of atheist governments. Perhaps you think that gun control made the citizens of atheist hellholes safe. I would disagree.

mregnor said...


If it were up to me, ENV would allow comments (

I love atheist comments. They often make my argument better than I do.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Egnor, you're so full of crap I bet it comes pouring out your ears when you take your hat off. You, and only you, have a choice of where to post your stuff. You choose to post it on a site that doesn't allow comments. Your actions speak louder than your words.

mregnor said...


I like the folks at ENV, and ENV has the largest readership to which I have access.

I want to disseminate our debate as widely as possible.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Excuses, excuses. But it's gratifying to see you admit what we already knew: Egnor is an attention whore, happy to sacrifice his intellectual obligations and commitment to free speech for the sake of a few more clicks.

But those clicks ain't gonna get you a gig as the next Ben Carson.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

@mregnor: I did say, right up front, that the comment was on the side. It was not an ad hominem attack, I was pointing out some totally absurd statements you made which are, yes, against your religion. But that's the nature of religion, any religion: the ability of its followers (including its leaders) to justify anything in its name. It is laughable and absurd to think that the Paris shootings would have been less dramatic if people had gone to the concert with revolvers or machine guns. There is no point, I guess, in arguing about it, because you bring in deus-ex-machina "arguments" such as "atheist governments removed guns from the population and hence they established successful dictatorships". I am not liberal, by the way, but I allow myself an extra degree of thinking freedom by not tying my brain down to a religious dogma, one that would contradict facts. Finally, I don't think you love your schoolchildren: if you did, you wouldn't allow anyone to indoctrinate them with religious classes. (I am guessing you are in support of religious education either in school or at home.) There is nothing more terrible than taking a young person and instilling fear (and love by means of fear) in them.

Bert Brouwer said...

"Practise what you preach" has always been the crux in christianity (Romans 7,7-25). Some christians however have found a neat solution for this inner conflict and converted to this new gospel:
"Preach what you practise".

CDP said...

Egnor writes: "...all atheist governments removed guns from the population--in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cambodia, in North Korea, etc."

None of those was an atheist government. In the case of the Soviet Union, that was pointed out as early as 1920 by Bertrand Russell (prior, incidentally, to the advent of Lysenkoism). The "dear leader" of North Korea is the object of extraordinary religious veneration, somewhat reminiscent of Hirohito. And so on.

This seems to be an annoying characteristic of debates between theists and atheists. The theist can make 15 outlandish historical claims in the time it takes the atheist to adduce the evidence debunking one of them.

Jr. Williams said...

Can a neurosurgeon not work insane hours?
Neurosurgery Blog