Friday, March 13, 2020

Yet More Unsubstantiated Claims by Egnor


I realize that most people have better things to do currently than read the ravings of a creationist neurosurgeon, but Michael Egnor is at it again, making completely unsubstantiated claims about the minds of people and animals.

Here he claims that "abstract thought (as classical philosophers pointed out) is inherently an immaterial ability and thus it cannot arise from the brain or from any material organ". Actually, there's no evidence at all for this claim. As far as we know, abstract thought is no different from any kind of brain activity, carried out by our neurons and synapses. And if it does not "arise from the brain", what could it possibly arise from?

Abstract reasoning is actually not significantly different from any other kind of reasoning, a point of view espoused for the specific case of mathematical reasoning by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez in their book Where Mathematics Come From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being.

Egnor claims that "Mental activity always has meaning—every thought is about something. Computation always lacks meaning in itself." This is a classic blunder, made by people who have little understanding of the nature of computation. Of course computations have meaning. When we sum the infinite series 1+1/4+1/9+... using a program such as Maple, by typing sum(1/n^2,n=1..infinity); who can reasonably deny that the answer Π2/6 it produces has meaning? This classic error was debunked as long ago as 1843, when Ada Lovelace wrote, "Many persons who are not conversant with mathematical studies, imagine that because the business of the engine is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols; and in fact it might bring out its results in algebraical notation, were provisions made accordingly." This is an abstract example, but if you want examples related to the real world, just consider the data collected and processed to produce weather predictions. If these computations had no meaning, how is it that short-term weather forecasts are so accurate?

Egnor goes on to justify his bogus claim by saying, "A word processing program doesn't care about the opinion that you’re expressing when you use it." But what does this have to do with anything? A secretary that types up letters also probably doesn't care about the content of the letters the boss dictates; does this mean he/she has no mind? How did we get from "meaning" to "caring"? It's a huge non sequitur that Egnor doesn't bother to explain.

In another screed, Egnor repeats for the n'th time his bogus claims about the minds of animals. He writes, "No animal (except man) can do statistics, because statistical reasoning is abstract and only human beings are capable of abstract thought." But, as usual, he ignores the evidence against his claim, and provides not a shred of evidence in favor of it. All he does is assert. (Three links: one, two, three. I can produce many more.)

He closes with this, which is one of the least self-aware claims I've ever seen: "Only human beings can reason abstractly because only human beings have rational souls. Rational souls have an immaterial aspect—a spiritual aspect, because we are created in the Image of our Creator, who is a Spirit. That's a scientific inference."

No, that's just religious babble.

5 comments:

MNb said...

"here's no evidence at all for this claim"
Of course not. Evidence by definition is material. That's a problem for apologists (and dualists in general), who lack a reliable method. So they have no choice but beginning with a decree like "inherently an immaterial ability". The result is begging the question.
It's all the more funny that apologists try to remedy this by pointing at material evidence to back up their claims about a supposed immaterial reality.

dean said...

"Only human beings can reason abstractly because only human beings have rational souls. Rational souls have an immaterial aspect—a spiritual aspect, because we are created in the Image of our Creator, who is a Spirit. That's a scientific inference."

That, to me, is the most asinine of his comments/beliefs. I don't know how someone can make such an all-encompassing statement, fail to even attempt an argument in its support, then say "That's a scientific inference."

JimV said...

Neuro-scientists and computer scientists who work on neural networks have made a lot of progress on how computations can translate into thinking and learning. It seems to me that there is overwhelming data demonstrating that thinking is a material, physical process carried out in the brain; for example, if sections of the brain which have been trained to do certain processes are lost (e.g., by tumors), the people involved can no longer perform those processes (unless and until other parts of the brain are retrained to take over the processes). The missing step, I think, for some people such as Mr. Egnor, is the inability to comprehend how this can be, and they mistake their lack for some kind of "scientific" analysis.

Ultimately, it seems to me, there is no final, comprehensible explanation for everything in a closed universe. Why does a rose smell like a rose? Why doesn't a rose smell like an orange and an orange smell like a rose? We can understand how scent works, why it evolved, and what chemicals produce what scents in our universe with our biology, but ultimately we have to say, that's just how the chemicals a rose produces smells to creatures of our biology in this universe.

Until people like Mr. Egnor decide to accept things they cannot comprehend but which all the data points to, all the data we can cite will make no impression on them. At least, that has been my experience.

Magic explains everything (and nothing) and they are not willing to use Occam's Razor, or my preferred heuristic, Mario's Sharp Rock (of competing hypotheses which explain the data, always choose the most humbling one).

Mark said...

I just saw this:
Those remarkable kea are at it again: now the clever parrots are demonstrating their understanding of statistical probabilities to a team of scientists in New Zealand. It turns out that their grasp of mathematics rivals the great apes, which include gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees. This is the first published report of statistical inference demonstrated by an animal other than great apes.

I guess Egnor has not seen it.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

That's interesting! Too bad that Egnor is not interested in evidence.