Monday, May 27, 2019

Yet More Egnorance

Michael Egnor, the man for which the term "egnorance" was coined, is at it again, sneering at experts while demonstrating he knows little about linguistics, philosophy, or ethology.

In this piece he makes a number of claims that are either flatly false, or contradict what we know, or are given without any justification at all. Why he thinks this kind of pompous tripe will convince anyone is beyond me. Maybe, in their jobs, neurosurgeons get accustomed to making pronouncements that everyone else accepts without questioning.

I lack the time to do a complete fisking here, but I'll mention a few of his bogus claims.

1. "The accepted definition of reason is simple and straightforward: it is the power to think abstractly, without concrete particulars."

Whenever Egnor talks about something being "accepted" or "simple and straightforward", you can be pretty sure that the opposite is the case. Anyone who wants to check Egnor's claim can just go to the Oxford English Dictionary and type in "reason". There are three senses for the word, two as a noun and one as a verb. The uses as a noun include 17 different subdefinitions and another 15 or so different usages in phrases. The uses as a verb include 8 different subdefinitions. The word "abstract" appears nowhere in any of these subdefinitions (it does appear in two citations, but not in the sense Egnor refers to). So Egnor is wrong twice: the "accepted definition" of the word is neither simple nor straightforward, and the meaning Egnor claims is not an "accepted" one.

2. "Only man thinks abstractly; that is the ability to reason. No animal, no matter how clever, can think abstractly or reason."

Egnor's made this claim before, and it was refuted before. He just repeats it here, with no evidence, without addressing previous objections.

Of course, if you understand the theory of evolution, you realize his claim is likely to be utter nonsense. Abstract thinking is not a black-white thing; it's a range of capabilities that, even among people, we see a huge variation in. Any capability with huge variation is subject to selection, and so it can evolve. Since people are descended from earlier ape-like creatures, it is quite believable that non-human animals would also display the ability for abstract thought, in varying degrees. And they do! Ethologists, who actually study this kind of thing, disagree with Egnor. (Also see baboons and crows, to name just a couple more examples.)

3. "Reason is an immaterial power of the mind—it is abstracted from particular things, and cannot logically be produced by a material thing."

This is vintage Egnor -- a flat assertion, made with no evidence, and contradicting what we know about (for example) machine learning. Machines can abstract from specific cases to more general concepts; that is exactly what is done routinely in machine learning. (To cite just one example, see here.)

Egnor offers no rationale for why reason has to be "immaterial", and when he says something is "logical", you can be pretty sure there's no actual logic involved.

4. "This immaterial power of the soul is precisely what makes man qualitatively different from every other living thing. And I am not “forced to lean on supernaturalism” by pointing this out. I’m merely making an observation that’s obvious to all. Man, and man alone, has the power to reason."

Souls don't exist; there's no evidence for them. There's no evidence for "immaterial powers". Egnor's claim is disputed by many, and it's a plain lie to say it's "obvious to all".

5. "We routinely ask questions that entail reasoning. Animals never do."

How does Egnor know animals never do this? He never says.

As we know from the example of Ben Carson, it is perfectly possible for a neurosurgeon to be good at their job, but incompetent when it comes to anything else. Egnor is yet another data point.


JimV said...

It is very depressing that someone who is not suffering from some mental imbalance (to make that charitable assumption) can ignore such a huge amount of contrary evidence without realizing it.

For example, years ago there was a PBS show-episode (probably on Nova) about animal behavior and reasoning. It showed the following experiment. A five-year-old boy was shown a small room and then a small scale model of the room. ("See, the big room has a big couch, and the small room has a small couch ..") The adult took a small plastic banana and placed it behind a small couch-cushion in the model with the boy watching. Then he told the boy there is a banana hidden in the big room. It is in the same place in the big room as the small banana is in the small room. Can you find it?

The boy ran into the room and searched it, looking in a cupboard, a wastebasket, under the couch, and so on, and never found the banana.

Then the same procedure was done with a 5-yo chimpanzee. The chimpanzee ran into the room and immediately went to the cushion and found the banana.

The intent of the experiment was to demonstrate that human children's brains are not completely developed until much older, whereas chimpanzee brains are. (A neurosurgeon should be familiar with this fact, at least as far as humans are concerned, as well as the fact that small children fail standard tests for abstract reasoning.)

This demonstrates both that animals can reason abstractly, and that this ability is a brain function (not a soul function).

I. J. Kennedy said...

Or possibly, chimps have better noses for bananas than humans do.

JimV said...

That's worth considering, but the chimpanzee made no sniffing gestures or hesitation, and scampered directly to the couch and cushion; and I forgot to add, the experiment was repeated with the banana in a drawer and other places. In all cases the human child searched randomly and the chimpanzee went directly to the place indicated with the model.