So you don’t think people believe in dualistic free will?

If you don’t think anybody accept dualistic free will, then you’ve forgotten about the huge majority of religious people in the U.S. (and many other places). I’m not saying that the infamous neurosurgeon and creationist Michael Egnor, Friend of the Discovery Institute, has free-will beliefs identical to those of every other faithhead, but he’s clearly a dualist. And although I’m loath to link to the DI’s “Evolution News & Views” site, I’ll make an exception to point you to a particularly opaque argument for pure, dualistic free will: Egnor’s “Free will is real and materialism is wrong.”

His argument is simple but weird: Materialism can’t explain volition because, while concrete objects like apples can have a materialistic origin in neuronal activity, concepts like “the Good”, “intellect,” and, of course, “God” simply can’t have a materialistic grounding. They are free of any constraints of the laws of physics, and so we have dualistic free will.

Got that? If you don’t believe me, here’s the argument:

Our senses present us with particulars. We see and smell the apple, we feel a ring on a finger, we hear a friend. Particulars grasped through sensation and perception, as well as imagination and memory, have an obvious composition with matter. We use our eyes to see, our skin to feel, our ears to hear. There are well-defined regions in the brain whose activity seems to be necessary for the exercise of these sense-perception powers by which we grasp particulars. In that sense, the grasp of particulars is material, or at least depends on matter in a necessary way.

The same is not true of intellect and will. There is not the same intimate link between intellect and will with matter that there is between perception and imagination, etc., and matter. Through our intellect we grasp and comprehend universals, not particulars, and our will carries out decisions made by our intellect. For example, we see (perceive) a picture of Nelson Mandela (particular), we ponder (intellect) injustice (universal) done to political prisoners, and we donate (will) to Amnesty International.

So the fundamental question is this: Are intellect and will material powers, like sensation and perception are material powers?

The answer is no. Intellect and will are immaterial powers, and obviously so. Here’s why.

I couldn’t wait to hear why. After all, when I think of an apple, I usually don’t think of a particular apple, but the concept of an apple, although I could think of a particular apple, like the one I’m eating at the moment (a tart Granny Smith). But in many cases when you think of objects, you think of ideal reifications of those objects, and those are concepts. Further, when I start thinking about “justice,” or “the good,” my mind is often focused on particular situations: “would it be good to do X?”, or “what might be the effect on the world everyone did Y”?, and those also involve representations of the real world. The particular and the universal ineluctably blur together.

But I am jumping the gun. Let Egnor proceed:

Let us imagine, as a counterfactual, that the intellect is a material power of the mind. As such, the judgment that a course of action is good, which is the basis on which an act of the will would be done, would entail “Good” having a material representation in the brain. But how exactly could Good be represented in the brain? The concept of Good is certainly not a particular thing — a Good apple, or a Good car — that might have some sort of material manifestation in the brain. Good is a universal, not a particular. In fact the judgment that a particular thing is Good presupposes a concept of Good, so it couldn’t explain the concept of Good. Good, again, is a universal, not a particular.

He appears to be begging the question here by arguing that the concept of Good simply cannot have a neuronal representation in the brain, as it’s something different in kind from an apple. But that’s not an argument; it’s a dichotomy that presumes the answer without explaining it. In fact, when you think about more abstract things, like God or faith, parts of the brain light up in brain scans. Why should they if such notions are immaterial? Well, here’s Egnor’s only argument that, he says, demolishes any materialistic representation of “concepts”:

So how could a universal concept such as Good be manifested materially in the brain?

The only answer possible from the materialist perspective, it would seem, is that the concept of Good must be an engram, coded in some fashion in the brain. Perhaps Good is a particular assembly of proteins, or dendrites, or a specific electrochemical gradient in a specific location in the brain.

Yes, that’s indeed what it seems to be. For you can demolish people’s notion of the good, and affect their volition, by manipulating or effacing regions of the brain. If those had no materialistic grounding, why would that be?

But Egnor then brings in what he sees as a killer argument, one based on “infinite regress” (my emphasis below):

But the materialist is not home yet. Because in order for Good to be an engram in the brain, the Good engram must be coded in some fashion. How could Good be coded? A clump of protein of a specific shape two mm from the tip of the left hippocampus? Obviously there’s nothing that actually means Good about that particular protein in that particular location — one engram would be as Good as another — so we would require another engram to decode the hippocampal engram for Good, so it would mean Good, and not just be a clump of protein. Yet that engram for the code for the engram of Good would itself have to have some representation of Good in order for it to mean that it signifies the code for the Good engram, which would require another engram for the engram for the Good engram, ad nauseam.

In short, any engram in the brain that coded for Good would presuppose the concept of Good in order to establish the code for Good. [JAC: What???} So Good, from a materialist perspective on the mind, must be an infinite regress of Good engrams. Engrams all the way down, so to speak, which of course is no engrams at all.

The engram theory of intellect and will presupposes that which it purports to explain.

Concepts such as Good can’t be material manifestations in the brain. The intellectual grasp of concepts and acts of will based on universals are inherently immaterial.

Now maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand why pondering concepts can’t either be coded in the brain, or be taken in from the environment and run through one of the brain’s computer programs (i.e., what we call “pondering” or “reasoning”).  The error in Egnor’s thinking, it seems to me, is twofold: thinking that a concept of Good, or other concepts, must be coded in the brain before you think about them (they well may be, but needn’t be), and claiming that if they were coded in the brain, like any memory, they could not be material because they’d somehow require another material object to decode the concept, and so on and so on and so on.

But that argument can be made for anything.  You could say that if the idea of an apple was coded in the brain, you’d need another “engram” to “mean that it signifies the code for the Apple engram,” and so on and so on and so on.

Now maybe I don’t understand what Egnor is saying (after all, I’ve been accused by Sophisticated Philosophers™ like Massimo Pigliucci of being a philosophical numbskull), but there’s a good chance that he doesn’t understand what he’s saying. The second bolded part, about an engram for the Good presupposing a concept of the Good, seems like Sophisticated Gibberish.

Perhaps some reader will understand the argument (though I doubt any will accept it) and enlighten me. But Egnor’s smug assurance that he’s disproven materialism for much human thought, and that concept-based thinking can never be explained by science, is very confusing:

The intellect is influenced by matter (in that case, EtOH), but the intellect, which grasps concepts, and the will, which acts on concepts, are inherently immaterial. And promissory materialism is of no avail here — the inevitable materialist segue to “It may make no sense now, but give scientists time…” The immaterial nature of the intellect and will is not demonstrated by experiment, but by logic. It simply makes no sense to say that intellect and will are material, unless one accepts infinite regress as a valid hypothesis.

This, too, seems like a classic example of begging the question. But I am loath to completely condemn that which I don’t fully grasp, so, philosophical readers, put this argument into concrete terms (which of course means that we can think about it materially!).

135 Comments

  1. Posted January 21, 2015 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Holy crap (pun intended). This reasoning applies to every single word (as opposed to the object that is the analogue of that word).

    What a dope.

  2. Posted January 21, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    All that talk about Good was just driving me nuts. I want to ask questions? How do you know it is good? Can you be more precise about your explanation of what is good about that apple? Is it good because it tastes good or because it looks good? It is surely not a morally good apple.
    The trouble with a lot of dualist thinking is that it wanders away from the world I live in to rarefied zones where things get better the purer they get. I can’t stand that: in art, literature, morals, philosophy…
    But I am just an old sinner, I guess.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      I think you are good if you give money to Amnesty International.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

        But is that thought, apprehending that notion of good, good.
        Actually there is quite a lot in that simple sentence (which is why you said I imagine).
        I think.
        I think you are.
        I think you are good if.
        Golly.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

        Why you said it, I imagine.

  3. Posted January 21, 2015 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    He’s talking nonsense. Everything in the brain is just configurations of neurons (etc.).

    He’s looking at it like “the little man inside your head” looking at a movie screen. Mr. Egnor: Show me the movie screen. If there isn’t a little object to bounce the light off of and onto the little screen, it can’t be something. Sheesh. What a load of bollocks.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      Nonsense indeed. All of these supernaturalist apologist arguments seem to have at their foundation one absolutely ridiculous starting premise. They sort of spit that out as quickly as possible and then spend hundreds of more words on the rest of the argument, and never explaining why that ridiculous starting premise is reasonably justified.

      And when that is pointed out they resort to misdirection, “why, that is so obviously true I can’t believe anyone needs to have it explained.” Or, “Well, it is very sophisticated philosophy so it would be too difficult to explain why, but trust me, all philosophers no it is accurate.”

      My favorite is “a most perfect being must exist, by definition.”

  4. eric
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    How could Good be coded?

    The same way neural nets learn to categorize inputs. A ‘general mental concept’ consists of a neural subset that takes a wide variety of inputs about disparate things and cranks out a much more limted number of outputs. A decent programmer could probably make one that allowed you to input the name of any fruit or vegetable and have it output “fruit” or “vegetable.” In the same way, we learn to input a wide variety of actions and output a notion of “that’s good” or “that’s evil.”

    Through our intellect we grasp and comprehend universals, not particulars,

    He should read Babboon Metaphysics. Babboons can do that too. I guess that means they have souls?

  5. Sastra
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Dualists are very, very confused by the idea of abstractions. If you can’t see it or hold it in your hand … then what is it? Where is it? If it’s in the brain, then show me the little miniature piece of matter which is abstract. If materialism was true, then our thoughts should be solid things rolling around in our heads like marbles. But they’re not! So what are they??!!11!1

    Dualism is what happens when people try to get too concrete and literal about the abstract. They create confusion and then solve it by coming up with a third category in between the abstract and the concrete: the spiritual. The spiritual realm is where abstractions get reified and ‘Goodness’ turns into a kind of thing in itself. It’s not made of anything (unless it’s ‘spirit energy’) — it just IS.

    Crisis solved. We get god from Good, we get will from Will, we get intellect from Intellect. The question has been moved around to resemble an answer — a non-reductive answer. There’s no regress if you just stop with a capitalized essence.

    In that sense, the grasp of particulars is material, or at least depends on matter in a necessary way. The same is not true of intellect and will. There is not the same intimate link between intellect and will with matter that there is between perception and imagination, etc., and matter.

    The link is there, the same sort of link — but it undergoes more pattern selection. The concept of “Good” is cobbled together from personal observations and experiences which have the same aspect in common, that of being desirable, pleasing, or satisfactory. A chocolate bar is not “good” in the same way that an expression of gratitude is, but there’s a vague resemblance which our brains connect together.

    There is nothing magic about “universals” but the name — which makes it sound as if these things would exist and did exist even before there was anyone or anything to experience them, and that all people mysteriously access the very same concept.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes, well said. Ironically enough these people appear like they are comfortable with abstractions like “spirituality” when really they are the most uncomfortable and for them “spirituality” becomes some sort of concrete way of explaining all the other abstractions (even though it isn’t).

      • Chris
        Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        One could argue that the ability to form abstract concepts is the cornerstone of sentience.

        Which I find vastly amusing at times like this!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          I often wonder if other animals are capable of understanding abstractions and to the extend of those abstractions.

          • aljones909
            Posted January 21, 2015 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

            There’s some evidence(though maybe not conclusive) that crows can handle abstract concepts. We diverged from corvids about 300 million years ago. If “dualism” is true then it probably applies to crows as well.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 21, 2015 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

              Birds need to understand 3-dimensions (as I imagine marine life do too) and their brains are much more complex than we humans bigotedly supposed in the past. I wouldn’t be surprised of crows did think abstractly. Whenever my dog can’t get something open or figure out how to get her toys out (I think it’s actually a game where she pretends she needs help by whining until I come help her – I used to do this as a child to my mother), I tell her that she needs to get a crow to help.

              • Posted January 21, 2015 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

                Alex the parrot and at least that one dog (and quite a number of primates starting with Koko) have extensive vocabularies that include adjectives. You can present a set of toys the animal has never seen before and ask it to bring you the red ball and it will.

                If that’s not abstract reasoning, I don’t know what is.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 21, 2015 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

                My dog knows that there is any toy is called a “toy” and she also knows the specific names of her toys. I thought this was good reasoning.

              • Posted January 22, 2015 at 9:35 am | Permalink

                Not bad for a d*g.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 22, 2015 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

                She’s a smart girl.

              • Posted January 23, 2015 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps…but, were she truly smart, she wouldn’t have been born a d*g….

                b&

              • Posted January 21, 2015 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

                And Ben, you can ask your cat to bring you the red ball and it won’t. Not because it doesn’t understand, but because it’s thinking, “get it yourself, human.” Now that’s abstract reasoning!

              • Posted January 22, 2015 at 9:38 am | Permalink

                This is true.

                But he can also be sound asleep in the bedroom as I’m making my own dinner, grabbing stuff at random from the refrigerator. But the instant I grab a bag of his favorite treat, he’s right behind me before I can even finish opening it. Mind you, this is the same type of ziploc bag I might just have grabbed a carrot from.

                Now that’s abstract reasoning!

                b&

          • eric
            Posted January 21, 2015 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

            Yes they can. See my comment above. Baboon Metaphysics is a good start.
            Mark Hauser also wrote a great book about reasoning in animals, but I hesitate to recommend it because he committed fraud in some of his research, which sadly puts all of his work in question.

      • Chris
        Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        Oh, and “good” isn’t an actual thing. It’s a value judgement. Anyone arguing from this position should provide a sample of it on a plate.

      • rickflick
        Posted January 21, 2015 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        Right. I think spiritualists are distracted by word connotation and miss the denotation almost entirely. They are comfortable with the abstract “spirituality” because it arouses strong, warm emotions. They are not inclined to analyze the logical significance of the term at all.

    • Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Dualists are very, very confused by the idea of abstractions. If you can’t see it or hold it in your hand … then what is it? Where is it? If it’s in the brain, then show me the little miniature piece of matter which is abstract.

      Very insightful analysis.

      What puzzles me to no end is how, in this Age of Information, with the discussions themselves taking place on computer networks, people can have such confusion in the first place.

      I punch 1 + 1 into my calculator, and it understands the abstractions and is answer, “2.” Where are those ones, plusses, and twos in the calculator? I can open it up, but I don’t see any little number marbles rolling around — yet it still deals with the purest of abstractions with superb aplomb.

      It’s the same confusion I get with mathematical platonists who seem to think that numbers and what-not are really real in some platonically idealistic sense. No; they’re “just” patterns in your brain, the same way they’re patterns of electrical charge in the calculator.

      b&

    • Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

      I promise I did not read your comment before I posted mine.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 2:55 am | Permalink

      I agree. It’s Hume’s Fork – the world of facts and the world of ideas – except that magically (a process, not merely an adverb) ideas are ‘more real’ than facts.

      By Egnor’s argument of universals Evil must exist, Abuse must exist, Disease must exist, Unicorns must exist. Whatever next? The Four Horsemen?

    • tsbardella
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      wow this kicks its ass. The problem is a failure to think abstractly or failure to have faith in the abstract.. faith.. oh my not having faith seems so harsh for this argument.

    • eric
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Dualists are very, very confused by the idea of abstractions. If you can’t see it or hold it in your hand … then what is it? Where is it?

      Personally I think the confusion results from two main problems. First, a lack of understanding or acceptance of emergent properties. In this case, they look for some one-to-one mapping of concepts onto brain sections because they either reject or don’t understand the notion that abstract thought could be an emergent property of neural activity. The second factor contributing to the confusion/rejection of materialism is the classic argument from incredulity: I don’t understand how a material brain could think abstractly the way it seems to do, therefore, I’m going to conclude it doesn’t think abstractly the way it seems to do.

    • Posted January 22, 2015 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Not only are they bad at abstractions, they are so bad at abstractions that they realize neither than they are bad at them nor that they are using them on a regular basis. In fact, everything we talk about with the possible exception of Particle Physics is an abstraction. I’ll leave it to people better versed in Physics than I am to determine whether the stuff in the Standard Model might be an abstraction for something even more fundamental. However, even talking about Particle Physics is using abstractions because language itself is a tool for communicating abstractly. Where Egnor really goes of the rails (and it’s immediately) is saying that we can’t say what good is, but we can say what an apple is. First, yes we can; we can equally well say what both of them are giving our language. Second, the apple is an abstraction that usefully does away with unnecessary details that don’t add to the definition of apple. Likewise, we can abstract apple away and call it fruit; fruit we can call food and we can keep going from there. Is Egnor prepared to say that we can’t say what food is because we need to come up with a concrete instance of the abstraction? We can do it with food and we can do it with good.

      On that note, other theologians such as William Lane Craig would rip Egnor to shreds for having conflated definitions of good. A good apple is not the same meaning as a good deed. Of course, WLC would jump right back on the bandwagon with his idea that there can’t be actual infinities and that infinite regresses fall into this category. Why are infinities prohibited? Because they say they are? Not only is this begging the question, Egnor is making one big argument from ignorance (I can’t think of any solution but infinite regresses or dualism; therefore, dualism is correct) as well as creating a straw man of the materialist position. This article is bad even by the normal standards of sophisticated theology.

  6. Paul S.
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Good, apple, hot, car, aren’t these are all concepts that that have to be learned? Newborns do not understand good or hot, they explore and gather input from the world around them. Those experiences become memories.
    It sounds like he’s saying you can have a concept of things you have no concept of, that would be… well I’m not sure what it would be, but it doesn’t sound right.

    • Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      well, that would be the usual claim of a theist who wants to pretend that everyone is born with the concept of god. that we really do all believe

    • darrelle
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      I think humans, and most animals, are born with what might be characterized as “concept kernels” that are a result of their evolutionary history. Lying skin to skin with mother is good, a cold bath is bad. Warm milk is good, too cold or too hot is bad. The newborn can’t reason about these things except perhaps in a relatively rudimentary way, but there are “preprogrammed” responses that form a kernel for the concepts.

      Actually, if you think about it, how often do adult humans really reason about things like good, bad, hot, cold, etc. as they go about a typical day? We typically are all just responding to stimuli in ways conditioned by our life experiences.

  7. Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    My dictionary defines “good.” Egnor’s vision suggests that my dictionary is supernatural. Who would have guessed?

  8. Kevin
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Egnor cannot prove free will exist any more than I can prove that science will eventually have all of the answers.

    This is not an impasse. Science continues to explain and predict more every day. Dualists are continually loosing ground for their arguments to be plausible. Nevertheless, dualists maintain a metaphysical position that cannot be refuted, so they are not going to disappear anytime soon.

  9. rickflick
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    How universals, concepts, are represented in the brain is not a puzzle. They are represented just like particulars are. Language allows us to represent objects in the brain through words and grammar. See Pinker, the Language Instinct. In logic set theory, Venn diagrams, etc. do the trick.
    The universal, good, is the name we give to the set of actions, behaviors, and events that we would approve of. The word, good, is certainly representable in the brain, just like other nouns, except it is known as an abstract noun.

    //www.chompchomp.com/terms/abstractnoun.htm

    • Posted January 21, 2015 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      Your last paragraph: Tells why Craig’s “Divine Command” theory is nonsense.

      If it doesn’t mean “good” to us, then is ISN”T GOOD. Full stop. No getting to make up new definitions. You can’t define your way out of The Problem of Evil.

      • darrelle
        Posted January 22, 2015 at 7:48 am | Permalink

        Reminds of that insurance commercial “Words Can Hurt,” where the manly adventurous cowboy has to leave his girl friend because of his urge for adventure, and as he rides off he runs into the giant letters pasted across the scene and gets knocked off his horse.

  10. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    There is this poem I found in Science magazine about a zillion years ago that starts something like:

    ‘The light of the stars does not fall through my eyes.
    It is my idea of star light that falls through my eyes…’

    I cannot coherently remember the rest. But I liked it and it somehow reminds me of the eternal argument about reality versus perception.

  11. Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been accused by Sophisticated Philosophers™ like Massimo Pigliucci of being a philosophical numbskull

    High praise, indeed! Can you also get, say, Haught to accuse you of being a theological numbskull?

    b&

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Yes, indeed. Right up there with the “Censor of the Year” accolade.

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Never, ever let Egnor code anything; the system would be so bloated and spaghetti like, we’d have to trash it and start all over.

    Yes, it’s all begging the question. The way we find the truth of things is asking questions to find answers not creating the answers we like and then asking questions that make sense for those answers.

    And yes, I personally believe that the illusion of the self is such a powerful illusion (probably out of necessity — it would be very disorienting and confusing if there wasn’t something to tie things altogether) that most people are dualists without even thinking about it. Even people who accept a material world – many of them think of themselves in dualistic manner. We can’t help it — we are wired that way.

    However, I find it disheartening when people try to encourage the illusion instead of accepting the reality.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 3:01 am | Permalink

      Spot on. Some illusions are useful fictions, but that doesn’t make the fictions true.

      “A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.”
      ~ Bertrand Russell

  13. kelskye
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    “If you don’t think anybody accept dualistic free will”
    I’m not sure anyone claims nobody accepts it, but that it’s not the only conception of free will that people believe. So the idea that getting rid of free will is getting rid dualistic free will ignore other conceptions that people hold.

    • eric
      Posted January 21, 2015 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

      Isn’t that the same as the sophisticated theologian’s argument in defense of abstract conceptions of God? “Hey, you’re going after the interventionist theistic God. Getting rid of that doesn’t get rid of my ground of being God!”

      • kelskye
        Posted January 22, 2015 at 12:49 am | Permalink

        Imagine if we took the same approach to consciousness – that there’s no such thing as consciousness because there’s no such thing as dualistic consciousness. Or there’s no such thing as morality because divine command theory is absurd.

        We should be able to recognise that our conceptions can be metaphysics-neutral, and that what we mean with a particular assertion doesn’t depend on any particular worldview. As a naturalist, I don’t find it particularly useful to make my conceptual ontology around what theists think, and it’s worth remembering that theists are also in the game of using natural language for their own ends. It’s the features of our world that our ordinary language covers that we often quibble about, and I think it’s much better to recognise the difference between a theistic explanation and a theistic concept. I reject the explanation theists have of free will, but I also reject that free will is a theistic concept. It’s too wrapped up in our everyday language and our everyday world to think that.

        • eric
          Posted January 22, 2015 at 8:09 am | Permalink

          Imagine if we took the same approach to consciousness – that there’s no such thing as consciousness because there’s no such thing as dualistic consciousness. Or there’s no such thing as morality because divine command theory is absurd.

          Those analogies completely miss the point. The reason atheists engage with believers about theistic intervening gods more than deistic ground-of-being gods is because the majority of the population believes in the former, and because those are the people most likely to translate that belief in to bad social policies. We aren’t concerned with converting deistic Thomas Jeffersons into atheists; we’re concerned with prayer in school.

          Likewise with free will. The majority of the population (actually, pretty much the exact same population as the theistic interventionists discussed above) are dualists, and that dualistic belief props up bad social policy. Like the pro-life movement. Like criminal sentences based on theological notions of justice rather than empirical data about what reduces violence. Like discounting animal rights and suffering because they don’t have souls. Like anti-environmentalism (because hey, when I die, I go to a better place, so what do I care if I don’t clean my room before I go?).

          They are the big fish. You’re the little fish. We’re going after the big fish. As much as you’d like the difference between your theories of mind and ours to be the main point of discussion, the dualists are our focus of attention because your theory of mind’s negative social impact is essentially zero, while theirs is large.

          So, join us in going after the big fish, instead of complaining (like the sophisticated theologians) that we should pay no attention to the common belief because their academic concept is such much more interesting/better/philosophically sound.

          • kelskye
            Posted January 22, 2015 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

            “They are the big fish. You’re the little fish. We’re going after the big fish.”
            You’re welcome to. No-one is saying that you shouldn’t go after the dualists (I certainly do).

            “instead of complaining (like the sophisticated theologians) that we should pay no attention to the common belief because their academic concept is such much more interesting/better/philosophically sound.”
            That’s not what I’m doing. You’re more than well to go after what you call “the common belief”, though I doubt it’s that well thought out, or that there is a single common belief, or that the beliefs have much metaphysical content at all – language being largely a matter of practical expediency. What I’m saying is that as naturalists, we should be trying to understand the universe in natural terms, which doesn’t mean using theistic conceptions as our starting point.

            A dualistic notion of free will is what I consider a pseudoproblem – it’s a problem that exists only because of a bad assumption. Dualism is absurd (and I’ve wasted much ink arguing to that effect), so anything that relies on dualism is going to be absurd. But dualism isn’t the only game in town, and dualism isn’t even relevant to naturalists because naturalism precludes dualism.

            The idea that we have to commit to a dualist ontology with free will subverts the functionalist role language plays, especially with regards to our dispositions. And it’s easy to see this because the denial of free will is often taken as a denial of dispositions that seem intrinsic to the human condition. So on those grounds, I think we’re very much permitted to talk about free will in non-dualistic terms, that we are able to recognise that our language doesn’t commit free will to dualism, and that as naturalists we shouldn’t give a damn what dualists think except when we are dealing with one.

          • kelskye
            Posted January 22, 2015 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            The problem (at least I thought) with Sophisticated Theology™ was that sophisticated theology is a way of avoiding criticisms by retreating to metaphorical or analogical language. That is, the conception of God is saved because a literal reading is a crude misunderstanding. It’s then taken to mean that Sophisticated Theology™ isn’t making a theological belief any more respectable, but is a dodge that protects theological beliefs from criticisms.

            And I object that’s what naturalists are doing with free will. They aren’t saying “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, they are saying that the “man behind the curtain” is the reality. There’s no trickery involved, no obfuscation, no sophistry. Indeed, one of the things that’s refreshing about compatibilism is that compatibilists go into some detail about how it all works. Unlike Sophisticated Theology™, there’s no retreat to a mysterian notion, but an elucidation of a different way of thinking about the problem.

            It seems utterly disingenuous to treat compatibilism as analogous to Sophisticated Theology™ given the pejorative connotations of the rhetorical move to Sophisticated Theology™. That’s not what is going on at all.

  14. winewithcats
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    The argument seems to boil down to this:

    Firstly, senses are clearly material, as there are distinct brain regions that correspond to sensory processing.

    Secondly, abstract concepts are fundamentally different things from senses. There aren’t distinct brain regions that correspond to abstract concepts. Moreover, there can’t possibly be any such thing, because it would have to be engrams all the way down, which is materially impossible.

    Therefore, the intellect is immaterial by definition. QED.

  15. Chris
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I think that the problem stems from the way that certain types of religious thought classes nebulous concepts as actual entities that exist in our reality, or maybe in some spiritual realm. Examples being “good” or “perfection” or “evil”. Similarly the mind, as part of the soul, can be considered it’s own thing, not a byproduct of neurons firing.

    With this in mind these arguments make sense, but this doesn’t help the discussion as it means that a (possibly not deliberate) bait-and-switch is being done with the terminology.

  16. Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    And, presumably, because he can’t think of how to fill that gap, real, imaginary or invented, it must be the locally popular god who did it.

  17. Raygray
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I think what he’s attempting to do (perhaps without even realizing it is use “the hard question of philosophy” as an argument against materialism.

    He seems to be going from “How can a physical brain produce consciousness,” to “How can a physical brain encode for an abstract concept of the abstract concept isn’t already there somehow.”

    Not that I agree with it, I just think that’s what he’s trying to get at.

  18. johzek
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Concepts are general identifications based on particular instances. They are the idea of a class whose members share a certain similarity. Imagining a particular instance of an apple, whether it be an idealized apple or the apple you just ate five minutes ago is simply just that and is not the concept but an imagined particular member subsumed by the concept.

    The essential distinguishing characteristics which the members share provides the means to a definition, and it is the open ended nature of a concept, due to the process of measurement omission in its formation, that provides it with universality.

    Egnor says “The concept of good is not a particular thing.” This is correct, but probably not in the way he means, because a concept is a general identification and not a particular. The concept named by the word ‘good’ is formed by our minds from all the particular instances which share a certain similarity and which we have come to identify with the word ‘good’. This concept, like all concepts, has a universal aspect to it since if an observed instance fits the definition it too is a member of the class subsumed by the concept.

    When Egnor goes on to say that “the judgement that a particular thing is good presupposes the concept of good”, he leaves no doubt that he is clueless as to how our minds form concepts. The initial formation of a concept is inductive in character; particular instances inform the general identification. The question of subsequent inclusion of a particular instance as a member of the class subsumed by the concept is then just a simple matter of logical deduction.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 21, 2015 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      Well put. The issue becomes even clearer when examples which aren’t already loaded with metaphysical implications are used. I like “fuzziness.”

      Fuzziness seems specific but it’s pretty vague. Are a fuzzy caterpillar and a fuzzy picture really that similar? And we can extend it beyond the physical. We can talk about fuzzy logic and fuzzy concepts and fuzzy arguments like Egnor’s.

  19. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Chess-playing computers distinguish good moves from bad moves. Does Egnor think they do so by encoding the abstractions of “good” and “bad” immaterially?

    In fact the whole point of object-oriented programming is to formalize the distinction between abstractions (classes) and particulars (object instances). There’s nothing magic about it.

    Even something as primitive as the genetic code manages to do it by using codons (abstractions) to represent amino acids (particulars). “But where’s the lump of matter that encodes that correspondence?” Egnor wants to know. It’s right here, and it’s called tRNA.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      “Chess-playing computers distinguish good moves from bad moves. Does Egnor think they do so by encoding the abstractions of “good” and “bad” immaterially?”

      Bingo. That’s check and mate.

      • Posted January 22, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        This reminds me of the “Argument from Software” I frequently hear from dualists. They argue that the brain is hardware and consciousness is the software.

        They seem utterly perplexed when I tell them software is really just a method for manipulating hardware states. It is definitely there in a concrete sense. Software does not exist without some physical correlate, whether it is the storage device it is on, or the set of instructions used to program it. The software analogy holds, just not in the way they think it does. No hardware, no software. No brain, no consciousness.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          I’ve heard arguments for ‘non-Cartesian dualism’, putting a qualitative barrier between mind as software, brain/body as the hardware it runs on; no supernatural entities required. I thought: yeah OK maybe, but why call it dualism?
          This of course is how Jerry feels about Dennett’s version of ‘free will’. (I, on the other hand, am less of a hardass about defining the latter term…) But as you say, software is actually pretty concrete stuff when you come down to it.

          • Posted January 23, 2015 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

            Sure, I side with you on taking a hard line on the matter. I have no problem with colloquial use of the term “free will” so long as we’re defining it as degrees of freedom within an output model. This is much the view I’ve seen Sean Carroll express. The main problem I see with insisting on incompatibilist viewpoints is that we get stuck focusing on the semantic debate rather than the science behind human behavior. If we have two similar enough scenarios given our ability to predict the output and the output can be different, there is some freedom involved even if in the ultimate sense, the outcome could only be one way.

            But, I do take a harder line on the argument that software is something that is fundamentally different from hardware in a material sense.

  20. Vaal
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Well I have to congratulate Mr. Egnor. He’s convinced me that immateriality and dualism must apply not only to humans, but to almost every animal/organism on earth!

    After all, most creatures have to recognize particular instances from among a general category. Bees are attracted to a variety of flowers. But bee brains couldn’t come hard-coded with individual representations of every *particular* flower they will ever select in the future in order to recognize those flowers. Therefore they need some *generalizing* pattern recognition system from which it singles out particular objects in a field as likely to have nectar.

    But, whoa, it’s so hard to think about how such a generalized recognition system could be materially coded within an organism. It’s just to mysterious so the answer must be….it’s a SUPERNATURAL system.

    Whew, glad that’s solved. And we can apply this solution to most life on earth, who somehow manage to have general pattern recognition systems.

    Mr. Egnor probably didn’t realize just how fruitful his theory would be!

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Reductio ad absurdum is a very fine method but it isn’t going to work on these guys. They joyfully embrace their absurdity.

  21. Posted January 21, 2015 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Egnor is introducing dualism into his argument as a tacit assumption underlying his definition of ‘good’.

    He is starting from the unstated assumption that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are metaphysical substances distinct from the material universe. Note Egnor’s capitalization of ‘good’ as ‘Good’, which plays to this underlying assumption.

    That’s why he falls into the trap of thinking his ‘infinite regress’ idea is a good one. Because if we use an engram to represent ‘good’, then that engram is not itself ‘good’, because ‘good’ is by definition nonphysical. So the engram needs to be represented by something else, which in the materialist view can only be another engram.

    The argument works if you allow for that initial assumption.

    However, we would all here (I think) agree that this initial assumption is wrong.

    Which means that for Egnor this is not an uncontested assumption, and therefore needs to be stated explicitly and defended rather than just tacitly assumed.

    I doubt Egnor entirely realizes that he’s made a contestable assumption in the first place. He probably thinks it’s so obvious that this is what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ signify by definition that any other way of thinking about them is automatically wrong.

    Also: Isn’t it kind of weird that Egnor is using Scientology terminology? I thought ‘engram’ was a scientology term, and that Egnor was a Catholic and not a Scientologist.

    • Chris
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 4:44 am | Permalink

      “He is starting from the unstated assumption that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are metaphysical substances distinct from the material universe. Note Egnor’s capitalization of ‘good’ as ‘Good’, which plays to this underlying assumption.”

      Yep, that’s what leaped out at me.

  22. josh
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Other people have pointed it out already, but a little basic programming course might do wonders for people like Egnor. Why not actually ask a materialist how they think the brain/mind works?

    One point to make though, is how logically wrong his argument is. Even ignoring what we know about neuroscience, and programming and language acquisition. Let’s assume there really is some kind of infinite regress we can’t find a way around. How does immaterialism help? If one can’t explain how a neuron knows that the next neuron is coding for ‘Good’ and so on, how does making the next neuron immaterial improve the situation? It has nothing to do with the purported problem.

    • Posted January 21, 2015 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Yep.

      His regression argument is an attempted reductio-ad-absurdum against materialism.

      He seems to think that disproving materialism means dualism wins by default.

      So we can throw a false dichotomy onto the charge sheet along with previously mentioned dubious argumentation. 🙂

      • eric
        Posted January 22, 2015 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        This is an aside, but there’s an interesting parallel between the dualism issue and the theodicy (problem of evil) issue. Claiming God can solve the infinite regress problem of abstract thought in the spirit realm but doesn’t or can’t solve it in our material system, is analogous to the claim that evil is a necessary flip side of free will on earth, but doesn’t exist in heaven.

  23. Vaal
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, one of the things that always blows my mind about people who tend to advance “non-material” conclusions against naturalism
    is they seem to think like this:

    They sift through all the things accounted for via materialist understandings of the world, find a couple areas they think are “unsolved” via materialism, then they posit the supernatural to explain those parts.

    They wipe there hands “see, done!”

    They seem completely oblivious that’s not how explanations work. Their theory – e.g. dualism – doesn’t have to account simply for the few observations they’ve seized upon – it also has to account for ALL the things naturalism accounts for! That is, all the observations that seem to support material interactions. In other words, they have EVEN MORE explaining to do than naturalists.
    (For instance those who posit dualism to “solve” purported NDEs just ignore that for they now have to account for ALL the observations that naturalists have to account for in the first place – e.g. all the observations that suggest mind-brain dependence, etc)

    Lazy bastards.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 21, 2015 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      Ugh, sorry:

      For instance those who posit dualism to “solve” purported NDEs just ignore that they still have to account for ALL the observations that naturalism has to account for – e.g. all the observations that suggest mind-brain dependence, etc.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 21, 2015 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I have friends who are Idealist Monists and believe that the only reality is Mind (the Universal Mind, to be exact.) They don’t seem to think there is any problem at all with accounting for the success of naturalistic explanations. The material world only seems real because ego and fear (reason) broke off from Love and created this illusion.

      It’s just like when Christian fundamentalists invoke “sin” to explain inconsistencies or contradictions. Ego, fear, sin — oh dear. This is supposed to distract you into thinking about what might be wrong with you — as opposed to what’s wrong with the argument.

  24. Neil
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    i tried to find a file on my computer the other day and I got an “infinite regress” error

  25. John K.
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Make a bizarre caricature straw man of materialism, point out that this caricature becomes confusing when talking about a vague and ill-defined term, then use a whopping argument from ignorance (or false dichotomy perhaps) to support a mysterious mechanism that can never be tested and has no predictive power at all. Without the intimidating vocabulary the whole argument is truly pathetic.

    Where in electrical signals can a person be? Show me the electrons that encode for the image of a person! You can’t! Since there can be no people living in my television, these “radio-signalists” and “electrical engineers” clearly have some deep problems. We have no choice but to accept that TV programs come directly from the magical 5th dimension.

  26. Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Egnor:

    “In fact the judgment that a particular thing is Good presupposes a concept of Good…”

    That’s backwards. The “universal” concept of “good” is an abstraction of certain qualities possessed by “particulars” (to use Egnor’s terms). We say something is good when it fulfills its function. An apple that is delicious and energizing is an spoke that is doing what we want it to do. A car that is aesthetically pleasing and runs reliably is also doing what we want it to do. The common characteristic between these examples – doing what we want them to do – is what we call “good” when we extract and separate the characteristic from the “particular’s” other characteristics.

    So the universal “good” proceeds from our consideration of material things. It does not precede it.

    • Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

      (spoke = apple)

      (also: tl;dr: “good” is not an independently existing essence. It is a definition.

      • Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

        )

        • Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

          (Yowza. Touchscreens and wine)

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

          How’d you get from spoke to apple? 😀

          • Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

            Damn you, autocorrect!

            • Diane G.
              Posted January 22, 2015 at 12:36 am | Permalink

              OK, how’d autocorrect get from spoke to apple? 😀

  27. Golkarian
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Seems like neo-Platonist mysticism nonsense (common among Christians), which confuses definitions with forms (Platonism) and then forms with spirits and souls (neo-Platonism). IMO at least.

    • Posted January 22, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Actually, it is very Platonic: to the point that even on his own terms the argument fails. Why – the Third Man argument (from the Parmenides) seems to vitiate his discussion.

  28. Posted January 22, 2015 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    There is an actual issue here, but Egnor didn’t explain it very well. Let me give it a try:

    Goodness isn’t something out there in the world, but instead goodness is how you respond to things in the world. Goodness is when you jump up and say “Yes!” Goodness is what motivates you to take action.

    Certainly it’s possible to form a mental concept of goodness, and you can use the word “goodness,” but that word or concept does not motivate you. The word is not what makes you jump up and say “Yes!” So goodness is something different from the symbolic concept of goodness. Goodness is not a symbol, but it’s the thing itself.

    A mental concept is a set of connected neurons in your brain, but goodness is not a set of neurons. Instead, goodness is the neural-electric energy flowing through your brain’s neural network.

    How could Good be coded? It can’t. You can certainly code the concept that something is good, and you can code the “set of all good things,” but you can’t code goodness per se.

    How could a computer programmer code the electricity flowing through the computer’s circuits? He can’t! Certainly he can declare a variable called “electricity,” but that variable doesn’t make the computer run. Goodness is like actual electricity, not like a symbol of electricity.

    So here’s Egnor’s problem: He got this inkling that goodness is not a mental construct, so he jumped to the conclusion that goodness is a transcendent spiritual thing. He’s wrong because goodness is energy flowing through your brain’s neural circuits, and energy is completely physical.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      How could a computer programmer code the electricity flowing through the computer’s circuits? He can’t!

      You lost me here. How do you imagine that computer programs work, if not by controlling the flow of electricity through the computer’s circuits? If variables, program logic, and so on don’t actually make the computer do anything, then what is software for?

      • Posted January 22, 2015 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        “Coding the electricity” doesn’t mean directing the electricity one way or the other. It means making the electricity happen in the first place.

        An electrical generator can make electricity, but just flipping switches in the circuit can never make electricity flow.

        • eric
          Posted January 22, 2015 at 8:45 am | Permalink

          just flipping switches in the circuit can never make electricity flow.

          What? That’s exactly what it does. Are you trying to say that a circuit or program isn’t the same thing as the battery that supplies the current? That is true…but now you’re going to have to go back to the analogy and explain to me why you think the concept of goodness is more like a battery than a program.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted January 22, 2015 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

            I’m with eric. If this is meant to clarify Egnor’s argument from Goodness, then I remain baffled.

    • Daniel
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 3:51 am | Permalink

      And when a sadist is getting off on hurting someone, that sensation of getting off is *also* energy flowing through their brain’s neural circuits.

      So ‘goodness’ is energy… And ‘evilness’ is also energy?

      Seems a little convenient for me.

      I think it’s much easier just to think as ‘good’ as an emotional signifier of something that should be encouraged, and ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ as an emotional signifier of something that should be encouraged.

      The ‘should’ parts come from psychology, culture and ethics.

      Much easier. No mysterious energies required. 🙂

      • Posted January 22, 2015 at 5:20 am | Permalink

        But psychology, culture and ethics are based on physical things, right? And there really is a physical basis for what “should” be. It’s not all relative.

        Goodness is like “being on” as opposed to evil, which is like the tendency to be turned off. Goodness is like being alive, whereas evil is like dying.

        It’s true that some things people want aren’t actually good. A sadist might want to hurt someone. This reflects the fact that we don’t really know for sure what things tend to keep us running, and what things tend to shut us down. But again, goodness is not a thing that keeps you running; goodness is the running itself, the fact that you are indeed running right now.

        Of course there’s a reason why we think “being on” is good and getting turned off is bad. It’s because we evolved. Individuals that didn’t care about being “on” tended to get turned off, so they tended not to reproduce.

        Goodness is caring and wanting. Usually we talk about the objects of our caring and wanting. We talk about the things we care about and want. But goodness isn’t really an object. Goodness is our actual activity of caring and wanting.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 22, 2015 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          I think what you are talking about is commonly referred to as a “brain state.” The sensation or state of mind that is engendered when experiencing something “good”.

          But I disagree that this can’t be “coded for.” We already know how to induce many different distinct brain states in humans in the lab. And I can pretty reliably change the brain state of another person to a state of my choosing by interacting with them in a particular way.

          Also, we can image and identify some brain states by corresponding patterns of neural activity, and then recreate those brain states by direct stimulation of the brain in specific ways and patterns. That seems pretty analogous to programming.

        • eric
          Posted January 22, 2015 at 8:50 am | Permalink

          Of course there’s a reason why we think “being on” is good and getting turned off is bad. It’s because we evolved. Individuals that didn’t care about being “on” tended to get turned off, so they tended not to reproduce.

          You seem to be equating goodness with self-preservation and genetic propagation. Two thoughts on that:

          (1) This is the naturalistic fallacy.
          (2) It puts general or global altruism in the “evil” category.

          You sure you want to plant your flag on this concept of goodness?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 22, 2015 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

          Granting that natural selection has programmed us to think survival is good, it doesn’t follow that goodness is synonymous with experience. Goodness is a judgment we apply to certain kinds of experience; it’s not the experience itself.

          DNA repair enzymes have a (very rudimentary) notion of goodness they apply to certain molecular states. But this sort of goodness doesn’t equate to any sort of experience; there’s nothing it’s like to be a DNA repair enzyme.

    • Chris
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      “So here’s Egnor’s problem: He got this inkling that goodness is not a mental construct, so he jumped to the conclusion that goodness is a transcendent spiritual thing. He’s wrong because goodness is energy flowing through your brain’s neural circuits, and energy is completely physical.”

      I think that it’s the other way round. I think that he already classes “good” as a transcendent “thing”, and as such can’t see how it can possibly map to a purely physical brain & mind.

      The standard apologist schtick of “God is ultimate good” and “God is perfection” should demonstrate how these folks think.

      Any argument without agreeing these basic concepts will end badly. We think of “good” as fundamentally different to them – value judgement vs transcendent entity.

  29. barael
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    I think Egnor’s “killer argument” would also slay most of what has become known as computer science.

  30. StephenLawrence
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Almost everybody accepts dualistic Free Will or at least that we have Free Will that would give us Ultimate Moral Responsibility for our actions. Amongst the religious it’s the freely willing soul that’s supposed to do the job. But amongst the none religious they look to compatibilism or quantum mechanics to do the job, or they just don’t give it much thought.

    The sort of moral responsibility people believe in on mass, is the sort that could make sense of a good god judging us after we are dead for what we have done.

    It makes no difference if someone believes in heaven and hell, or even in god or not, people continue to believe in that version of moral responsibility, regardless.

    At it’s base is the concept that we could have done what we should have done, without the need for anything not of our choosing to have been different. People do not accept that the guilty were merely unlucky that causal conditions not of their choosing weren’t appropriately different.

    Yes it’s the freely willing immaterial soul that is supposed to do the job, amongst the religious but atheists and agnostics believe we have that power nevertheless.

  31. Posted January 22, 2015 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    This is easily solved in the computational theory of mind. Heck, tell him to real anything by Steven Pinker on language, such as The Language Instinct, Stuff of Thought, or even The Blank Slate. Or Chomsky, or anybdoy who actually works on what parts of the mind are hardcoded and what abstractions build on it.

    By his argument, computers can’t even work. For example, how does a computer know that a particular binary string is an ASCII character versus a binary number, or an executable instruction set. For anybody who knows how computers do work, the answer lies in the design of the computer chips, base instruction sets, and how more complex concepts are built from simpler ones.

    It’s actually not hard at all.

  32. Posted January 22, 2015 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    If nothing else, this has prompted me to eat the apple that has been languishing in my desk drawer for a couple of days.

    Thank you, Michael Egnor. You may be a fucking nutcase but you’ve contributed to me keeping myself regular.

  33. AdamK
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    The trick is, you start with an adjective, “good”, but then you have to nominalize it with an article “the” and, crucially, Capitalize it to make it Sound Important. And voila! You’ve proved the Immaterial!

  34. Posted January 22, 2015 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    There is no “I” besides the brain. If you can affect people’s decision by fiddling with brain, it is not really different from saying free will does not exist because you can force some decisions using hypnosis, torture, or whatever. Again, I saw definitions of free will used or implied by determinists and none of them fits my (and, I presume, most lay people) intuition of what free will is.

  35. StephenLawrence
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    “Again, I saw definitions of free will used or implied by determinists and none of them fits my (and, I presume, most lay people) intuition of what free will is.”

    Szopeno,

    It’s about “could have done otherwise”. We don’t realise that circumstances not of our choosing would have had to be different for us to have done otherwise.

    I think it’s how we are wired up, so I think all of us have incompatibilist intuitions.

    Certainly the majority of people do.

    • peepuk
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I think Shaun Nichols & Joshua Knobe have done some empirical research on “Moral responsibility and determinism: The cognitive science of folk intuitions”.

      This is the very short version:

      “An empirical study of people’s intuitions about freedom of the will. We show that people tend to have compatiblist intuitions when they think about the problem in a more concrete, emotional way but that they tend to have incompatiblist intuitions when they think about the problem in a more abstract, cognitive way”

      (I’m sorry have no time to find a good link)

      • peepuk
        Posted January 22, 2015 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        My point being most people seam to be incompatibilist and compatibilist. I’m a incompatibalist but only when my emotions are under control. And that happens not too often.

        • StephenLawrence
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 4:26 am | Permalink

          Yes, I think people have compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions.

  36. Kirth Gersen
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Ergnor’s regression argument reminds me, for some reason, of the classic “how do you know it’s broken” argument from My Cousin Vinny:

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      (Hopefully posting that link doesn’t accidentally violate one of the Roolz.)

  37. Pete
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t read many of the comments so my apologies if someone already made the following point. I think Egnor has more of an infinite regress problem than the materialists. If he wants to understand “the Good” entirely independently from a materialist notion then he must define the concept of “the Good” in terms of other, equally immaterial, concepts. Hence, it’s immaterial concepts all the way down.

  38. peepuk
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Egnor is trying “Leibniz Mill Argument”:

    If we could walk in a material mind we wouldn’t find things like “Good”, “Bad”, “How is it to be like a bat” … . The only thing we will find are input/output circuits, one thing pushing against the other.

    Leibniz and (maybe) Egnor conclude that these sort of things can only be non-material and at the same time they have to be real (dualist view, I really don’t understand this position, anyone).

    Further he or they conclude all materialist who think these are real, are wrong.

    I agree with him or them that these kind of things cannot exist in reality. But at the same time I see absolutely no room for dualism.

    That makes me probably an eliminative materialist.

    (disclaimer: I have only read the above article).

  39. Keith Cook or more
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The fundermental flaw in Michael Egnor’s argument is he does not believe that evolution is true and insists on coming from the top down. Refining as he sees fit to make a sophisticated argument against a biological brain by natural selection.
    We are as Darwin put it from ‘lowly origins’ from the bottom up.
    Egnor is trapped in duelism by his own wishful thinking, a romantic notion of a universal good coming from a mystical source.
    There is no accounting for this, a brain that refuses to recognize itself for what it is.
    I would like to invoke brain conditions like fear leading to ignorence but that just prolongs what I have stated as to where Egnor fails himself.

  40. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Egnor’s argument is a woolly, hand-wavey version of Zeno’s paradox proving that motion is impossible.
    Eppur si muove.

  41. Posted January 25, 2015 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Mr. Coyne states:

    I don’t understand why pondering concepts can’t either be coded in the brain, or be taken in from the environment and run through one of the brain’s computer programs (i.e., what we call “pondering” or “reasoning”).

    In the time I have, I can only make a few points:

    First off, referring to “pondering” and/or “reasoning” as “computer programs” implies that they are algorithmic and therefore deterministic. If they are deterministic, then nothing new—novel–would ever be imagined by humanity. But we have the sum total of all human knowledge, all human artifacts, all human artistic renderings, all human musings from the sacred to the profane and from the sublime to the ridiculous to attest against that.

    The reality is that we all know that pondering and reasoning are not algorithmic. They involve focusing one’s attention, recalling memories and directing one’s thoughts to formulate new insights and each of these certainly appear to be acts of free will. Mr. Coyne’s response and his books involve his ability to focus has attention, recall from memory and direct his thoughts. Don’t they? The irony here is that science itself is a spectacular example of the ability of humans to direct thoughts and attention in a sustained manner.

    Let’s try to imagine how a “pondering program” could produce say Einstein’s insights without invoking top down causation of an immaterial mind and free will. Pondering and reasoning entail streams of related thoughts—a sequence of specific mental events. But material theories of the brain involve only bottom up causation. As such there is no necessary correlation between the vast number of sequential physical brain states required to bring about the sequence of mental states which are very definitely tightly correlated for any coherent thought(s)–including complex, abstract and novel insights such Einstein’s insights about relativity or Mr. Coyne’s insights about evolution.

    Secondly, how are Einstein’s abstract insights represented in the material brain? One might suppose that they are encoded forms of human language. But human language is symbolic only and even the most detailed human language description of Einstein’s insights for example fall far short of a true representation of abstract thoughts because abstract thoughts are ineffable by their very nature. If this were not the case then comprehension would simply be rote rather than contemplative.

    Third, where did these “pondering or reasoning computer programs” come from? How would they be represented in the brain? How would they be stored and recalled without invoking endless recursion. Let me just address the first of these, i.e. where did these computer programs come from. According to evolutionary theory biological functions have to have appeared by chance at least once to be preserved and locked in by selection. And for selection to have preserved them, they would have to have been necessary. However, chance processes are inadequate. By way of analogy, they could not have created even the most simple of all human computer programs “Hello World” given the time and the population resources available. Hello World is about 40 characters and there are about 40 characters on a keyboard. Do the math, 40 to the 40th power represents the superset within which “Hello World” would reside. You could not sample enough of that superset in the time and population resource available throughout the advent of man. This analogy is very charitable since I am waving away the need for a compiler, microprocessor and OS. Also how could one imagine that the pondering or reasoning programs, necessary to produce Einstein’s insights, are essential–necessary–to human survival?

    Just one loose end to tie up in the time I have. Mr. Coyne writes:

    But that argument can be made for anything. You could say that if the idea of an apple was coded in the brain, you’d need another “engram” to “mean that it signifies the code for the Apple engram,” and so on and so on and so on.

    The difference between an apple and the concept of “Good” for example is that “Good” is abstract and apple is concrete. The apple idea arrives in the brain through our material senses. Therefore it is much easier, meaning perhaps not impossible, to see how the brain might create an image of an apple from the signal arriving through the optic nerve. Concepts like “Good” on the other hand are ineffable. Certainly the word “Good” does not adequately describe what we all understand “Good” to be. It is as though humans just sort of gave up, throw up their hands on trying to describe complex, abstract thoughts and said, “We will use the word ‘Good’ and that will be good enough…thus the recursion that Mr. Egnor speaks of.

    • Posted January 25, 2015 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      First off, referring to “pondering” and/or “reasoning” as “computer programs” implies that they are algorithmic and therefore deterministic. If they are deterministic, then nothing new—novel–would ever be imagined by humanity.

      Your entire essay hinges on this premise, and it’s trivially demonstrated hopelessly off the mark.

      You are aware, are you not, that computers are and for some time have been an essential tool in the sciences and mathematics? That quite a number of new ideas have been discovered by computers, with the expectation that computers are going to be ever more at the forefront of research?

      Indeed, this notion of yours can only even begin to make sense within the context of Platonic Idealism, which has got to be one of the most idiotically primitive and thoroughly debunked ancient superstitions of all time — right up there with Aristotelian Metaphysics and the demonic possession theory of disease. I mean, sure, a couple millennia ago when nobody knew any better and we didn’t have any way of separating good ideas from bad, these sorts of things were excusable (or at least understandable).

      But today?

      Three centuries after Newton and a century and an half after Darwin?

      Seriously?

      b&

      • Posted January 25, 2015 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

        Hello Ben,

        Thanks for the comments. I hope you are well.

        Computers have indeed been an aid to science and engineering. They are simple devices that can do a few things very quickly. As such they are strictly quantitative tools that help expedite simulations and quantitative models to demonstrate or negate the validity of scientific theories or to expedite the calculations related to engineering problems. They reduce the time it would take for humans to conduct these same calculations. But computers are human creations and they are entirely deterministic. A programmer always knows what output will occur given a specific set of inputs were he/she to invest the time and more importantly, had the time, to conduct the calculation on his/her own. Computers are always, without exception, dependent on antecedent cause. The result of a computer application that appeared to be a new idea to an operator, would in fact be an idea that would have been programmed into the algorithms comprising the program by the programmer. That is the whole point, i.e. that they are predictable and do not generate new unprogrammed outputs—new ideas. They never have and they never will produce new ideas; not even by accident.

        You do not list any of the “quite a number of new ideas” that you claim computers have produced. I can’t even guess what you are talking about unless it is a disagreement over semantics. Maybe you are referring to the fact that computers can reveal unanticipated results through their simulations. But such unanticipated results would still be the result of deterministic causes and known to the programmer. Perhaps you think that computers’ ability to manipulate character strings can produce new ideas in the form of human text. This is also not true. If you had as many monkeys as there are particles in the known universe typing on a standard keyboard and producing a new set of, oh let’s say 1000 characters each planck time, you would never produce any meaningful human text, let alone a novel idea.

        Even if it were true that computers could create new ideas (which they cannot), the rest of my response would still stand. In making that claim, it tells me that you did not bother to read the rest of my response or you did not understand it.

        Here is my challenge to you:

        Identify a program or create a program yourself that produces a new idea.

        Secondly, explain to me how Idealism has been debunked. List just a single piece of evidence.

        Best regards,

        Neal

        • Posted January 25, 2015 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

          Computers are always, without exception, dependent on antecedent cause.

          As is everything else in the Universe beyond the quantum level (and that may be too). You are claiming otherwise based on an assertion that nothing that is deterministic could be novel or creative. You’ve provided no reasons why either of these two premises should be accepted and we haven’t even started to discuss some of the wayward claims you’re making built upon these premises.

          • Posted January 26, 2015 at 10:02 am | Permalink

            Hello Chris, nice to meet you.

            Regarding your comment:
            “As is everything else in the Universe beyond the quantum level (and that may be too).”

            Your statement betrays a materialist assumption and is the very thing I am calling into question. You are begging the question. My claim is that we are endowed with free will and an immaterial mind which are not deterministic.

            First off just to clarify…what I said was that deterministic processes (if that were all there were to human intellect i.e. the physical brain) could not create novel thoughts, i.e. ideas. Deterministic processes can create novel configurations of objects, for example configurations that had not been created previously by humans.

            We start with neither assumption, i.e. no preference for materialism or idealism from the get-go. This way we avoid circular reasoning. We are trying to discover whether the evidence suggests that human intellect is deterministic, i.e. causation is bottom up through electro-chemical interactions in the physical brain or if human intellect exhibits free will, i.e. causation is top down.

            Anecdotally, were you to ask anyone, who had not been tainted by the doctrine of materialism, whether they are able to direct their thoughts, direct their attention and direct their actions, the vast majority would affirm that they can. It seems obvious to us all. The notion that we can direct our thoughts and actions permeates everything we do and say as we go about our lives. I don’t think anyone would ever question free will were it not the case that it conflicted with materialism. It is a clear case of a philosophical doctrine over riding everything that seems fundamental to us in our everyday life. When you listen to materialists who deny free will, it becomes sort of comical because like everyone else they speak about “wanting to write a book”, or “I believe this because having thought about it…” or “I decided that…” In their daily lives they are living a lie and they seem not to realize the fundamental contradiction in virtually every statement they make and every action they take.

            The foregoing should move one to a strong hunch that materialism is wrong. But it seldom does for those steeped in materialism. So the following is some quantitative evidence that human intellect is not reducible to brain chemistry.

            Setting aside the intractable problems of consciousness and how abstract (and even concrete) thoughts are represented in the brain (since no one seems to have a clue) let’s focus in on why thoughts cannot possibly arise in the brain without the combined efforts of an immaterial mind and free will. Let’s go back to Einstein. He is on the bus heading back home from work. He wants to solve a problem that has been plaguing him. By high level executive order, he directs his mind/brain to this problem. After a few distractions which require that he micromanage his mind/brain by nudging it back on track, his mind as though endowed with a mystical force, starts to generate thoughts that are in the context of the problem he is trying to solve. He occasionally is hit with a realization that this possible thought combined with this other thought is promising so he directs his thoughts along that line or reason which, let’s say, requires that he recall thoughts from memory that occurred to him the day before. Hmmm…He then constructs some images in his mind/brain about riding along in a fast train chasing a light beam and envisions a thought experiment, and so on. These are new thoughts, never conceived of before by any member of the human species, so they cannot possibly be the result of some pre-existent mystical algorithm lurking deeply within the brain, courtesy of our DNA or the chaos that ensues during the morphogenesis of the brain.

            Note that the thought stream for Einstein or anyone else’s thought stream, once focused on a problem at hand, is, for the most part, uninterrupted and the thoughts are in the proper context of the specific topic and related to one another in sequence. Each distinct thought, each mental event, is directly related to the previous thought. However, the brain components that materialists claim are responsible for bringing about this tightly correlated, abstract thought stream are very definitely not correlated in any way to bring that about. In other words, at any given point, the electro-chemical arrangement is determined, not by any knowledge of mental events, but by the prior arrangement of chemistry and the associated physical forces in the brain (according to materialists). But this arrangement and set of forces would have absolutely no information about something no one has ever conceived of before and therefore could have no material preference for this arrangement. I think that is obvious, at least it should be obvious. Therefore, the only possible explanation is that there is some top-down causation that directs the components in the brain in the proper way to facilitate such a profound and coherent thought stream. By “facilitate” I mean that the arrangement of brain chemistry from the top down is not a sufficient cause for representing abstract thoughts only that it is very probably at least a necessary cause. And it is important to note that Einstein’s thoughts happen to reflect the truth about reality. Don’t tell me that these thoughts are simply the result of a continuous, random juxtapositioning of a deterministic, electro-chemical process.

            Believing such nonsense isn’t science it is the combined effects of stubbornness and a willful suspension of reason. It is an affront to common sense. Religionists are often said by materialists to believe in myths and fables and so forth. I would sooner believe every myth, legend and fable of all religions of the world than believe that the brain could cobble together the necessary arrangement of brain chemicals to produce Relativity or any abstract thought for that matter.

            So it is up to you Chris as a materialist to explain to me how the brain produces these types of thought streams—mental events. But you have to be specific about the causation. No hand waving. Your claim must be that the brain can sequester and marshal together the necessary brain components to bring about this marvelous theory or any other theory. Here is what you are up against: Let’s say that there are, oh I don’t know, 10 billion brain components that are necessary to give rise to Einstein’s theories (I am being charitable). And let’s say that these 10 billion brain components could be in any one of let’s again be charitable and say only one of two different states. And let’s say that Einstein’s thought stream, restated in his mind/brain, require that he focus for an hour to fully internalize his theory. So the possible configurations of brain components, within which Einstein’s very specific set would be a diminishing small part of, would be given by: 2 to the 10 billionth power times the distinct instance of time it takes for the Relativity-related thoughts to stream through his mind/brain. What physical force can withstand those insurmountable probabilities? The answer is, there is no physical explanation whatsoever that is possible, not just now given current knowledge, but ever. Of course in your mind, my assumptions might not be charitable enough to your case. Okay, then pick your own numbers and explain to me how the brain could generate and cause and represent the continuous thoughts stream of Relativity. And then make the calculation based on your assumptions.

            There is much more I could bring to bear as evidence but in the interest of time, I will leave it at that.

            Regards,

            Neal

            • Posted January 26, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

              My claim is that we are endowed with free will and an immaterial mind which are not deterministic.

              “Free will” is an incoherent self-contained oxymoron, the spartan luxury married bachelors live in death north of the North Pole. Never mind that physics rules out the dualistic “soul” phantasm generally assumed to be the engine of the free willies; what of the free willies themselves? Do they make decisions according to some nature, even if their own nature? Then they are not free. Are any number of decisions available to them? Then they are not willful.

              We’ve had overwhelming hard empirical evidence for at least tens of millennia that minds are solidly material entities; ever since the first Egyptian figured out how to brew beer and what it did to the mind, any questions of the immateriality of the mind became moot. Every slightest aspect of your mind can be altered or obliterated through mechanical action; take this drug and you’ll feel this emotion, or apply an electric shock here and you’ll see that color, or take a knife to some spot and you’ll lose your ability to do math.

              This is confirmed at every step by everything we know about how the Universe functions. The Church-Turing Thesis, for example, states that anything that can be computed by any means can also be computed with a Turing Machine. Now that the Standard Model is complete, since it’s perfectly Turing-computable, we know that everything to which the Standard Model applies (which is hugely vastly incomprehensibly more than you yourself will ever personally experience) is Turing-computable, with your brain and thus your consciousness being but the most trivial example.

              You might like believing in the fantasy that you’re some sort of faery spirit trapped in a sack of meat, but the fact of the matter is that you’re a meat computer.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted January 26, 2015 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

                Oh dear…just what I thought. You have absolutely nothing constructive to say and no counter arguments. You go off citing the affects of alcohol and the turing test. You confuse necessary causation with sufficient causation. Then you rant about fairies. Please consider that you might be somewhat of an embarrassment to Mr. Coyne by cluttering up his blog with such nonsense. And if he agrees with your points, then he himself if full of nonsense.

                Good day Ben. I suspect you are quite young and unlearned. I am going to ignore your posts from here on in. Best regards,

                Neal

              • Posted January 26, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

                You go off citing the affects of alcohol and the turing test.

                Turing test? What Turing test? I never mentioned any Turing test.

                I did cite the Church-Turing Thesis, but that’s completely unrelated to the Turing Test.

                And if your knowledge of computer science is so incomplete that you might confuse the two, what makes you think you’re even remotely qualified to speculate on the subject? Let alone accuse me of being “quite young and unlearned”!

                I’d also be most wary, were I you, of accusing Jerry of being full of nonsense.

                b&

            • Posted January 26, 2015 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

              There is simply no way to address every point you make in the comment section of a website, but I will touch on a couple of the key ones you are throwing out there.

              “My claim is that we are endowed with free will and an immaterial mind which are not deterministic”

              Then you must show first what that immaterial mind is and why it isn’t deterministic. You follow up with a couple examples in which you attempt to do so. Keep in mind that the Standard Model means that the laws of Physics governing every day life are completely understood. So you are proposing something about brains that would literally turn modern Physics on its head. By all means, present this evidence and claim your Nobel. For starters, claiming that humans can do things computers can do, only much slower, isn’t going to do it. Not too far in the future, certainly within some of our lifetimes, we’ll have computing power roughly equivalent to that of a human brain. Hell, Deep Blue and Watson can already out perform humans at chess and trivia, respectively. What is your criteria for saying Deep Blue’s chess moves are not novel or creative but Gary Kasparov’s are? The overwhelming evidence suggests that both are the result of deterministic (but complicated) processes and Deep Blue simply did it better.

              “These are new thoughts, never conceived of before by any member of the human species, so they cannot possibly be the result of some pre-existent mystical algorithm lurking deeply within the brain”

              This is a nice claim, but it’s not a claim you’re backing up. Why does novelty yield indeterminism? In a similar vein, my section of the world is in the beginning stages of a blizzard that is about to drop three feet of snow over a large area. The configuration of snowflakes in this storm has never before been seen (to a degree of certainty that dwarves your calculations about “Hello World” or Einstein’s brain, problems with assigning equal random probability to all outputs aside).

              No one would claim that weather therefore does not follow the laws of Physics. Keep in mind, just a few decades ago, weather prediction was far inferior to what we have today, but our increasing computational power has made headway and our predictions have greatly improved. Likewise, we have seen brain experiments improve to the point where we can predict simple movements before people are aware of them. The fact that we don’t have a full model of the brain yet is no more evidence of immaterial magic than the fact that we can’t perfectly predict atmospheric conditions more than a few days out.

              With regard to the rest of your claims, materialism is not a faith claim. It is a claim backed up by every single piece of evidence we have. The areas of ignorance in science are not evidence against the claim, they are simply things we do not (yet) know. If you present a piece of evidence showing that there is an immaterial force acting upon brains, not just that we don’t fully understand their functioning yet, I’d be happy to amend my views.

              I’ll let you have the last word, so as to avoid running afoul of Professor Coyne’s Roolz, but I’d appreciate if you could specify what, if anything, would convince you there isn’t an immaterial power behind minds? I believe Ben Goren and I have stated (or at least alluded to) plenty of findings that would convince us our view is wrong. How about you do the same?

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                Chris,

                Chris,

                Glad to here that you only got a few inches of snow…so much for great improvements in weather forecasting.

                The very process of science contradicts materialism. That’s the irony here. In order to conduct science one has to observe nature (direct one’s attention and thoughts in a concerted manner over a sustained period of time and in a very precise way). They have to contemplate the observations (direct one’s thoughts) and formulate an hypothesis (direct a recall from memory and directing thoughts) and then they have to plan experiments (again directing one’s thoughts and focusing attention) which will disprove an hypothesis and conduct the experiment (directing one’s actions).

                Information theory is about eliminating alternatives. In each of these cases above, with all the other alternatives states that the brain components could have been in, the thoughts of a research scientist are channeled along a very specific and logical pathway to achieve a high level end all along the way. Your claim seems to be that the brain components just happen to align themselves in these fortuitous ways to eventuate in a scientific theory. This doesn’t just happen Chris. What you are suggesting, if I am interpreting your comments correctly, is flat out impossible.

                You at least attempted to engage my challenge regarding Einstein’s insights and how these thoughts that comprise his theories could arise in his mind/brain. Unfortunately you have been ensnared in a trap that in short order you will find to be a personal embarrassment. Here is your comment—your response to this challenge:

                “In a similar vein, my section of the world is in the beginning stages of a blizzard that is about to drop three feet of snow over a large area. The configuration of snowflakes in this storm has never before been seen (to a degree of certainty that dwarves your calculations about “Hello World” or Einstein’s brain, problems with assigning equal random probability to all outputs aside).”

                Your comment is a case of mistaking unspecified vs specified information content. By your definition any configuration of matter (or whatever), no matter how improbable, is possible and is in fact a certainty. Suppose you were teaching a class on computer programming and asked the students to create a random character generator and submit a sample of the output. The students turn in their work and they look random for the most part—all gibberish. But you look at the output of one of the student’s program—let’s call him Ben—and Ben’s output is the Declaration of Independence. You accuse him of fabrication. After insulting you, he says, “But professor Chris, my configuration of characters is no less improbable than any of the others.” And he would be correct. But really, come on Chris, we know he did not produce a random character generator, don’t we?

                Here is the absurdity of what you are suggesting and correct me if I am misinterpreting your comments…what you seem to be saying is that, just like the random configurations of snowflakes in a blizzard, it should not surprise us that a random sequence and juxtapositioning of electro-chemicals in the brain could give rise to the set of ideas comprised in, say, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity of the theories about the Higgs Bosom or a Shakespeare Sonnet. Nonsense.

                Regarding Deep Blue…You have misunderstood some of what I said…I did not claim that humans cannot think algorithmically, Obviously they can. I was simply saying that they are not bound in that way; humans can think creatively as well. Deep Blue playing chess and out maneuvering Kasporov is not an example of a new idea or a creative thought. Deep Blue is not contemplating anything, it is simply following directions, it has no choice to do anything other than what is does at each point. Kasparov has choices. The “novel” approach that Deep Blue might take, is in reality a human created idea which lay dormant until the computer program, written a human, calls that particular set of subroutines.

                What would it take for me to believe that materialism is true? I have told you already. For starters, it would be for you to explain how a thought stream such as those that comprise Einstein’s insights about relativity could arise from material causes alone, in the brain. You have not done that. In fact you have failed miserably. And if you cannot do that in principle even, then you have to admit that materialism is false.

                Keep in mind, even were you to explain how the brain alone (absent immaterial mind and free will) could give rise to Einstein’s insights, you are still only half way there. You also have to explain how this marvelous capability evolved throughout the advent of man given the brief time frame, the limited population sizes and longer reproduction cycles and given that this type of thinking is not necessary and would not be expected to be preserved by natural selection.

                You then go on to discuss the Lipet type experiments:

                “Likewise, we have seen brain experiments improve to the point where we can predict simple movements before people are aware of them.”

                These experiments were accurate only within 60% to 80% of the time. They also do not involve contemplation but rather mechanical movements where are reflexive and they are prone to subjective errors in judgment. Even Lipet and the more recent experimenters did not suggest that they disprove free will. Finally, we all have minds and we know that for most things, the mind has this marvelous ability to auto-generate thoughts—queue them up–for us given a particular frame of reference that we choose. I discussed this earlier in relation to the Einstein challenge.

                You then make a sweeping statement:

                “Keep in mind that the Standard Model means that the laws of Physics governing everyday life are completely understood. So you are proposing something about brains that would literally turn modern Physics on its head….With regard to the rest of your claims, materialism is not a faith claim. It is a claim backed up by every single piece of evidence we have.”

                More nonsense. If that were the case, over half the physicists in the world would not be Theists.

                I think I am about done here guys (including my friend Ben). You have not produced anything insightful and nothing that I have not heard before. Same tired old materialistic arguments and phony claims.

                Best regards,

                Neal

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                Glad to here that you only got a few inches of snow…so much for great improvements in weather forecasting.

                BWAHAHAHA! Thanks for using an anecdote of New York City (which was always on the western edge of the heavy precipitation forecast) getting less snow than expected to as a refutation for all of weather forecasting being worse. I happened to get 22″ where I live and just spent half the day digging out, and that forecast was was dead on, though of course a single anecdote of the accurate prediction here also does not make or break the trend of better forecasting. Other than that, I thank you for your arguments from personal embarrassment and the authority of theistic physicists. I may as well just cite the other half of physicists who aren’t theistic and call it a day. But I won’t, because it’s not an argument.

                As I said, I’ll let the rest of your comments stand and simply recommend you read Professor Coyne’s book to understand why determinism does not equal randomness and how evolution (including brains) is precisely the opposite of random. I was hoping your last lengthy comment would cover some points about what precisely immaterial stuff is, how it could possibly interact with brains without being detected (and if it does, why this doesn’t turn the Standard Model on its head, your opinion of the argument being “tired” notwithstanding), and why your argument from ignorance regarding a full explanation for consciousness then lets you default to something you’ve yet to define in your over 5000 words on this post. I’m not holding my breath that your next one will either.

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

                Chris,

                I am simply asking…explain how Einstein’s insights, for example, could arise in the brain by chance if the brain were all there is as required by materialism. I am not asking you to explain consciousness; that would be far more difficult. I am just asking for you to explain in principle this one thing. You had your chance on this one and you failed. There are many other–many other, questions that I could pose which are equally supportive of dualism and entirely inexplicable from a materialist paradigm.

                Sorry, I am signing off. I may look at Dr. Coyne’s book but I have read many of his posts and others of the same vein and have never been impressed frankly. I think his adherence to neo-darwinism is to embrace a fossil of a bygone age. I have read his debates with his colleague Dr. James Shapiro and have read Dr. Shapiro’s most recent books and papers. I am definitely on the side of Shapiro on these debates. Sorry Jerry. Bye Chris, have fun shoveling. It is nice and sunny in Chicago;-)

                Neal

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

                I am simply asking…explain how Einstein’s insights, for example, could arise in the brain by chance if the brain were all there is as required by materialism.

                Neal, your understanding of statistics is as warped as your understanding of physics.

                Ever see a gumball machine? Notice how nice and neatly arranged the gumballs are?

                How could that possibly happen without somebody carefully stacking each one in its precise place?

                And, yet, it’s just some random schmuck dumping a bag into the top.

                When you come to understand who the magic invisible gumball stacker-upper is and why he’s just a figment of your imagination, then you’ll be ready to understand why the “random mutation” part of the Theory of Evolution by Random Mutation and Natural Selection isn’t the interesting part. And, as well, why we’re so powerfully unimpressed with your protestations that we’re claiming that Einstein’s insights were the result of random chaos.

                If you’re really interested in understanding the way the world actually works — and you’ve put forth as convincing a demonstration as I can imagine that that’s the one thing you’re most terrified of — then you should drop all your straw men caricatures and pay attention to what the science actually says.

                b&

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

                Please stop Ben, you’re embarrassing yourself and the good Dr. Coyne on his blog in citing the alignment of gumballs as a demonstration of how the thoughts of Einstein could arise by random processes in the brain. You do have one point though, for some people, and I have recently encountered them, their thoughts do resemble a gumball machine. You know you turn the crank and out pops a gumball, no thought, no insight, just a gumball.

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

                Well Ben, my comprehension of this conversation is equal to that of yours, because I still can’t find where either of us made a claim about stuff arising in brains solely by chance.

                In fact, the only place I see randomness being introduced are absurd analogies about nature writing “Hello World” programs.

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

                Sure, I can show this in principle as well as provide ample evidence that this actually is the case. First, I’d recommend Sean Caroll’s video that Ben linked about why the discovery of the Higgs Boson is really just icing on the cake on what is a mountain of evidence for the Standard Model.

                In higher level terms, it’s easy to explain Einstein’s thoughts in principle. DNA, like computers, contains code, code which carries out instructions. Einstein’s brain developed the way it did thanks in part to this code. Like computers, human brains have inputs which then follow various neural pathways through the brain’s network, a phenomenon so fit for computer science, that we’ve built systems inspired by them. The output of Einstein’s brain is one determined by the genetic coding, the network in the brain, and the environmental inputs. The output is that which we would expect from a computer that can carry out 6.4*10^18 instructions per second. The brain is amazing and complex (but now dwarfed in complexity by the very Internet technology we are communicating over right now). You’ve simply failed in your 25 pages of rambling to even begin to explain what this mysterious immaterial force is while you Gish Gallop all over the place.

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

                In higher level terms, it’s easy to explain Einstein’s thoughts in principle.

                Sean makes that point very well in that lecture, backed by unimpeachable physics.

                You don’t need Quantum Mechanics to build a bridge. You don’t need biochemistry to evaluate an economic proposal. You don’t need to know a thing about microprocessor architecture to post something to a Web site.

                Yes, at some point, if you keep going deeper and deeper, in each of those instances you’ll reach those lower layers…but they’re utterly irrelevant to the task at hand.

                Or, as a wise sage once put it: “Measure with micrometer. Mark with chalk. Cut with axe.”

                The answer to cognition lies within neurophysiology working in concert with information science. The Standard Model sets the pieces on the board and determines their moves, and that’s all expressed at larger scales by atomic theory, then by chemistry, and then, finally, after that, we get to stuff relevant to cognition. But we already know from chemistry that there’s no spooky soul faeries, and we already know from atomic theory that there’s no spooky soul faeries, and we already know from the Standard Model that there’s no spooky soul faeries…so you don’t get to invoke spooky soul faeries at the level of neurophysiology unless you want to throw out all of science for the past few centuries.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

                Nealkendall,

                You have urinated on my rug, insulted other commenters, and then faux-flounced. Since you apparently can’t leave voluntarily, I’ll help you.

              • Posted January 27, 2015 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

                Neal, if you’re still lurking…Sean Carroll, this Web site’s official physicist, has a superlative lecture about the nature of reality here:



                That will hopefully give you some sort of a starting idea of why supernaturalism is so indefensible any more and has been for so long.

                And, to apply it to biology, our host has a book by the same name as this Web site….

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Posted January 26, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

          I’m sorry, but your understanding of computer science was outdated in academic circles half a century ago, and understood to be so even by lay amateurs a couple decades ago.

          Here’s but one example:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automated_theorem_proving

          Secondly, explain to me how Idealism has been debunked. List just a single piece of evidence.

          Only one is needed: the Higgs Boson. With its discovery, the Standard Model is demonstrated complete over not merely human scales but several orders of magnitude in every possible direction. There’s lots of physics yet to be discovered, but nothing that can even remotely possibly be relevant to human cognition and physiology.

          And Newton is all the physics you need for humans, most emphatically, period, full stop, end of story — with not even the slightest hint of any room for any of your superstitions in Newtonian Mechanics.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted January 26, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            Regarding your comment:
            “I’m sorry, but your understanding of computer science was outdated in academic circles half a century ago, and understood to be so even by lay amateurs a couple decades ago.
            Here’s but one example:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automated_theorem_proving”

            You reference automated reasoning. From the article and related articles:

            “Automated reasoning has been most commonly used to build automated theorem provers. In some cases such provers have come up with new approaches to proving a theorem. Logic Theorist is a good example of this. Logic Theorist is a computer program written in 1955 and 1956 by Allen Newell, Herbert A. Simon and Cliff Shaw. It was the first program deliberately engineered to mimic the problem solving skills of a human being and is called “the first artificial intelligence program”.”

            “New approaches to proving theorems…mimic the problem solving skills of a human being”…

            Just like I said, these types of applications are programmed by humans to solve quantitative problems because they can make calculations much more quickly than humans can. Like computer chess applications they can figure out multiple ways to win games very quickly. There is no magic. If you had a computer whose clock ran at 1Hz it would be worthless even if it were programmed in the same manner. All the inputs and decision making in these computer programs were put in place by humans. The outcome given the specific inputs is always predictable. They do not produce new ideas; they simply prove one theory or course of action or whatever over another through rapid calculation.

            Daniel Dennett remarked that he had no “knock down proof against mind/brain interactionalism” and then mumbled something about such theories are just “giving up.” Hardly persuasive; he had no knock down proof because there is no knock down proof. If the Higgs Bosom or Newtonian physics negated free will, you can bet Sam Harris would have featured them up in his book entitled “Free Will.” He did not mention them because they are irrelevant. Classical Newtonian physics does not apply at the microscopic level. I thought everyone knew that by now. Harris discusses the Lipet experiments which prove nothing and talked about the way the brain auto generates thoughts if I recall correctly. (In reality a brain can do no such thing; only a mind can auto generate streams of thoughts, reference my response to Chris above).

            There are many theories out there as to how an immaterial mind could control the physical components of the brain through quantum uncertainties. It is all unsettled and perhaps never will be.

            There are some more practical ways of showing that free will exists and that there is an immaterial mind apart from the physical brain (aside from what I included in my previous response to Chris):

            – Explain how it is that your brain just happened to follow a line of reasoning to produce your response without the ability to direct your attention by reading and comprehending my post; without the ability to direct your thoughts to produce a response; without the ability to direct your actions to type out the response. Are you saying these things just happened through the fortuitous arrangement of chemicals in your brain?
            – Explain how, through one’s thoughts, a person can cause their brain to rewire itself as in neuro plasticity. Here there is a clear top down causation, mental events causing physical events.
            – Explain how the belief that you had corrective surgery or been given medication, when in fact you have not, could override pain or depression.
            – Explain how it is you can focus your attention on one specific conversation in a cafeteria of the many that are going on. The sounds from all the conversations are converging on your auditory channel yet you can *choose* which one to bring to your conscious awareness.
            – Explain how the components within the brains of the many musician’s in an orchestra could just happen to produce the same piece of music at precisely the same time, again without the ability to direct their attention, direct their thoughts, pull specific information from memory and direct their actions.
            – Most important of all, dreams prove quantitatively, beyond a shadow of a doubt that the brain cannot be all there is. Even a simply 5 second dream sequence exhausts the probabilistic resources of the known universe. If you would like details on this I can provide it at a later time.

            There are others but that’s going to have to be it for now, I have to get back to work.

            Best regard Chris,

            Neal

            • Posted January 26, 2015 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

              Classical Newtonian physics does not apply at the microscopic level.

              Squeeze me? Where on Earth did you get such a spectacularly incorrect notion?

              You need to get many orders of magnitude smaller than optical microscopy before Quantum Mechanics becomes the dominant force. Brownian Motion, for example, is as Newtonian a phenomenon as a game of billiards.

              There are many theories out there as to how an immaterial mind could control the physical components of the brain through quantum uncertainties.

              Human neurons are far too big and waaaaaaaay too hot for Quantum Mechanics to even distantly play a role. That whopper you just pulled out is as absurd as invoking perturbation theory to suggest that the Sun really could stop in the sky at the invocation of some Bronze Age superhero.

              Explain how it is[…]

              Sorry, but your objections are either founded in misconceptions as profound as this notion of yours that microbes are Quantum Mechanical critters or a simple argument from ignorance. Even if we didn’t have explanations for anything you’re puzzled by, that doesn’t even begin to get you to the point of, “Therefore it’s faeries!”

              The start and the end of it is that what you propose would so radically violate so much of what we understand to be fundamental about reality that no sane and knowledgeable person can begin to take it seriously. Conservation of energy, for starters; the immaterial couldn’t possibly interact with the material without an exchange of energy, and a rather substantial amount in the case of brains…and, yet, we’ve completed the energy budgets with nothing left over, not to mention that there’s no mechanism that could possibly exist for the task.

              You want me or anybody else to take you seriously about your ghosts in the machine? Brush up on your Claude Shannon and demonstrate an unaccounted-for energy dissipation equal to the bandwidth of the human nervous system. “Good luck with that,” as they say.

              b&

              • Posted January 26, 2015 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                Quantum effects come into play 100nm and less (which include viruses, proteins, other small molecules including neuro-transmitters). Also QE can affect larger particles at lower temps. If bottom up causation is true as you say then certainly smaller particles can affect the actions of larger particles. That is the whole point of your reductionism.

                From your comments on a different post above, I assumed you meant the Turning test (rather than the Turing-Church Thesis) because it seemed more relevant to what we were talking about. My mistake.

                Unless you address any of my challenges directly, I am done with you. For example, tell me how the thoughts that comprise Einstein’s insights could possible have arisen given the brain-only paradigm required by materialism. Coherent thought streams are part of our every day life and are far more revealing about mind and free will than your vacuous claims about the Higgs Bosom and Newtonian physics. Explain how abstract thoughts are represented in the brain and how they are stored. Or chose any of the other challenges that I listed. Here is a new one:

                Explain how image sequences in dreams are possible given your assumption that the brain is all there is. Dreams produce images that are always novel, seldom if ever a direct lifting from memory, and high resolution. For the brain to produce these images, billions of brain components would have to be arranged in sequence for several seconds in a very precise correlated way. Yet these brain components are in no way compelled through chemistry and physics to arrangement themselves in such a manner. Science is about causation. Explain the causation? Explain how it is even possible. You might press your knowledge of Shannon into service to help with the probabilities.

                Regards,

                Neal

              • Posted January 26, 2015 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

                If bottom up causation is true as you say then certainly smaller particles can affect the actions of larger particles. That is the whole point of your reductionism.

                I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a strawman of your construction that you somehow expect us to take seriously, or if you really are this confused.

                Look. You’re a part of the Solar System, right? So, by your logic, you can certainly make Earth fly up Uranus. After all, there’s as much difference in mass between the type of object where Quantum Mechanics dominates and you as there is between you and Jupiter, so tossing around the Earth should be child’s play for you!

                Explain how abstract thoughts are represented in the brain and how they are stored.

                Please don’t tell me you’re one of those poor schmucks who thinks that, say, a digital camera stores super miniature pictures in its memory, like super-tiny microfiche — or maybe that there’s a little genie with an abacus inside your pocket calculator?

                After all, what could possibly be more abstract than basic arithmetic? And we’ve had machines that can do arithmetic for well over a century.

                I mean, really. First you don’t know what Church-Turing refers to (let alone its significance) and now you demonstrate perfect ignorance of the purpose and function of computer hardware…and you think your ignorance means your faerytale fantasies are really real?

                b&

  42. Posted January 25, 2015 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Mr. Coyne states:

    I don’t understand why pondering concepts can’t either be coded in the brain, or be taken in from the environment and run through one of the brain’s computer programs (i.e., what we call “pondering” or “reasoning”).

    In the time I have, I can only make a few points:

    First off, referring to “pondering” and/or “reasoning” as “computer programs” implies that they are algorithmic and therefore deterministic. If they are deterministic, then nothing new—novel–would ever be imagined by humanity. But we have the sum total of all human knowledge, all human artifacts, all human artistic renderings, all human musings from the sacred to the profane and from the sublime to the ridiculous to attest against that.

    The reality is that we all know that pondering and reasoning are not algorithmic. They involve focusing one’s attention, recalling memories and directing one’s thoughts to formulate new insights and each of these certainly appear to be acts of free will. Mr. Coyne’s response and his books involve his ability to focus has attention, recall from memory and direct his thoughts. Don’t they? The irony here is that science itself is a spectacular example of the ability of humans to direct thoughts and attention in a sustained manner.

    Let’s try to imagine how a “pondering program” could produce say Einstein’s insights without invoking top down causation of an immaterial mind and free will. Pondering and reasoning entail streams of related thoughts—a sequence of specific mental events. But material theories of the brain involve only bottom up causation. As such there is no necessary correlation between the vast number of sequential physical brain states required to bring about the sequence of mental states which are very definitely tightly correlated for any coherent thought(s)–including complex, abstract and novel insights such Einstein’s insights about relativity or Mr. Coyne’s insights about evolution.

    Secondly, how are Einstein’s abstract insights represented in the material brain? One might suppose that they are encoded forms of human language. But human language is symbolic only and even the most detailed human language description of Einstein’s insights for example fall far short of a true representation of abstract thoughts because abstract thoughts are ineffable by their very nature. If this were not the case then comprehension would simply be rote rather than contemplative.

    Third, where did these “pondering or reasoning computer programs” come from? How would they be represented in the brain? How would they be stored and recalled without invoking endless recursion. Let me just address the first of these, i.e. where did these computer programs come from. According to evolutionary theory biological functions have to have appeared by chance at least once to be preserved and locked in by selection. And for selection to have preserved them, they would have to have been necessary. However, chance processes are inadequate. By way of analogy, they could not have created even the most simple of all human computer programs “Hello World” given the time and the population resources available. Hello World is about 40 characters and there are about 40 characters on a keyboard. Do the math, 40 to the 40th power represents the superset within which “Hello World” would reside. You could not sample enough of that superset in the time and population resource available throughout the advent of man. This analogy is very charitable since I am waving away the need for a complier, microprocessor and OS. Also how could one imagine that the pondering or reasoning programs, necessary to produce Einstein’s insights, are essential–necessary–to human survival?

    Just one loose end to tie up in the time I have. Mr. Coyne writes:

    But that argument can be made for anything. You could say that if the idea of an apple was coded in the brain, you’d need another “engram” to “mean that it signifies the code for the Apple engram,” and so on and so on and so on.

    The difference between an apple and the concept of “Good” for example is that “Good” is abstract and apple is concrete. The apple idea arrives in the brain through our material senses. Therefore it is much easier, meaning perhaps not impossible, to see how the brain might create an image of an apple from the signal arriving through the optic nerve. Concepts like “Good” on the other hand are ineffable. Certainly the word “Good” does not adequately describe what we all understand “Good” to be. It is as though humans just sort of gave up, throw up their hands on trying to describe complex, abstract thoughts and said, “We will use the word ‘Good’ and that will be good enough…thus the recursion that Mr. Egnor speaks of.

  43. Posted February 4, 2015 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I totally don’t get why a concept of an apple is different than a concept of anything else. That was just weird.


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