Recently, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor debated philosopher David Papineau at Theology Unleashed. Papineau is considered “one of the best defenders of naturalism” (actually, as he admits, physicalism). Egnor talks about how science and the practice of medicine persuaded him that there is a God and that the mind is real. The host is Arjuna and the show is billed as “Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.”
What follows is a partial transcript of the first portion, with notes:
Michael Egnor: Just as a little background about where I’m coming from, I was raised as a functional atheist, and I was educated as a scientific atheist, so I was an atheist for most of my life. I was a biochemistry major in college, and I had and still have tremendous confidence in science and fascination with science. I had a conversion to Christianity, to Catholicism, when I was 45. There are a lot of reasons for it. I had a Damascus Road experience, you might say, but also, there were a lot of intellectual reasons as well.
I had felt through much of my career that physics, biochemistry, biology, and particularly neuroscience, just didn’t make a lot of sense in a materialist paradigm.
Note: Egnor had reason. He kept seeing patients who had largely missing brains or had brains split in half (for medical reasons, to treat otherwise intractable epilepsy) who lived normal lives. Whatever the mind is, it did not appear to be wholly dependent on the brain.
Michael Egnor: And particularly neuroscience kind of broke me away from my materialist perspective. When I was a first-year medical student, I was absolutely fascinated by neuroscience and neuroanatomy. I … was thrilled at the prospect of being able to understand my mind and the minds of people around me by learning about the neuroscience of the brain.
And I learned a fair amount of neuroscience, but I found that I seemed to know less and less about the mind the more neuroscience I learned. I’ve been doing neurosurgery now for the better part of 40 years, I’ve done 7,000 brain operations, and I’ve become convinced that there’s much more to the mind than the brain alone explains.
There are three fundamental reasons besides just the anecdotal experiences that I’ve had, that lead me to think that, actually four. One reason is that I think the neuroscience, when properly considered, really argues very strongly for a dualist understanding of the mind-brain relationship. Especially, it argues for, I think, a Thomistic dualism perspective. I think Aristotle got it pretty much right, and Saint Thomas extended those ideas.
Note: Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) was the pioneer philosopher of science in ancient Greece and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) was the medieval philosopher who revived interest in his work and used it to help explain basic ideas, including ideas about the mind and the brain.
Michael Egnor: But there are three fundamental philosophical reasons why I don’t think that materialism can adequately explain mental states. The first is that human mental states are characterized, in many instances, by the capacity for reason, by the ability to make logical inferences, to make logical connections, and a difficulty that materialism faces is that, while all of our logical reasoning entails logical connections between ideas, there are no logical connections between brain states.
Brain states are connected by physical laws, not by laws of logic, and that at least the identity theory brand of materialism, I think fails in this regard, because that is something about the mind, that is the ability to make logical connections, that is not present in the brain. The brain has no logic. The brain just has physics.
The second reason why I think we can’t explain the mind entirely on the basis of brain states is the existence of qualia, what David Chalmers says is the Hard Problem of consciousness. I can see no reason to infer that any brain state would create first-person experience. Brain states are third-person ontologies, so I don’t think qualia can be explained in a materialist perspective.
Note: Qualia are states of consciousness that are easy to describe but hard to explain. What a name or a proverb or the smell of lilacs means to you, for example. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us, “Qualia are at the very heart of the mind-body problem.” If materialism is true, they should not exist.
Michael Egnor: And the third reason why I don’t think mind states can be explained materialistically is the phenomenon of intentionality. As obviously David knows, but as some viewers might not know, the 19th century Franz Brentano, who was a philosopher, proposed that the hallmark of mental states is that they’re always about something. They’re always pointed at something. There’s a goal to them.
And physical things never have any intrinsic about-ness. They’re simply collections of matter. So the salient characteristic of a mental state is that it’s about something. It has meaning. And you might say the salient character of a physical thing is that it’s never about anything, never has any meaning.
So the Venn diagrams of matter and mind, to me, really don’t overlap much. There are some correlations. The neuroscience shows that those correlations are rather weak in some ways, and there’s a fascinating dichotomy between the correlation between intellectual mind states and the brain and the correlation between perceptual mind states and the brain. Intellectual mind states have very little correlation with the brain, perceptual have a great deal of correlation.
Note: Elsewhere, Egnor notes, re Franz Brentano (1838–1917) “So in a sense, mental things have first person experience rather than third person. Franz Brentano, a philosopher in the 19th century, felt that the hallmark of mental things was that they’re intentional. That is, that they are directed towards things. Whereas things that are physical aren’t about anything. They don’t have any point to them.” (April 16, 2021)
Michael Egnor: So the structure of what I see — both from a philosophical standpoint and a neuroscientific standpoint — and I can talk about the neuroscience in a lot more depth, but the structure that I see, that I think best explains, is the relationship between mind states and brain states, is that of Thomistic dualism, which is an extension of Aristotle’s concept of hylomorphism, in which the soul, which comprises many of the powers of the mind, is the form of the body. And I think Thomistic dualism is a superb way to look at neuroscience, to look at the relationship between the mind and the brain, and it solves a lot of the problems posed by materialism, and it solves many of the problems posed by other kinds of dualism, for example Cartesian dualism. That’s a synopsis.
Note: Dualism means that the mind and the brain are governed by separate rules, in the way that classical and quantum physics are governed by separate rules. They all operate by rules but different ones.
Next: Physicalist philosopher David Papineau replies. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, you may also wish to read: Philosopher: Consciousness Is Not a Problem. Dualism Is! He says that consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something” Physicalist David Papineau argues that consciousness “seems mysterious not because of any hidden essence, but only because we think about it in a special way.” In short, it’s all in our heads. But wait, say others, the hard problem of consciousness is not so easily dismissed.
Egnor Debates Materialism with Philosopher of Science David Papineau (Evolution News and Science Today, July 2, 2021)