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I'd like to get some discussion going on the forums about this. The fact that this has made it to the front page of NPR makes it relevant science news.
Listen to or read the article here:
Essentially, it's a summary of a battle between Steven Novella and Michael Egnor.
I have not read either of their writings, but this is familiar territory. In summary Novella contends that the brain, as part of the body, has evolved through natural selection, consistent with basic Darwinian theory. As such, Novella does not introduce any additional guiding force aside from the selective pressures of natural selection. Egnor, however, believes that the fact of consciousness, revealing the mind to be more than just a physical brain, shows that human beings have souls. Egnor believes in an intelligent designer as part of the process that created life.
I know this is a science group, and that many do not favor "intelligent design". Part of this group's mission, however, is to raise the level of discussion between scientists and those in the lay public, such as myself, who are not scientists but try to maintain a thought process consistent with a scientific outlook.
A scientific outlook, in my mind, requires openness to new evidence and the willingness to modify or discard ideas that are shown to be disproven.
At the same time, a scientific outlook, following the principle of parsimony, requires that one need not introduce
additional entities to explain a phenomenon if fewer would suffice.
In discussing topics like this, I want to make one request of everyone in the group.
No one has violated this yet, and I wish to keep it that way.
When we discuss topics like this on these public forms, please do not refer to people who believe differently from you as stupid, idiots, morons, ignorant, or with other foul language. Simply remember RESPECT:
Also, when we address arguments of those we disagree with, let's do our absolute best to present the BEST rendition of their arguments, not a flimsy strawman. Anyone can knock down a strawman. We should at least give sources or references for more information for either side of an argument.
With that being said, I'll give my layman's view of this debate.
My Thoughts on The Brain-Mind Dualism Dilemma
First, the disclaimer: I'm neither a neurosurgeon like Egnor is nor a brain researcher like Novella is.
I'll build upon Novella's first quote in the article:
"If you change the brain, you change the mind. If you damage the brain, you damage the mind. If you turn off the brain, you turn off the mind," he says. (http://www.npr.org/te...)
We know this is true, and this is not something that neurosurgeon Egnor denies.
Taking this to the absurd, when someone is the victim of a fatal gunshot wound or an accident that renders the brain unhealable, brain activity thus ceases. All of the biological connections within the brain cease to function.
Certainly in decades past there were such injuries which Engor, without the ability of modern instruments and technologies, would not be able to repair. These injuries would thus eventually cause the person to die, or perhaps to persist in a vegetative state.
Based on this I have some logical problems with Egnor's reasoning as stated in the article this way:
'And he says he's not a creationist: "My personal view is that we have souls and that they're created by God. But you don't have to hold that view to recognize what I think is the evidence that the mind is not entirely material."' (ibid)
I can understand his statement "the mind is not entirely material", but I believe it's a problem of definition and context. We'd have to define precisely what we mean by "material". If by material we mean atoms, electrons, etc, then I would agree. My reason is that our consciousness seems to be an emergent property of the interaction of the brain and body. Thus, while it is not simply a conglomeration of material, it is actually the PROCESS and INTERACTION of that material.
David J. Linden, in his book The Accidental Mind, has explained the Darwinian evolution of the mind, including how the human brain, and those of other higher primates, contains and builds upon the structures of the evolutionarily-earlier reptilian brain. You can listen to a good podcast interview on Faith and Freethought with Linden here:
This knowledge, of course, is not likely new to anyone, least of all Egnor himself. Because of this, I am not sure where a "line of demarcation" would be made to posit an intelligent designer that operates additionally and separately from natural selection upon the formation of the human brain.
However, there are, arguably, plenty of examples of what could be called "unintelligent design" in the human body. For just two related examples: consider the frequency of miscarriage, or of mothers dying during child birth.
Furthermore, what are we to make of endogenous retroviral DNA? For reference on this, refer to TalkOrigins
To quote from this article:
"Endogenous retroviruses provide yet another example of molecular sequence evidence for universal common descent. Endogenous retroviruses are molecular remnants of a past parasitic viral infection. Occasionally, copies of a retrovirus genome are found in its host's genome, and these retroviral gene copies are called endogenous retroviral sequences. Retroviruses (like the AIDS virus or HTLV1, which causes a form of leukemia) make a DNA copy of their own viral genome and insert it into their host's genome. If this happens to a germ line cell (i.e. the sperm or egg cells) the retroviral DNA will be inherited by descendants of the host. Again, this process is rare and fairly random, so finding retrogenes in identical chromosomal positions of two different species indicates common ancestry."
Also refer to Dr. Zach Moore's podcast about it here:
Regarding the process of human consciousness, I refer to the work of researcher is Dr. V.S. Ramachandran.
Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He has pioneered research into consciousness and revealed many things about brain injuries and neuron function. For example, he has helped people overcome "phantom limb syndrome" through innovative mirror treatment, employed to "trick" brains into rewiring themselves.
There is an excellent interview with him on The Science Network about human consciousness here:
Ramachanran is also, to his consternation, sometimes credited as being the discoverer of the "God module" in the brain. He comments on this misconception in these two interviews here:
If you watch those videos, you'll learn about temporal lobe seizures and how damage to certain areas of the brain can severely affect mental functioning, even to the point that one patient cannot recognize his own parents when he combines input from visual and auditory pathways. However, if he goes outside, and calls them on the phone, thus using only auditory information, he recognizes them.
Egnor states this in the article:
"There is nothing about neurons that scientifically would lead you to infer consciousness from them. They're masses of gelatinous carbon and hydrogen and nitrogen and oxygen, just like other kinds of flesh. And why would flesh have first-person experience? So, even logically, it doesn't hang together."
While I think he is oversimplifying the properties of neurons here, I do understand what he is intimating here. That is, he is pointing to the mystery of consciousness. I would not dispute this. I'm often amazed simply by the fact of existence. Why should there be anything, rather than nothing?
I can't answer that, but I don't think that it logically follows that I draw the conclusion that the brain is thus not capable of having evolved naturally, especially given the evidences of its utter naturalness in context with the rest of physical reality.
The way I see it is more like this:
Our perception, our consciousness, is not necessarily "physical" in the sense that the "nitrogen and oxygen" we are familiar with are. At the same time, neither are the "nitrogen and oxygen" quite the same as what our perception tells us they are.
We recently had Dr. Finkelstein speak to us about Quantum Physics and we asked him questions about wave functions and light and quantum behavior.
We talked about the fact that one person sitting in a room looking or listening to David experiences a different perspective, a different slice of reality than does somehow sitting on the other side of the room.
I cannot remember exactly what David said about "reality" and "actuality", but intuitively I know that our ideas, our theories, our perceptions are NOT REALITY. Reality itself exists independent of any observer.
However, at the same exact time, the paradox is that our brains, and our minds and perceptions are also themselves PART of reality. That is, whatever it is that our consciousness is, physically, it is undoubtedly a constituent part of the totality of REALITY.
Some might doubt this, or not understand what I mean by this statement, but I can show how doubting this is absurd. Just think about this fact: at one time the idea that man could fly was simply an idea in a human mind. This is a given.
Yet, over time, the Wright brothers created such flying machines. Thus, what began solely as an IDEA inside of MINDS was translated into physical reality. At this point, no one could argue that airplanes were not part of reality.
I guess what I am getting at is that it's very difficult, and tenuous, to try to draw a line between "oxygen and nitrogen" as something separate and distinct from brains and minds. After all, oxygen itself is a key component of brains for them to function well.
I feel like Egnor's descriptions, at least in the NPR article, lack nuance, and lack any credible argument to advance the idea that consciousness could not have evolved through Darwinian natural selection. He also appears to be engaging in special pleading for the brain having not evolved when there is clear evidence for the reptilian brain as having come before the human brain, as well as facts of retroviral DNA. Thus, while it would be common for those espousing a view favoring intelligent design to state that the designer could have "set the process in motion", the fact that errors, seizures, and viral fragments exist in our DNA seems to indicate that such a designer would have stopped intervening immediately after setting the process in motion.
This is from member Vaishnav:
"My explanation to detractors of Darwin's theory is, "Its just a matter of time". Even though i believe Darwin's theory might not be able to explain each and every facet of evolution of life; atleast as of now . It is definitely the rightful basis to build due to its sheer explanatory power.
As of human brain and Egnor's reasoning of brain as a just a meat if not for the divine hand. I tend to disagree for the fact that things like intelligence, consciousness etc.. are still a topic of research and our inability to understand and analyze presently should not be attributed to a divine hand. Did we not consider earth to be flat before Galileo ?
Finally, going by Darwin's theory of evolution, even our understand of the evolution theory per-se has to go though an evolution where some of the reasoning is proved and some disproved. That is probably why its still called a theory. However, for the precise reason the theory has survived for so long and explained so many different aspects of life; talks a great deal about its correctness."
As someone with an interest in science and spirituality I have some sympathy for both sides of the debate about the nature of mind. However, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and I do get frustrated at times with attacks on evolution as attempts to support 'spiritual' perspectives, as if these views are mutually exclusive. There are other reasons to believe in a more expansive view of the mind than our conventional view.
The conventional scientific view as I understand it is that the mind is a computational process that is implemented in the neural activity of the brain. This seems reasonable enough since we know that damage to the brain results in impaired functioning of the mind. The straw-man dualism of a 'non-physical' mind interacting with a 'physical' brain seems difficult to support as there is no explanation for how a non-physical object can have a physical effect. I would not entertain any form of dualism were it not for one problem, the HARD problem of qualia. Qualia is a term used by philosophers to describe our internal experience we have when we engage our senses. For example, the internal, subjective sensation we have when observing the color red or when we feel the cool, flowing sensation of water across our hands. Science attempts to describe the world in an objective way, independent of the particular observer but our qualia are inherently subjective--therefore there seems to be an unbridgeable explanatory gap. Can any amount of technical data on red light or human visual system--such as light wavelength, neuron firing rates, etc. ever be enough to allow someone who is color-blind to experience the sensation of 'red' when only being given this (objective) information?
I do not have an answer for the problem of qualia but I do think that quantum mechanics (QM) may give some hints. QM shows us that matter and energy are more subtle than we had realized--electrons and atoms, e.g. can exist in superpositions of states, which implies a more ephemeral quality of matter and energy. To the non-physicist, these states could be mistaken as 'non-physical'. The 'objective' state of matter is the QM observable and the 'subjective' aspect of matter is the wavefunction itself which is never directly observable. There is alot of controversy over whether or not quantum effects are necessary for consciousness. I am not sure if they are, but I do think it's possible--recently it has been shown that plants use quantum effects to maximize energy absorption from light during photosyntheis:
The many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics extends the possibilities even further. Here is an introduction to MWI:
I am a proponent of MWI for the following reasons:
1. Solves the meaurement problem in a cleaner way (fewer QM axioms needed)
2. Solves the bootstrapping problem of the universe (how we get something from nothing) in a natural way.
MWI predicts a possibly infinite set of universes each exploring differents physical
configurations. Rather than being a liabiliy, this set of all possibilities is actually an
asset since the algorithmic information content of the set of ALL possibilities is 0
(see Moravec article link near end of this discussion).
Our universe started in a low-entropy state and this needs explanation, contrary to what some people may think. Even if all possible universes are equally likely, not all possible classes of universes are--a single universe randomly picked from the set of all possible universes would be a high-entropy one with overwhelming probabiliy b/c there are simply more of them. The physical realization of all possibilities gives a way for improbable low-entropy universes like ours to exist, rather than by design.
3. It is diffcult to understand how quantum computers would be able to perform exponentially faster for some algorithms without the vast computational resources available from MWI.
Another thing that's interesting about MWI to me is that it introduces a more subtle form of dualism. Even if consciousness requires a physical encoding, it doesn't necessarly need a specific physical instantiation of computing hardware. For example, a computer program can run just as well on my computer as yours and could even theoretically execute a part of the program on my computer and then switch and execute the rest on your computer. There is no limit in principle on how many computers the program can utilize in performing its distributed computation. If consciousness is a form of computational process and the MWI of QM is true--we truly have no idea where our consciousness is being implemented at any given moment--it could be spread across the multiverse utilizing a countless array of 'physical' resources and at any moment switching which resources it utilizes. This is roughly analogous to an sentient AI program running across a vast distributed network of computers. A great article that touches on alot of these ideas is 'Simulation, Consciousness, Existence' by Hans Moravec:
Furthermore, since MWI has a virtually infinite amount of physical resources this may imply a kind of subjective continuity (i.e. immortality) of any consciousness since there are a possibly infinite number of parallel timelines. For example, when someone dies in one timeline there is always another one (perhaps low-probability) where the person lived and that will be the one experienced by that person, since we can only experience timelines where we exist. This idea is controversial --an introduction to Quantum Immortality can be found here:
I have mentioned several controversial (but scientific) ideas to show the kind of concepts we could consider when tackling the problem consciousness, although I cannot prove these ideas are necessarily true.
I think that scientists and people who propose 'non-physical' explanations for mind err in different ways. Scientists should really take their theories seriously and explore the full implications for consciousness even at the risk of sounding 'unscientific' at times, as long as they pass the experimental tests (I am still a positivist). People who propose 'non-physical' explanations need to realize that the term 'non-physical' has no meaning--it is really a placeholder for 'not understood'. They should take the time to learn modern physics as QM gives us plenty of counter-intuitive, subtle, ephemeral, and other non-classical effects to play with. The QM view of matter and energy is every bit as subtle as any metaphysical view would ever be or need to be. I believe it is possible to have a smarter dialogue between scientists and non-scientists on consciousness and, who knows, a more modern concept of spirituality may even be created in the process.
This is one philosophically messy topic. The best I can offer here is a simplification of the issue at hand.
2 "Easier" Questions
There are appear to be - at least - two questions that are, unnecessarily, compounded in the Novella-Egnor debate.
- Can a purely physical system ever be said to be conscious?
- Could such a system coming into being exclusively as a result of the process of evolution by natural selection?
It hardly makes sense to me to try to tackle these together, since they are individually difficult, perhaps even intractable.
ID as a Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
The second question really is an instance of the category of claims made by the doctrine of intelligent design (ID). That is, there are biological artifacts whose construction is so complex or whose operation is so wondrous that they could not arise through undirected physical processes. In my mind this is a dressed up version of the assertion, "we don't really understand how this is done, so it must be impossible by conventional means."
Not the Best Track Record
The problem with this approach to understanding the world, among other things, is that it has an abysmal track record. Thirty years ago people scratched their heads about the long-unsolved 4-color map theorem; 15-years ago they were perplexed by Fermat's Last Theorem; up until a couple of years ago, they were despairing about the Poincaré conjecture. Mathematicians at least had the recourse, thanks to Godel, of positing that these truths were unprovable, but they didn't stop working on them.
Likewise, questions about matter, light, biology, the nature-of-space time all seemed formidable, almost overwhelming, at some point in time. Somehow it never occurred to scientists to claim that they were in some special category of unsolvable problems so that they could breathe a sigh of relief and turn their attention to easier questions . The ID folks already have at least three strikes against them - the origin of the eye, blood clotting and bacterial flagella - as far as making premature claims of irreducible complexity. Their track record ain't good.
Some Problems are Just Hard, But Why Give Up?
Let's face it, some problems are hard. History would indicate that their difficulty has everything to do with challenges to our ingenuity and nothing to do with their intrinsic insolubility.
I do recommend, tactically, that we not throw highly speculative provisional answers - many having to do with, themselves, hotly debated conceptions of quantum theory, for example - back at the ID crowd. Although this is the way the scientific mind works, the opponents see this as a kind of grasping at straws and seems to them to be little more than mysticism masquerading as science, which sometimes it is. Where there is a well-grounded working solution with widespread acceptance then offer it, but don't be afraid to simply respond by noting, "that's one f**ing hard question! We're working on it."
How Does Accepting ID Advance Any Scientific Cause
By accepting the burden of having to *solve* any unsolved problem on the spot, we are bound to lose. (They wouldn't be unsolved problems, now, would they?) Better to ask the ID guys to positively demonstrate their contention and point out that their approach doesn't really admit to a kind of falsifiability that would seem to be required by anything that claims to be a scientific theory.
Even better still, ask them directly whether their *certainty* about the intervention of some divine force in biological processes would recommend that we foreclose avenues of empirical investigation. To the extent that it does, then they have to be recognized as misologists, haters of knowledge. To the extent that it doesn't, then how is their position at all useful, since it neither narrows or broadens avenues of research.
Consciousness as a Physical Phenomenon - Some References
I will defer addressing the first question, whether purely physical systems can be said to be conscious, by observing that it is more incisively encapsulated in John Searle's Chinese Room Problem, which, itself, is a refinement of the celebrated Turing test. I'm not saying that Searle's thought-experiment resolves the question, but it operationalizes the terms of the discussion which makes confronting the essential issue a lot easier, at least in forums like this.
Roger Penrose's "Emperor's New Mind" is probably the best known speculative treatment of how consciousness might arise in physical systems, specifically through quantum mechanical phenomena. Douglass Hofstadter's "I am a Strange Loop" looks at the issue without having to deal with the physical nature of the system at all. Daniel Dennett's book, ambitiously titled, "Consciousness Explained", is a illuminating mixture of philosophy and neuroscience.
Keep in mind, no one has yet come up with a winning argument about the physical nature of consciousness. There may be inherent difficulties in even framing the question. I'm not sure about that. Nonetheless, it's a lot of fun thinking about it.
Edited by Marc Merlin on Feb 22, 2009 10:34 AM
Great comments, guys. I love to see this kind of discussion.
To the point of ID having a poor track record, there is a great talk given by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, on this subject, and he approaches ID from a positive point of view. His view is that ID should be taught, but only if the entire history of ID is taught. By this he means that students should be shown instances of past scientists who threw up their hands at a seemingly intractable problem and attributed it to the work of the divine.
Here is the video of Tyson talking about this:
Neil deGrasse Tyson on intelligent design at Beyond Belief:
Neil deGrasse Tyson on God's retreat from cosmology:
To read an essay from him about this subject see The Perimeter of Ignorance:
Here is one quote from that:
Let's start at the top. Isaac Newton was one of the greatest intellects the world has ever seen. His laws of motion and his universal law of gravitation, conceived in the mid-seventeenth century, account for cosmic phenomena that had eluded philosophers for millennia. Through those laws, one could understand the gravitational attraction of bodies in a system, and thus come to understand orbits.
Newton's law of gravity enables you to calculate the force of attraction between any two objects. If you introduce a third object, then each one attracts the other two, and the orbits they trace become much harder to compute. Add another object, and another, and another, and soon you have the planets in our solar system. Earth and the Sun pull on each other, but Jupiter also pulls on Earth, Saturn pulls on Earth, Mars pulls on Earth, Jupiter pulls on Saturn, Saturn pulls on Mars, and on and on.
Newton feared that all this pulling would render the orbits in the solar system unstable. His equations indicated that the planets should long ago have either fallen into the Sun or flown the coop—leaving the Sun, in either case, devoid of planets. Yet the solar system, as well as the larger cosmos, appeared to be the very model of order and durability. So Newton, in his greatest work, the Principia, concludes that God must occasionally step in and make things right:
"The six primary Planets are revolv'd about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. . . . But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions. . . . This most beautiful System of the Sun,
Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being."
So, Tyson wants it to be discussed, but in full openness of its history. I think that is useful also.