The weight of evidence, gathered over at least two and a half millennia, indicates that the mind is a product of the brain. Some people find this notion disquieting, and consequently they marshal various arguments to try and dispel the unpleasant conclusion. I haven’t done a quantitative study on which sophistries are the most common, but I have the strong impression that this one is widely used: the soul isn’t “in” the brain, the denier says, any more than television programs are “in” the TV antenna.
This argument would be a whole lot more convincing if damage to different parts of the brain didn’t have different effects, and if imaging of brain activity didn’t show that particular activities and even modes of thought manifest themselves in different, characteristic parts of the nervous system. We’d have to be tuned to a whole premium package of Soul TV channels, each received by its own wet antenna, and each broadcast by its own Ethereal Broadcasting Company — a whole industry of Spiritual Pay-per-View!
The latest devotee of this dubious proposition is — almost inevitably — Michael Egnor.
Imagine scientists living on an isolated island who have developed sophisticated science and culture, with one exception: they deny that telecommunication is possible. For assorted reasons, they deny that the human voice can be transmitted through space, except as vibrations in air. We’ll call this civilization the ‘Verizon Deniers.’
One day, they find a cell phone (it dropped from a plane or something). They turn it on, and they hear things. They hear hissing, cracking, and what sounds like voices!
The upshot of Egnor’s little morality play is that the confident, self-assured Verizon Deniers can never prove that all the noises coming out of the phone are due to the “emergent properties” of the telephone’s components, because of the following:
But the voices are different. The sound of the voices certainly has some properties like those of the circuit — frequency, amplitude, power, etc — but there’s more to them. They have meaning. These ‘voice’ noises express anger, love, purpose, judgment — all properties that are not inherent to electrical components.
How many things can we find wrong in this reasoning? First, a noise does not intrinsically express anger, love or any other human attribute. We invest sounds and images with meanings, both factual and emotional. We see patterns in randomness and give them character from our own psyche: methinks that cloud is backed like a weasel — and how crafty that weasel looks!
Second, Egnor’s argument presumes at the start what it seeks to conclude, namely that the properties “inherent” to the components are the only properties which can appear in the whole. But this conclusion is absurd: neither a tire, a windshield wiper nor a spark plug has the property of being able to drive me from Boston to Huntsville, Alabama, but an assembly of these and other parts can do so quite handily. A water molecule does not have the property of devastating coastlines and killing 187,000 people in one country alone, but the Indian Ocean tsunami did just that.
Third, the analogy is faulty. To pick only one reason why, we don’t have just one brain to study, but entire populations of them over many decades. We can take advantage of unfortunate happenstance and see what brains do when they’re pierced by iron rods, for example, or punctured by .22-caliber bullets. Lesions, tumors and the scars of childhood fevers become objects of study. Egnor’s island-dwellers would have to be presented with a whole crate of cellular telephones, or perhaps a whole downed cargo jet, with a significant fraction of the phones in various states of disrepair and partial functionality.
Fourth, we can test the hypothesis that there’s nothing to the phone except the phone components themselves. We can build our own copies of the pieces â€” resistors, transistors, speakers, microphones, etc. â€” and see how they work in other, simpler situations. We can look for external influences upon the phone, since there’ll probably be more than one way to detect any given signal. We can put the phone in a Faraday cage to see if the noises change. Using empirical, scientific methods, we could easily tell if the phone is receiving messages from The Beyond (otherwise known as the phone owner’s mother).
“If a theory can’t get a cell phone right,” Egnor says, “I don’t trust it with the mind.” Strangely enough, I agree exactly: his understanding of science doesn’t cover what we could find out about a cell phone, so we shouldn’t trust what he says about the mind.
So considering that functions and activities in the human brain map fairly consistently onto the same functions and the same activities in the same locations in animal brains (in animals where the particular location/function exists, of course); does this mean that all life forms with central nervous systems are just receiving instructions from an external source? Or do other animals just happen to have brains that look pretty much the same and actually do the things that the same regions of our brains don’t do but rather receive from an external transmitter?
So, to make Egnor’s analogy even remotely close to viable, our crashed cargo jet must include not just cellphones but also walkie-talkies, ham radios, antique Morse telegraphs, batteries, wires, compasses and Haystack Observatory’s do-it-yourself radio telescope.
Over at his blog, Ehrich has a fun post about chemical element names which the Gentle Readers should all geek over.