Skip navigation

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 — resistors, transistors, speakers, microphones, etc. — 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.

UPDATE (16 June 2007): Jonathan Ehrich, down in the Pharyngula comments, makes a good point:

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.

22 Comments

    • J-Dog
    • Posted Friday, 15 June 2007 at 14:32 pm
    • Permalink

    Paging Dr. Egno, Paging Dr. Egnor. Please report to the Service Desk, where you left your brain. Thank You, that is all.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsunami#2004_-_Indian_Ocean_tsunami

    December 26, 2004 that killed approximately 300,000 people (including 168,000 in Indonesia alone)

    • Mr. G
    • Posted Friday, 15 June 2007 at 18:59 pm
    • Permalink

    The weight of evidence, gathered over at least two and a half millennia, indicates that the mind is a product of the brain.

    I presume that any such evidence shows that “the mind”, in fact, exists. A reference or two would be helpful (he said disingenuously). TIA.

  2. The analogy makes about as much sense as the tale about a scientist living on an isolated island who could make a radio out of a coconut, but couldn’t figure out how to patch a hole in a boat.

  3. Mr. G:

    The mind exists because it is that which is trying to find out why it exists. ;-)

    You might like Neurevolution’s chronology of cognition-related discoveries.

    • Mr. G
    • Posted Saturday, 16 June 2007 at 17:06 pm
    • Permalink

    The mind exists because it is that which is trying to find out why it exists.

    How Cartesian.

    I’m confused now. Is dualism good or bad? Or is dualism bad when we talk about body and soul, but good when we talk about body and mind? Or what?

    Is evidence for mind in any way different from evidence for god? Is “the mind exists” falsifiable? (He again asked disingenuously.)

    (I’d seen Neurevolution’s chronology before and found it unhelpful in this regard.)

    (And thanks for adding comment preview. Very nice.)

  4. I’m confused by your use of the word “dualism.” I don’t find it any more “dualistic” to speak of body and mind than to speak of hardware and software, or to understand heat as the random motion of atoms but to model it, for crude purposes, as a kind of flowing fluid.

    Who was it who first said, “The mind is what the brain does” — Steven Pinker?

  5. I’m confused by your use of the word “dualism.”

    Nothing fancy. According to my dictionary, dualism is “a theory or system of thought that regards a domain of reality in terms of two independent principles, esp. mind and matter ( Cartesian dualism)”. That’s pretty much how I use it.

    Regarding hardware and software, software is a feature of, e.g., Von Neumann machines. What is the software of a neural network? In what language is it written? Mentalese?

    “Mind == software” is a misleading metaphor at best. It has crippled AI research for decades.

    Who was it who first said, “The mind is what the brain does” — Steven Pinker?

    Sounds probable, but I would not take that as recommendation for such a view.

    To bring this back to Egnor, the Discovery Institute’s primary objective is to “defeat scientific materialism”. Pinker, Fodor, Chomsky, Lakoff, and myriad other such dualists are its (perhaps unwitting) allies.

  6. If that’s the definition of dualism, then we might as well go back to bed, because it presumes the very thing we’re trying to explain. It begins with matter as ordinary and quotidian, and “mind” as this ineffable, ethereal, perhaps eternal thing; at the very least, it completely ruins the word mind.

    If there were a buck in it, they’d inject the same mystery into the relationship between muscle and marathon. Quoting Richard Feynman:

    Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.

    Perhaps one of the reasons for this silence is that you have to know how to read the music. For instance, the scientific article may say, “The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.” Now what does that mean?

    It means that phosphorous that is in the brain of a rat — and also in mine, and yours — is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away.

    So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago — a mind which has long ago been replaced.

    To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out — there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.

    That dance is the mind. It is constrained by the properties of atoms, but is not directly predictable from them; and when the atoms stop, the mind does too.

    (Lakoff, in Philosophy in the Flesh, endorses the idea that “mind” is a product of neural behavior.)

  7. If that’s the definition of dualism, then we might as well go back to bed, because it presumes the very thing we’re trying to explain. It begins with matter as ordinary and quotidian, and “mind” as this ineffable, ethereal, perhaps eternal thing; at the very least, it completely ruins the word mind.

    Back to bed then, because that is the definition. I didn’t make it up. Talk to the editors of the OED; I’m sure they’ll be persuaded once you explain how badly it damages the word “mind”. Then, you might google “dualism’” and straighten out all the other similarly misguided folks. Do let us know how it goes.

    As for the word “mind”, in common usage it does refer to an ineffable, ethereal, perhaps eternal thing, just like the word “god”. I would suggest that your usage (and Feynman’s) is nonstandard, though perhaps less objectionable than the usual one.

  8. (commenting from bed)

    The OED’s job is to record every way which any sizable group of people has used English words. That don’t make any particular definition “right.”

    I mean, the first definition of mind in the American Heritage Dictionary is “The human consciousness that originates in the brain and is manifested especially in thought, perception, emotion, will, memory, and imagination.” (The compact OED doesn’t make any specific mention of where “mind” originates from.) Maybe we can have the AHD and the OED fight it out, and sell ringside tickets?

    A whole lot of people think “evolution” means “granddad was a monkey.” Should that stop me from using the word in the sense that scientists and other knowledgeable people understand it? Likewise, a materialistic definition of “mind” may be nonstandard in everyday speech, but in many circumstances, I think we might as well use a neuroscience word in the sense that neuroscientists understand it.

    • Melusine
    • Posted Sunday, 17 June 2007 at 17:03 pm
    • Permalink

    Mr G said: Sounds probable, but I would not take that as recommendation for such a view.

    To bring this back to Egnor, the Discovery Institute’s primary objective is to “defeat scientific materialism”. Pinker, Fodor, Chomsky, Lakoff, and myriad other such dualists are its (perhaps unwitting) allies.

    Mr G., why are you calling Chomsky and Pinker dualists? In fact, this question was addressed to Pinker here, and with Chomsky, as far as language goes, he disputes methodological dualism. Googling can bring up much more about Pinker and dualism (dualism simply being that mind and matter are separate things). Neither of those two from what I know think that mind is not contingent on the neurological functions of the brain (matter). Perhaps you can explain why you note them as dualists and “unwitting allies.” There is a much different approach to these questions between an Egnor and a Pinker – Pinker, as he states, isn’t running to the “Ghost in the Machine.” Egnor isn’t worth any more time.

    The compact OED is useless, Blake. Merriam-Webster’s unabridged definition is huge. Here’s part:

    3. that which reasons : the doer of intellectual work — usually distinguished from will and emotion (formulas toward which her meditating mind ran — R.P.Blackmur) b (1) : an organized group of events in neural tissue occurring mediately in response to antecedent intrapsychic or extrapsychic events which it perceives, classifies, transforms, and coordinates prior to initiating action whose consequences are foreseeable to the extent of available information (2) : the aspect of a biological organism that is not organic in nature (in man mind is experienced as emotions, imagination, or will) c : the sum total of the conscious states of an individual d : the sum total of the individual’s adaptive activity considered as an organized whole though also capable of being split into dissociated parts (as the conscious and the unconscious mind) e : one’s capacity for mental activity : one’s available stock of mental and adaptive responses

    …and so on and on…

  9. The OED’s job is to record every way which any sizable group of people has used English words. That don’t make any particular definition “right.”

    Of course not. However, you expressed confusion at my usage of “dualism” and I pointed out that my usage is the common one. You then objected to the common usage. Not much I can do about that.

    As for the mind, we have this from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    In dualism, ‘mind’ is contrasted with ‘body’, but at different times, different aspects of the mind have been the centre of attention. In the classical and mediaeval periods, it was the intellect that was thought to be most obviously resistant to a materialistic account: from Descartes on, the main stumbling block to materialist monism was supposed to be ‘consciousness’, of which phenomenal consciousness or sensation came to be considered as the paradigm instance.

    So we see that Descartes and his legion modern heirs are engaged in the same enterprise as the Discovery Institure: to “defeat scientific materialism”. The avenue of attack for both Egnor and Descartes is identical.

    I alluded earlier to the damage this dualism has done to AI research, but the lamentable effects are also evident in fields as disparate as clinical psychology, linguistics, and education.

    We could try to change the usage of “mind”, but given the semantic baggage the word has acquired and its explanatory impotence, it seems to me best to avoid it and other references to “mental” phenomena. YMMV.

    • Melusine
    • Posted Sunday, 17 June 2007 at 19:37 pm
    • Permalink

    And Mr. G, I repeat my question to you regarding Pinker, et al.

    • Melusine
    • Posted Sunday, 17 June 2007 at 19:45 pm
    • Permalink

    One of those periods should not be there after et al. Bad habit!

    Blake, Steven Novella has another post about this here.

  10. Melusine, sorry, I somehow overlooked your post.

    why are you calling Chomsky and Pinker dualists? In fact, this question was addressed to Pinker here, and with Chomsky, as far as language goes, he disputes methodological dualism.

    Pinker denies there that he is a substance dualist. He is, instead, a property dualist (or perhaps a predicate dualist).

    Chomsky laid out some his ideas in a book called, suggestively, _Cartesian Linguistics_. He leans toward the notion that understanding “the mind” will require the discovery of some new physical principle.

    He posits the existence of a “language module” in the brain that follows the “rules of universal grammar”. He eschews objective evidence and has been, for decades, attempting (with, as he admits, no success) to deduce these “rules” from his own subjective experience. He further insists that this “language module” exists only in humans, arising, apparently, through saltation of some sort. He is devoutly anti-empiricist and a staunch rationalist. Despite his “computational” approach to language, he has never implemented his “universal grammar” but condemns those who question the utility implementing rule based approaches to AI. Perhaps I should have characterized him as a mere crank.

    Fodor is openly dualist.

    Lakoff is from the same school and likes to talk about imaginary things like “frames”.

    All of the above share an eagerness to say why everyone else is wrong, and a failure to produce any useful results of their own.

  11. Just while I’m defaming Chomsky, let me toss in this choice quote from him. I think it speaks for itself:

    As far as the Skinner thing is concerned . . . I think it’s a fraud, there’s nothing there. I mean, it is empty. It’s an interesting fraud. See, I think that there are two levels of discussion here. One is purely intellectual: What does it amount to? And the answer is zero, zilch . . . I mean, there are no principles there that are non-trivial, that even exist. . . . Now the other question is, why so much interest in it? And here I think the answer is obvious. I mean, the methodology that they are suggesting is known to every good prison guard, or police interrogator. But, they make it look benign and scientific, and so on; they give a kind of coating to it, and for that reason it’s very valuable to them. I think both these things have to be pointed out. First you ask, is this science? No, it’s fraud. And then you say, ok, then why the interest in it? Answer: because it tells any concentration camp guard that he can do what his instincts tell him to do, but pretend to be a scientist at the same time. So that makes it good, because science is good, or neutral, and so on.

  12. Mr. G:

    No, that quotation doesn’t speak for itself. In fact, it appears to have precious little to do with the topic at hand. You’re continuing the same behavior pattern which got you booted from Pharyngula. In my very first sentence, I indicated that based on my understanding of the evidence, “the mind is the product of the brain.” The brain is clearly doing something, except in the case of certain creationists, politicians and philosophers, and that something we label mind. I have clarified my position, which I believe is standard among neuroscientists; for some reason I have trouble fathoming, you appear to prefer slinging verbal insults and playing Quotation War.

    Lakoff is from the same school and likes to talk about imaginary things like “frames”.

    If Lakoff’s “frames” are a bad concept, it would be because they are falsified or, worse, unfalsifiable — not because they lack a description in terms of the Maxwell Equations. I find your complaint a trifle ironic, since as far as I can tell, you’ve been accusing me of bad framing: using words like “mind” which have loaded meanings, or whose meanings differ between the everyday and the scientific usages.

    I have little patience for belligerent inconsistency.

    • Xanthir, FCD
    • Posted Monday, 18 June 2007 at 11:32 am
    • Permalink

    Mr. G: I find your impution of consciousness and speaking ability to something as obviously abstract and without material existence as a quote to be both offensive and scientifically inaccurate.

    And I’m prepared to passionately argue this point until nothing makes sense anymore. If that doesn’t work, then the hours and hours of whining will.

    • Melusine
    • Posted Monday, 18 June 2007 at 17:11 pm
    • Permalink

    Mr. G, Cartesian Linguistics was written in 1966. I suggest that you look here and here for more recent Chomsky articles. Further, “anti-empiricist” is not a bad thing when you understand how the term “empiricism” is being used. Here a commenter explains it clearly.

    You throw around terms such as dualism, with its varied shades and off-shoots of thought, then couple it with quotes plucked out of seemingly nowhere that do not lend to clarifying anything, along with muddling what Chomsky and Pinker think, and vaguely referring to AI. What’s your point?

    What are you trying to say? Perhaps you should stop muddling everybody else’s thoughts and just clearly state your own ideas.

    • Mr. G
    • Posted Friday, 22 June 2007 at 02:53 am
    • Permalink

    Blake: No, that quotation doesn’t speak for itself. In fact, it appears to have precious little to do with the topic at hand.

    I’m sorry that I didn’t make clear how it is relevant. It is Chomsky’s considered opinion on why Skinner (who eschewed talk of “mind”) is so sadly mistaken. It is on the basis of such “arguments” by Chomsky that we have wasted decades pursuing rule based approaches to grammar, artificial intelligence, psychology, and education. The quote I posted exemplifies his style and the quality of his arguments. Please review the content of what he said therein before accusing me of belligerence.

    Note that I did not imply that you are a Nazi apologist. That’s what Chomsky did to Skinner. But, I guess, it’s OK if Chomsky does it. He’s practically a deity. All just part of reasonable discussion. Of course I’m out of line. I can see why you’re upset.

    There were no scientific results in psychology for well over 2000 years until the advent of Pavlov and Watson. Mentalistic explanations were then largely abandoned and advances continued until Chomsky “defeated” behaviorism through “evidence” such as that exhibited in the above quote.

    Progress was again halted for twenty years until the advent of the PDP Group’s _Parallel Distributed Processing_. In the meanwhile, we were treated to the vulgar speculation of cognitive psychology. Let’s list all the benefits to humanity of cognitive psychology. C’mon everybody, jump in.

    Since then it’s been an uphill battle, and we haven’t begun to regain what was lost.

    So, yes, I find talk of mind reprehensible. It abides superstition in exactly the same way religion does. It condones the notion that there is some psychic dimension in which the really important stuff happens. It dismisses evidence in favor of subjectivity, and bows to authority as embodied in sages such as Chomsky, Pinker, et al.

    If Lakoff’s “frames” are a bad concept, it would be because they are falsified or, worse, unfalsifiable — not because they lack a description in terms of the Maxwell Equations.

    I certainly didn’t suggest the latter. I’m not sure where such an idea came from. OTOH, how would you suggest falsifying such a claim? I admit I’m stumped as to how that might be done, and that is the basis for my dismissive attitude.

    I find your complaint a trifle ironic, since as far as I can tell, you’ve been accusing me of bad framing: using words like “mind” which have loaded meanings, or whose meanings differ between the everyday and the scientific usages.

    No, i’ve been accusing you, and the ‘neuroscientists” of ontological errors. I note that you ignored my question about the “software” of neural networks. Software is supposed to be the mind of the machine isn’t it? That was the point of the comment of mine that you arbitrarily deleted. (I’ll let you explain that to your readers.)

    I have little patience for belligerent inconsistency.

    I’ll cop to belligerence, but not inconsistency. I’d suggest that you have little patience for those who disagree with you.

  13. Tu quoque.

    If you poke around this site, you’ll see I’ve left comments standing from people who disagree with me. Sometimes, people who disagree with me even convince me that I’d been wrong.

    You’re not doing a very good job of that.

    The only comment of yours that I’ve deleted read, “Im in ur blog, trashin ur ontologiee.” I didn’t think it would be missed. (Oh, and we’ve got a comment policy here which covers such cases.)

    Your question about the “software” of neural networks is, as far as I can tell, completely off the mark. Such a network can be represented, for example, by its connection matrix, in which the ij-th element indicates how strongly neuron i is connected to neuron j. A particular connection matrix can be physically realized in many different ways (transistors, integrated circuits, genetically engineered biological neurons, Tinkertoys, etc.). The realizations are equivalent systems in terms of the network they embody, although they will differ with regard to speed, reliability and so forth. The hardware is different, but the program is the same.

    The answer to your question, then, is twofold. First, a “neural network” in the AI sense is software without hardware, much like a Turing machine; and second, your restriction of software to Von Neumann machines is artificial and counterproductive. You assert that the notion of software only applies to a particular type of computation, and then you complain that the field of AI research doesn’t acknowledge your assertion.

    I kept hoping you’d say something interesting, but instead, you exhibit “an eagerness to say why everyone else is wrong, and a failure to produce any useful results of [your] own.”