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Atheist Psychiatrist Misunderstands Evidence for an Immaterial Mind

Patients with massive brain damage were shown to have a mental life

Dr. Faizal Ali, who describes himself as a “Militant atheist” and an “Anti-Creationist Psychiatrist,” takes exception to an example of the immateriality of the mind that I raised in “The Evidence against Materialism,” a bonus feature of the short film series Science Uprising.

I recounted the work of Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist in Cambridge, England, who has studied patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) using fMRI imaging, which measures changes to the blood flow in the brain. PVS is a condition in which a person with severe permanent brain damage is diagnosed as having no mind at all.

That’s what “vegetative” means—the medical diagnosis is that the patient has no mental activity, no thoughts or awareness. This was, for example, the diagnosis of Terri Schiavo, a woman who was starved to death 15 years ago based on the diagnosis that she had no awareness or mental processes at all.

Owen studied patients with PVS by placing them in an fMRI machine that could detect patterns of blood flow to the brain. These patterns have been shown to correlate with some kinds of brain activity and to some kinds of thoughts. When you think or perceive, there are subtle regional changes in blood flow in your brain, and fMRI can detect this.

He found clear evidence that many patients in PVS have quite complex thoughts and are quite aware of what is going on around them. His research has been verified by a number of other investigators.

I used this research to point out the weakness of the materialist theory of the mind. After all, if the mind is wholly a product of material brain processes, we could not expect patients with massive brain damage to be able to think complex thoughts. But they can, as the fMRI evidence shows.

And what is Dr. Ali’s response?

Evidence #4

Oh. My. God.

Remember: what Egnor is arguing that the mind is an immaterial entity that is not dependent on brain activity for its existence.

His fourth piece of evidence for this claim? That some patients who are in a vegetative state still show evidence of mental activity.

What is this evidence?

That functional MRI will show evidence of brain activity in these patients.

I am not making this up. Watch for yourself it you don’t believe me.

Egnor himself, in his own argument, is relying on the presumption that mental activity arises from brain activity. The very thing he is trying to argue against. An eliminative materialist could make the same argument he uses here.


Dr. Ali is a perceptive reader but he misunderstands my point.

I am not arguing that the presence of brain activity as measured by fMRI in deeply comatose patients is direct evidence for the immateriality of abstract thought. Of course not, because, as Dr. Ali correctly points out, the fMRI measures brain activity, which is material.

I am not arguing that fMRI imaging of patients in PVS measures abstract thought. I am saying that the presence of fMRI activity that correlates with complex thought is a serious problem with the materialist theory of the mind.

After all, these PVS patients have massive permanent brain damage and have been medically diagnosed as having no mind at all. Yet many of them do have minds and are capable of thinking quite complex thoughts (understanding language, imagining complex activities such as walking across a room or playing tennis).

Here is one way of seeing it” If someone took a sledgehammer to your computer and pulverized it, yet it still worked fairly well, you would conclude that there was something rather strange about your computer that you had not previously considered.

The fMRI research shows that the materialist understanding of the mind-brain relationship—that the mind is simply the product of brain activity—is inadequate to explain why patients with massive diffuse brain damage who are in deep permanent coma can still have a rich mental life. The fMRI activation is not direct evidence of immateriality of abstract thought, but it is direct evidence of the inadequacy of materialism in helping us understand the mind.

If the brain is mostly destroyed, but the mind can continue to function at a rather sophisticated level, then the theory that the mind is wholly the product of the material brain is discredited.

That’s my point, and it seems to be lost on Dr. Ali. It’s remarkable how immune materialists are to evidence that refutes their metaphysical presumptions. Maybe Dr. Ali’s “Anti-Creationist” bias blinds him to the rather obvious implications of some of the most important research in modern neuroscience.

Also by Michael Egnor: New evidence that some comatose people really do understand Researchers found mental activity in response to verbal commands even in some “completely unresponsive” patients


Can buzzwords about “neural networks” save materialist neuroscience? No. Experiments that support an immaterial consciousness often involve split or massively damaged neural networks

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Atheist Psychiatrist Misunderstands Evidence for an Immaterial Mind