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A Materialist Neuroscientist Continues the Argument with Himself

On the topic of “intellectual seizures,” he seems committed to both points of view

One of the lines of neuroscience evidence that abstract intellectual thought is not material is the fact that there are no intellectual seizures. That is, of the countless millions of epileptic seizures human beings have endured, there has never been an intellectual seizure. An intellectual seizure would be an epileptic seizure in which the person involuntarily did abstract thought—did logic or calculus or philosophy—as the manifestation of the seizure.

Virtually every other kind of neurological activity can be the result of a seizure—massive movements of all four limbs, unconsciousness, tingling, a peculiar smell, repetitive movements, memories, powerful emotions, etc. But never abstract thought. This observation—that there are no intellectual seizures—was first made in the 1950s by Dr. Wilder Penfield, the father of seizure neurosurgery. It remains true today. It is compelling evidence that abstract thought is not caused by material processes in the brain.

I’ve been having an online discussion with Dr. Faizal Ali, an “anti-creationist” psychiatrist and a materialist who believes that abstract (intellectual) thought is simply the product of material brain processes. I have reviewed in detail the scientific and philosophical evidence that abstract thought is an immaterial power of the human mind that is not caused by brain matter.

On June 28, 2019, Dr. Ali posted his claim that ‘forced thinking seizures’ disprove my (and Dr. Penfield’s) observation that intellectual seizures do not occur:

… Egnor is simply wrong. Intellectual seizures do occur. Here, for example, is a woman with frontal lobe epilepsy whose seizures consisted of the thought “I have something that I must do” [emphasis mine]

I replied to Dr. Ali here. I pointed out that he misunderstands the nature of forced thinking seizures and the nature of abstract thought. Forced thinking seizures, although rare, do occur. But they are not abstract thought and they are not intellectual seizures. They always involve concrete thought and/or emotional content. I pointed out, in fact, that the first reports of forced thinking seizures were by Dr. Penfield himself, who also first made the observation that there are no intellectual seizures.

On July 20, 2019, Dr. Ali replied:

So returning to to Michael Egnor’s questions: How is it that, in Penfield’s experiments, it was never possible to produce a complex abstract thought? And why do “intellectual seizures” not exist? Neural connectivity theory provides an answer: Such complicated cognitive tasks require precise and specific interactions between multiple areas of the brain, coordinated through the hubs that connect the various functional modules of the cortex. When a surgeon stimulates part of the brain with an electrical probe, or when this occurs spontaneously through an epileptic seizure, usually only a single node or set of nodes in a single module of the brain is stimulated. This will provoke specific physical or emotional sensations, evoke a specific memory, cause movement of part of the body, etc. However, such stimulation is too crude and localized to produce a more complex response such as an abstract thought. In their article, Bertolero and Bassett employ an extended metaphor in which the brain is compared to a symphony orchestra. A single musician can play a single line on his instrument, and the other musicians in his section may do the same. However, to perform a symphony requires precisely controlled and coordinated interactions between the various sections of the orchestra. [emphasis mine]

Let’s recap: on June 28th, Dr. Ali wrote confidently that intellectual seizures do exist: “… Egnor is simply wrong. Intellectual seizures do occur.”

On July 20th, Dr. Ali wrote confidently that intellectual seizures do not exist: “[W]hy do ‘intellectual seizures’ not exist? Neural connectivity theory provides an answer:… Such stimulation is too crude and localized to produce a more complex response such as an abstract thought.”

Sigh.

The predicate for an informed discussion is a coherent opinion as to whether intellectual seizures do or do not exist.

I assert that intellectual seizures do not exist. Dr. Ali asserts that they do exist and that they do not. The difference between their existence and their non-existence seems to be Dr. Ali’s rhetorical needs of the moment.

Which reminds me of a comment about materialists by John Searle, a leading philosopher of the mind. Searle is an atheist and is not a dualist. Yet he has unconcealed disdain for materialist theories of the mind. Discussing their manifest inadequacy to explain the mind, Searle notes caustically,

[Materialists] are determined to try to show that our ordinary common-sense notions of the mental do not name anything in the real world, and they are willing to advance any argument that they can think of for this conclusion. Mind: A Brief Introduction, pp. 127–28.

Searle seems to have had materialists like Dr. Ali in mind.


Also by Michael Egnor in discussion with psychiatrist Dr. Faizal Ali

What is abstract thought?, Part I: Now Dr. Ali argues with Dr. Ali

Can Buzzwords About “Neural Networks” Save Materialist Neuroscience? No. Experiments that support an immaterial consciousness often involve split or massively damaged neural networks.

Do “forced thinking” seizures show that abstract thought is a material thing? Epilepsy suppresses abstract thought, it does not evoke it.

Do Epileptic Seizures Cause Abstract Thoughts? A psychiatrist argues that “intellectual seizures” can occur.

and

Atheist Psychiatrist Misunderstands Evidence for an Immaterial Mind Patients with massive brain damage were shown to have a mental life.

Featured image: Nerve cells/Ralwel, Adobe Stock


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.

A Materialist Neuroscientist Continues the Argument with Himself