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Egnor vs. Papineau, Round 4: Egnor Defends the Mind vs. the Brain

Philosopher David Papineau does not feel that neurosurgeon Michael Egnor is being “entirely helpful” at this point…

Yesterday, we published the third portion of the debate between materialist philosopher David Papineau and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, where the key issue was “Could there have been a material cause for the Big Bang that is held to have started our universe?” For Egnor’s opening statement, go here. Here’s Papineau’s reply.

Today, we look at the portion which starts roughly at 26:30 where they start to talk about the human mind. Is the mind simply “what the brain does”? Papineau begins:

Note: Dr. Papineau is a “physicalist.” On that view, “the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” (Philosophy basics) He is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.” Michael Egnor is a dualist.

David Papineau: Take the case of the physical events of my lips moving, right? And take the thesis I put to you, that insofar as that has an explanation, has an explanation in the physical processes in my brain. Now, I take it that you want to say, “No, no, there’s something extra to the physical processes in my brain that will account for the way my lips are moving.”

Michael Egnor: Right.

David Papineau: So you think that at some point, in my brain, the matter in my brain is moving in a way that’s not explainable in terms of contemporary physics? Contemporary physics will talk about the four fundamental forces, they will regard all accelerations of matter as Newton, as four fundamental forces. Contemporary physics doesn’t think there are any counterexamples, i.e., bits of matter moving in ways that aren’t accountable by the four fundamental forces. I take it that you think there’s some cases of bits of matter moving around in my brain that can’t be explainable in contemporary physical terms. That’s what you think, is it?

Michael Egnor: Oh yes, absolutely. May I ask this question? … you would say that your arguments, that you’re making here, are based on logic, and your arguments come, in your view, strictly from the physical events going on inside your brain, correct?

David Papineau: Sure.

Michael Egnor: What scientific paradigm ascribes logic to your neurochemistry? … and the logic of identity? How do you get logic out of gray matter? …

David Papineau: Michael, we’re trying to argue logically here, and I feel you’re not being entirely helpful in this respect. We were talking a moment ago about whether there were movements of bits of matter in the brain that would be a surprise to the people in the physics department, and I took it that you were saying yes, you believe there were. So let’s just flag that as something we might come back to …

Quite, but if your view were right, what you should be doing is going to tell your friends in the physics department, “Forget about all that cosmology, forget about all that high-energy stuff at CERN. All you have to do is go and look inside people’s skulls and you will find counterexamples to the theses of contemporary physics. You’re going to get a Nobel Prize, just by looking at …“

Note: Michael Egnor’s perspective was doubtless formed, in part, from regular contact with people who had split brains or brains largely missing or apparently inactive. He has reasons for doubting that the mind is simply what the brain does. Note: Egnor had done roughly 7000 neurosurgeries.

David Papineau: Well, I think there are brain states, structured brain states, just like… I mean, not just like, but if you want to think for a moment, sentences, strings of marks on paper, and elements in those brain states refer to things in the world. They have a semantic value, and given that, as I gave you the example, I have a brain state the signifies that Lima is the capital of Peru, and I have another brain state the signifies that Peru is in South America, and those two brain states will cause me to have a third brain state, the brain state that signifies that Lima is in South America, and those are three brain states which have semantics. Because of their semantics, they have logical relationships to each other. When I reason from the first two to the third, I’m making a kind of syntactic inference, a syntactic move, and that syntactic move respects the semantics of the states. That’s a perfectly standard account that you would get in any modern philosophy textbook in cognitive science, or in …

Michael Egnor: Right, and it’s wrong on several levels. The first way that it’s wrong is that if you are asserting that brain states intrinsically have intentional content, you have the problem that brain states are exposed to innumerable different inputs.… If your brain state is thinking about Peru or something, you have all kinds of sensory information coming into your brain. You have vision, hearing, all that stuff, and in order to pick out what aspects of that brain state refer to Peru, your brain has to filter things. That filtration itself is an intentional process.

David Papineau: Michael, you’re pushing at an open door here. I’ve just written a book. My last book, published two months ago, is a passionate defense of the claim that semantic values of brain states are not due to their intrinsic nature. That would be an absurd view. They’re due to the way that the brain states relate us to features of our environment, so they’re highly related.

Note: David Papineau is here referring to The Metaphysics of Sensory Experience (Oxford, 2021), “What are the materials of conscious perceptual experience? What is going on when we are consciously aware of a visual scene, or hear sounds, or otherwise enjoy sensory experience? In this book David Papineau exposes the flaws in contemporary answers to this central philosophical question and defends a new alternative.” – Publisher

David Papineau: Brain states are mental states, on my view, but they do have semantic values. Elements of the brain states refer to certain features in the world. In virtue of that, the brain states have truth conditions. They answer for accuracy, to features of the world, but what they refer to, and what the truth conditions of composite brain states are, is not a matter of the intrinsic matter of the brain states, any more than the fact that the word red refers to the color of your shirt is a matter of the intrinsic shape of the letters, R-E-D. It’s because of the way the words, and somewhat similarly the brain states, are embedded in a wider [00:34:00] environment that they refer.

In your view, there’s some extra-material, magic mind stuff, and it has an intrinsic property that enables it to refer to Lima, the capital of Peru, and I’d be curious about how you think that works. Why is it that there’s some magic mind-y stuff that somehow has this magic ability to point across the world? I mean, why does it point to Lima, the capital of Peru, and not the first planet of Alpha Centauri? What makes your ectoplasmic mind stuff have the particular significance it does? I’d be curious what you think about that.

Michael Egnor: Well, first of all David, it strikes me as odd that a man who has your erudition would refer to a metaphysical perspective based on Aristotle, based on Plato, and based on Thomas Aquinas as gibberish, about ectoplasmic mind stuff, meaning that the Thomistic perspective on how the mind works, and on how nature works, is more or less magical. No, it is far less magical than the idea that the mind state somehow magically arises from a brain state without remainder, that is that you’re insulting a very very venerable way of understanding the world, and you don’t seem to be engaging … Do you want me to explain Thomistic dualism to you? I mean, is that what you’re asking?

Stay tuned!

Next: Michael Egnor introduces dualism, the view that nature normally consists of different types of entities (for example, classical versus quantum mechanics, information versus matter/energy, or mind versus matter. The different entities proceed according to different rules.)


You may also wish to read the earlier portions of the debate:

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor takes on philosopher David Papineau Round 1. In the debate, Egnor begins by offering three fundamental reasons why the mind is not the brain. Neuroscience caused Egnor to honestly doubt Papineau’s materialist perspective that the mind is simply what the brain does.

Round 2: Philosopher Papineau replies to neurosurgeon Egnor. Dr. Papineau is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.” Papineau: Mental processes, including conscious processes, are one in the same as physical processes. I’m curious about how Michael Egnor would answer it.

Round 3: Round 3: Egnor vs Papineau: The Big Bang has no natural beginning. In the debate between theistic neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and naturalist philosopher David Papineau, the question gets round to the origin of the universe itself. Egnor maintains that the Big Bang, which is held to have created the universe, is an effect with no physical cause. Papineau agrees.

Also: Philosopher: Consciousness Is Not a Problem. Dualism Is! He says that consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something” Physicalist David Papineau argues that consciousness “seems mysterious not because of any hidden essence, but only because we think about it in a special way.” In short, it’s all in our heads. But wait, say others, the hard problem of consciousness is not so easily dismissed.


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Egnor vs. Papineau, Round 4: Egnor Defends the Mind vs. the Brain