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Why Neurosurgeon Mike Egnor Stopped Being a Materialist Atheist

He found that materialism is just not working out in science

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor did another podcast with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.” Among other things, Egnor talked about why he ceased to be an atheist as he learned more about science and its dependence on mathematics, which is not a material thing. A partial transcript follows, taking us down to 15 minutes, with notes (more in a further installment):

Arjuna Das: (00:01:49) Today, I’ve got Michael Egnor on. I’m very delighted to have him on for a second time. He’s a neurosurgeon, a Christian, and he’s quite good at arguing philosophy too… W So we’ll start out with him telling a little bit of a story, how he changed his metaphysical views through things he learned about the brain, consciousness, and neuroscience.

Michael Egnor: (00:03:51): Okay, great. Thank you Arjuna. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here. I’m delighted to speak with you. I figured maybe we just start with just a quick recap of my own story.

I was an atheist for most of my life until I was in my mid forties, and I’ve always loved science out of high school. I was in the army for a short time, because I didn’t have any money to afford college. Then I went to college, and then I went to medical school.

In college, I was a biochemistry major and I must admit that even when I was an atheist, I had some questions about the adequacy of a materialist view to explain nature. For example in biochemistry, I just couldn’t understand how these incredibly elegant and complex biochemical pathways could simply actually be the result of atoms and molecules kind of bumping into each other. (00:04:34)

It seemed to me that there had to be a conductor to this orchestra. But being an atheist, I didn’t think that was possible. In medical school I fell in love with the brain, and I felt that neuroanatomy and neurophysiology was really the philosopher’s stone for understanding the human mind, for understanding human existence and I became a bit disillusioned with that as I began to practice neurosurgery. (00:05:01)

Out of college, I trained in neurosurgery. I graduated from the University of Miami in 1991, and came to Stony Brook and I’ve been on faculty here at Stony Brook as attending neurosurgeon now for about 30 years. I’m a full professor, I’m tenured. … I am the director of the training program, so I train all the new neurosurgeons that are coming on to Stony Brook. (00:05:32)

I kind of had a Damascus Road experience when I was in my mid forties, and I probably shouldn’t get into that now, but I, at that point, converted to Catholicism and I fell in love with the theology and philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. and really have gotten rather into Thomism. (00:05:59)

I have gotten involved in quite a few public discussions and debates about various aspects of science and various aspects of metaphysics, particularly as regards philosophy of the mind and neuroscience as regards Darwinism and evolution, and as regards the existence of God. So I’m always happy to talk about these issues because they’re fascinating, very important issues.

My problems with materialism go back a long ways. I felt early on, even when I was an atheist, that materialism had a tough time explaining biology. That there were so many examples of incredibly elegant purposes in biology…

It’s become very clear to me as time has gone on, that materialism also cannot explain the mind. I think we can get into that in some detail. But it’s also clear that materialism fails miserably in explaining physics. 20th and 20th century physics is completely inconceivable from a materialist framework.

Despite what a lot of materialist philosophers say, materialists often pretend that they are defenders of science, but when one looks with any kind of scrutiny at what modern science is telling us about nature, materialism is a completely inadequate framework to understand any of that. As just as a simple example, one of the basic principles of the materialist way of understanding nature is the concept of causal closure. What materialists say is that in nature, every physical effect has a physical cause … (00:08:38).

Note: Causal closure: “Causal Closure is the idea that everything that happens in the world is caused by physical objects in the world. Everything that has a cause has a physical cause, according to Jaegwon Kim (1934–2019). Belief in this kind of causality is deeply held by many philosophers and scientists. Many say it is the basis for all thought and knowledge of the external world. Even indeterministic quantum events, which are only statistically caused, are physical events. Causal closure is a requirement for “physicalist” views in the philosophy of mind.” – The Information Philosopher In popular usage, causal closure is often called “materialism” or sometimes “naturalism.”

Michael Egnor: The problem with that viewpoint, and materialists often argue that that’s the cornerstone of modern science, is that it’s exactly the opposite that’s the case. That is, modern science does not respect causal closure in any way. For example, something as simple as the Big Bang, which obviously is a physical effect, in fact, it’s all physical effects, it’s the entire physical universe… has no physical cause and could not have had a physical cause, because physical didn’t begin until the Big Bang. So whatever was prior to the Big Bang, if it even makes sense to say prior, it wasn’t physical because physical began at the moment of the Big Bang. So causal closure is violated by the very existence of the universe itself. (00:09:34)

Note: There is no straightforward explanation for the Big Bang that does not imply some sort of divine origin of the universe. Many cosmologists hate the Big Bang on that account: “Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) exclaimed in 1933, ‘I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe in it — except myself.’ Why? Because ‘The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.’ Others chimed in, making it clear that the principal problem is not with the evidence, then or now, but with obvious conclusions.” – “Put Simply, the Facts Are Wrong

Michael Egnor: Furthermore, the singularities that are at the core of black holes clearly cause physical effects. Black holes can suck parts of galaxies into them. Black holes are very powerful things, but it makes no sense to talk about the physical cause in a singularity because a singularity is undefined. It’s a solution to the tensor equations of general relativity that contains infinities, and these infinities are not defined mathematically or physically. So the effects of black holes have no physical cause.

Note: Singularities “In scientific terms, a gravitational singularity (or space-time singularity) is a location where the quantities that are used to measure the gravitational field become infinite in a way that does not depend on the coordinate system. In other words, it is a point in which all physical laws are indistinguishable from one another, where space and time are no longer interrelated realities, but merge indistinguishably and cease to have any independent meaning.” – Matt Williams, Universe Today

Michael Egnor: General relativity itself violates the principle of conservation of energy. At least in curved space time. The Einstein’s tensor equations of general relativity do not include, or do not entail conservation of energy, when space time is curved. Perfectly flat space time can conserve energy, but none of the actual observable universe is perfectly flat. In fact, physicists or cosmologists have developed modifications to Einstein’s tensor equations, called pseudo tensors, to try to bring conservation of energy into general relativity, but it doesn’t emerge naturally from Einstein’s equations, and of course, if there is no conservation of energy, then the universe is not causally closed because if you can have energy come from nowhere or energy cease to exist, then the whole concept of causal closure falls apart. (00:11:14)

Note: “The general theory of relativity (or general relativity for short) is a major building block of modern physics. It explains gravity based on the way space can ‘curve’, or, to put it more accurately, it associates the force of gravity with the changing geometry of space-time.” – ScienceAlert

Michael Egnor: The fourth example in physics where causal closure is not valid is in quantum entanglement. Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon in quantum mechanics in which pairs of particles, for example, particles that are emitted together by a radioactive decay have complimentary properties, for example, a spin like up spin and down spin on electrons, and these properties remain complementary, no matter how far apart the particles are. As an example, if you have two electrons that are entangled, that are complimentary, one of them will have an up spin, one will have a down spin. Before the electrons are observed, neither will have either spin. That is, the act of observation then causes a collapse of the wave form, which makes the electron have one or the other spin. (00:12:12)

If you take the two electrons and you separate them across the universe, so one of them is in front of you and the other is as far away as you possibly can get in the universe, which might be, I guess it’s 93 billion light years now, and you observe the electron in front of you it will immediately have a spin. Let’s say it has a down spin. Instantaneously, the electron on the other side of the universe will have an up spin. Now that’s been shown to be the case experimentally, not on the other side of the universe, but there’ve been many experiments that show that that phenomenon is not merely space time, it’s real. Quantum entanglement is a very real thing, and the entanglement is instantaneous. That is, it violates the principle that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. (00:12:59)

The fact that the electron on the other side of the universe at one moment will acquire a spin, like an up spin, is a physical effect that can not have a physical cause, because your observation of the electron, the other side of the universe happened 93 billion light years away, but the effect was instantaneous and no physical cause can act instantaneously. So, the materialist philosopher’s arguments that modern physics manifests causal closure is complete nonsense. The Big Bang violates causal closure, singularities and black holes violate causal closure, general relativity violates causal closure, and quantum entanglement violates causal closure, so the materialists really have nothing to say to science. They are mainly an impediment to science and modern physics, let alone modern biology and modern neuroscience, pretty clearly demonstrate that materialism is kind of a worthless metaphysical framework in which to do science. (00:14:04)

Michael Egnor: What’s particularly amusing is, and I’ve been working at this question now for a number of years, if you ask 10 materialist philosophers, ‘”what is matter?’” … just a question, ‘”what is matter?’”, you’ll get 11 different answers as to what matter is.

The materialists can’t even tell you what matter is, so it certainly can’t tell you anything meaningful about physics or about science. I’ve come to reject materialism entirely. I think that Thomistic dualism or hylomorphism, which is kind of a general description of that way of looking at things, is a very successful way of looking at things. I have a lot of sympathy also for idealism, for ontological idealism, but I think materialism is a failed ideology.

Arjuna Das:… Matter has these properties, it behaves in this way? (00:14:55)

Michael Egnor: (00:15:03) Yeah, sure, but behavioral explanation doesn’t explain what matter is, and the very fact that matter behaves takes us out of what one would normally call a materialistic explanation because behavior, it depends upon physical laws, depends upon goals and purposes and teleology and things like that, of which materialism has nothing to say. Why shouldn’t matter behave and why does it behave according to rules? Rules aren’t themselves material. So how do materialists explain the laws of physics? Why do the laws of physics obey astonishingly beautiful and intricate mathematical systems as was asked many centuries ago? Why is nature so elegantly, mathematical? And materialism has nothing to say about that. Of course, because mathematics is not a material thing.

Next: Teleology: A better way of understanding nature

You may also wish to read: Egnor vs. Papineau: Egnor defends the mind vs. the brain


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Why Neurosurgeon Mike Egnor Stopped Being a Materialist Atheist