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Epilepsy: If You Follow the Science, Materialism Is Dead

Continuing a discussion with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, Dr. Egnor talks about how neurosurgery shows that the mind is not the brain

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnordid a recent podcast with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.”

In the previous segment, they discussed the way in which people’s minds sometimes become much clearer near death (terminal lucidity). Dr. Egnor suggested that that may demonstrate that the brain constrains the mind (rather than creating it). In this segment, they look at objections raised to the view that epilepsy provides evidence for the mind as not merely a function of the brain. Dr. Egnor begins by focusing on the work of Wilder Penfield, the founder of epilepsy surgeries, who worked in Montreal in the mid-twentieth century, “a wonderful scientist, one of the best scientists that neurosurgery has produced”:

Here is a partial transcript and notes for the 1 hour 32 minute mark to the 1 hour 43 minute mark:

Michael Egnor: He [Wilder Penfield,] operated on 1100 patients with epilepsy and really developed the whole field of doing brain surgery to prevent seizures. His specialty was awake craniotomy. You give the patient local anesthesia so they don’t feel any pain. You inject the scalp with Novocaine, and so on.(01:32:29)

The brain doesn’t have any feeling at all, so operating on the brain doesn’t hurt. And we still do this; it’s a fairly common surgery. The purpose is to map the surface of the brain. You stimulate the brain with electrodes to find out the regions from which seizures are coming or where speech, movement, or sensation is mediated. That’s so that you can remove the seizure area, but not cause any damage to critical parts of the brain.

Penfield did this operation on over a thousand patients and he noticed two things that were fascinating. (01:33:23)

He would do hundreds of stimulations of different parts of the brain in each operation. And he would stimulate all kinds of things. He could stimulate sensations where the patients would see flashes of light or feel tingling on their skin. He could stimulate the brain and stimulate movements where the patient would raise their arm or raise their leg. He could stimulate memories where they would have this vivid memory of their mother’s face or their first day of school or being in college, and he could stimulate emotions where they would have intense emotions, to feel intense pleasure or intense fear. (01:34:04)

Penfield discovers the immaterial nature of the mind

Michael Egnor: But he noted, and he wrote a book about it, actually — The Mystery of the Mind (1975) — that never once in hundreds of thousands of stimulations of the brain was he ever able to stimulate what he called “mind action.” He meant by that, “abstract thought.” He was never able to stimulate a person to think about philosophy or logic or do mathematics. And he said, “Isn’t that strange that most of our mental contents entails abstract thought, and that’s the one kind of mental state that I have never been able to evoke by stimulating the brain.” (01:34:44)

He said, it kind of makes sense then that maybe it doesn’t come from the brain. Maybe it’s dependent upon the brain for its normal function, but the brain is not what gives rise to it. He thought that was clear evidence for dualism. And he said that he had started out his career as a materialist and at the end of his career he was a passionate dualist. He said that this mind-action, this ability to have abstract thought, clearly does not come from the brain. (01:35:24)

The other thing he noticed — which I’ve noticed too — is the elephant in the room. In the study of epilepsy, we have categorized scores of different kinds of seizures. There are seizures that involve twitching of a limb, losing consciousness, twitching of your whole body, sensory phenomena, flashing lights, emotions, memories, complex actions like walking or doing activities. But there are no seizures that evoke abstract thought. (01:35:51)

There are no calculus seizures. There are no logic seizures. There are no philosophy seizures or literature seizures. Why not? If the brain is a source of all of these thoughts, why wouldn’t a seizure, once in a blue moon, make one of those thoughts happen. Never does.

I calculated, just on the back of an envelope one time, that in the modern era, say the last couple of 100 years when neuroscience has been done seriously, if you look at the incidence of seizures in the world, there are 250 million seizures [in recorded medical history]. That’s a quarter of a billion seizures. And there’s not a single report in the medical literature of probably hundreds of thousands of seizures, of even a single one of them having any abstract intellectual content. (01:36:36)

So, both from a standpoint of stimulating the brain directly in surgery, and from the standpoint of evaluating patients whose brains are stimulated by epilepsy, never is abstract thought stimulated. The obvious explanation is that abstract thought doesn’t come from the brain. It’s not something that can be stimulated, which fits the Thomistic mystic dualist understanding of the brain beautifully… And by the way, that particular way of looking at things demonstrates, I think, the immateriality of the intellect. (01:37:22)

Penfield discovers the reality of free will

The other thing that Penfield found, which is also fascinating, is that during these hundreds of thousands of stimulations, he would ask the patients under the surgical drips, he’d say, “When you have a chance, just raise your arm or raise your leg, whenever you feel like. Just move.” And he said, “At certain times I will stimulate your brain, and I will make your arm or your leg move by stimulation.” Now, please keep in mind that the patients could not see Penfield. They couldn’t hear the stimulation, and they couldn’t feel it. So, they had no way of knowing when he was stimulating their brain. (01:38:14)

So, what he found in what are literally hundreds of thousands of trials is that, every single time, the patient could distinguish between when the patient moved his arm and when Penfield did. That is, when Penfield hit the arm area and the patient’s arm went up, the patient would say, “You made me do that.” When the patient moved his arm, Penfield would say, “What just happened?” and the patient would say, “I moved my arm.” The patient was never confused as to whether Penfield made a move or he moved, even though the movements were identical.

Penfield said that that meant that the patient’s will could not be evoked. He could not force the will. The patient knew when it was his will to move his arm and not. (01:38:54)

So, there was something immaterial involved in moving the arm that could not be evoked by stimulating the brain. He said, “That’s the will, and it’s free. I can’t force it.” So, Penfield believed also that he demonstrated the reality of free will. (01:39:43)

Arjuna Das: I was discussing that point in the comments under the video from your discussion with David Papineau and the person was replying, “The reason why you can never trigger a sense of agency, the sense that I’m the one moving it, is because when you’re stimulating the brain you’re triggering the action in a different way from how the brain normally triggers it.” And in this way they’re arguing that it’s not evidence that we are not identical with our brains. (01:39:59)

Michael Egnor: Well, that would be a way of looking at it. However, you have to keep in mind that the denominator in this experiment is enormous. That is that Penfield stimulated the brains of 1100 patients,hundreds of times for each patient. So, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of stimulations using different currents, different locations, different electrodes, different numbers of electrodes, different voltages, and not once was he able to find the will. So, if the will is in there, it’s awfully secret.

And in addition, on the issue of intellectual seizures, the fact that there has not been a single seizure in recorded medical history out of 250 million seizures, a quarter of a billion seizures, that has evoked abstract intellectual content, Maybe the next one will, but I’m not going to bet on it… (01:40:28)

If you’re making the argument that, well, maybe we just didn’t do the experiment the right way, maybe you should also consider that you have an ideological commitment to materialism. And you’re simply reluctant to let it go.(01:41:36)

Arjuna Das: Yeah, exactly. The evidence is pointing one way, and if you want to believe differently, that’s fine. But that’s not the current explanation based on the science. (01:42:16)

Michael Egnor: If you want to follow the science, materialism is dead in the water. (01:42:28)

And some people have called this type of materialism promissory materialism. A materialist will say, “Yeah, I know materialism doesn’t make any sense at all, and there’s really no evidence for it. But I promise you, when science does more work in the future, they’ll prove I’m right.” (01:42:34)

Arjuna Das: You can also call that one “future scientists of the gaps.” (01:42:57)

Michael Egnor: Right. Precisely. It’s science of the gaps. And really, it’s not science. It’s not even a philosophy. It’s really rhetoric. And it’s an effort to defend an ideology that has vanishingly little logical or evidentiary support. (01:43:01)

My earnest request to my materialist friends is, just please let it go. Look at the evidence. Take the evidence for what it is. Because frankly, it’s fascinating and beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful stuff. It’s intriguing. And you don’t need to stick to this outdated idiotic 18th-century ideology. (01:43:25)


Here are transcripts and notes for the first hour and thirty-two minutes, starting from the beginning:

Why neurosurgeon Mike Egnor stopped being a materialist atheist. He found that materialism is just not working out in science. Most propositions in basic science are based on mathematics and mathematics is not a material thing.

How science points to meaning in life. The earliest philosopher of science, Aristotle, pioneered a way of understanding it. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talks about the four causes of the events in our world, from the material to the mind.

How we can know mental states are real?
Mental states are always “about” something; physical states are not “about” anything. Michael Egnor argues that doing science as a physicalist (a materialist) is like driving a car with the parking brake on; it’s a major impediment to science.

What’s the best option for understanding the mind and the brain? Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.

How did Descartes come to make such a mess of dualism? Mathematician René Descartes strictly separated mind and matter in a way that left the mind very vulnerable. After Descartes started the idea that only minds have experiences, materialist philosophers dispensed with mind, then puzzled over how matter has experiences.

How philosopher John Locke turned reality into theatre His “little theater in the mind” concept means that you can’t even know that nature exists. It may just be a movie that’s being played in front of your eyes.
Aristotle and Aquinas’s traditional philosophical approach, Michael Egnor argues, offers more assurance that we can truly perceive reality.

The brain can be split but the mind can’t. Neuroscientist Roger Sperry found that splitting the brain in half does not split consciousness in half. It just gives you a rather interesting, but very subtle set of perceptual disabilities.
Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has split patients’ brains, while treating serious epilepsy, and the results are not at all what a materialist might expect.

How the split brain emphasizes the reality of the mind. Fascinating research following up Roger Sperry’s work — which showed that the mind is not split when the brain is — has confirmed and extended his findings. One investigator, whose work followed up and confirmed Roger Sperry’s, called her split brain findings “perceptual disconnection with conscious unity.”

The brain does not create the mind; it constrains it. Near-death experiences in which people report seeing things that are later verified give some sense of how the mind works in relation to the brain.
A cynical neurosurgeon colleague told Michael Egnor that he could not account for how a child patient’s NDE account described the operation accurately.

Why do some people’s minds become much clearer near death? Arjuna Das and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor discuss the evidence for terminal lucidity at Theology Unleashed. Dr. Egnor argues that the brain and body constrain the mind. When dying, they may constrain it less, resulting in sudden end-of-life lucidity.


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Epilepsy: If You Follow the Science, Materialism Is Dead