Non-Materialist Science Is Wanted — Dead or AliveExploring a non-materialist approach to the mind has included a death threat for neurosurgeon Michael Egnor
Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor did 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 epilepsy provides a glimpse into the way the mind is not simply the brain but has powers in its own right. In this segment, Dr. Egnor talks about the problems of being a non-materialist physician in a materialist world — death threats and all.
Here is a partial transcript and notes for the 1 hour 44 minute mark to the 1 hour 56 minute mark:
Arjuna Das: You said how scientists, if they reject physicalism, it doesn’t help their career. They might get less opportunities or less prestige or whatever… I imagine the same is not true of neurosurgeons. As long as you can fix people’s brains, nobody really cares what your metaphysical beliefs are. (01:44:11)
Michael Egnor: Right. And it’s interesting that doctors are not often materialists. Nor are, for example, engineers. Materialists in the scientific professions are almost always theoretical scientists. They’re not scientists that work in the real world. They’re scientists who live in these little imaginary scenarios.
As an example of how difficult this can be, I’ve been involved quite a bit in the intelligent design vs. Darwinism debates. I have a friend who is a basic scientist and molecular biologist who is one of the leading people in this field. He is exceptionally accomplished… great guy.
I was at a meeting with him one time and he took me aside and he said, “I’ve seen what you’ve been doing with intelligent design and so on. I’m a Christian. And I think you’re right. I think Darwinism and materialism are grossly inadequate ways of understanding biology. But I can’t say that out loud. I can’t say a word about that, because my wife is sick. We need our health insurance. I need my job. And if I said a word about materialism or Darwinism not being acceptable frameworks for doing the science, I would never get another grant. I couldn’t feed my family.” (01:45:51)
And that’s true. They will destroy people. They will destroy people’s careers. Look at what people tried to do to Mike Behe for writing Darwin’s Black Box (1996). He’s tenured. But in his department, he was treated as a pariah. If they could have fired him, they would have done it in a minute.
Note: Biochemist Michael Behe is the author of a number of books, Darwin’s Black Box, Edge of Evolution, and Darwin Devolves, which explore the sharp constraints on what natural selection acting on random mutations (Darwinism) can actually do in creating and enabling new life forms. In academic environments where Darwinism is experienced as a support for fashionable atheism, Behe has not been very popular.
Arjuna Das: I was wondering how he got away with it. (01:46:12)
Michael Egnor: He’s tenured. I’ve gotten calls to my department in my university demanding that I be fired. That’s a fairly frequent thing.
I was called a couple of years ago by the campus police that there was a death threat against me and they wanted to protect me. So this kind of stuff goes on. And some of these people are vicious.
If you are a scientist — and there are many scientists who really don’t buy into this, scientists who are good Christians or good Jews or good Muslims or good Hindus, who really have deep and justified religious beliefs — for the most part, they dare not say it publicly. (01:46:18)
Michael Egnor: Now being a doctor, I’ve got a day job. Just statistically, most of the people I operate on believe in God. So I do okay. I don’t really have a problem. I also happen to have colleagues and people who are over me who are reasonable, decent people who don’t listen to these attacks.
But a basic scientist who depends on grants for his livelihood will destroy his livelihood by speaking out against materialism or speaking out against atheism, by and large. (01:47:06)
Arjuna Das: Death threats is pretty hardcore. I’m trying to think why somebody would care so much about their metaphysical worldview as to think that it would justify something like that. People can believe whatever they want to believe. (01:47:40)
Michael Egnor: I’ve thought a lot about this. Why do people get in this frame of mind? This is just my speculation: The whole thing is driven by a refusal to accept God’s sovereignty in the world… And people will fight like cats to avoid acknowledging moral law, because let’s face it, it’s a lot more fun, at least to an extent, if you don’t have to follow rules… (01:47:53)
Arjuna Das: It’s funny, when atheists try to explain away belief in God: “That’s just your sky daddy that you believe in, in order to make yourself feel good… (01:49:05)
Michael Egnor: It’s just the opposite. And let’s face it, even people who try very hard in their lives to live according to what we believe that God wants us to do, there are plenty of times when a devout Christian is facing a moral decision, there’s a little part of you that says, gee, I wish I could just do what I want to do. Everybody wants that. But atheists make it the fundamental principle of their life, which really is to deny God’s moral sovereignty. And they will say anything to maintain that fiction. (01:49:16)
Arjuna Das: … They’re purporting that they’re presenting that their reason for being atheist activists is that religion is dangerous. People who have religious beliefs will do crazy things like give their children homeopathics instead of taking them to see a doctor. And of course that kind of thing does happen, but crazy things happen and anything can become corrupted.
But if that’s their actual motivation, then for example, why are they arguing that belief that free will doesn’t exist? They do experiments and they find, if you tell people free will doesn’t exist, their ethical behavior declines. So clearly believing we don’t have free will is a dangerous belief. So why promote it? (01:49:58)
Note: Michael Egnor has written much on free will, including “Can physics prove there is no free will? No, but it can make physicists incoherent when they write about free will. It’s hilarious. Sabine Hossenfelder misses the irony that she insists that people “change their minds” by accepting her assertion that they… can’t change their minds.”
Michael Egnor: In some way, this resembles the argument that God doesn’t exist because evil exists… And the argument is kind of ridiculous at the first point. There is no metaphysical framework that has spilled more blood than atheism. Nothing has killed people on a scale that atheism has killed people. (01:50:46)
Arjuna Das: But when atheists do it, it’s got nothing to do with atheism. It’s only when theists do it that it’s got something to do with theism. (01:51:18)
Michael Egnor: Precisely… Give me a break. The observation is that every explicitly atheist government in human history, every government that has actually said this government is atheist, has killed its own people on an unimaginable scale. There’s never been a government that has explicitly said it was atheist that was not a totalitarian hell hole. So give me a break. If you want to look at the real world, atheism is a slaughterhouse. (01:51:26)
I find it amazing that atheists take strong moral positions on anything. That is, for an atheist to say, “How could a Christian subject their child to an exorcism and not get medical care? That’s grossly immoral.” But of course, if God doesn’t exist, there is no objective moral law anyway. So to what objective moral standard are you appealing if you don’t believe in God? (01:52:20)
If you don’t believe in God, the only source of morality is just individual people. So why is your morality any better than anybody else’s morality?Atheists implicitly refer to an objective moral standard, that by their own denial of God’s existence, can’t possibly exist. If there is good and evil, if there is right and wrong, there has to be some kind of supernatural standard that determines what’s right and what’s wrong. (01:53:00)
Arjuna Das: It’s like a belief in objective morality. It makes no sense in physicalism, because in physicalism, you don’t even have consciousness. (01:53:32)
You’ve just got bags of chemicals interacting. So I think the moral argument really boils down to an argument based on consciousness: the fact that there is another living entity capable of suffering… Without explaining consciousness, you don’t have any materialistic explanation for morality. But second of all, you’ve got to explain obligation. So even if there is another living entity capable of suffering, why do I have an obligation to act in such a way that takes consideration of this person’s suffering? (01:53:41)
Michael Egnor: Absolutely. Jerry Coyne is an atheist evolutionary biologist who has a blog. And he put up a picture years ago of a little child who was in a hospital bed being treated for leukemia. The child looked very sick. And under the picture he wrote, ‘”If God exists, how could this be allowed to happen?’”
And I posted the same picture with an answer to Coyne, where I said, ‘”If God doesn’t exist, why do you care?’” Wouldn’t this be an evolutionary plus for you? This kid is somebody else’s gene pool. And if he dies of leukemia, it means that your kid has a Darwinian step up, so you should be celebrating. So why would you care about other people at all, if there were no objective moral standard? So we all implicitly acknowledge an objective moral standard, which obviously entails the existence of God. Even atheists do that. (01:54:14)
Note: Why prayer is wise during a pandemic. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne thinks that only fools would pray about Coronavirus. He is wrong and here is why. If God is real, then prayer is probably the first thing you want to do in a crisis. A plea to the Boss is a fine preamble to the grunt work of managing a crisis. I’m a neurosurgeon, and I pray before each operation. It really helps. – Michael Egnor
Arjuna Das: The question you can ask is, if these people clearly believe something which is inconsistent with physicalism…
Michael Egnor: Precisely. And it’s an error for which they are culpable. There’s an expression in politics that I think applies as well to metaphysics and philosophy: to be that wrong, you have to try really hard. This is not accidental. You have to put a lot of effort into getting it that wrong.
And that’s what these people do. I should also say that I don’t know a great deal about Hindu philosophy and metaphysics, and I’d like to know more, but what I do know about it, I find extraordinarily profound, and I’m fascinated by it. And actually I’m trying to read more on it because it’s insight that first of all resonates very nicely, I think, with a lot of Thomistic [traditional Western philosophy] insights. (01:56:04)
Here are transcripts and notes for the first hour and forty-three 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.
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 Egnor addresses objections to his finding that epilepsy shows that the brain does not create the mind.