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Materialist Neuroscientists Don’t Usually See Real Patients

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and neuropsychologist Mark Solms find common ground: The mind can be “merely what the brain does” in an academic paper. But not in life

Recently, distinguished South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms discussed the real state of brain research with Stonybrook neurosurgeon Michael Egnor at Theology Unleashed (October 22, 2021) In the first portion, Solms, author of The Hidden Spring (2021), began by asserting in his opening statement that “the source of consciousness in the brain is in fact in the brain stem,” not the cerebral cortex, as is almost universally assumed. Dr. Egnor then responded that his clinical experience supports the view that brain is not mind.

But Solms pointed to the reality that asserting the fact that the brain is not the mind can be a career-limiting move in neuroscience — even though clinical experience supports the view. In this portion, Egnor and Solms discuss the fact that the further a neuroscientist gets from actual patients, the easier it is to adopt the view that “the mind is just what the brain does” (naturalism).

Michael Egnor: There really is a rigidity, a kind of Cancel Culture, in science. You can get canceled awfully easily by even asking an inconvenient question. I have a friend who is a very accomplished neurobiologist, who is a fairly devout Christian. And we were talking at a meeting some years ago. He mentioned that he had sympathy for example, for intelligent design, for non-materialist ways of looking at biology. But he can’t say a word about it, not a single word.

He actually said, my wife has health issues and I need my job. And if I said a word about this, I would never get another grant. It would just be the end of my career. And he’s a very respected prominent scientist. And yeah, there’s a terrible Cancel Culture in science. I don’t yet understand it really. I don’t know why it’s so intense. It’s among the most intense examples of Cancel Culture that I’ve encountered. You really can’t express any viewpoint that’s outside of a very narrow channel, basically of materialist metaphysics. [00:31:00]

Note: Part of Egnor’s puzzlement doubtless lies in the fact that pediatric neurosurgery puts him in regular contact with people whose brains he has split (to treat epilepsy) Some people who have half or less of a brain can function normally. A “brain-centric” view of the human person doesn’t make much sense in that context.

Arjuna: (host) Sir, I’ve observed that in fields of science or academic intellectual fields where the rubber hits the road frequently, you don’t get that kind of dogmatism and ideological motivation. A good example is business because you get business schools where people teach you how to run a successful business, who themselves are not running successful businesses. And they will be very dogmatic and tell you things that aren’t necessarily true. But if you talk to people who are actually running businesses, they’ll try anything that they think might work. They won’t be dogmatic and it’s very, on the ground, practical. So with regards to science, with neuroscience and treating patients, perhaps you don’t get the same degree of dogmatism, but as soon as you want to talk about the bigger questions of life, you might get that kind of dogmatism. [00:31:30]

Michael Egnor: I find that dogmatism becomes more intense, as you implied, the further you are from real contact with your subject. Scientists who don’t actually think about or see patients who have neurological issues are much more likely to be dogmatic about neuroscience.

When you actually look carefully into real people’s lives, the way they really are with various brain lesions, the dogmatism kind of melts away. You start to see that there’s much more to it.

For example, I find that engineers and physicians are generally more open-minded on metaphysical questions about science than basic scientists are. [00:32:00]

Mark Solms: I agree with that. I think that clinical medicine is a practical endeavor and your patients are concerned with what works. And the analogy with engineering that we’re using is a good one. It’s a practical question. How do you make a bridge that doesn’t collapse? [00:33:00]

The irony is that in science — and we’re speaking specifically here about neuroscience — as you approach the bigger questions, the less practical questions, it’s not that they’re less important. It’s in fact the opposite. You have all these … practical matters and then you say, okay, and then what lies behind that? What are the deeper laws governing these specific examples, these concrete instances? You’re approaching what you would think are the pivotal questions of science, the fundamental questions of science. [00:34:00]

I think it’s ironic because, as you do so, it becomes less certain. You’re dealing with things about which it’s not so easy to find the answer. That is why there’s the rigidity — that’s the irony!

It’s because people have to start defending positions which are increasingly indefensible as you move further and further away from the concrete surface. And that’s the way I’ve come to look on that. But the reward of not losing sight of these questions is enormous, it’s science as opposed to getting research grants and publications. Science is about the pursuit of these big questions and it’s immensely gratifying to be able to do so, to spend your life on these sorts of questions. [00:35:00]

We were talking earlier about those childhood events that shaped our careers. And in my case, after my brother’s brain injury and my reflecting on all of the implications of it. How come my brother is his brain? I mean how can damage to a part of his body have changed him so radically as a person? And am I my brain? How can I be my brain? And if I am my brain and if my brain were to be damaged, what would become of me? And when I die and my brain disintegrates in my grave, where do I go? [00:35:30]

These are the kinds of questions which every child, I think just about every child at some point starts to think. We underestimate the things that these are pretty basic questions which at some point you’re going to ask.

I thought, if my brain disappears, then I will disappear. That seems to be the conclusion that one is led to by the evidence of the kind that I was just referring to. And so I fell into a profound depression. I thought there’s no point in doing anything. What’s the point of having good experiences and doing good deeds and etc, achieving the things, leaving them behind. If you’re not there to experience it, it’s all pointless. So it was a nihilistic despair that I fell into.

Well, the only thing that is worth doing in the circumstances is to try to understand if all that I am is this brief period of biological being, if that is the case, the only thing worth doing with it is to try and understand what is being. What is it actually? What is it for? What is it about?

And so that’s what led me into science. And this is why I’m saying it’s enormously rewarding to pursue these questions. There’s nothing more important. And I feel it every day. [00:37:30]

Michael Egnor: When I was a kid, I used to have this fantasy and I would picture myself in a white lab coat in a lab, finding out the mysteries. In some way, I would be able to get to the core of these mysteries. And I originally thought that I could get a good answer for that in neuroscience. I realized that neuroscience focuses on a narrow part of the truth and that the deeper truth I find in religion, in philosophy, of which neuroscience is a part. [00:38:00]

In fact, I think neuroscience can only be understood deeply and well if one gets one’s philosophy right. Australian neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett and Oxford philosopher Peter Hacker have written a lot on the philosophy of neuroscience. One of their favorite expressions is that what we need in neuroscience is “conceptual hygiene,” as they call it. That is we need to clean up our concepts. We need to understand what we really mean by things.

And, they say, the prerequisite for understanding something is, first of all you just have to make sense. What you say has to be a coherent thing to start from. And if what you’re starting from is kind of incoherent, gibberish — which I think a lot of materialism is — you’ll never get the right answer because you’re starting from a very weak foundation. [00:40:00]

Note: According to Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick (1916–2004), “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’” – “Introduction,”The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for Soul: (1994), 3. Well, it’s astonishing, yes, but there are good reasons for doubt.

Michael Egnor: I struggled for years with “What is consciousness?,” because so much of our understanding of cognitive neuroscience depends upon what we think consciousness really is. But we’re reluctant a lot of times to define it. I have a simple definition which I think works.

Back in the 19th century, Franz Brentano (1838–1917), a German philosopher asked, “Is there anything that is characteristic of a mental state that is never characteristic of a physical state? Is there any sharp line of cleavage between mental and physical?”

And he said, there is. It’s intentionality, which is the capacity for a thought to have an aboutness, to be directed at something. And so my definition of a conscious state is an intentional state. And if something is intentional than it has a mind of some sort. If something is not intentional, then it’s a physical object. And I find that pretty good. [00:41:00]

I know Mark has written a great deal about subjectivity and feelings and so on, and I certainly, that obviously is also what consciousness is. The question is, is emotion or our feelings intentional states? I think they are. I think intentionality includes them, although I think there are philosophers who have a different perspective on it. So I define consciousness as intentionality, as the capacity to be about something.

Mark Solms: Let me put it this way. I agree about conceptual hygiene, that we need to be absolutely crystal clear about the philosophical assumptions that we start from. And it is really quite astonishing, the mainstream view, the conceptual starting point for the very vast majority of our colleagues, which they don’t even realize, is a metaphysical position that they’re adopting. They just think this is different. [00:42:30]

The kind of thing that we were talking about earlier, the idea that consciousness “resides in” the brain, I mean it’s just… a completely incoherent idea.

How can you come up with sensible findings with respect to big questions if you start with such a nonsensical position and don’t even realize that that’s what you’re doing, that you’re just following the party line. The other thing I wanted to say before coming to my definition of consciousness is that, even bigger than that materialist monist position that is so prevalent in our field, is the failure to recognize that science is a sort of a faith, no more or less than what scientists derisively call “religion.” There’s a faith in science. In other words, a belief… [00:44:00]

I have faith that there is some true reality… some true cause that I will, if not find, at least approximate. I will approach it. I’ll get closer to it. That is my faith and I think it’s very important to recognize that it comes back to the point about the sense of humility that’s needed in science. As to are you ever going to actually get there? No. Because you have faith there’s something there and you try and you try and you try again, but now coming to the… because that’s what I’ve been doing with this question of consciousness. [00:44:30]

Next: Now Mark Solms takes a crack at defining consciousness…

Here’s the whole discussion in order

1.1 Here’s the first portion of the debate/discussion, where neuropsychologist Mark Solms shares his perspective: Consciousness: Is it in the cerebral cortex — or the brain stem? In a recent discussion/debate with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, neuropsychologist Mark Solms offers an unconventional but evidence-based view, favouring the brain stem. The evidence shows, says Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring, that the brain stem, not the cerebral cortex is the source of consciousness.

And Michael Egnor responds:

1.2. Neurosurgeon and neuropsychologist agree: Brain is not mind Michael Egnor tells Mark Solms: Neuroscience didn’t help him understand people; quite the reverse, he had to understand people, and minds, to make sense of neuroscience. Egnor saw patients who didn’t have most of their frontal lobes who were completely conscious, “in fact, rather pleasant, bright people.”

1.3. Then Solms admits what all know but few say: Neuroscientist: Mind is not just brain? That’s career limiting! Neuropsychologist Mark Solms and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor agreed that clinical experience supports a non-materialist view but that the establishment doesn’t. Mark Solms: “science is an incredibly rigid… sort of… it’s like a mafia. You have to go along with the rules of the Don, otherwise you’ve had it.”

In the second portion, they offer definitions of consciousness:

2.1 Materialist neuroscientists don’t usually see real patients. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and neuropsychologist Mark Solms find common ground: The mind can be “merely what the brain does” in an academic paper. But not in life. Egnor takes a stab at defining consciousness: Following Franz Brentano, he says, “A conscious state is an intentional state.” Next, it will be Solms’s turn.

2.2 A neuropsychologist takes a crack at defining consciousness. Frustrated by reprimands for discussing Big Questions in neuroscience, Mark Solms decided to train as a psychoanalyst as well. As a neuropsychologist, he sees consciousness, in part, as the capacity to feel things, what philosophers call “qualia” — the redness of red.

Now, about God…

3.1 Einstein believed in Spinoza’s God. Who is that God? Neuropsychologist Mark Solms admits that life is “miraculous” and sees Spinoza’s God, embedded in nature, as the ultimate explanation. In a discussion with Solms, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor argues that it makes more sense to see God as a Person than as a personification of nature.

3.2 Egnor and Solms: What does it mean to say God is a Person? Mark Solms and Michael Egnor discuss and largely agree on what we can rationally know about God, using the tools of reason. Egnor argues that, if the most remarkable thing about us is our personhood (I am), it Makes sense to think of God as a Person (I AM).

And why materialism is a dying idea…

4.1 Why neuroscientist Solms is no materialist: Information theory He points out that, to begin with, Einstein’s famous equation — E equals MC squared — makes the point that matter is derivative. It’s a state of energy. In Solms’s view, the true implications of quantum mechanics and information theory in refuting materialism are only beginning to be understood.

4.2 Discovering the non-materialist dimension in science Hint: Stephen Hawking was a fine physicist and writer but not a very good philosopher. Neurosurgeon Egnor and neuroscientist Solms agree that great physicists have often been fine philosophers; the universe and consciousness are intertwined.

You may also wish to read: Your mind vs. your brain: Ten things to know

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Materialist Neuroscientists Don’t Usually See Real Patients