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Discovering the Non-Materialist Dimension in Science

Hint: Stephen Hawking was a fine physicist and writer but not a very good philosopher

Rounding out their discussion at Theology Unleashed, neuropsychologist Mark Solms and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talk about physicists who point a way forward:

A partial transcript of this portion, along with some notes, follows.

Summary to date: 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.

Then Solms pointed to the reality that discussing the fact that the brain is not the mind can be a career-limiting move in neuroscience — even though clinical experience supports the view. Egnor and Solms agreed 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). Solms, who trained as a psychoanalyst as well, then described how he understands consciousness — the capacity to feel things, for example, the redness of red (qualia) Talk then turned to the miraculous nature of life and Spinoza’s God., with Solms saying that he believes in Spinoza’s God, — as did Albert Einstein. Egnor then explained why Christians see God as a Person: The most remarkable thing about us is personhood. The host, Arjuna, weighed in, offering a Hare Krishna view. All agreed that materialism is not a way forward in understanding our universe. And now we must look at our options.

Mark Solms: How did things come about? I found Karl Friston — I don’t hesitate for a moment to call him a genius. He’s written a brilliant monograph recently called A free energy principle for a particular physics, in which he addresses this question… he draws also on the work of Markov and the concept of Markov blankets and how the Markov blanket defines what is and what is not part of the system.

Note: A Markov blanket is a way of understanding autonomous, self-organizing systems like the human mind: “… autonomous systems are hierarchically composed of Markov blankets of Markov blankets-all the way down to individual cells, all the way up to you and me, and all the way out to include elements of the local environment.”

Mark Solms: The Markov blanket is an abstract concept of how we can think of “thingness” without having to be so concrete and materialistic about it. And are you familiar with John Wheeler? [01:37:00]

Michael Egnor: I’m familiar with him as a great physicist. I don’t know a lot about his philosophical perspectives. It’s funny that so many of the physicists in that era … Wheeler was a little after Heisenberg and so on, but so many — Schrodinger, Einstein, Bohr, all those guys — they were pretty good philosophers. They had some very deep insights.

John Archibald Wheeler

Note: John Archibald Wheeler (1911–2008) was an American physicist who popularized the term black hole to describe a singularity in our universe that sucks up light. Like many physicists of his generation, Wheeler combined physics and philosophy: “Time is what prevents everything from happening at once,” “We are not only observers. We are participators. In some strange sense this is a participatory universe,” and “The universe gives birth to consciousness, and consciousness gives meaning to the universe.”

Michael Egnor: And when you look at some of the modern physicists… for example, Hawking, I think, was a terrible philosopher… he wrote good popular science, but his philosophy was really nothing.

Note: In 2010, Stephen Hawking (1942–2018) and Leonard Mlodinow wrote a book, The Grand Design, (2010) that decried philosophy as dead: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. The purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances. They lead us to a new picture of the universe and our place in it that is very different from the traditional one, and different even from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago.” He restated this view in 2011. The view was widely criticized as not making allowances for the role of philosophy in shaping how we might even frame the questions we are asking.

As one analyst put it in 2010, “those who disparage philosophy are usually slaves of some defunct philosopher.”

Michael Egnor: And Weinberg, who just passed away recently, wrote some very good books, but his philosophical insights weren’t all that deep, it seems. It’s kind of a shame, and I think the philosophical depth, at least in physics, has really gone down. [01:38:30]

Note: Nobelist Steven Weinberg (1933– 2021) was fond of creating aphorisms like “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” and “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”

Mark Solms: Well then you’re in for a treat if you’re not familiar with Wheeler’s philosophical … He was a student of Bohr’s … But also, my friend, George Ellis, he’s a physicist who’s got a proper philosophical mind.

Michael Egnor: Which I think is a proper scientific mind! You really can’t do good science without grappling with these questions because all science depends on these questions, and if you don’t even know the questions, then your science is really built on a weak foundation [01:39:30]

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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Discovering the Non-Materialist Dimension in Science