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
Last time out, as South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms and Stonybrook neurosurgeon Michael Egnor continued to discuss the mind vs. the brain at Theology Unleashed (October 22, 2021). Solms said that he believed in Spinoza’s God — so did Albert Einstein, actually. Now he asks Egnor about the idea that God is a Person.
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.
And so now, about God as a Person, at about 01:10:30 min:
Michael Egnor: The question is, “How can we understand God?”
It was the view of Boethius, a theologian of some centuries before Aquinas, that we could know nothing directly about God because God is transcendent. It would be like a bacterium knowing about Einstein. There’s just a disconnect there.
Note: Boethius (480–524)was a Roman mathematician and philosopher, also a high-ranking official. A book he wrote while in prison, awaiting execution on political charges, The Consolation of Philosophy, has been a classic for many centuries. While Boethius was probably a Christian, he adopts a strict philosophical approach to his topic.
Michael Egnor: St. Thomas and Boethius said that there were some things that we could know about God, that God is not totally unknowable. The first thing we can know about God is what he is not. That is, God is not a piece of matter, he’s not finite, he’s not evil. He’s not mortal.
We can know about God by his effects, by what’s created in the world — with the assumption that whatever is created in the world is in some way an aspect of God that is reflected in his creation. And we can know about God by analogy that is that we can say for example, that God is infinitely powerful. Although the term “power” really can’t describe something that is transcendent, power is something that we understand in our universe. It’s like something infinitely powerful. [01:12:00]
When you look at the effects of God in the world, I think the most remarkable effect is our personhood, our subjectivity. The fact that we are persons leads me — and I think has led a lot of theologians — to say, “That’s because God is a Person.” That’s where our personhood comes from. We’re the small case I am and he is the big case I AM.
So I think Spinoza had a lot of things very right, and there’s a lot of consilience between his view of God as sort of being-in-everything and St. Augustine’s view that we are in God. But I think that the fact that we are persons means that God is a Person and that we are created in his image as persons. [01:13:00]
Mark Solms: That really does clarify it. And I don’t mean only that it clarifies a technical question for me. I think that’s a very profound point and I’m grateful for clarifying that. [01:13:30]
I’ve already told you that I’m a dual aspect monist but those dual aspects, both of them are experienced… I’m of the same view, it appears, as you when you say, it’s not unknowable. You cannot know it completely because you are forever trapped in the envelope of experience; you can’t transcend your own experience. But you do have faith that there is something beyond your experience.
And that is, for me, the starting point of science; you are trying to understand something [which] ultimately, in its entirety, is not knowable by a mere human mind. But that doesn’t mean that you say, “Well I know nothing.” You say, “Well let me try my best.” [01:15:30]
And what you’ve just articulated, I think, is very consistent with that. You’re saying, well there’s certain inferences we can draw about what lies behind the door. [01:16:30]
Michael Egnor: Oh no, that’s right. I mean humility is vitally important. I very much believe that inference to God’s existence and the nature of God and so on is very much a scientific question. I don’t believe that there is any cleavage point between science and God in the sense of understanding.
The cornerstone of St. Thomas’s metaphysics was the absolute distinction between existence and essence. The fact that something exists is very different from what that thing is. For example, I could describe my next-door neighbor in as much detail as you want but that doesn’t tell you whether he actually exists or not. Existence is not a property of something it’s a completely separate thing… [01:17:00]
(The discussion turned to the “arrogance of the present,” a phrase coined by Jonathan Margolis in his 2000 book, A Brief History of Tomorrow. The attitude was also summarized by man of letters and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (1898–1963): “Chronological snobbery is the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively), or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.” – A–Z Quotes)
Mark Solms: When you take the trouble, I mean even within science, to read the papers of your predecessors — I don’t mean read some summary in a textbook, some caricature, — but rather actually read their papers, you’ll realize, oh this is somebody like me, they’re pondering this, they’re just as clever as me. In fact cleverer in many respects, in many instances. And so I think this thing about the arrogance of the present… I think we have a very great deal to gain by reading and continuing to take seriously the conclusions to which a lifetime of effort of these great minds were led, recognizing that ultimately we are all in the same boat. We’re all trying to solve the same puzzles and mysteries. And we have a great deal to learn from those who have come before us and struggled with these things. And we don’t do it in science. In science it’s kind of… absurd. You must not cite papers that are more than five years old. Let alone 500 years old. [01:21:30]
Michael Egnor: And the worst thing about it is not simply that the metaphysical basis for much of modern science is quite weak but that it’s not even… Most scientists aren’t aware that it’s a metaphysical basis and they’re not aware that it’s weak. And if you bring it up you get Canceled. So it’s sad, it’s very serious.
And I mean some people have pointed out that if you look at all the great science, at least in physics, that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, or even going back to Newton. We seem to — at least in physics — have stalled a bit. Over the last 50, 70 years there haven’t been the kind of profound insights that the pioneers in quantum mechanics had, that Einstein had in relativity, or that Maxwell had and electrical magnetism and so on. And I really wonder if this materialist censorship that’s kind of come over science is slowing us down. It’s kind of preventing people from thinking more deeply about things.
Next: Why neuropsychologist Mark Solms is not a materialist: Quantum physics!
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