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Essay:Michael Egnor's failed attempt at dualism

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Michael Egnor is the latest addition to the shills at the Discovery Institute. He is a neurosurgeon with a strong creationist bent. The biggest problem is that he appears to be a complete idiot. He has recently taken up the cause of attacking materialistic based neuroscience. This is the new front in the war on science, and other ID shills like Denyse O'Leary are hitting it as well. Egnor's most recent foray has been on the subject of altruism. His core claim is that because the idea of “altruism” does not have the properties of matter it can not derive from matter. Egnor and P.Z. Myers have been exchanging blog posts about the subject and it's a fascinating look into the future of the anti-science movement.

Egnor's opening gambit was published at the “media analysis” site of the Discovery Institute.[1] Egnor says matter has certain properties like location, temperature, and divisibility while ideas and concepts do not have these properties, therefore ideas and concepts can not derive from matter. Egnor thinks that if altruism derived from the brain than when someone walked around in a room, or even just leaned to the left, it should “change” your altruism. [2] Also if you scope out a chunk of random brain that chunk should have a proportional amount of altruism inside it.[3] I wouldn't hurt yourself thinking about it too hard. His ideas really are just that silly.

Egnor has basically set up a straw man argument about the consequences of materialist based concepts of thought and emotion. There is absolutely no reason to think that the properties of thought should change as the whole brain is moved through space. Location does effect thought, but it is the relative location of individual neurons with each other. This does not change by merely moving the whole brain through a room. Now if you alter the relative spacing of neurons with in the brain (say through lesions, surgery, or cell death) then we would expect the properties of thoughts to change. The good news for the evil materialist is that this is exactly what happens. The psychological literature is full of references that describe the huge changes in personality, thought, and yes altruism that occur when the relative prosperities of the component pieces of the brain are altered.

The earliest known example of this is Phineas Gage and there is further clear evidence from brain immagery of undamaged people that a specific part of the brain is involved in altruism. [4] Myer's brings up Gage in his response to Egnor and correctly points out that a rail road spike through your pre-frontal lobe changes your natural inclination towards altruism pretty significantly. [5] This is merely the oldest and most famous example. There have literally been THOUSANDS of such cases over the years. Neuroscientists and psychologist are even able to trace specific areas of the brain to specific modular parts of altruism. [6]

Altruism itself is a fascinating topic and one deadly to the creationist because the complexities of when people and other animals are altruistic and when they are not is best able to be explained through applications of evolutionary explanations. Cosmides and Tooby have explored at length how cognitive neuroscience, computational modeling and evolutionary theory help explain the intricate patterns we see with altruism through out the animal kingdom. [7]

Egnor's idiocy is laid bare by his constructed strawman ideas about how thoughts should be effected by changes in properties of the brain. There is strong evidence that changes in the material properties of brains DO change altruism but not in the silly ways Egnor proposes. Also the evil materialistic ideas of unguided evolution help us explain the details of altruism in ways his religion could never hope to archive. While this is only the start of a new front in the war on good science it is clear that the creationist are as morally and intellectually bankrupt about psychology and neuroscience as they are about biology and evolution.


  1. ‘Waiter, My Steak Isn’t Altruistic Enough!’
  2. Please Help P.Z. Myers Find Altruism!
  3. Ideas, Matter, and Faith
  4. Brain Effects of Altruism
  5. Egnor's machine is uninhabited by any ghosts
  6. R Adolphs, “Social cognition and the human brain,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3, no. 12 (1999): 469-479. [1]
  7. L Cosmides and J Tooby, “Cognitive adaptations for social exchange,” The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture 163 (1992): 228.