Ideas, Matter, and Faith

Michael Egnor

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P.Z. Myers’ reply to my observation that ideas like altruism have no physical properties, like location, leaves a thoughtful observer to wonder: why do materialists have so much difficulty with this basic philosophical principle? It’s clear that ideas share no properties with matter. Ideas have no mass, or length, or temperature, or location. They’re immaterial. Clearly, under ordinary circumstances the brain is necessary for our ideas to exist, but, because matter and ideas share no properties, it’s hard to see how the brain is sufficient for ideas to exist.
Yet Myers insists that altruism is located in the brain. He’s had some trouble with my previous thought experiments, so I’ll try another:


Imagine that we can do complete split brain operations. We can separate the hemispheres of the brain completely, and not just partially as we can do now with corpus callosotomies. We can then further subdivide the tissue, keeping the brain parts biologically alive, in quarters, eighths, etc. Ignoring for the time being what would happen to the person’s consciousness (which brain part would mediate the first person experience of the original person, if any?), what would happen to the original person’s altruism? Would each one-eighth brain have one-eighth the altruism? Would each lobe contribute one-eighth of the previous brain’s annual contribution to the United Way? Would the altruism stay in one of the lobes- the left occipital lobe, and leave the other lobes heartless? What if we kept dividing? Is there an altruism neuron? The question seems nonsensical. Altruism, as an idea, doesn’t have ‘parts’. Unlike matter, ideas can’t be divided or localized.
In everyday life, the brain is clearly necessary for ideas, but there are good reasons to think that that brain is not sufficient to cause ideas. This observation is very old; philosophers from Plato to Aquinas to Descartes to Popper and Eccles have known it. Myers seems not even to understand this basic paradox of the mind-body problem. The materialist assertion that ideas are caused entirely by brain matter, with no need for the existence of a soul or other incorporeal substance, is philosophically and scientifically incoherent. It is a materialistic dogma, an act of faith.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

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