Please Help P.Z. Myers Find Altruism!

Michael Egnor

P.Z. Myers, materialistic neuroscientist and blogger at Pharyngula, is looking for altruism. Responding to my observation that ideas like altruism can’t be caused entirely by neurochemistry because ideas don’t share properties (like location) with matter, Myers asserted:

…altruism does have a location. It’s the product of activity in [the] brain. Where else would it be, floating in the air, in [the] left foot, or nonexistent?

Let’s take a closer look at Myers’ idea — that altruism, an immaterial idea, is located in the brain. What does it mean to say that altruism is located in the brain?

If altruism is located in the brain, then some changes in location of the brain must, to use a mathematical term, ‘map’ to changes in altruism. That is, if you move your brain, you move your altruism in some discernable way. And ‘moving’ altruism means changing its properties. It won’t do to say that moving altruism changes its property of ‘location,’ because ‘location’ of altruism is the issue. That begs the question.
Does altruism have location? The brain does; it can move in space by moving in any of six degrees of freedom: in a Cartesian system, it can move in the x, y, or z direction, or it can pitch, yaw, or roll. These are the movements possible for a material body.
Now moving your brain through ‘x,y,z’ or ‘pitch, yaw, or roll’ does change its material properties, which are located in the brain. The pulse pressure in your brain tissue is greater when you’re recumbent than when you’re standing (pitch). The venous pressure is lower when you’re standing than when you’re recumbent. Tilting your head to the left (roll) tilts the vector of carotid arterial blood flow to the left. Even material things that are less tangible, like neuronal action potentials, change with brain movement. Action potentials have direction, and can be described using spatial vectors. When you tilt your head, you tilt the vectors along which your axons transmit action potentials. When you turn your head 30 degrees to the left (yaw), you turn the direction of propagation of action potentials 30 degrees to the left too. In this sense, material changes in the brain can map to changes in location of the brain.
But how does moving your brain change your altruism? Do properties of altruism, like benevolence, have pitch, yaw or roll? Is generosity measurably and reproducibly different when you (and your brain) are on the north, rather than the south, side of the room? Are you measurably more or less charitable if you tilt your head 30 degrees to the left? If you walk around the room does your altruism change in a reproducible way? If you stand up, is your altruism different that when you’re sitting?
For altruism to be located in the brain, changes in altruism must map, in some reproducible way, to changes in brain location. But it’s obvious that no property of altruism maps to brain location. If no property of altruism maps to brain location, then altruism is independent of brain location, and it’s nonsense to say that altruism is located in the brain. Altruism is completely independent of location, so it can’t be located in the brain, or anywhere. It can’t be ‘located’ at all.
Myers makes a category error. Matter and ideas share no properties. Ideas like altruism aren’t material, so they can’t have a location. Altruism has no yaw or pitch or roll. Location is a property of matter, not ideas. Benevolence is a property of ideas, not matter. Matter can’t be benevolent, and ideas can’t have location. And matter can’t, by itself, cause ideas, because they share no properties.
Clearly matter can influence ideas (ethanol makes us think differently), and ideas can influence matter (we can move our legs on purpose). No one knows how matter and ideas influence each other. Dualism, which is the theory that the mind and matter are separate substances, has its own problems, the most serious of which is: how can mind and matter interact if they are completely different substances? I favor dualism, because I accept the reality of immaterial causes, and dualism is consistent with our intuitive and nearly universal belief in the existence of the soul. Although dualism obviously leaves explanatory gaps, it retains free will and intentionality, which seems to accord with reality. Implicit or explicit acceptance of free will and intentionality is a precondition for a meaningful understanding of the mind-body problem. Our opinions have no meaning if they’re determined entirely by neurochemistry. Norepinephrine doesn’t have ‘meaning.’
Acceptance of free will and intentionality is a precondition for any meaningful discussion of reality. Strictly materialistic neuroscience is nonsense, because it inherently denies the existence of free will and of intentionality, and it entails basic category errors, such as the belief that ideas have locations. A strictly materialistic explanation of the mind is an oxymoron, because the mind isn’t material. A real understanding of the mind must be open to immaterial causes.

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.