‘Waiter, My Steak Isn’t Altruistic Enough!’

Michael Egnor

Is altruism merely a matter of brain physiology- just the happy result of eons of evolution? Is the brain–an elegant piece of meat– the sufficient cause of the mind and of the ideas that the mind generates? Does the brain secrete altruism, just like the liver secretes bile?
Many neuroscientists believe that it does. In a recent Washington Post article entitled

…neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

He notes:

Joshua Green, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not “handed down” by philosophers and clergy, but “handed up”, an outgrowth of the brain’s basic propensities.

Vedantam asserts:

The [experimental] results- many of them published just in recent months- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hardwired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

The mainstream view among neuroscientists is that the mind, and such things as morality and altruism, are ’emergent’ properties of the brain, caused entirely by neurons and chemistry. They believe that the brain is a sufficient cause for the mind, and they see human morality as a trait crafted by evolution. I think this view is wrong.
For one process to cause another there must be a point of contact, in the sense that the processes linked in cause and effect must share properties in common. In biology, the liver contains molecules of enzymes and bilirubin and cholesterol, which cause the secretion of molecules of bile. In physics, a moving billiard ball collides with another billiard ball, causing each to change course. Each billiard ball starts with momentum, and momentum is exchanged when they collide. The transfer of momentum mediates the cause and effect. “Cause and effect’ presupposes commonality of at least one property- enzymes or bilirubin or cholesterol or momentum. Without commonality, there is no link through which cause can give rise to effect.
The brain is a material substance. It has location, dimensions, weight, temperature, and energy. It also has parts; it has a superior surface, a medial boundary, a left side and a right side. As such, it can interact with other things that have similar properties- things that have matter and parts and energy. A region of the brain can cause action potentials, or movements of the arm. Oxygen molecules, barbiturate molecules, electrons, or a hammer can, in turn, affect the brain.
Altruism, in contrast, has no matter or energy. It has no ‘location’, no weight, no dimension, no temperature. It has no properties of matter. Altruism entails things like purpose and judgment, which aren’t material. Altruism has no parts, in the sense that there is a ‘left-side’ of altruism and a ‘right side’ of altruism. There are, of course, left sided and right sided parts of the brain, which may be associated with acts of altruism, but there is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ to altruism itself. Of course, objects (like human brains or bodies) that have location, weight, etc. can mediate or carry out altruistic acts, but the altruism itself doesn’t have a location. Altruism isn’t spatial. ‘My altruism is three inches from the edge of the table’ is a nonsensical statement.
There is no shared property yet identified by science through which brain matter can cause mental acts like altruism. Material substances have mass and energy. Ideas have purpose and judgment. There is no commonality. The association between brain function and ideas is fascinating, and the association of ideas with regions of the brain is a proper object of scientific study. But where there is no commonality of properties, association cannot be causation. Ideas must be caused by substances that have properties common to ideas- such as purpose and judgment.
Materialist neuroscientists confuse association with causation. This is the unhappy result of scientific materialism, which excludes immaterial causes. Yet many things in the world, including our ideas and even our theories about the world, are not matter or energy. Altruism is obviously something very real; many people’s lives depend on it. We don’t know exactly what it is, but we know, by its properties, what it’s not. It’s not material. It shares no properties in common with matter. It can’t be caused by a piece of the brain.
The remarkable thing about materialistic neuroscience, as applied to the study of the mind-brain problem, is how unscientific it is. Scientific materialism as a method in science intrinsically requires that a material cause and its effect share properties that link the cause to the effect. Materialistic scientists rightfully scorn pseudoscience like telekinesis, yet the view that ideas are caused by brain matter is merely a mirror image of the claims made on behalf of telekinesis. We know that Uri Geller can’t really bend a spoon just by thinking about it, because the thought ‘I’m bending this spoon’ and the spoon itself share no properties in common. They’re not connected. But the disconnection between matter and thought works both ways. It makes no more sense to assert that matter alone ‘moves’ ideas than it makes sense to assert that ideas alone move matter.
To evade this conundrum, materialist neuroscientists evoke ’emergence’, which is a materialist way of asserting ‘It happens. Trust us’. Assigning the cause of ideas like altruism to ’emergence’ from brain tissue is like assigning the cause of phone conversations to ’emergence’ from the cellphone. It’s an evasion, not an explanation.
Clearly the brain, as a material substance, causes movement of the body, which is also a material substance. The links are nerves and muscles. But there is no material link between our ideas and our brains, because ideas aren’t material. Substances that lack properties in common cannot cause mutual effects. ‘My altruism is three inches from the edge of the table’ is a nonsensical statement. ‘My brain caused my altruism’ is nonsensical as well. A satisfactory explanation of altruism intrinsically requires a method 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.