Dr. Steven Novella’s Challenge: “Prove Me Wrong, Egnor”!

Michael Egnor

Dogmatic materialist Dr. Steven Novella, assistant professor of neurology at Yale, president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, and my interlocutor in an ongoing debate on the mind-brain problem, has issued a challenge to me regarding his theory that the mind is caused entirely by matter:

Prove me wrong, Egnor.

A bit of background helps explain Dr. Novella’s pique. In an earlier post arguing for a pure materialist understanding of the mind, Dr. Novella made this astonishing claim:

The materialist hypothesis – that the brain causes consciousness – has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated. Every single question that can be answered scientifically – with observation and evidence – that takes the form: “If the brain causes the mind then…” has been resolved in favor of that hypothesis.

I noted:

A bit of advice: whenever a scientist says of his own theory that “every single prediction has been validated,” you’re being had. No scientific theory has had “every single prediction” validated. All theories accord with evidence in some ways, and are inconsistent in others. Successful scientific theories prevail on the preponderance of the evidence, not validation of “every single prediction.” Real science lacks the precision of ideology.

Dr. Novella replied:

This is one of those statements that seems reasonable on the surface, but with a bit of thought, and a modicum of scientific knowledge, we can see that it is just deceptive rhetoric.

Dr. Novella goes on with a rambling essay about his philosophy of science, the theory of relativity, intelligent design, the mind-brain problem, and of course, he points out my many personal and professional inadequacies. Ironically, he begins his discussion of his philosophy of science by insisting:

It is…historically true that many scientific theories have been validated “by every single” piece of evidence that bears upon the basic question of whether or not the theory is true. Let’s take special relativity, for example. Einstein proposed this theory in 1914, and his claim that space and time are relative makes a number of specific predictions. In the last almost-century every single prediction made by special relativity has been validated. There is not one observation that falsifies special relativity. (That would be big news if there were.) I guess Egnor thinks that all physicists are not “real” scientists and are just conning the public.

Einstein didn’t propose his theory of special relativity in 1914. He proposed it in June of 1905, in his paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” in the journal Annalen de Physik. His theory was quite successful, yet it was inadequate and even wrong in quite a number of predictions, particularly in strong gravitational fields and in situations in which the velocity of a moving body was near the velocity of light. Some of the situations in which special relativity does not accurately predict experimental results include the dynamics of tachyons (unless tachyons cannot transmit information at superluminal speeds), non-relativistic equations of fluid dynamics such as the Navier Stokes equation, and Schrodinger’s equation.
Because of the problems with his theory, and its inability to account for “every single piece of evidence,” Einstein spent the next decade revising his theory. In 1915 he published his general theory of relativity, which accounted for many of the deficiencies of his special theory in accelerated reference frames and in gravitational fields.
Yet even general relativity as Einstein formulated it in 1915 (which is probably the “1914” theory that Dr. Novella was referring to as “special relativity”) wasn’t validated by “every single piece of evidence.” Einstein’s original formulation of general relativity included the cosmological constant, inserted by Einstein into the tensor equations in order to yield steady-state predictions of the universe. The cosmological constant proved to be a major error, and a decade later Hubble found evidence for the redshift — evidence for an expanding universe and clear evidence that the cosmological constant was an error.
Even today, general relativity, which has been strongly supported in most ways by experimental evidence, is inconsistent with quantum mechanics, and gravitational singularities remain an open question in the theory. In fact, these problems with general relativity were the basis for most of Einstein’s work during the last 35 years of his life as he worked on a unified field theory. Problems with general relativity form the basis for much of modern research in physics and cosmology. Unlike Dr. Novella’s claim for his own theory of materialist neuroscience, general relativity hasn’t been verified by “every single prediction.”
No theory — not even a quite successful theory such as special or general relativity — is supported by every piece of evidence. In fact, the willingness to honestly confront inadequacies in scientific theories is how science makes progress. Einstein’s willingness to confront the inadequacies in Newtonian physics and Maxwell’s electrodynamics led to special relativity, and his willingness to confront the inadequacies in special relativity led to general relativity. Friedman’s and de Sitter’s willingness to confront the problems raised by the theory of general relativity (particularly the cosmological constant) led to Hubble’s interpretation of the red shift and to Lemaitre’s Big Bang cosmology. Schwarz’s and others’ willingness in the 1970s to confront the inadequacies of general relativity and quantum mechanics has lead to string theory, and Witten’s dissatisfaction in the 1990’s with some aspects of string theory has led to M-theory.
Science progresses by incessant questioning of dogma. It is a fundamental maxim of good science: each scientist must be his own most relentless critic. None of these scientists claimed, as Dr. Novella does, that their theories were validated by “every single piece of evidence.” Note Dr. Novella’s implicit claim: his own strict materialist theory of the mind has greater empirical support (“every single prediction has been validated…”) than either special and general relativity, for which no physicist claims validation of every single prediction.
Dr. Novella’s blunder on the issue of special relativity and on the scientific lessons learned from early 20th century physics is revealing. In the midst of a quite technical debate on the mind-brain relationship, he didn’t even fact-check his most rudimentary scientific argument. He doesn’t even have a layman’s knowledge of the difference between the special and general theories of relativity, yet he confidently used them as examples of his philosophy of science. He can’t even get his own examples right. And ironically, the example he mangles — the evidence for special relativity — makes my point, not his.
No theory in science is validated by “every single piece of evidence,” and any scientist who makes that claim is a charlatan.

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.