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Consultation: University of Toronto Psychiatrist Takes on Egnor

David Klinghoffer

University of Toronto

The Peaceful Science website seeks, in its own description, “a confident faith within a scientific world.” That sounds worthwhile, though it’s surprising that the active commenters seem to be largely atheists. They are currently having a go at neuroscientist Michael Egnor — and at each other. Sample exchange from the Egnor thread:

EyesShiningAngrily: “OK I’ve had enough of the nitwits on here. Goodbye.” 

Patrick the Freethinking Atheist: “Who are you calling a nitwit? I have a PhD in the subject area. And I am well versed in present day interpretations and results of QM.”

Some of the participants include an “Agnostic Atheist,” a “Secular Avian Phylogeneticist,” an “Agnostic Mathematician,” an “Atheist Molecular Biology Technician” — and our old friend Nathan Lents. Into the conversation stepped Faizal Ali, the “Anti-Creationist Psychiatrist” and “Militant Atheist.” He criticizes Dr. Egnor’s evidence for the human soul, for a mind as distinct from the brain, presented in the Science Uprising series. Dr. Ali is interesting.

A Deserved Response

It turns out he is a professor in the University of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction & Mental Health, and he notes that the “Anti-Creationists” and “Militant Atheist” sobriquets are not his own but bestowed on him by the Peaceful Science site’s administrator. In any event, he rises above slinging insults and has some apparently substantive challenges. He deserved a response, and writing over at Mind Matters, Dr. Egnor is in the process of giving it to him.

Egnor’s most recent three posts:

“Intellectual Seizures”

In this consultation between two physicians specializing in different aspects of brain and mental health, the question before the Faizal Ali and Michael Egnor is whether the mind, with its power of abstract thought, can be fully accounted for just with reference to a physical organ, the brain. Ali thinks so — as a materialist, he would have to do so — and cites certain cases of seizures to show it. 

But Egnor gently points out that Dr. Ali has stumbled in understanding both what abstract thought means and what happens in these rare cases. If the brain were not only necessary but sufficient for contemplating abstract concepts, then there should be such a thing as an “intellectual seizure.” In fact, “Because most of the cerebral cortex is ‘association areas’ which, according to materialists, generate abstract thought, intellectual seizures should be quite common. But they never occur.”

An Education

Egnor concludes the series so far:

Here is a website that gives a nice synopsis of these rare forced-thinking seizures. Note that the only epileptic impact on genuine abstract thought (i.e., mathematical thinking) is to suppress abstract thought, not to evoke it.

The strong emotional content of a seizure, which is a straightforward evocation of material powers of the mind and is not intellectual, may motivate an intellectual reaction on the part of the patient. That is not part of the seizure activity but is rather the patient’s intellectual effort to cope with it. For example, a patient may have anxiety as an aura of a partial complex seizure, and she may, in response to her anxiety, contemplate in an abstract way the problems she faces in life. Here, the abstract thought is not the seizure but the patient’s response to it — her contemplation of the emotional state evoked by the seizure.

In ordinary thinking, concrete and abstract thought work together — for example, as I type this, I am simultaneously thinking of the abstract (concepts) I want to convey and I’m thinking about the (concrete) arrangement of letters and words on my keyboard and screen. It is vitally important that, before we label a seizure an “intellectual” seizure, we confirm that the abstract thought is itself generated by the electrical discharge from the brain, and is not merely a non-epileptic thought by the patient in response to the seizure.

If we use a strict standard, a credible genuine intellectual seizure has never been reported. Penfield never encountered one, nor have I. If we include the epilepsy medical literature, we reference millions of recorded seizures without a single credible intellectual seizure, despite the fact that most of the cerebral cortex is association area, where (according to materialists) abstract thought arises.

Now, of course, materialists will squirm, evade, and engage in special pleading, for example, “Perhaps abstract thought is such a subtle material property of brain tissue that crude electrical discharges can’t evoke it, etc.” But this is not evaluation of the evidence, it is evasion of the evidence.

I want to recommend that you read each of these posts by Egnor, as they are an education — certainly for me, and perhaps for Dr. Ali as well. 

Photo: Michael Egnor, Stony Brook University, in a scene from Science Uprising.