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Egnor: How to Test Materialist Theories of Mind


Neuroscientist Michael Egnor proposes an ingenious test for materialist versus the immaterialist theories of mind. Well, he’s not proposing it in the sense of encouraging it, with all the chilling ethical problems to which it comes attached. He is simply acknowledging that it is being tested right now.

The test is just this: human cloning. Mammals are readily cloned, and have been for years. There’s no shortage of enthusiasm for cloning a human to, as Egnor puts it, “rational adulthood.” What’s curious is that the project has so far has been stymied not just by ethics but by the scientific hurdle:

The logic is simple. If abstract thought arises from the material brain, then it should be possible to clone a rational human being by material means. Cloning of non-human (i.e. wholly material) animals has been done countless times and is now almost routine. If man is wholly material and if abstract thought is merely a material power of the mind, then cloning a human being with the capacity for abstract thought is possible and ought to be achievable. After all, it is the matter that is cloned. If man is wholly matter and the cloning is done properly, we ought to be able to manufacture a rational man out of matter.

On the other hand, if the human intellect and will are immaterial, a rational man cannot be cloned, because the immaterial power of the mind does not arise from matter and thus cannot be created merely by making a material copy. The power of abstract thought does not arise from DNA or protein or any matter that can be duplicated. In the immaterialist view, more than matter is needed to make a man.

It is worth noting that the evidence to date strongly supports the immaterialist view: human cloning has thus far been a scientific dead end. Despite claims to have produced cloned human embryos by somatic cell nuclear transfer, the gestation of humans with growth to rational adulthood (i.e. humans capable of rational thought) has never been achieved.

Isn’t that fascinating? Read the rest at Mind Matters. A premise here is that abstract thought is a unique human endowment, so our colleague Wesley Smith will also find this of interest as a scientific test of human exceptionalism. 

The testability of materialism in this manner would seem to be something that materialists and immaterialists can finally agree on. They should be able to agree as well about the trend in the scientific evidence, unwelcome to materialists if they’re honest with themselves, so far.

Photo credit: Edward Webb, via Flickr (cropped).