Egnor’s at it again, trying to support his idea of dualism. His latest example is much less insane than his last one, so this won’t be as entertaining. There’s actually a serious question imbedded in it.
He’s using an analogy with a cell phone (personally, I think he’d have made much more sense if he’d just gone straight to his explanatory metaphor for the brain; the comparison of the mind with a cell phone has too many distracting details that don’t fit.) What he is proposing is that, rather than being a local generator of the mind, all that elaborate stuff in the circuitry of the brain is part of a receiver — there is a soul somewhere that is transmitting the essential elements of the mind to be expressed in the activity of the brain. So what we have is a soul-transmitter (S-T) somewhere with a two-way channel for signals to and from a brain-receiver (B-R).
Here’s the deal: I can’t disprove that! No one can. It has the advantage to the dualist of claiming the existence of an undemonstrated property of an organ that isn’t completely understood, so it’s a kind of soul-in-the-gaps hypothesis. It’s a strategy any creationists should find comfortable.
What I can do is chip away at the idea a bit. It has implications that don’t really disqualify it, but do mean it isn’t going to be too satisfying to religious people, although philosophers probably won’t gag too much over it. It also has properties that make it a thoroughly unscientific explanation. Here are a few facts that imply some weird attributes of the S-T.
Stimulation of regions of the brain can evoke specific memories and sensations; there is a physical mapping of higher-level properties of the mind in the brain. Now one could argue that that’s what the S-T does; like the neuroscientist with his electrodes, the S-T is playing on recorded responses in the brain. This does have the problem for the dualist that it downloads huge amounts of our perceptions and experience into meat, making a S-T less necessary.
Brain injury can lead to loss of specific subsets of functionality of the mind. Damage can cause, for instance, changes in personality, loss of memory, serious perceptual changes, and loss of motor control. These are observations of many thousands of lesions, all with different effects—we can confidently say that the brain doesn’t have one function, as a receiver, it has many, and that there are many local properties of exceptional complexity that Egnor is ignoring. Again, it also says that if the brain is a receiver, it’s a very peculiar one, where reception of particular aspects of the S-T signal are localized. Loss of memory, for instance, would imply that the S-T lacks an independent store of recollections, and relies on what you’ve got tucked away in meat.
The way our minds work is subject to physical phenomena. Why should our minds get tired if it’s our bodies that have been working hard or staying up late? Why do hormones affect our mood — giving us lust or anger or euphoria — if our minds are projected from a remote location? It implies that a lot of what we consider subjectively to be part of the human experience are local phenomena, independent of the essential “I”.
Egnor’s analogy distinguishes between the externally generated signal (the voice on the phone) and locally generated noise (pops, clicks, hisses, etc.) but where it fails is in recognizing that that, even within his soul-transmitter/brain-receiver model, a lot of the locally generated phenomena are essential parts of what we consider to be us. This is not a reassuring picture of souls and life-after-death — it would have to be an afterlife in which we’re stripped of our memories and our personalities and our sensations. That isn’t an objection in principle, of course; it’s only a recognition that Egnor’s idea has implications he’s ignoring.
What makes his idea unscientific?
It’s not at all parsimonious. Here we have this immensely complicated organ, the brain, and we have these immensely complicated phenomena — consciousness, memory, perception, cognition, etc. — associated with it, and Egnor is saying that it’s only a false correlation. He’s deferring all of the causal mechanisms to some completely independent source having unspecified properties, but which is presumably as complicated if not more so than the brain. That’s not operationally useful. You can’t do science with that scheme.
Most importantly, there’s no evidence for any of it! Notice that we must have 1) an element of the brain that is a receiver—that instigates patterned activity without any kind of natural input. It could be there somewhere in all of the tangled mess, but it has not been shown. We must have 2) a signal of some sort from the S-T to the B-R. Nothing has been proposed about the nature of this mysterious process, nothing has been demonstrated about it, and in the absence of a description of its character, nothing can be tested. Conveniently, there is no way to isolate the receiver from the signal, either. And 3) we need an instance of a S-T. This is pure fantasy at this point.
His justifications for this so far demonstrate essentially no real depth to his thinking and a lack of logic. There’s his previous argument that for mind to be a product of the brain, there must be a physical and spatial mapping, which is probably the silliest rationalization I’ve ever heard on this subject. Now he’s claiming that because voices have meaning, and “The only thing that can cause meaning is a person,” then matter cannot generate meaning — a nice tautology that simply pretends the materialist claim that people are made of matter doesn’t exist.
Right now, we have mapped a lot of functionality to the physical organization of the brain. It’s fair to say we are far from having figured it all out, but if someone wants to propose an explanation, whether it’s as earthly as the effects of inhibitors of transmitter degradation on mood or the existence of a cranial antenna to pick up droplets of ectoplasm from the etheric plane, we expect evidence, and proposals to test the idea. The materialists have them. The dualists don’t. It really is that simple.