The vortex of madness that is Denyse O’Leary

I have read a whole book by Denyse O’Leary. I don’t recommend it. It was not a pleasant experience, ranking among the worst books I’ve ever encountered, which is saying a lot since she’s one of the stable of incompetents working out of the Discovery Institute. She doesn’t actually write, you see — she assembles collections of quotes with short sentences linking them and telling you what the author actually said, explanations that are often totally at odds with the authorial intent, but that’s OK, she got to name-drop a famous scientist or philosopher to ‘support’ her belief in dualism and psychic powers and life after death.

Here’s her bio.

Denyse O’Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

I read the one she co-authored with Beauregard, which was bad enough. I won’t even dare to touch the one co-written with that twit, Egnor. I’m also not interested in sticking an immersion blender in my ear and turning my brain into a bloody froth.

If you don’t believe me that she could be that bad, you can get a non-lethal taste of her style and content at a blog out of the Discovery Institute called Mind Matters. Her latest post there is titled The Mind has no History, in which she attempts to tell us that the human mind leapt into existence fully formed by recounting a few examples from history. I had hopes that a history of the mind that claims the mind has no history would be short and, optimally, blank, but she does her O’Leary thing instead and slaps together a series of non-sequiturs, unaware that every word refutes her thesis.

She begins with the tremendous news that philosophers disagree with each other on the nature of consciousness, implying that dualism is shaking up the world of academic philosophy.

Briefly, the leading theory has been trashed as “pseudoscience.” Tellingly, so far as one can make out from reading the letter signed by over 100 angry prominent neuroscientists, a big issue is that that leading theory is not as friendly to “abortion rights” as they might wish. (If the theory is correct, humans may enjoy prenatal consciousness…)

Oh, right. Another of her big obsessions is abortion, and she thinks bringing up weird ideas about how the mind works is useful to justify the argument that embryos might possess a fully function mind. Sorry. Reading O’Leary often quickly throws you into the maelstrom of incoherence that is the religious anti-abortion world.

What follows, though, is a grab-bag of long quotes from the scientific literature in which we see evidence of the long history of the development of human technology, with the characteristic O’Leary misinterpretation. For example:

Usually, Neanderthal Man takes it on the ear for being less evolved than us but, more and more, no one can figure out why. Here’s a find from Neanderthal cooking from somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago:

Then she quotes an article from about the discovery of a Neandertal hearth in Portugal. I don’t know anyone who argues that Neandertals were less evolved than other species, an idea that doesn’t even make sense in evolutionary theory, and I don’t think anyone is surprised that Neandertal used fire, given that we know that Homo erectus was cooking food over a million years ago.

Next, she googled up an article about excavating wooden beams from 476,000 years ago.

Nearly half a million years ago, humans were building wooden structures, of which only a very few have been preserved:

Interesting. And…? Denyse O’Leary is the one arguing that human intelligence is sudden and binary, finding old artifacts showing that ancient hominins could carve wood is not the surprise she thinks it is. It’s a weak argument, so she asks Casey Luskin to back her up. That’s desperation!

This rare find shows that some of the very human-like forms in the fossil record — perhaps Neanderthals which lived at this time period — were actually much smarter than we thought. In any case, this kind of evidence does not support the idea that early humans were unintelligent brutes and that we are descended from intellectually primitive precursors.

Uh, that gives the game away. The scientists aren’t the ones claiming that early humans were unintelligent brutes. What’s going on is that O’Leary is steeping in the assumptions of creationist culture, and whenever it’s pointed out that her biases are invalid, she takes that as evidence that she was totally right all along.

So she finds another anecdote.

Roughly 600 limestone balls (spheroids) , the size of plums, have been found alongside tools at a site in northern Israel, dating from 1.4 million years ago. What were their makers trying to do?

I don’t know. So Homo erectus was shaping stones? Is this a revelation? Maybe they were playing, or practicing, or maybe they were just bored. How does this support O’Leary’s thesis? She doesn’t say.

She has one more example, though, and she comes so close to getting it.

Researchers: Neanderthals invented process to produce birch tar. The tar can be used for glue, bug repellent, and killing germs. This finding tracks growing recognition of Neanderthals as intelligent. Why didn’t Neanderthal culture — and other human cultures — advance more quickly? Tech progress is not a stepladder. Much depends on specific discoveries.

Maybe Victorians thought Neandertal was unintelligent, but then, they thought everyone who wasn’t white and British was inferior. We’re well past that, I hope, except in the creationist community.

Think about her last two sentences. Technological progress depends on specific prior discoveries, it is true, which means it is like a ladder, with each step building on previous steps. She undercuts her own claim, that the mind has no history, by focusing on technological advancements that actually do have an obvious history. That’s Denyse O’Leary for you, though: she piles up observations she does not understand and then simply decides they all support whatever conclusion she wanted.


  1. El Cid says

    Not going to go into who and what, but was so disappointed listening to a podcast recently where the host / narrator discussed how although the scientific community sees no evidence of a global flood pace Noah, Ken Ham argues…

    …and then I just didn’t feel like listening to that podcast any more. Maybe, but at least not for a while.

  2. John Small Berries says

    Nearly half a million years ago, humans were building wooden structures

    The Discovery Institute employs someone who acknowledges that humans (and therefore the Earth) existed before 4004 BCE?

  3. birgerjohansson says

    She should make a “documentary ” and post it on Youtube, alongside the Flat Earth and antivaxxer ones. . Then we can debate which category of “best worst” it fits in.

  4. rietpluim says

    @John Small Berries #2 – My thought exactly. This proves that the Discovery Institute is willing to offer a podium to anyone who confirm their beliefs, even if they contradict their beliefs.

  5. wzrd1 says

    Well, in favor of one edge of her nonsense, there is one valid point. Brain and mind are two entirely different things, where a brain can indeed exist without a mind. Go to any medical school and view a collection of jars with brains in them and nary a mind being present in any of those jars.
    Or well, one can view the same in her and her peers.
    But, to view the mind as having no history, anyone who raised a child from infancy to adulthood can watch a mind evolve from a newborn punching itself in the face and barely capable of suckling to actually possessing creative thought incrementally.
    As for Neandertals being less evolved, she’d have to prove, beyond some bronze age bullshit, that a T. Rex is less evolved than she is, given that we share genes with each. Nature is lazy and doesn’t reinvent the genome anew for each species to stumble or drag itself along the rocks.

    Oddly, I could author a paper, using gathered data from other researchers, to support the theory that the abject failure of lead abatement programs has lead to an increase in conservative political views. It all depends upon how much I torture P in order to get it to comply.
    Which peer review would reveal, scathingly so.
    Or write another paper instead, on how conservative views are less evolved and eventually will become extinct, due to a lack of fitness for them to continue thriving when progressive views are far more fit to advance and cause civilization to thrive. Which, with much work and less data torturing, could withstand peer review.

  6. says

    If the theory is correct, humans may enjoy prenatal consciousness…

    I don’t remember being at all conscious before I was born. Does anyone else have any such memories?

    And how can a full consciousness exist inside an embryo? That’s even stupider than putting a guy in the driver’s seat of a car that’s not even one-fourth assembled yet.

  7. steve oberski says

    I used to live in Victoria.

    It was a very nice place to live back then.

    Looks like I got out just in time.

  8. Larry says

    @#4 rietpluim

    A christian organization being hypocritical in regards to their own godly beliefs?

    Say it ain’t so, joe!

  9. Ed Seedhouse says

    “Denyse O’Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada”

    Oh my Dog! Do I have to move now? I’m too old for that at 79 though. I guess I can take comfort in the fact that technically I don’t live there. I am in View Royal, officially it’s own town, but only 3 KM or so West of downtown Victoria. Too close for comfort! But people often think of us as part of Victoria so she may be even closer than I dread. How do I solve that quandary? Must I buy some security equipment?

  10. stevewatson says

    In response to a few commenters: To my knowledge, the DiscoToot has never been a specifically YEC organization. The ID movement generally was founded as a “big tent” — first, let’s knock down materialism, then we can argue about the age of the earth. There was an amusing incident some years back when Bill Dembski had to finesse his non-YEC-ness with his then employer, a fundy college who were.
    Minor nit on the MindlessNatterers piece (far from the worst problem with it): not all signatories were neuroscientists; several are philosophers. I had two of them for phil-of-mind type courses. Perhaps ironically, that was where I first encountered IIT. I tend to agree that it’s nonsense.
    A philosophy page I follow on FB frequently posts MindlessNatterers links (along with links to better stuff). I’ve objected on the grounds that O’Leary’s crap doesn’t even rise to the level of competent journalism, let alone philosophy.

  11. raven says

    Her latest post there is titled The Mind has no History, in which she attempts to tell us that the human mind leapt into existence fully formed by recounting a few examples from history.

    This is truly mindless nonsense.

    Even most mammals are considered to have thinking, conscious minds.
    They aren’t human grade minds but differ from our minds mostly in degree not kind.
    Anyone who has lived with a cat or dog can tell you that.
    They have their own personalities and can use tools and figure things out.

    My cat can open doors.
    She sits in front of the door and if that doesn’t work, she meows. A bipedal door opener then opens the door.

  12. robro says

    John Small Berries @ #2 — I don’t know, but I’m not sure that the Discovery Institute is a proponent of “Young Earth Creationism”. Some creationists accept that the earth is much older than 6,000 years, but they still believe that “God done it.”

  13. says

    Hey PZ, the Nuttings are speaking at the UMN TC campus. Wednesday evening they elaborate on their ignorance of biology.

  14. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    the DiscoToot

    Somehow, Rick Dees’ follow-up to the number one hit “Disco Duck” never caught on with listeners.

  15. raven says

    O’leary’s claim isn’t that much different from another Theory of Mind.

    Jaynes proposed that modern consciousness, as we know it, emerges from the breakdown of a prior form of mentality that he dubbed the bicameral mind – or, quite literally, the mind of two houses. Jaynes’ conclusion was that, until roughly 3,000 years ago, humans were not conscious in the modern sense.

    Did the Bicameral Mind Evolve to Create Modern Human …
    HowStuffWorks › .

    There isn’t any data for this theory and it is likely totally wrong.

    Strange fact.
    The brains of our ancient ancestors were larger than modern humans. Our brains have been shrinking in size recently.

    Our Brains Are Shrinking. Are We Getting Dumber?

    NPR › 2011/01/02 › our-brains-are-shrin…
    Jan 2, 2011 — As humans continue to evolve, scientists say our brains are actually getting smaller. The downsizing of human brains is an evolutionary fact …

    The significance of this isn’t known.

    It doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting dumber but…it is consistent with that idea.

    Our modern civilization is a lot less challenging than surviving an ice age with stone tools.
    We can afford to carry people like Denyse O’Leary along with us.

  16. tacitus says

    Presumably her interest in the mind and consciousness has everything to do with the fact that it’s perhaps the biggest “gap” their God has left to reside in this side of the origin of the Universe.

  17. says

    raven @12: I once had a cat who could open inside doors with his own paws — no mean feat considering our house had round doorknobs and not lever-handles.

  18. KG says

    Perhaps ironically, that was where I first encountered IIT. – stevewatson@11

    The Indian Institutes of Technology? Illinois Institute of Technology? Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia? Islamic Institute of Toronto? I’m guessing Information Integration Theory, but it doesn’t seem to have anything much to do with consciousness!

  19. says

    @6 Raging Bee, regarding “prenatal consciousness”

    Exactly. I have some very distinct memories of being around 4 or 5 years old. For example, I remember when I couldn’t read (I couldn’t wait to learn how). I remember nothing of when I was 1 or 2. I often ask friends about this and many of them cannot recall a single thing prior to kindergarten or first grade. Consequently, the idea of prenatal consciousness seems pretty far fetched. And then, how can you expect a brain that is far from fully formed to have the same level of function as one that is a few years old? It’s like assuming a fetus can run a marathon because it has two legs.

  20. bcw bcw says

    @2 John Small Berries. <<That strange movie seems to have had a very persistent effect on a certain group of people.

    Just remember, no matter where you go, there you are.

  21. magistramarla says

    Raven @12,
    My husband’s cat can actually open doors! He’s a big, healthy two year old Maine Coon.
    Our inside doors all have lever handles, and he is large enough to easily stretch a paw up and open the bedroom and bathroom doors. After waking up to our bed being overtaken by all three cats a few nights, my husband put hook and eye locks on the outside of each door, and we make sure to lock our bedroom door from the inside when we go to bed.
    We have to outsmart that cat!

  22. birgerjohansson says

    Wake me up when O’Leary finds a way to implant the memories of the mother into the fetus, like in the Dune sequels.

  23. wzrd1 says

    raven @ 12, I’ve watched my neighbor’s cat slide her closet door open and climb inside – repeatedly. According to the neighbor, that’s normal for that cat.
    My old Dutch Shepherd was infamous for going into the fridge for a snack, had to put a hasp on the fridge door. He also opened our back door whenever he wanted to go out, round handle be damned. Used to joke that that dog was so smart, he did my taxes for me.

  24. stevewatson says

    KG @20: Close: Integrated Information Theory — follow the link at the top of that WP article. That’s the theory that got panned recently by about 100 people in the field of consciousness studies (I have no idea if it was THE “leading theory”. I’m not a fan, which isn’t much of a criticism). Of course, Denyse is doing the typical creationist thing of seizing on disagreement among respectable intellectuals as proof that they’re all equally wrong.

  25. chrislawson says

    raven@16– It’s worse than that, there is serious evidence against Jaynes’ theory, most obviously that the Epic of Gilgamesh has introspective passages that according to Jaynes should not exist. Jaynes’ response is that we are not reading the original Epic but later versions rewritten by people with modern consciousness. Which would be a good answer if not for the clear examples of introspection in the oldest versions. Here is an innkeeper telling Gilgamesh why he can’t escape death:

    Why, O Gish, does thou run about?
    The life that thou seekest, thou wilt not find.
    When the gods created mankind,
    Death they imposed on mankind;
    Life they kept in their power.
    Thou, Gish, fill thy belly,
    Day and night do thou rejoice,
    Daily make a rejoicing!
    Day and night a renewal of jollification!
    Let thy clothes be clean,
    Wash thy head and pour water over thee!
    Care for the little one who takes hold of thy hand!
    Let the wife rejoice in thy bosom!

    Yes, it was translated in the 1920s :-) But the point is that the original text was written around 1300 years earlier than Jayne thinks possible. And while Gilgamesh is the oldest known story, there are even older texts such as the wisdom-poem Instructions of Šuruppak, which includes advice like ‘The imprudent decrees fates; the shameless one piles up (?) things in another’s lap: “I am such that I deserve admiration”.’ How can that last sentence exist without introspection? It is introspection about introspection. (As an aside, some genuinely great advice from 5000 years ago, ‘You should not pass judgment when you drink beer.’)

    Even worse, Jaynes seriously believed that prior to ~ 700 BCE everyone’s mind worked like they had schizophrenia, a statement that shows he knows fuck all about ancient civilisations or schizophrenia. His model is also absurdly reductionist, assuming that the brain is compartmentalised to a degree neuroscientists rejected over 50 years ago. The only mystery is why so many people think this is a decent theory of consciousness.

  26. numerobis says

    Sumerians were around more than 3,000 years ago and already complaining about very modern things like a copper salesman ripping customers off, or another kid having nicer shoes.

  27. nomdeplume says

    Reading any stuff from these kind of loons quickly makes it obvious that they have no knowledge of the world outside their bible. All this nonsense about “consciousness” is based on the assumption that only humans have it. It is very much like the non-denbate about how can a human have such a complex eye – totally ignoring the millions of different eyes in other organisms, some of which are more efficient than human eyes.

    And on and on the “debate” about the “soul” continues through the centuries. I am an atheist and an asoulist. if you show me evidence for either I will reconsider. Until then this is all mindless blather.

  28. jenorafeuer says

    Speaking as someone who grew up in Central Saanich, just north of Victoria… ugh.

    Also, regarding prenatal consciousness… my understanding is that the prevailing theory is that consciousness doesn’t start until after birth, because until that first breath, there just isn’t enough oxygen in the bloodstream to keep the metabolism running at a high enough level for the full cerebral cortex to actually be active. Consciousness is just too energy-intensive to be possible in the womb while the mother is keeping herself conscious as well.

  29. birgerjohansson says

    In case you wonder just how long human minds have been the same, not far away from Göbleki Tepe there is a 12,000 year old statue carved from rock that is the oldest phallic-themed statue known.

  30. chrislawson says


    Here’s more than I needed to know about prenatal brain development and activity. In short, (1) fetuses have EEG and fMRI patterns similar to prematurely born infants of the same adjusted age and (2) while fetuses exist in a relatively low-oxygen state, they have specially adapted haemoglobin that keeps their brain developing and responding to stimuli…so I don’t really accept the ‘first breath’ model of consciousness. I’m definitely not claiming that fetuses should be considered persons, btw, just saying this particular argument isn’t very strong.

  31. NitricAcid says

    There’s woowoos of all sorts all over Vancouver Island.

    But didn’t Denyse O’Leary sing “I’m an Asshole”?

  32. chrislawson says

    @35– to be fair to Jaynes (who really doesn’t deserve it, but still), he wasn’t claiming that people had different emotions or goals before 700 BCE, he was claiming that the way we internalise our mental life changed. Which is of course true in the mundane sense that people are always changing the way we think about things, including how we think about our internal mental processes. The problem is in the overly specific hypotheses, the proofs-by-analogy that presume ancient people were somehow both schizophrenic with divided corpora collosa on a ‘software’ level rather than a ‘hardware’ one (yet another bad brain-computer analogy, btw), and the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose strategy for contrary evidence.

  33. Jim Balter says

    Brain and mind are two entirely different things, where a brain can indeed exist without a mind.

    That doesn’t make them two entirely different things, any more than the fact that computers when turned off aren’t executing processes makes computers and processes running on computers two entirely different things. Cognition, perception, and the other components of minds are things that brains do, but that doesn’t mean that they always do them or that there aren’t other things brains do, like sit in vats of formaldehyde or provide tasty nourishment to rabies viruses.

  34. Jim Balter says

    And how can a full consciousness exist inside an embryo? That’s even stupider than putting a guy in the driver’s seat of a car that’s not even one-fourth assembled yet.

    Ah, because “the human mind is not a material thing” and that is why “No one has ever been able to give chimpanzees human minds”, doncha know.

    Funny how she completely ignores the fact that human and chimp brains are physically different, which could readily explain why chimps can’t have human minds, while human minds not being physical things doesn’t explain it at all … or why embryos can have them but chimps can’t. It also doesn’t explain in what sense a human could “have” a human mind. If human minds are non-physical, why are they always located where the human is?

    It’s all incoherent bollocks.

  35. Jim Balter says


    A simple definition of consciousness is sensory awareness of the body, the self, and the world.

    Simple but incoherently circular … what exactly is “sensory awareness“? Awareness presumes consciousness. And what is “the self”, as distinguished from “the body”? Talk of “the self” again presumes consciousness.

    The fetus may be aware of the body, for example by perceiving pain.

    The fetus is its body. And pain is a component of consciousness … we don’t perceive pain, we experience it. What we are perceiving is the stimulus or condition that causes the pain–pain is the mental state by which we consciously perceive damage. But the nerve signals produced by damage also produce reactions like flinching or grimacing–and we can’t just assume that such reactions are conscious. A robot could be programmed to flinch when its circuits detect damage; it would be wrong to conclude from the behavior that therefore the robot is conscious.

    And so on … getting the language and the concepts right is very difficult. It doesn’t usually matter all that much, but when arguing that such-and-such is conscious, it matters very much.

  36. Jim Balter says

    It doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting dumber but…it is consistent with that idea.
    Our modern civilization is a lot less challenging than surviving an ice age with stone tools.

    We could be smarter but less competent. Solving logic puzzles is far from the only thing that brains do.

  37. Jim Balter says

    Even most mammals are considered to have thinking, conscious minds.

    Considered by whom? And those are not at all the same things–as a programmer I deal with what I consider to be thinking machines, but they aren’t conscious. (

    They aren’t human grade minds but differ from our minds mostly in degree not kind.

    To such a degree that it’s a difference in kind. Certainly having language and symbolic thought produces a very different kind of mind than without them.

    Is the difference between a difference in degree and a difference in kind a difference in degree or a difference in kind?

    Anyone who has lived with a cat or dog can tell you that.

    I have lived with cats for many years and I can tell you something very different, but then I’m intellectually honest.

  38. chrislawson says


    As I said, I was more pointing out the problems with ‘first breath’ hypothesis. That paper you linked to is very good, but it finds that the late-gestation fetus is ‘mostly unconscious’, which I think is pretty reasonable.But the ‘mostly’ is important there given that third-trimester fetuses have cortical responses to various stimuli and can learn and habituate to them. My own feeling is that consciousness is a slippery concept, that humans develop from a state of unicellular mindlessness, and it’s impossible to draw a line at where consciousness starts.

  39. birgerjohansson says

    We could spend a hundred pages arguing over the difference between conscience and sapience.

    Even bacteria have some crude kind of sense, as they can travel up or down chemical gradients.
    But we are obviously discussing the complex data processing that goes on in complex brains.

    The black-monolith transition happened some time after australopithecus split off from the proto-chimp lineage, maybe at 5 Myr. A designed wooden structure in Southern Africa is from 400 kyr.
    Somewhere between these times there emerged somerhing we can call sapience but it was not a discrete event- just look at the many extinct subgroups with constantly changing morphology.
    The creationists hate that there is no clear transition between animal and ‘entity with soul’ .
    This should not be a problem for us.

    And the difference between us on one hand and dogs and cats on the other is significant while the difference between us and the great apes is a more grey zone.
    Even the difference between us and some birds is a very grey zone despite them being very distant relatives.
    But as the mental capacity of these other species is poorly known it is not fruitful to speculate just how close/distant they are in terms of ‘cleverness’.

  40. birgerjohansson says

    I just learned a guy from a neighbouring town in north Sweden has died as a volunteer on the Ukrainan side.
    This brings home how close the war is.

    But those of us who remember Chernobyl know how close Ukraine is – it was the Swedish authorities who sounded the alarm over increased radiation as the Soviets desperately tried to cover up the disaster .

  41. jeanmeslier says

    @48 abortion is best solved on a personality and interest based approach. and from that a approach a fetus is a) never a person, the mere ability ot sense things is not relevant, neither is thus the “consiousness” of the fetus as it does not and can not transalte to personal interests(it is hard to determine that for a fetus, but even a newborn is not a person by any reasonable means, b) the fact that the fetus is a potential person can not override the rights of the actual person involved (pregnant), and it would have to c)if “pro life” cranks were consequent they would have to aim for the protection of all insects and other non-personal non-humans in the same manne. any restriciton on abortion violates the very concept it claims to protect :personhood and dignity, I think among us this sould not be controverisal at all

  42. jeanmeslier says

    @48 also the problem really are not “problems”. it is much more pragmatism than a problem as birth marks a very clear line visible for everyone. the “pro life” “ethics” might have a point when saying it is pragmatism (they view it as downside) but that becomes laughable if all they have to offer instead is either “sanctity of life)(religious, no place in a secular state),speciesism, or the equation of actual and potential which is absurd

  43. wzrd1 says

    Jim Balter, I’ve observed that you consistently express the brain as if it’s a computer, which it’s not, in the current binary computer association most make.
    If I turn off my computer, for an example, I can turn it back on and it’ll boot up and execute software the way in which it was configured to. If I disconnect power to a brain, cells die, neural networks degrade and are destroyed and eventually, consciousness becomes impossible.
    Having dealt with medicine for many years, we assess consciousness frequently, is the patient awake, aka responding appropriately to stimuli? Is the patient conscious, as assessed rapidly by awareness of self, time and place? One cannot further assess CNS function until the patient is at a minimum AAOx2, preferably AAOx3, one assesses awareness via response or lack thereof to stimuli, from simply addressing a patient to various tactile responses, progressing to painful stimuli, such as nail bed compression with a pen, sternal rub, fingertips on cornea, to produce a graded score, from comatose to fully awake and responsive.
    Watching any creature with a brain reach consciousness after an injury or anesthesia, one basically watches as each neural network group begins interacting with the entirety of the brain’s neural network and “comes online”. That isn’t quite like daemons coming up on a computer, to put things mildly, as computers operate substantially differently than neural network engines of biological origin.
    One upside to a neural network of neural networks is fault tolerance being baked in, which can even operate under indeterminate states to a fairly extensive degree, as anyone who’s staggered home from a party could attest to. Even a real time OS can’t even approximate that.

    jeanmeslier, when is a person living or dead? If someone’s literally no longer in possession of a brain, but is on life support, is that person alive or is disconnecting life support murder? If a fetus isn’t viable outside of the mother’s womb, is it a living person or not?
    For the bible botherers that actually follow their scripture, the fetus is part of the mother until it takes its first breath and continues breathing unsupported. Under their filter, the first question becomes problematic though, as there was no such thing as life support in the bronze age.
    At least we’ve got advance directives, so doctors know that I’m on the sanctioned parts list.

  44. stevewatson says

    Jim Balter @46:

    Even most mammals are considered to have thinking, conscious minds.

    Considered by whom?

    Well there’s the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness:

    And I’m pretty sure that my cat has subjective experience, that there is ‘something it is like’ to be him (one common definition of consciousness), even if that’s very different from what it’s like to be me, in ways I can’t quite imagine, even in a similar environment (like the house we share).

  45. jeanmeslier says

    @54 why should it be a person, “person” is not fulfilled simply by belonging to a certain species. as I wrote above, a born non-person can be granted a right to life (and should be) on “pragmatic” grounds. And ( I assume you are pro choice, as I have been reading this blog a while before I wrote my first comment and found you to be a progressive) the “life support” analogy is hopefully not supposed to be an anti-abortion argument? If we use personal interests again, a blanket statement whether that is “murder” (a purley legal term by the way) is not helpful. It depends on the circumstances and should be up to the doctor along with the relatives or their surrogates. There is a (of course religiously motivated) taboo against euthansia, denying people dying with dignity in many cases. A human being in a deep coma can not be considered a person anymore (if you dont think merely being a member of species X makes you a person which is absurd) , and just assuming living is always better than dying is harldy “ethical”. As for “alive” : this is not the core issue here, surely a being on life support has some wroking ograns, but being without a (working) brain is obviously not comaptible with self-sustained (short or long term) life, let alone the life that actually matters and is talked about when people talk about “their life”, which is being a person

  46. jeanmeslier says

    a concise and well thought set of reasons , compiled by German ethicist Norbert Hoerster why birth is the least arbitrary line and and abortion must not be restricted (espeically not with the penal system ,w which should be clear to anyone valuing peoples rights and is witnessing the happenings in the US and elsewhere) 1)birth is clear in the “public consicnece”, and the publics interests for proctection of newborns are thus to be held in higher regard than at earlier stages. 2)there is no actual personhood before birth 3) after birth the possibility or onset of first signs of actual personhood varies, thus newborns deserve protection from birth, so it can be made sure no person is killed against their will

  47. says

    Fetus puppetry.

    Not one forced birther I’ve run into has any idea about what prenatal brain details actually look like or mean. Put on the spot they do anything else because it’s all just “think of the children” instincts.

    Spectral evidence. It twitches from early reflexes. It could tap dance and it’s not good enough. The very violation of personal autonomy they use to force birth justifies physical opposition in the end. After all, it’s a foot in the door for violating personal autonomy. From there you can get to slavery, forced enlistment…

  48. wzrd1 says

    jeanmeslier @ 56, you raise an interesting point, albeit glancingly. How many forced-birthers wouldn’t hesitate for an instant to spay a pregnant pet if they don’t want young, but object to abortions in humans – at times, even at the cost of the mother’s life?
    And yes, murder is a specific term, frequently linked by forced-birthers, homicide, given we’re largely discussing human reproduction and no other animals reproductive rights. And by extension, mental status and operation.
    You rather used a poor example in coma patients though, as some can and do recover and anesthetic comas are employed for a number of serious medical issues. Persistent vegetative state, perhaps?
    Thankfully, we have advance directives and medical proxies! My family already knows my wishes, as does my physician, when I’m unrecoverable mentally, aka “brain dead” or persistent vegetative, keep the body long enough to find recipients and remove the usable organs. I also do support voluntary euthanasia, as my first clinical rotation had a patient that was a 92 year old man, who weighed 98 pounds, with advanced stage 4 metastatic cancer, who was on a maximum possible continuous pump administered morphine drip, moaning incessantly in pain despite that, with a saucer wide hole in his hip one could see bone through. Dr Kevorkian was a big thing at the time and I swiftly came to agree with the good doctor.
    My point specifically was, it’s up to the patient and/or their medical proxy and shouldn’t be up to the state or restrict their medical care against the wishes of physician, patient and medical proxy.

    An uglier, far more emotional discussion follows with a non-viable or briefly viable, but to swiftly die upon birth fetus abortion. There was some coverage a few months ago of one such case in Texass, where an abortion was denied, forcing a birth and agonizing death of the neonate, while the parents suffered witnessing that atrocity, all in support of the good Lord Jesus’ mercilessness love. Or something.

  49. jeanmeslier says

    @60 I agree with more than initially thought, but I’d like to address the coma issue again, I obviously (I might not have made that clear ) talked about comas where the patient “beyond” the ability to recover, and I agree , from an ethical apporach should be based on interest of “surrgoates” of the patient, not the state. And while we might euthanise people that might have “miraculously” found their way back, what is on the other side? often months of agony, the last slow bits of rudimentary life , all in the name of “holiness”. The last parapraph you presented is hardly an argument to restrict abortion. “vaibility” is another term thrown around as if it had ethical relevance that could deny the pregnant person her right to abort. the convulsing neonate might have been a horrible sight, but does the wish to avoid such a sight during an abortion outweigh the actual personal wishes,desires,interests and actual-personal dignity of the pregnant person?hardly. i stand by it, pro choice is an all or nothing question, those who make cuts lie to themselves and everyone else, and the reduce pregnant people to mere vessels, while claiming to “protect life” whilst at athe same time only caring about the rudimentary non-personal life of the fetus, pro chopice is “pro life”

  50. jeanmeslier says

    i do think we are on the same page in basically all points, wzrd. I just wanted to add some thoughts

  51. Jim Balter says


    Jim Balter, I’ve observed that you consistently express the brain as if it’s a computer,

    Wrong. Brains and computers are both computational in the sense of the Church-Turing thesis and so there are important ways in which they are analogous, but being analogous does not entail identity … there are of course numerous ways in which they are different.

    Is the patient conscious

    This is not the same meaning as when we ask whether a cat is conscious. The conscious/not-conscious distinction in medicine already presumes that awake humans are conscious in the latter sense.

    Even a real time OS can’t even approximate that.

    Real time OS’s are not designed do so. There’s a vast difference between “extant software systems don’t do X” and “software systems cannot possibly do X”.


    And I’m pretty sure that my cat has subjective experience, that there is ‘something it is like’ to be him

    So what if you’re “pretty sure”? Millions of people are “pretty sure” that Trump won, and billions are “pretty sure” that there are gods. This is completely baseless but very common anthropomorphizing. The very notions of “subjective experience” and Nagel’s “something it is like” are vague handwaving that no philosopher of mind has ever managed to cash out nor can they. Consider philosophical zombies, which are ex hypothesi behaviorally identical to us while having no subjective experience, nothing that it is like to be them. Why couldn’t your cat be a zombie, since your impression that he isn’t is based entirely on behavior? According to David Chalmers the difference between a human and a zombie is that zombies are “all dark inside”. I repeatedly challenged him in consciousness discussion groups and at consciousness conferences on this “metaphor” … what is it a metaphor for? He has never been able to say–dualists like him just repeatedly insist that “we all know” … sorry, but physicalists like myself not only do not know, but find the claim incoherent. The whole subject of consciousness is mired in sloppy careless intellectually dishonest incoherence.

  52. littlejohn says

    Stone spheres the size of plums? Good dog, man, erectus had invented pool. They still play it in a dimly lit (dare I say cavelike?) saloon near my home. They’re easily identifiable by their receding chins, short foreheads. and disinclination to shave.
    They have learned no useful skills aside from disguising their pool-shooting abilities until they’ve tricked you into a $50 bet on the outcome of a proposed game. They appear not to have developed fire-starting, relying instead of acquiring plastic and flint devices from the sapiens foolish enough to enter their domain. This is probably a good thing.

  53. wzrd1 says

    Oh, no! We’re doomed!
    Trouble with a capital “T”
    And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!