Yet More Egnorance

Michael Egnor, the man for which the term “egnorance” was coined, is at it again, sneering at experts while demonstrating he knows little about linguistics, philosophy, or ethology.

In this piece he makes a number of claims that are either flatly false, or contradict what we know, or are given without any justification at all. Why he thinks this kind of pompous tripe will convince anyone is beyond me. Maybe, in their jobs, neurosurgeons get accustomed to making pronouncements that everyone else accepts without questioning.

I lack the time to do a complete fisking here, but I’ll mention a few of his bogus claims.

1. “The accepted definition of reason is simple and straightforward: it is the power to think abstractly, without concrete particulars.”

Whenever Egnor talks about something being “accepted” or “simple and straightforward”, you can be pretty sure that the opposite is the case. Anyone who wants to check Egnor’s claim can just go to the Oxford English Dictionary and type in “reason”. There are three senses for the word, two as a noun and one as a verb. The uses as a noun include 17 different subdefinitions and another 15 or so different usages in phrases. The uses as a verb include 8 different subdefinitions. The word “abstract” appears nowhere in any of these subdefinitions (it does appear in two citations, but not in the sense Egnor refers to). So Egnor is wrong twice: the “accepted definition” of the word is neither simple nor straightforward, and the meaning Egnor claims is not an “accepted” one.

2. “Only man thinks abstractly; that is the ability to reason. No animal, no matter how clever, can think abstractly or reason.”

Egnor’s made this claim before, and it was refuted before. He just repeats it here, with no evidence, without addressing previous objections.

Of course, if you understand the theory of evolution, you realize his claim is likely to be utter nonsense. Abstract thinking is not a black-white thing; it’s a range of capabilities that, even among people, we see a huge variation in. Any capability with huge variation is subject to selection, and so it can evolve. Since people are descended from earlier ape-like creatures, it is quite believable that non-human animals would also display the ability for abstract thought, in varying degrees. And they do! Ethologists, who actually study this kind of thing, disagree with Egnor. (Also see baboons and crows, to name just a couple more examples.)

3. “Reason is an immaterial power of the mind—it is abstracted from particular things, and cannot logically be produced by a material thing.”

This is vintage Egnor — a flat assertion, made with no evidence, and contradicting what we know about (for example) machine learning. Machines can abstract from specific cases to more general concepts; that is exactly what is done routinely in machine learning. (To cite just one example, see here.)

Egnor offers no rationale for why reason has to be “immaterial”, and when he says something is “logical”, you can be pretty sure there’s no actual logic involved.

4. “This immaterial power of the soul is precisely what makes man qualitatively different from every other living thing. And I am not “forced to lean on supernaturalism” by pointing this out. I’m merely making an observation that’s obvious to all. Man, and man alone, has the power to reason.”

Souls don’t exist; there’s no evidence for them. There’s no evidence for “immaterial powers”. Egnor’s claim is disputed by many, and it’s a plain lie to say it’s “obvious to all”.

5. “We routinely ask questions that entail reasoning. Animals never do.”

How does Egnor know animals never do this? He never says.

As we know from the example of Ben Carson, it is perfectly possible for a neurosurgeon to be good at their job, but incompetent when it comes to anything else. Egnor is yet another data point.


  1. another Stewart says

    Has he just “proved” that Alpha Go has a soul? Go, Chess and Shoji are abstract games, and Google’s AI can outreason humans at all of them. (And there have been theorem proving programs for quite some years.)

  2. Owlmirror says

    In 3. and 4., I think he may be using “immaterial” in a deliberately vague and easily misunderstood way. After all, can you point to “reason”? Hah, no you cannot.

    But I wonder what he would say if one tried to focus in on what he means by the term. “Wait, are you saying that ‘reason’ is something that can exist without neurons interacting; without atoms, even? You can just have ‘reason’ floating around somewhere in an invisible cloud or something?” Maybe he’d argue that you’re misconstruing his words.

    Naturalists have tried to come up with ways to express what is going on in brains without resorting to terms like “immaterial”, like “emergent processes”. Brains are natural, but because of their structure and function, they can do things like perceive and reason.

    Maybe if you argued with Egnor enough, he would end up saying that you can’t have an invisible cloud of reason floating around, and that he actually agrees with naturalists despite using terms that makes it sound like he doesn’t. (And is it reasonable to do that?)

    Or maybe he’ll end up committing to an invisible cloud of reason floating around, after all. Credo quia absurdam. So he defends his position on reason using unreason, heh.

    5. “We routinely ask questions that entail reasoning. Animals never do.”

    How does Egnor know animals never do this? He never says.

    Egnor would probably defend that by arguing that “ask questions” implies fluid language skills.

    Yet I wonder how he would respond if you showed him those videos of New Caledonian crows choosing among several possible tools (pebble, short stick, long stick, bendable wire, etc) to solve problems in a sequence where each tool can potentially be used, and asked him: “So you would say that it is completely impossible that the crow is asking herself — metaphorically “asking”, granted — which tool is appropriate to accomplish the goal of that particular problem?”

  3. Ichthyic says

    Egnor is not going to be called out for this at all, given that even Obama thought it was plenty fine to put someone with essentially THE SAME argument in charge of NIH.

    Collins’ ignorance of ethology and behavioral ecology, as well as psychology and plain old anatomy, is just as bad.
    It’s literally willful ignorance in support of delusion.

    and just because humans exhibit the ability to compartmentalize in the extreme… does not mean it isn’t a problem, unlike the accomodationists who keep telling us that it’s not a problem “if they don’t let it affect their work”.

  4. skeptico says

    “Reason is an immaterial power of the mind—it is abstracted from particular things, and cannot logically be produced by a material thing.”

    You are correct that this is vintage Egnor. It’s pure circular reasoning: define reason as being immaterial, and therefore it can’t be produced by a material thing (the brain). See here – from 10 years ago. He never learns.

  5. dangerousbeans says

    5. “We routinely ask questions that entail reasoning. Animals never do.”

    my cat routinely asks the questions: “will doing this annoy Beans? and if it does can she get me before i escape under the bed?”. you can see it go through his fuzzy head :\

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