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Michael Egnor: Is your brain a billion little biological machines?

Michael Egnor

As pop neuroscientist Anil Seth claims in a TED talk?

What the brain “is” depends on how you study it. We live in a mechanical age, so we study it as a machine. But our method of study determines what we learn. Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg noted perceptively that “…what we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning” ( Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, 1958, p. 78).

Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)

By its nature, the brain is an organ. It is a functional part of a living being. We can draw analogies to it in order to help us understand it, but we must remember that what we then learn about the brain is only that aspect of its nature that is exposed to our method of questioning.

In other words, the brain will seem like a machine if we study it like a machine. More. Michael Egnor, “Yes, your brain is a machine—if you choose to see it that way” at Mind Matters

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“It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be” Anil Seth, The real problem, Aeon, 2016

See also by Michael Egnor: Hamlet: Did his perplexing neurotransmitters cause the tragedy? Michael Egnor: The neuroscientist working from a mechanical perspective would study the material and efficient causes of Hamlet’s act of revenge. It is essential to note that the Aristotelian neuroscientist, while delving into the complexities of Shakespeare’s remarkable psychological portrayal of this tortured man, can also study Hamlet’s murder of Claudius in just the same way that the mechanistic neuroscientist can. But he doesn’t lose the plot.

Does your brain construct your conscious reality? Part I
A reply to computational neuroscientist Anil Seth’s recent TED talk

Does your brain construct your conscious reality? Part II In a word, no. Your brain doesn’t “think”; YOU think, using your brain


The brain is not a meat computer. Dramatic recoveries from brain injury highlight the difference

Instead of a question I'm going to phrase this as an assertion: It is possible for a designer to design a material designer. That assertion has nothing to do with religion or ID. I don't think it's objectionable to anyone. You agree. You've said so. Next assertion: The reason you're forced to contradict yourself, agreeing that the above is both possible while saying that it's not, is because the above statement, with which you explicitly agree, contradicts the logic by which you attempt to prove your religious belief that the human mind is immaterial. ID makes sense. Try to fit it to your religious beliefs and it stops making sense. Keep them separate. OldAndrew
I am not saying your scenario is impossible. ... I showed ID inherently requires an immaterial designer
Either you're contradicting yourself or you're not familiar with ID. Or both. ID stands for intelligent design, not immaterial design. ID, in a nutshell, is about inspecting a thing and determining whether or not intelligence was required for it to exist. It is absolutely not about the designer of the designer of the designer. Good grief, that's the anti-ID argument! Let's go over this again: I asserted that a designer (immaterial, for the sake of discussion) can design a material designer. You have said both
I am not saying your scenario is impossible.
Intelligent agency is necessarily immaterial
If the scenario of a material designer is possible then an intelligent agency (a designer) is not necessarily material. If a designer must be material (for reasons you have yet to clarify) then the scenario is impossible. Both cannot be true. You are both acknowledging that a designer may be material while asserting that it cannot be. Which is it? OldAndrew
@OA I am not saying your scenario is impossible. The original question is whether ID implies an immaterial designer, or if that is the injection of religion into the debate. I showed ID inherently requires an immaterial designer, and thus all instances of intelligent agency are immaterial, without any religious suppositions. Now, if we tack on the plausible premise that humans are intelligent agents, then this also means humans have immaterial souls. You are denying humans are intelligent agents, which is fine, in which case there is nothing that stops their operation from being reduced to material causes. My point is not that you are wrong in denying humans are intelligent agents, but that the notion humans have immaterial souls follows easily from the following two non-religious premises: 1. Intelligent agency is necessarily immaterial 2. Humans are intelligent agents EricMH
EricMH, Who is talking about an infinite regress? It's a classic anti-ID argument to switch focus from the subject immediately under examination and start talking about infinite regressions (who designed the designer?) It's not relevant in that context and it's not relevant here, for exactly the same reason. Allowing for the requirement that ultimately an immaterial designer is necessary (it's not quite relevant, but I don't object): You have an immaterial designer. That designer designs a human with a material mind, which in turn designs a tablet. You seem to be saying that the requirement for an immaterial designer somehow makes this impossible, but not why you think so. Are you saying that an immaterial designer cannot design a material mind? The scenario already assumes an immaterial designer, so it makes no sense to say that this is impossible because an immaterial designer is required. If you have a different line of reasoning, perhaps you could switch to that. You have not logically shown why an immaterial designer cannot design a material designer. OldAndrew
@OA being the product of design does not make something more than chance and necessity. The tablet is designed, but it's operation is reducible to just chance and necessity, i.e. we can model its entire operation using a Turing machine. It seems like when a person designs a tablet they are creating something new. The tablet was not just a necessary outcome of the person's environment and brain chemistry. If we grant that premise, then since chance and necessity cannot generate new information, the operation of the person's mind that resulted in the tablet design cannot be reduced to chance and necessity. You don't have to grant that premise, and instead assume there is some inscrutable process of natural law that results in tablets. However, as you point out, that just passes the buck, and we are left with an even greater amount of information to explain. The only way the regress can end is with a cause outside of chance and necessity (physical law), and thus an immaterial first cause. This is why information theory proves there is something outside the physical order of our universe, without any recourse to religion, etc. EricMH
But, the originator of the tablet design must be immaterial per my argument. Since there can be no tablet without the tablet design, then the tablet’s ultimate origin is also immaterial.
I'm following that. But the argument to which you refer is nonexistent. I can't dispute it because you didn't actually say anything. Or perhaps it just needs lots of clarification. As far as I understand, the designer can be material. It can be a flesh-and-blood person with a mind made of matter. This is the argument I've seen against that premise:
However, you are talking about generation, and chance and necessity cannot generate the tablet or your body. That is why something beyond chance and necessity, i.e. a halting oracle, is necessary for your tablet and body to exist. So, the generating source cannot be material in either case.
(emphasis mine.) Your use of the word "so" implies that something in the preceding sentences explains why the designer of my tablet must be immaterial. To rephrase the above argument, as I understand it: The generating source for your tablet cannot be material because chance and necessity cannot generate it. You seem to be saying that the designer of the tablet cannot be material because material = chance and necessity. But if the designer of the tablet - a person - is itself the product of design (isn't that what we both think?) then that human, material designer is more than chance and necessity. Nothing in your argument explains why the human designer of the tablet cannot be material. I think you're saying that if you back further, to the designer of the designer, something must be immaterial. If that's the case then I don't disagree, but it's not relevant. Ok, there must be an immaterial designer somewhere down the line. But why can't an immaterial designer design and create a material designer (human) which in turn designs a tablet? Your logic seems to depend on saying that can't happen. But why can't it happen? How does your logic show that a human mind can't be material? OldAndrew
@TR, do you have links to these blind from birth NDEs? They sound like conclusive evidence for the soul. EricMH
Or how about cases where people missing almost all of their brain, except for the outer lining that live normal lives and some are even incredibly talented? SEVERAL cases of this. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/remarkable-story-of-maths-genius-who-had-almost-no-brain-1.1026845 https://www.iflscience.com/brain/man-tiny-brain-lived-normal-life/ Tom Robbins
So do we just dismiss all of the very real NDE studies that have now firmly moved into the realm of scientific studies with very solid protocols and controls, that, unless you are a blockheaded materialist, prove that our brain is certainly a machine and a machine only. Just like other organs it serves a purpose for us, but is not "US", It is a computer/processor/receiver. But when several cases where people blind from birth, with no optical nerve left - and they don't see "dark" BTW, as many think, they see NOTHING, suddenly can see after coding or even being declared dead in the operating theater, and it turns out it is more than verifiable as they recount where people stood, what the machines looked like, not in a dreamy haze, but in an enhanced state of awareness - na they were just making lucky guesses?? There is no other explanation for at least 4 that I know of, documented cases, a couple where sworn affidavits were taken from the doctors and staff , where a person blind from birth could see for the first time - there is no other explanation for what they report, none, zero... what makes you YOU, is not in the machine of your brain. Quantum Mechanics hints strongly that this can be backed up scientifically, and indeed many of QM's creators, simply say that the MIND is primary, spacetime and matter are secondary. But for some reason, no matter how many cases we observe of this, an no matter that a huge scientific study in Europe recently confirmed that it is likely consciousness survives what we call clinical death, they just won't/can't even entertain the idea. Don't want to be labeled a nut - well if I am nuts, then Max Planck and many others, that have derived the most successful theory in the history of any science, are also nuts, good crowd to be in. If you are interested, I can find you the research articles on these cases and 10's of thousands of other cases, some andictodtal, many now verified experience. AND no, they are not caused by hypoxia to the brain or by drugs or hallucinations, as they are all described as more real than this reality, not dreamlike - and a person blind from birth? That blows away these typical materialist handwaving "explanations", and of course they have never even bothered to read the case notes, or speak to the doctors or other staff involved... "All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force... We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter." - Max Planck Tom Robbins
@OA, the factory that put the tablet together can be fully automated and completely material. I agree with that point. But, the originator of the tablet design must be immaterial per my argument. Since there can be no tablet without the tablet design, then the tablet's ultimate origin is also immaterial. EricMH
EricMH, You're not supporting what you're asserting. The "generating source" for my tablet can be material. I think it is. You haven't explained why you think it can't be. OldAndrew
@OA, yep the tablet is reducible to chance and necessity and so are the physical aspects of your body. By reducible I mean the operation. However, you are talking about generation, and chance and necessity cannot generate the tablet or your body. That is why something beyond chance and necessity, i.e. a halting oracle, is necessary for your tablet and body to exist. So, the generating source cannot be material in either case. In the case of your tablet, it is the immaterial human soul that created it. In the case of your body, it is an even greater immaterial creator that created your body. This also demonstrates the greater creator is beyond us, because we cannot create information creators, yet the greater creator can create information creators (i.e. us). So, we see that information theory and science also proves something very much like the traditional concept of God must also exist. Again, no religion, philosophy or ID required to reach this conclusion. EricMH
EricMH, Your reasoning requires explanation. Can all matter be reduced to chance and necessity? Does that include the tablet I'm typing this on? Does it include my body? I don't think either results from chance or necessity. The weird argument you're using to support the need for an immaterial mind would explicitly refute ID. It also seems like you're begging the question. If I'm material then I am evidence that information does not require an immaterial mind. OldAndrew
Here's a formalization of the claim that intelligent agency (halting oracle) can break the law of information non-growth (i.e. create information): https://www.am-nat.org/site/law-of-information-non-growth/ This substantiates the ID claim that intelligence creates information and is empirically detectable within traditional information theory and computer science. EricMH
Immaterial existence is a logical deduction from Leonid Levin's law of information non-growth (also proven independently by Bill Dembski): 1. chance and necessity cannot create information 2. all of matter reduces to chance and necessity, i.e. the laws of physics are computable 3. contrapositive of 1 & 2 means existence of information implies an immaterial information creator 4. information exists 5. by 3 and 4 an immaterial information creator exists It's a short step from there to humans having an immaterial soul: 1. from the first argument, the information creator is immaterial 2. humans create information 3. by 1 and 2 humans have an immaterial information creation component (i.e. soul) No religion, philosophy or even ID involved here. Just the combination of well known information theory and scientific observation. EricMH
We don't know how the brain works. We don't know how human consciousness exists. That doesn't put us in a very good position to declare that consciousness isn't a function of our physical brains. There is no parallel between this and scientism. The rise of life and complex function from inanimate matter is, based on all we know, impossible. We can't say the same about the premise that consciousness resides in the brain. It feels like a transparent attempt to ground in science the beliefs some religions have an in immaterial soul. I agree with the premise and reasoning of ID. Some people see it as an attempt to fit science to their religious beliefs. When the latter see that team ID actually is trying to fit science to their belief in an immaterial soul, it detracts from ID. It's also contradictory. After stating that a designer is capable of imagining and implementing all the intricacies of biology, we also suggest that said designer is incapable of building consciousness in a physical, biological form. Yes, I've heard the stories of people who lose parts of their brain and retain their identity. So the designer also implemented some amazing redundancy. One case varies from another. Sometimes people become vegetables and stare into space until they die. In fact, for a physical brain to contain our thoughts, memories, emotions, and identity is powerful evidence in favor of intelligent design. It's funny how some people want to throw away evidence that favors intelligent design so that they can indirectly discredit intelligent design with pseudoscience that supports their religious beliefs. I get that brain size isn't everything. But isn't it peculiar that humans have larger brains than the overwhelming majority of animals? The premise that our minds are immaterial only makes sense if you start from that religiously-based conclusion and try to make the evidence fit. And it doesn't fit. OldAndrew
I don’t understand the point of this. The brain is a machine, of course. A machine is a system that consists of physical parts that work according to the law of cause and effect.
Hmm. Aren't living cells just a bit different from a mechanical machine as there is a non-material informational component that differentiates life from non-life? Perhaps it is a similar non-material component that differentiates you from your brain. Latemarch
I don't understand the point of this. The brain is a machine, of course. A machine is a system that consists of physical parts that work according to the law of cause and effect. FourFaces

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