Round 2: Philosopher Papineau Replies to Neurosurgeon Egnor

Yesterday, we published a portion of the transcript of the debate between materialist philosopher David Papineau amd neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, in which Egnor explains how, despite early atheism, the practice of medicine led him to believe that there is a God and that the mind is not simply what the brain does. He offered three reasons. Today, here’s a transcript of David Papineau’s reply. Starts, roughly, at 9:00 min:

Note: Dr. Papineau is a “physicalist,” a form of materialism according to which “the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” (Philosophy basics) He is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.”

David Papineau: I too was brought up as an atheist, a scientific atheist, and I too have spent much of my life thinking about just the things that Michael has been thinking about, Michael’s been talking about. I mean, I trained as a mathematician, I did some physics, I did a lot of mathematic statistics, before I started doing philosophy, and I didn’t have any conversion experience. I regarded it as a very interesting question, how to understand many of the things Michael was talking about within the scientific materialism worldview, but in the course of thinking about these things, I didn’t see any reason at all to give up the scientific worldview, or to augment it, because I think that all the things that Michael is talking about could perfectly well be understood within it.

Let me just think about some of the things that Michael mentioned. Consciousness and the workings of the mind, generally, well in philosophy, philosophy of cognitive science, regards this as the main challenge, to understand how human beings as physical systems can display intelligence, consciousness, reasoning, and so on. There’s lots to be said about that. I’m not see we have any definite argument that the materialist project couldn’t succeed, so we’re going to have to look at some details.

I mean, to be more specific, I’ve written a lot about intentionality, and try to understand it within a materialist perspective. I’ve written a lot about consciousness, and how to understand it within a materialist perspective. I’ve written a lot about teleology and purposes, and how to understand that within a materialist perspective. I’ve appealed to Darwinian thinking a lot, to explain these things. All these things talking about, I don’t dismiss them. I don’t eliminate them. I think that they’re perfectly good theories, that do explain them from a materialist point of view.

Note: “Darwinian thinking” here probably means evolutionary psychology, an effort to explain the human mind as the result of a long series of situations in which smarter animals were more successful in producing fertile offspring than less smart ones. It has inspired many articles in popular media. For example, “anger over trivial matters (it was once key to our survival), dreams (they increase reproductive fitness),  false memories, (there might be a tiger in that tall grass…), menopause (men pursuing younger women), monogamy (control of females or else infanticide prevention — of one’s own children only), music (to ward off danger), premenstrual syndrome (breaks up infertile relationships), romantic love (not an emotion, rather a hardwired drive to reproduce), rumination on hurt feelings (our brains evolved to learn quickly from bad experiences but slowly from the good ones), smiling (earlier, a cringe reaction), and wonder at the universe (explained by how early man lived)” – taken from Denyse O’Leary, Evolution News, November 5, 2014

David Papineau: So let me be a bit more specific, because Michael, apart from his biographical remarks, did gesture at some arguments, so we’re going to have to go into more detail, and Michael pointed to some things which he said he didn’t think could be explained by materialism, but I don’t know what he thinks about that I and other people have written about this.

I’d say the central problem in materialist cognitive science over the last 50 years is explaining about this, explaining how it is that one stands for another, how something going on inside my head can be about Lima, the capital of Peru, about the city on the other side of the world, and I have a lot of detailed things to say about that, what it is that makes it the case that states in my brain or the words that I’m uttering have a semantic significance.

David Papineau

And I don’t see why, just to point to this is an argument for dualism. Suppose I accepted that there was some extra stuff beyond the material stuff, some kind of ectoplasmic mind stuff. Why wouldn’t the same problem just be there? How can this ectoplasmic mind stuff point to something on the other side of the world? How is this magic done? It doesn’t seem, to me, much of a theory to posit something mysterious and then say, “Ah, because it’s mysterious, it can account for something that’s difficult to explain.” I think we need serious theories, and I think when we have serious theories, we see that they’re perfectly consistent with the materialist point of view. That’s the argument from intentionality.

And I think the argument from reasoning is pretty much part of the same thing. Michael said, “Well, look, there’s logical connections between thoughts I have, and when I reason, I reason in a way that involves a sequence of thoughts having logical connections with each other.” I agree and that’s possible, because my thoughts, which I think of as material states of the brain, have semantic significance. They’re about things.

They’re about Lima being the capital of Peru, and I’ll say about Peru being in South America, and therefore Lima is in South America. I mean, I can have a sequence of thoughts that have that semantic content, and if they have that semantic content, then there’s logical connections between them, and if I reason in that way, I’m reasoning logically, and if I go Lima’s the capital of Peru, and Peru’s in South America, so Lima’s in North America, then I’m not reasoning logically, and I don’t see any difficulty for materialism explaining that. So I’m kind of curious about why Michael thinks just pointing to these things amounts to an argument.

I feel the same about consciousness. I mean, I don’t see any argument, we haven’t had one yet, that the qualia, the what-it’s-likeness, the feelings I have, are anything different from my mind undergoing certain processes. That’s what it’s like for me when I’m a being with a certain kind of physical brain. I’m a being who’s got a visual cortex. I’ve got certain kind of oscillations in B4. What’s it like to be a being like that? Well, it’s like being a being who’s looking at Michael shirt, say, and having the experience of seeing something red. I don’t see any argument to think that what’s involved in my seeing something red is anything more than my having certain oscillations in B4. There are arguments in this vicinity, but I haven’t seen them yet, and from my point of view, I don’t see any reason to think the argument goes the dualist way.

Note: Dualism is the acceptance that we live in a universe that can have different laws for different entities. There can be quantum mechanics for elementary particles but classical mechanics for large aggregations of particles. Life forms behave very differently from non-life forms. Humans think in ways that chimpanzees do not.

David Papineau: Having said all that, what I’m curious about is how it goes on the other side, because it seems to me there’s a very strong argument in favor of being a materialist and against being a dualist, and that’s the argument that has persuaded most modern scientists and philosophers to be materialists, when if you ask me, very few of them were materialists 100 years ago, 150 years ago. Why has this change happened? I don’t think it’s just a matter of a fashion. I think it’s because the scientific evidence has come in and shown us that there can’t be anything more to our mental life, our reasoning life, and so on, but physical processes.

And the argument is this, that science has shown us that the physical realm is causally closed, which is to say all physical effects are fully explained insofar as they are explainable at all, they aren’t just random, by prior physical states. And that includes the movement of our bodies, the movement of my lips

Think about it from [a] physiological point of view. … my lips moving and [I] asked the physiologist, “Why are my lips moving?” Well, because electrochemical messages are coming down the nerves from my own motor cortex to my lips? Why is that happening? Because various other electrochemical activities were going on in the brain beforehand. From the modern scientific point of view, it’s taken as given, on good evidence, that all physical effects have physical causes.

David Papineau’s book with Howard Selina

Now, if you think that, it looks like if you’re a dualist, view the extra, conscious stuff as just epiphenomenon. In [an] image, it’s like the train’s going along. That’s the brain, all these physical processes, and whoop, when it sends off some whistles, all very nice, but it doesn’t make any difference to what happens to the train, and I don’t see how somebody who embraces the dualist point of view that Michael wants to embrace can avoid epiphenomenon, if you end up with the consciousness being an inefficacious dangler. It’s something which maybe can sit there and observe what’s going on in the physical realm, but never makes any difference to the physical realm.

That seems, to me, a ridiculous point of view. The view that my emotions, feelings, thoughts, and so on don’t make any difference to what I do are… Well, if Michael wants to defend that, we can discuss it, but it seems to me an extremely absurd and unattractive position, so I don’t see how a serious scientific person can avoid being a materialist.

Note: It was materialists who called consciousness the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” Physicalism has not answered the critical questions about the mind and the brain. Consciousness studies has been described in Chronicle of Higher Education as bizarre.

David Papineau: Now, having said that, the causal closure of the physical is not any kind of obvious, a priori thesis. I’ve written a lot about the history of attitudes to this thesis, and I think if you look at it’s something that the modern scientific tradition has changed its mind on a number of times in the last 300 years, and it’s only in the last hundred years or so, even less, that the scientific community has become convinced of the causal closure of the physical. Go back 150 years ago, and not all, but I would say probably a significant majority of scientists, including neuroscientists, biochemists, and so on, believed in nervous forces. They believed in vital forces. They believed in forces beyond the standard physical standards, and they thought that they made a difference to the movements of matter.

Our days, no serious scientists believe in forces like that, which means that they all believe that physical effects have physical causes, and that doesn’t leave any room for a dualist mind to make any difference in the physical world. That’s why I think we have to accept that mental processes, including conscious processes, are one in the same as physical processes. Otherwise, they’re condemned to being epiphenomena. Michael, that’s an argument against your dualist point of view, so I’m curious about how you would answer it.

Next: And neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, of course, replies.


Here’s the first part of the debate: Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor takes on philosopher David Papineau Round 1. In the debate, Egnor begins by offering three fundamental reasons why the mind is not the brain. Neuroscience caused Egnor to honestly doubt Papineau’s materialist perspective that the mind is simply what the brain does.

You may also wish to read: Philosopher: Consciousness Is Not a Problem. Dualism Is! He says that consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something” Physicalist David Papineau argues that consciousness “seems mysterious not because of any hidden essence, but only because we think about it in a special way.” In short, it’s all in our heads. But wait, say others, the hard problem of consciousness is not so easily dismissed.

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