Thursday, July 6, 2017

Can the Brain Explain it All?

Michael Egnor is a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon who has long been haunted, in his words, by the question whether our material brains are all that's responsible for our cognitive experience or whether in addition to the material brain we also possess an immaterial mind. In an article at First Things he describes a disconcerting experience he had while operating on a patient who was talking to him while he was in the process of removing her frontal lobes.

He writes:
Francis Crick, neuroscientist and co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA, expressed the widespread view that the mind is a function of material stuff: “A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influenced them.”
But, Egnor goes on to ask, if that materialist view is true, "How is it possible to converse with someone while removing the large portions of her brain that serve thought and reasoning?"

Egnor explains why he's skeptical that the materialist view is correct:
I’m a neuroscientist and professor of neurosurgery. The mind-brain question haunts me. Neurosurgeons alter the brain on a daily basis, and what we find doesn’t fit the prevailing view that the brain runs the mind as computer hardware runs software.

I have scores of patients who are missing large areas of their brains, yet who have quite good minds. I have a patient born with two-thirds of her brain absent. She’s a normal junior high kid who loves to play soccer. Another patient, missing a similar amount of brain tissue, is an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in English.

How can this be? It wasn’t until I read Thomas Aquinas that I began to understand.

The human soul also has intellect and will, powers of a wholly different kind. With our intellect, we can think of universal concepts, such as mercy and justice and abstract mathematics. With our will, we can act on abstract principles. Because thinking of abstract concepts entails thoughts removed from particular things, Aquinas reasoned, intellect couldn’t be a material thing. Intellect and will are immaterial powers.

Aquinas taught that our soul’s immaterial powers are only facilitated by matter, not caused by it, and the correlation is loose. His insight presaged certain findings of modern neuroscience.

Wilder Penfield, an early-twentieth-century neurosurgeon who pioneered seizure surgery, noted that during brain stimulation on awake patients, he was never able to stimulate the mind itself—the sense of “I”—but only fragmented sensations and perceptions and movements and memories. Our core identity cannot be evoked or altered by physical stimulation of the brain.

Relatedly, Penfield observed that spontaneous electrical discharges in the brain cause involuntary sensations and movements and even emotions, but never abstract reasoning or calculation. There are no “calculus” seizures or “moral” seizures, in which patients involuntarily take second derivatives or ponder mercy.
One objection to the suggestion that we possess an immaterial mind is that interaction between the material and the immaterial seems incomprehensible. That may be true, but that's not a reason to think that they don't interact. After all, we can't comprehend how a material object like a star can warp an immaterial entity like space, but ever since Einstein we believe it happens. Nor can we comprehend how striking our thumb with a hammer, a material action, can cause the immaterial sensation of pain, but we know it does.

Egnor injects a very disturbing bit of research into his essay when he reminds us of the discovery that at least some comatose individuals are actually conscious:
In the past decade, British researcher Adrian Owen has found using fMRI imaging that some patients with such severe brain damage that they are considered to be in a persistent vegetative state are actually capable of sophisticated thought. The “comatose” patients’ brain scans show that, in reply to questions by an examiner, the patients are in fact thinking and imagining.
This is disturbing because it means that at least some people in comas are actually aware and thinking, but completely unable to communicate with the outside world. They're trapped in their bodies, which must be a hellish condition.

Egnor concludes with this asseveration:
Materialism, the view that matter is all that exists, is the premise of much contemporary thinking about what a human being is. Yet evidence from the laboratory, operating room, and clinical experience points to a less fashionable conclusion: Human beings straddle the material and immaterial realms.
If he's correct then it could well be that we are possessed of a mind which very well could be immune to the death of the body. In other words, contrary to the pronouncements of materialists like Francis Crick, and as hard as it may be for some of them to believe, our physical death may not be the end of our existence.