No, Memory is Not Magic


In a recent article posted on Evolution News and Views, the misleadingly-titled blog of the Discovery Institute (an anti-evolution think tank of the Intelligent Design movement), we find a neurosurgeon actually putting forth the bizarre and demonstrably false claim that the human brain does not and cannot store memory. The author, one Michael Egnor, titles his article “Recalling Nana’s Face: Does Your Brain Store Memories?” Answering in the negative, Egnor begins his article with these words:

A singular consequence of the materialist-mechanical metaphysics that permeates our culture and our sciences is that we commonly hold basic beliefs that are abject nonsense. One such belief is the almost ubiquitous one — among ordinary folks as well as neuroscientists and surprisingly many philosophers — that the brain “stores” memories. The fact is that the brain doesn’t store memories, and can’t store memories.

The Discovery Institute has propagated many pseudoscientific claims for the past 20 years, but this denial of the human brain’s memory-storage ability is the most bizarre I have yet encountered from one of their spokespersons. The Discovery Institute is an organization devoted to promoting the Intelligent Design hypothesis in both the scientific community as well as in the public arena. Their stated goal from the beginning has been to develop scientifically-respectable alternatives to the theory of evolution. The members and supporters of the Discovery Institute do not call themselves creationists, biblical or otherwise (even though it has been amply demonstrated by many investigators that they are in fact religiously-motivated creationists at bottom). Intelligent Design advocates have a vested interest in avoiding any open suggestion that their hypothesis implies the existence of magical or supernatural elements. This being the case, the Discovery Institute surely does not want to say that memory is a magical thing. And yet, as we will see more clearly as we read further into the article under consideration, this is exactly what the Discovery Institute’s own Michael Egnor seems to be saying. It would not be surprising to find explicit fiat creationists making this claim, since they are typically not shy about promoting substance dualism. But it is somewhat surprising coming from the Discovery Institute.

The first hints of Egnor’s archaic dualistic beliefs come in the following paragraph:

The brain is a physical thing. A memory is a psychological thing. A psychological thing obviously can’t be “stored” in the same way a physical thing can. It’s not clear how the term “store” could even apply to a psychological thing.

It may not be clear to Egnor how the term “store” could apply to psychological phenomena, but it is clear to anyone who understands how software works. Egnor’s statement is more than a textbook example of an argument from general ignorance. It is an appeal to Egnor’s own subjective ignorance. Unlike Egnor, cognitive neuroscientists are not intellectually challenged about how purely physical processes and mechanisms give rise to psychological phenomena.

Egnor does more than just present an appeal to ignorance. Later in his article, he engages in blatant denial of well-established scientific facts:

To assert that memories are stored in the brain is gibberish. And don’t fall for the materialist invocation of promissory materialism – “It’s just a limitation of our current scientific knowledge, and we promise that science will solve the problem in due time.” The assertion that the brain stores memories is logical nonsense that doesn’t even rise to the level of empirical testability.

What Egnor disparagingly calls “promissory materialism” is actually the reasonable attitude of not just acknowledging the limitations of our scientific knowledge, but also accepting the challenges such limitations present to us and facing them head on. Scientists who approach their work with Egnor’s defeatist attitude cannot hope to learn anything new. Just because Egnor has given up on learning about those subjects that bewilder him does not mean that anyone else should.

But cognitive neuroscientists do not even need to draft a promissory note for Egnor (as if they owe him an explanation anyway). There exist numerous well-documented physical and mental ailments that refute Egnor’s claim in short order. On Egnor’s absurd view, a person’s memory should not be affected in any way whatsoever by such things as amnesia, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, stroke, all manner of physical trauma and degenerative brain disorders, certain illicit substances, etc. Egnor’s claim is falsified by the reality of all these conditions.

Egnor next attempts to address what should be an obvious question:

How then, you reasonably ask, can we explain the obvious dependence of memory on brain structure and function? While it is obvious that the memories aren’t stored, it does seem that some parts of the brain are necessary ordinarily for memory. And that’s certainly true.

The only person to whom it is “obvious” that memories are not stored in the brain is Michael Egnor. It’s not obvious to actual practicing neuroscientists. More importantly, it appears as though Egnor has just contradicted himself here by admitting that “some parts of the brain are necessary ordinarily for memory.” But then we read on and find that Egnor is setting up a “necessary versus sufficient” argument:

But necessary does not mean sufficient. There is a rough correspondence between activity in certain regions of the brain and the exercise of certain mental powers. That is what cognitive neuroscientists properly study.

The correspondence between certain mental functions and specific regions of the brain has been demonstrated by developments in the field of cognitive neuroscience beyond all reasonable doubt. Characterizing such correspondence as “rough” does not, in my opinion, give justice to the level of confidence which modern neuroscience has achieved in its results. And while it is true that we cannot logically conclude causation from correlation alone, we can nevertheless go beyond deduction and use induction to develop evidence-based hypotheses that are supported by the experimental and observational data. And all the available evidence so far points to the conclusion that the mind is what the brain does and nothing more. (For an excellent survey of this evidence, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s 1997 book How the Mind Works to interested readers.)

Egnor then descends into pure gibberish:

In some cases the correspondence between brain and memory is one of tight necessity — the brain must have a specific activity for memory to be exercised. But the brain activity is not the same thing as the memory nor does it make any sense at all to say the brain activity codes for the memory or that the brain stores the memory.

Egnor’s assertion seems to be that the human brain is capable of accessing memory, but not of storing it. This thesis is very similar to the pseudoscientific and woo-laden “theory” of morphic resonance, developed by prominent parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake. According to this notion, the human brain functions as little more than a passive receiver of information. Any and all information entering the brain is said to originate in some kind of supernatural and/or holistic thought realm and is only accessed by the brain but not stored.

The major problem with this thesis is the same problem that has plagued dualistic philosophy for centuries, and which to this day has never been resolved satisfactorily by the few dualist holdouts that remain: How can a physical brain access or otherwise interact with a supernatural realm? Of course it cannot, because natural things by definition cannot engage in supernatural activities.

In the concluding paragraphs of his article, Egnor finally gets around to explicitly addressing the dualism inherent in his argument and making a lame apology for it:

What this all implies is that only some kind of dualism can provide a coherent understanding of the mind. But dualism is a many-headed hydra, and I don’t think that Cartesian dualism or property dualism or epiphenomenalism or computational theories of the mind (which are inherently dualistic) explain things well either.

I hew to Thomistic dualism, which is a coherent view of the mind that takes an Aristotelian perspective and for which the participation of the brain in memory is not problematic at all.

Dualism in general is the position that the material and the mental (read “spiritual”) are two fundamental and distinct phenomena or principles. According to dualism, mind and matter are ontologically separate domains and cannot be reduced one to the other. Under this worldview, the brain is a material thing while consciousness is often equated with the immaterial concept of soul. The Thomistic strain of dualism which Egnor prefers is a medieval modification of hylomorphism, the term given to the psychological theory of matter and form developed by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) maintained that rational capacity constitutes the essential or “substantial form” of human beings, who exist as composites of matter and form. Under this telling, rational capacity is a property of form (i.e., soul) alone.

Egnor asserts without evidence or explanation that Thomistic dualism is a “coherent view of the mind,” apparently expecting his readers to take his word for it. But how does Thomistic dualism solve the problem of how a physical thing (the brain) participates in what is supposed to be a spiritual phenomenon (memory and other mental processes)? The fact is that it does not solve the problem at all.

When all is said, Egnor’s case turns out to be a “dualism-of-the-gaps” argument that can only be maintained by completely ignoring what modern neuroscience has revealed about brain function. This ignorance must come easy to someone like Egnor, who would have us discard the modern scientific method that has served us so well for the past 400 years and regress to the long-obsolete paradigm of Aristotelian metaphysics that dominated the European Dark Ages. His backwards way of thinking is complemented by his fallacy of asserting that just because he doesn’t understand how physical brain activity gives rise to mental capabilities such as memory storage, no one can.

I completely reject the notion of dualism in all its varied manifestations. So do the vast majority of philosophers and scientists today. As an account of human nature it has been rendered completely pointless and unnecessary by the findings of modern neuroscience. These findings strongly indicate that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that can in fact be reduced to the interactions between material particles and the forces the mediate these interactions. If nothing else, the notion of dualism is a violation of the principle of Occam’s razor, which states that “entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.”


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