Monday, December 23, 2013

"... there’s something about neurosurgeons that make them especially susceptible to woo."

Jerry Coyne thinks my profession is a bit woo-prone:
I am starting to think that there’s something about neurosurgeons that make them especially susceptible to woo. Perhaps it’s because they work on the brain, and marvel at the connection between the piece of meat they stick scalpels into and the mind that comes from that meat. Or perhaps it’s something else, but there does seem to be a trend. Think of creationist flack Michael Egnor, heaven-visitor Eben Alexander (author ofProof of Heaven, in which he had a near-death experience, saw God, and made a ton of dosh), and evolution denialist Ben Carson, who got a Presidential Medal of Freedom but says he doesn’t have the “faith” to accept evolution. All of these men are neurosurgeons.
Coyne then goes after Sanjay Gupta for being insufficiently dismissive in an interview with Joel Osteen.

Neurosurgeons are indeed an idiosyncratic bunch. Perhaps it's the egos, or the stress, or the peculiar lot of neurosurgeons to have to face mortality daily without blinders. We see a lot of stuff.

Quite a few of my colleagues are seriously religious people. Probably no more than the general public, but certainly more than many of our basic science colleagues in fields such as evolutionary biology.

Materialism has less appeal when you're up to your elbows in it, and you see that there are so many aspects of life that materialism is blind to. I started out in this business thirty years ago pretty much a materialist. That didn't last long, just as a young soldier's fantasies of combat don't long survive the first bullets.

A few years of doing neurosurgery and treating patients day and night convinced me that man is a whole lot more than matter.

There's a lot of woo out there, because life is a mystery. Ultimately, we all rely on faith-- faith is merely a metaphysical inference drawn from incomplete evidence.

Here's my faith, and here's Coyne's:

I believe:

In God the Father
In Christ
In the Holy Spirit
In the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and in Christ's miracles
In the immateriality and eternity of the soul
In objective moral law and the reality of sin
In grace and forgiveness and redemption

Coyne believes:

Everything came from nothing.
Nothing has an ultimate purpose.
The laws of nature happen without a law-giver.
'Survivors survived' is a scientific explanation for life.
Men have no souls.
The human mind is meat drippings.
There is no objective moral law.
There is no free will.

Christianity, as I see it, fits life like a key fits a lock.

Coyne's atheist faith, as I see it, is sophomoric gibberish indistinguishable from mental illness.

Pick your woo.


  1. We're more than just animated meat. I don't know why that's controversial, but it is.


    1. Yea, you wouldn't think.

      Skeptics should be more restrictive with woo, the catch-all phrase for beliefs which are not their own. I'm not sure how belief in free will is equivalent to believing in, say, homeopathy or astrology.


  2. Egnor,

    Well, you don't have any evidence for your beliefs. And you're deliberately distorting what Jerry Coyne believes or accepts to be true.

    'Survivors survive' is an idiot's description of natural selection.

  3. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyDecember 23, 2013 at 8:12 AM

    backfire: "you don't have any evidence for your beliefs"

    That statement, and its many versions, is staple fare from modern atheists, and has been for centuries.

    It simply illustrates a profound understanding of faith.

    Faith is not arrived at by poring over dusty tomes; faith is not found in refereed journals; faith cannot be discovered in drift chambers; faith is not derived from mathematical equations; faith is not established in learned debates and disputations; faith is not the result of logic...

    Margarine is better than nothing;
    Nothing is better than butter;
    Therefore, margarine is better than butter. ;-)

    Faith is man's response to God. Faith is a verb.

    Noah's faith built the ark. It was not raining at the time.

    Faith bound Isaac's hands on the top of a mountain.

    Faith carried Moses, a stuttering fugitive, to confront the most powerful man in the world.

    But perhaps the most stunning example of faith in the entire Bible is from the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3:

    Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar, “There is no need for us to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, you should know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up."

    That is faith.

    1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyDecember 23, 2013 at 8:14 AM

      typo alert: It simply illustrates a profound MISunderstanding of faith.

    2. Adm:

      I love that passage from Daniel. I agree that it is an eloquent affirmation of faith.

      I will not serve their idols, regardless of what happens.

      George Will's best essay is about it:

      "In 1940 a British officer on Dunkirk beach sent London a three-word message: ``But if not.'' It was instantly recognized as from the Book of Daniel. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are commanded to worship a golden image or perish, they defiantly reply: ``Our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods. ...''

      Britain then still had the cohesion of a common culture of shared reading. That cohesion enabled Britain to stay the hand of Hitler, a fact pertinent to today's new age of barbarism."

  4. El Booto: I'm in zen mood today,I wrote koan for you.

    Jerry : OK, let me hear it.

    El Booto: Sharp sword
    Dull mind
    You are an atheist

    1. Eugen,

      How about this one

      A one sided Coyne

      Nothing has purpose to him.
      Purpose is nothing to him.
      Anything he says means nothing

    2. Rex, I LIKE that. I'm going to write it down and save it.

      Merry Christmas!!!

  5. Finally, a post about neuroscience!

    Your biggest fan

    1. If I am not mistaken, neurosurgery relies on the study of neuroscience as a primary subject.

  6. Mike,

    Keep the woo!

  7. "That didn't last long, just as a young soldier's fantasies of combat don't long survive the first bullets."
    It is on the fringes of our mortality that the core eliminative materialism and the connected (interwoven?) nihilism of these 'worldviews' becomes most obviously flawed. When life is being spent like currency and miracles seem to present themselves with a little more frequency.
    It is when we see the harsh contrasts that purpose and meaning are most clear.

  8. Let's go through Egnor's distorted account of Jerry Coyne's views.

    'Everything came from nothing'. No. The Universe came from the Big Bang. But anyway - if you add the energy in ordinary matter, dark matter, dark energy, the photons left over from the glow of the Big Bang and all the neutrinos, and then add in the negative energy of gravity, it exactly cancels out to zero. The Universe is 'nothing'. Nothing came from nothing.

    'Nothing has ultimate purpose'. True. You create your own purpose. If you're lucky, you'll be remembered, such as Mozart is remembered. Unlike the archbishop of Salzburg who made Mozart's life a misery. What's-his-name? The fate of almost all of us is to be forgotten eventually. Forever.

    'The laws of nature occur without a lawgiver'. True. It's a metaphor. Laws of nature describe regularities in nature. If gravitation suddenly stopped working, we wouldn't be here. Either the Earth would fly out of the solar system or the Sun would expand immediately into a red giant engulfing the Earth. Human made laws can be revoked. As too can the laws of God with the new covenant of the New Testament. Giving rise to the very strong suspicion that the laws of God were written by humans. Laws of nature can't be revoked.

    "''Survivors survive' is a scientific explanation for life". It's actually a better summary of teleological evolution, which Egnor prefers. 'God did something somewhere somewhen by unknown mechanisms and for unknown reasons, to grant a species a new or altered function, to cope with some future changed circumstances, unless God decides not to do so, again for unknown reasons, and the species goes extinct'. Survivors survive, in short.

    'Men have no souls'. What about women? Anyway - true. How about some evidence that souls exist?

    'The human mind is meat droppings'. Sort of true, if it's meant that the mind is a product of the brain. It's one of the things the brain does.

    'There is no objective moral law'. False - humans make moral law. One individual can't decide for him- or herself which laws to follow and which not.

    'There is no free will'. True - but there is free won't. A person is still responsible for his or her actions, and is still culpable for crimes committed, because free won't wasn't employed.

    1. bach:

      Some 12 year old has gotten into your house and is typing metaphysics under your moniker on your computer.

      You need to be more careful about computer security.

    2. Egnor,

      Very droll. When I was a pathologist writing reports for surgeons, I was told by one of my betters that I should write reports able to be understood by an average year 5 student, which would correspond to a 12 year old.

      In your case, it would have to be at 10 year old level.

      And your objections to my comments? Or aren't you intelligent enought to formulate them?

    3. Hi Bachfiend,
      I have written a response to almost each one. A response to each of mine would be greatly appreciated, as aside from the long quote, I took the time to make the responses, and would be grateful if you showed the respect towards them of replying!

      "'Everything came from nothing'. No. The Universe came from the Big Bang. But anyway - if you add the energy in ordinary matter, dark matter, dark energy, the photons left over from the glow of the Big Bang and all the neutrinos, and then add in the negative energy of gravity, it exactly cancels out to zero. The Universe is 'nothing'. Nothing came from nothing."

      What created the universe? This doesn't answer it. Energy is a creation and needs a cause, as stated in the first law of thermodynamics. According to the zero energy balance, zero energy was the total before and after the big bang. Quoting Jeff Miller, "First of all, notice that Hawking boldly proclaims two significant assumptions that cannot even remotely be verified. (1) The Universe must be “approximately uniform in space”; and (2) The “negative gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero” (1988, p. 129, emp. added). How, pray tell, could Hawking know such things about this vast and infinitely complex Universe without being omniscient?
      Second, notice that he says, “in a sense, the gravitational field has negative energy” (1988, p. 129, emp. added). The words, “in a sense,” are significant, because they highlight the fact that gravitational energy is not really inherently “negative.” We call it “negative” from a certain viewpoint when we have such a thing as a directional axis to compare its effect with; but, in actuality, gravitational energy is simply energy—regardless of its sign. Hawking, himself, used the term “energy” to describe gravity. Whether or not it is considered “negative” is not the question. The question in light of the First Law is, where did it come from?

      Third, this line of reasoning implies that things could and should be popping into existence all around us all the time, as long as those items have enough negative gravitational energy to offset them. Particles, rocks, and infinitely complex Universes should be popping into existence, since such occurrences—according to these physicists—would not violate a natural law. But wait. That does not happen. It has never been observed to occur even once. And our common sense verifies that it will not happen. Science does not support such a hypothesis. The hypothesis is unscientific.

      Fourth, consider: is there energy in the Universe today that would not have been in existence before the supposed big bang? Yes. If I were to ask Hawking and Stenger if energy exists in the Universe today,

    4. what do you suppose they would say? To ask is to answer. But the First Law prohibits the creation of energy. So, the question is not whether the energy balance before and after the big bang is still zero. The important question in light of the First Law is whether or not there is energy in the Universe today that was not there before the big bang. The answer would have to be, “yes.” In fact, there are, by Hawking’s own admission, “negative” and “positive” energies in existence. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, they could not have created themselves. Therefore, God must exist.

      In essence, Hawking and those who hold to his position are playing word games with “zero.” It is like the man who holds out an empty fist and asks a child, “What am I holding in my hand?” The child responds, “Nothing.” The man continues, “What is stronger than God?” The child responds, “Nothing.” The man then concludes, “So, what I’m holding in my hand is stronger than God.” In logic, this is known as a “fallacy of equivocation,” which the Collins English Dictionary defines as “a fallacy based on the use of the same term in different senses, esp. as the middle term of a syllogism, as the badger lives in the bank, and the bank is in the High Street, so the badger lives in the High Street” (2003, ital. in orig.; cf. Baum, 1975, pp. 477-478). While there is a Universal energy balance of zero in Hawking’s model, it does not mean that there is actually zero energy in the Universe. On the contrary, the exorbitant amount of energy in the Universe calls for an explanation that can only be given by the Creation model.

      In the words of Stenger:

      Conservation of energy [i.e., the First Law of Thermodynamics—JM] and other basic laws hold true in the most distant observed galaxy and in the cosmic microwave background, implying that these laws have been valid for over thirteen billion years [NOTE: we do not hold to this deep time supposition—JM]. Surely any observation of their violation during the puny human life span would be reasonably termed a miracle…. In principle, the creation hypothesis could be confirmed by the direct observation or theoretical requirement that conservation of energy was violated 13.7 billion years ago at the start of the big bang (pp. 115-116, emp. added).

      It is truly ironic that Stenger, himself, while attempting to dismiss the necessity of the supernatural in explaining the origin of the Universe, “confirmed” the existence of God through the “theoretical requirement that conservation of energy was violated” in the beginning of time. It is sad that Stenger’s admission on this point illustrates that, prior to Hawking’s development of this argument, Stenger recognized the need for the supernatural in explaining the origin of energy, since no “scientific” argument was available. Why, sir, did you not accept God before that point? And why, sir, do you not

    5. accept Him now, since He alone can account for the existence of the awesome Universe in which we reside?"

      "'Nothing has ultimate purpose'. True."
      As you have in many posts questioned theist views, would you care to give logical proofs if not physical evidence? Perhaps extrinsic evidence like the five proofs of Aquinas?
      "'The laws of nature occur without a lawgiver'. True."
      This is actually an ontological argument for the creation of the universal composition which we learn to observe and describe as laws. Do you have proof that God is not the lawgiver? Considering that you say it is true that God is not the lawgiver, (considering this is ontological and not only epistemological) can you explain how the laws of nature came to be?
      "'Men have no souls'. What about women? Anyway - true" If God exists, then it shouldn’t surprise us that other immaterial entities also exist that have causal powers in the physical realm.
      Of course, I don't expect anyone who reads this and is a positivist to believe in this, however, I invite them to at least provide an argument against the existence of a soul.
      Furthermore, no one can logically say that no evidence of soul exists obviously. The logical choice for an atheist here would be that they simply don't know. If they don't believe, then some premise should be made. If the claim that no evidence exists is made, this is illogical. I hope I don't have to explain why (it has to do with epistemology)!
      'There is no objective moral law'. False - humans make moral law. One individual can't decide for him- or herself which laws to follow and which not.
      If humans make moral laws, then wouldn't it be ontologically a subjective creation? If this is so, then I do not understand how the following conclusion was made of an individual not being able to follow him/her own laws. Unless I am mistaken this is a contradictory assumption. If a human makes his/her own laws, then they should be able to follow their own created moral laws.
      'There is no free will'. True - but there is free won't. A person is still responsible for his or her actions, and is still culpable for crimes committed, because free won't wasn't employed."
      Free won't is a part of free will. The desire to not follow a certain action or though is still a product of will.
      In this link you can find out about how there is no free won't. Keep in mind that antecedent brain activity predicting decisions to inhibit certain cognition does not imply an absence of free will, as the components of the personality must be taken into consideration when discussing the origin of these cognitions, including behaviorist conditioning explanations and psycho-dynamic unconscious forces.

  9. El Booto: Where did this universe come from ?
    Jerry : It's just part of the multiverse.
    El Booto: Where did multiverse come from?
    Jerry : Can you go out and play?

    Merry Christmas!!