The Reality of the Mind: The Epilepsy Argument


In the recent debate between neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and philosopher David Papineau, “Atheist Philosopher and Christian Neurosurgeon Debate Materialism” at Theology unleashed, there was a sort of digression at 49:30 on the nature of thought. Dr Egnor talks about what he has learned from his experiences with the treatment of epilepsy and Dr Papineau responds.

To note: Dr Papineau is a “physicalist”. From this point of view, “the mind is a purely physical construction and will ultimately be fully explained by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” (Basics of philosophy) He is considered one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often referred to as “materialism”.

Michel Egnor: There are three metaphysical questions that I think neuroscience can inferentially answer about the mind-brain relationship. The first question is: is the mind metaphysically simple? That is, can it be divided into parts? The second question is: are there aspects of the mind that are intangible? And the third question is: is free will real? [00:50:00] The intangible is a good starting point.

Wilder Penfield, who pioneered epileptic neurosurgery in the mid-20th century, found that when he performed “awake craniotomies” to treat patients with epilepsy, these patients were fully awake during surgery, under local anesthesia, from so they didn’t feel I did the same kind of surgery) that he couldn’t evoke any abstract thought or intellectual content about stimulating the brain. He could invoke movement… he could evoke sensations, he could evoke emotions and he could evoke memories. He couldn’t conjure up abstract thinking.

Note: awake craniotomy “Awake brain surgery, also called an awake craniotomy, is a type of procedure performed on the brain while you are awake and alert. Awake brain surgery is used to treat certain brain (neurological) conditions, including certain brain tumors or seizures. Why? “Surgery while you are awake reduces the risk of damaging critical areas of the brain that control speech and other skills.” – Mayo Clinic

Michel Egnor: He also noted that there are no crises that evoke intellectual content, and I have seen the same. There are no forms of epilepsy where people have calculus seizures, logical seizures, or philosophical seizures. Crises always evoke [00:51:00] either perceptions, movements, emotions or memories. And Penfield asked, why is there an entire class of mental content that is never evoked by seizures, and can never be evoked by direct stimulation, and that is abstract thinking? There’s a lot more to this, but it’s a starting point.

Arjuna [host]: David, are you going to answer that one?

David Papineau: Excuse me, is that your proof? Is this your proof of dualism?

Michel Egnor: [00:51:30] He’s one of them. Yes of course.

David Papineau: Penfield therefore placed electrodes in specific places in the brain and stimulated them …

Michel Egnor: I do too, and he’s right… You can’t bring up intellectual content. My question is why not?

David Papineau: Well, because intellectual content is not located in specific places in the brain. It is distributed throughout the brain. What are you waiting for?

Michel Egnor: The seizures are distributed throughout the brain. Why don’t they evoke intellectuals… Why [00:52:00] Isn’t there a single case report in the medical history? No, David, why isn’t there a single case report in the medical history of a seizure that evokes intellectual content? One, David? …

David Papineau: I’m not a neuroscientist, but I can imagine the obvious explanation immediately, which is that intellectual thoughts involve complex structures in the brain, and epileptic seizures are incompatible with the presence of these. [00:52:30] organized and complex structures. This is an obvious explanation.

Michel Egnor: But that’s not true, David. This is not true at all. … There are crises that evoke complex memories, complex emotions. There are fits that will make you walk.

People have been driving cars in connection with foreclosures. But there are mental states which are exceptionally simple. I can believe that one plus one is two. It is a very simple mental state, and never, never in the history of mankind, has there been a report of crisis. [00:53:00] who did this.

David Papineau: Well, I mean, listen, if that’s true … It’s a little surprising to me, but if it’s true, you’ve just demonstrated that thoughts like one plus one equals two aren’t just states. mental. They … Let me have your point of view. What are the things you can do under [00:54:00] epileptic crisis?

Michel Egnor: There are four things that fits can be mentioned generically. David, let me tell you about them. They can evoke perceptions, which are quite simple. They can evoke motor movements, which can be complex… They call them complex partial seizures. They can evoke emotions and they can evoke memories. And memories can be very complex. You could have a memory [00:54:30] of your mom in the kitchen when you were eight… David, why hasn’t there ever been a fit where the person, uncontrollably, thinks that one plus one is two? Never been reported in the medical history?

David Papineau: Sorry, why has no one ever sung My Way when they were having a seizure?

Michel Egnor: Okay, people don’t sing songs either. It is totally true. … What Penfield said, and what I’m saying, is that there is a whole class of mental states that cannot be physically evoked. This constitutes an argument against materialism. Penfield started out as a materialist. He ended his career as a passionate dualist, like me too, because I saw the same evidence.

David Papineau: Okay that’s good. It is very good. If that’s your reason for being dualist, [00:56:00] Good luck to you. I’m sorry, I mean, I’m a smart person who’s well known to change my mind when given a good counter-argument, but I’m afraid that doesn’t make me feel like I should. to be a dualist.

Arjuna [host]: So we still have five minutes. I’m not sure if this is the time to start with another neuroscience argument or not.

Michel Egnor: Well I can do it. There is a wonderful job done by Adrian Owen, [00:56:30] who is a cognitive psychologist in Cambridge, England, working in a persistent vegetative state. The persistent vegetative state is a state in which the brain is so damaged that the hypothesis has been …

To note: Adrian Owen is best known for discovering that people in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), where they cannot move or react, can lead active mental lives.

David Papineau: I mean, it’s gonna be more or less the same. I’m always curious about what Michael thinks about how smart thinking can influence the movements of my muscles. This is the little that I do not understand.

To note: A number of recent news items have addressed this issue following treatment for disabilities. For example, the paralyzed man writes, using only the imagination and an algorithm. With electrodes implanted, the 65-year-old volunteer reached 90 characters per minute. Also: Prosthetic hand controlled only by thoughts? It’s here


High technology can help blind people see and amputees feel. It is not a miracle; the human nervous system can function with electronic information.

No one knows how thoughts are generated, but there is no doubt that they can control not only the body, but also the prostheses that can be attached via the nervous system.

There may be a follow-up debate. Stay tuned.

You can also read the first parts of the debate:

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor confronts philosopher David Papineau Round 1. In the debate, Egnor begins by proposing three basic reasons why the mind is not the brain. Neuroscience led Egnor to honestly doubt Papineau’s materialistic perspective that the mind is just what the brain does.

Round 2: The philosopher Papineau responds to the neurosurgeon Egnor. Dr. Papineau is considered one of the best advocates of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism”. Papineau: Mental processes, including conscious processes, are the same as physical processes. I’m curious how Michael Egnor would answer it.

Round 3: Egnor vs Papineau: The Big Bang does not have a natural start. In the debate between the theistic neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and the naturalist philosopher David Papineau, the question revolves around the origin of the universe itself. Egnor argues that the Big Bang, which is believed to have created the universe, is an effect without a physical cause. Papineau agrees.

Round 4: Egnor against Papineau Egnor defends the spirit against the brain The philosopher David Papineau does not think that the neurosurgeon Michael Egnor is “entirely useful” at this stage… It has become quite dust in fact. Egnor sees the brain as an organ, not as a theory, and does not see it as the equivalent of the mind. Papineau differs.

Round 5: Can Traditional Philosophy Help Us Understand the Mind vs. the Brain? Michael Egnor asks us to revisit the traditional idea that the soul is the “form” of the body. In the Western world, the traditional view of the soul finds its origin in the Greek philosophers, mainly Aristotle and Plato.

Round 6: Quantum Physics: Is Everything Determined? Egnor versus Papineau The philosopher-physicist David Papineau is clearly unhappy with the implications of quantum mechanics, as exposed by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor. As a physicalist, Papineau is quite sure that the universe is deterministic and he endorses the theory of multiple worlds (multiverse).

Also: Philosopher: Conscience is not a problem. Dualism is! He says that consciousness is only “brain processes that look like something.” In short, everything is in our heads. But wait, others say, the difficult problem of consciousness is not so easily dismissed.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.