27 June 2007

Egnor, to Myers: "Prove there's no teapot"

Michael Egnor keeps fighting the good (well, mediocre) fight in defense of dualism. In the latest installment, he pulls a classic creationist tactic, a version of the impossible expectations/moving goalposts tactic so often employed by denialists; he shifts the burden of proof to his opponent:

How, from a scientific standpoint, could we resolve our disagreement? We would have to show, empirically, whether matter alone could, under the right circumstances, give rise to a mind. This is an experimental question, and it turns on the ability to create artificial intelligence (A.I.). If we could build machines that have first-person ontogeny, which is self-awareness, we could show conclusively that matter alone is sufficient to cause the mind. A conscious computer would have a mind that emerged from matter, and Myers would be vindicated. If we can’t create A.I., my viewpoint would seem more credible.

Egnor still has offered no evidence whatsoever for the existence of some soul or spirit to accompany the brain in generating the mind. The burden of proof is on him to provide some evidence for the soul. But instead, he claims the burden is on PZ Myers to create A.I. as evidence that matter can generate the mind without spirit.

It's the same argument I heard Michael Behe use (in person) just over two years ago in his defense of Intelligent Design. Behe proposed that it was up to biologists to disprove ID by observing a bacterial flagellum evolve from scratch in a controlled laboratory setting.

This is the sort of argument that insists Russell's teapot is orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, and that the burden of proof is on the skeptic to launch thousands of satellites to monitor that entire interplanetary track for drifting china. A claim is made without any evidence in support, and worded so as to be unfalsifiable except by increasingly more absurd evidence.

We already have evidence to contradict the claims made above. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and modern psychology has proved evidence for the mind's being a property of the brain. But Behe and Egnor, without any evidence in their favor, take refuge in the unfalsifiability of their claims and set the bar higher, saying that there isn't enough evidence against them.

And even if their impossible expectations were to be met, you can bet that the goalposts would move again. The gravitational pull of a passing comet must have pulled the teapot off course; better start searching everywhere between Mars and Uranus. The Intelligent Designer must have snuck into your lab at night; put a combination lock on those test tubes, and call us when the bacteria have evolved into bony fish. Artificial Intelligence must not be as good as real intelligence; cobble together an intelligent being out of spare corpses, Dr. Frankenstein, and then I'll concede that no spirit is necessary.

One more point about the end of Egnor's latest essay:

Imagine that teams of the best computer scientists, working day and night for decades, finally produced a computer that had an awareness of itself. A conscious computer, with a mind! So, finally, P.Z. Myers and I could agree on something. Myers would be right. If a computer had a mind, we could infer two things:

1) Matter is sufficient, as well as necessary, for the mind. The mind is an emergent property of matter.
2) The emergence of mind from matter requires intelligent design.

It’s not easy being a materialist.

My, my, how clever, sneaking in an endorsement of ID. Unfortunately, sir, regarding your second point, we could only infer that the emergence of an artificial mind from computers under the given conditions requires design. Sorry, but the human brain isn't exactly a computer, and we don't take kindly to overextended analogies here.

1 comment:

truti said...

Egnor has a serious listening comprehension problem. He is being engaged in a discussion on the existence of the entity 'mind'. Ignorantly he proceeds taking the entity for granted. Analogy is not proof, and science isn't about proof. And hypothetical scenarios are worthless in any serious discussion. For instance his silly scenario of an artificially built computer with "first-person ontogeny" assumes that nothing else in the background will change - badly wrong. As for the idea of first person ontogeny, that is even bigger crock