23 July 2007

Egnor fails to grasp either Evo Psych or Quantum Mechanics

PZ Myers gave a talk Sunday entitled "There Are No Ghosts in Your Brain: Materialist Explanations for the Mind and Religious Belief." If I lived in Minnesota, I totally would have been there. (Maybe I should have tried to convince my brother to take a day off from bear-wrangling and go in my place, though he might not have appreciated it as much.)

Anyway, everyone's favorite logically-challenged creationist neurosurgeon has taken it upon himself to offer PZ some advice on giving future talks. Never mind the fact that Egnor didn't attend PZ's talk.

Egnor, as usual, just makes one bad point after another. It's painful to read, I won't even bother linking it. But I would like to address two particular points that stood out.

First, Egnor revisits one of his recent favorite inane points:

Although you can’t expect a whole lot of real skepticism from atheist ‘skeptics’, there may be a few in the audience who aren’t gullible enough to accept the assertion that ‘religion is an evolved adaptation’ without noting the obvious corollary: ‘atheism is an evolved adaptation’.

Um, no. A while back he tried that same trick on evolutionary psychology, noting that evolutionary psychologists like to look at the origins of religious belief, but never the origins of evolutionary psychology. Egnor, of course, has never hinted at what his idea of the origins of a materialist worldview would be, or what relevance it would have to such a worldview's credibility. He's just trying to launch a smear campaign, discarding an evolutionary account of religion as mere persecution of the faithful. He doesn't address the facts at all. He doesn't address a single claim made by evo psych; he just tries to write it off as mean and hypocritical.

But if Egnor really wants to know how atheism arose, here's the answer: reason. Human beings evolved a fantastic capacity for reason, and through that capacity we found that the religious beliefs shaped over generations by our cognitive biases didn't jibe with reality. It's as simple as that.

The other bit of idiocy I wanted to address:

Because you are promulgating 19th century materialist ideology, avoid any reference to quantum entanglement and the ‘observer effect’ in quantum mechanics. Material reality at the quantum level only sharpens into focus when it is observed by a mind. The implication is that the mind, in an important and fundamental way, is distinct from matter, and in fact is a prerequisite for discrete physical reality at the quantum level. The observer effect in quantum mechanics adds credence to the dualist theory of the mind. Don’t remind the audience.

Well, we can all rest easy knowing that, in addition to being inept in evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Egnor is a few credits shy of a quantum physics degree.

The "observer effect" to which Egnor alludes goes something like this: objects on the quantum scale tend to exist as wavelike probability distributions rather than discreet particles. However, when an observer looks at such an object, the object collapses into one of its available states. A favorite example is the double-slit experiment. Imagine a point light source projecting light through two parallel thin slits onto a screen. If the photons are acting like waves, then each photon-wave can pass through both slits at once, forming an interference pattern on the screen. However, if we set up a sensor to observe which slit the photon goes through, then it collapses into a photon-particle and can only pass through one slit or the other, and we end up with two bright blobs on the screen instead of the interference bands.

That's all well and good. But Egnor uses this phenomenon to suggest the observing mind has some magical wave-collapsing power, which is ridiculous. The photon in this instance collapses into a particle because of physical interaction with the observing mechanism. If we hook up our sensor to observe which slit the photon passes through, then we won't get an interference pattern, whether or not a human being looks at the results. The photon (or electron or atom or buckyball or what have you) doesn't give a damn about whether there's a grad student reading the output from the sensor; the photon only cares about the sensor itself. So unless Egnor wants to say our lab equipment has a mind of its own (wouldn't surprise me, given some of the stuff I've seen in the lab in my day), his argument for dualism from quantum physics is entirely, utterly wrong.

It'll be entertaining to see whether PZ decides to grace Egnor's "advice" with a response.

EDIT: PZ has responded. Apparently a video of the talk is on its way, so stay tuned for that.

FURTHER EDIT: Welcome, Pharyngula readers! Please enjoy your stay!


Anonymous said...

then we won't get an interference pattern, whether or not a human being looks at the results.

If no one observes it at least somewhere down the line, then how do you know whether a pattern was generated or not?

suffenus said...

If no one observes it at least somewhere down the line, then how do you know whether a pattern was generated or not?

Perhaps a photograph would be sufficient to distance the human observer from the event.

Aaron J. Golas said...

Sorry, I wasn't quite clear. You're allowed to look and see whether an interference pattern is formed, in person or via photograph. The critical observation that changes the pattern is in checking which slit the photon goes through.

We could set up a sensor and read its output for each photon--left slit, right slit, left, left, right, etc.--and that would collapse the wave functions and we'd get no interference pattern. Or, we could set up the sensor the same way, but not read the output (those are the "results" I meant). So the sensor "knows" which slit each photon passed through, but the scientists don't... and we still see no interference pattern!

The point being, it isn't magical mind energy that collapses the wave function; it's physical interaction with the observation equipment.

Aaron Kinney said...

Hey Aaron! Nice post, and nice name.

Ive been following this PZ/Egnor debacle for a few days as well. Egnor keeps embarrasing himself, and its getting rather sad.

I cant believe that retard is a practicing neurosurgeon. Never underestimate the power of compartmentalization!

Aaron Kinney said...

Oh yea, I also decided to give you a shout out :)

Drew said...

This is basically decoherence, correct? The dumbed-down idea being that when a quantum state interacts with any other macro-level object aside from its own superposition (i.e. which are all quantum states themselves) it decoheres into one or the other. As I understand it, this is basically the answer to the cat scenario: the cat is not both alive and dead in any meaningful sense, because the quantum state decoheres the minute it hits the mechanism that releases the gas.

quork said...

Material reality at the quantum level only sharpens into focus when it is observed by a mind.

Hmmm, I don't remember in my quantum mechanics where the "observer" had to be a mind. After all, it's physics, not psychology. To quote physicist John Wheeler,

The process whereby the macroscopic world reacts to a quantum event—the process that makes reality—can, in my view, be accomplished with inanimate matter. Following Niels Bohr, I like to call this process “registration” rather than observation (which too strongly suggests human involvement).