Home » Intelligent Design » Are materialists starting to understand that their system is collapsing?

Are materialists starting to understand that their system is collapsing?

In “The Neural Buddhists” (New York Times, May 13, 2008), David Brooks (yes, he of the BoBos, the bohemian bourgeois*) references Tom Wolfe’s dramatic 1996 article “Sorry, but your soul just died,”

.. in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems.

Uh huh.

Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I took it all to pieces in The Spiritual Brain. There was no basis whatever from the new neuroscience for that view – on the contrary, the new neuroscience was killing it!

Brooks, author of BoBos in Paradise, acknowledges,

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states.

Do they indeed? Brooks hopes that the revolution will stop with “neural Buddhism,”which turns out to mean things like “the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships” and “God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.”

Sorry, BoBos, it’s not up to you to decide where it will end. It will end where the evidence leads, and the evidence simply does not favour materialism – yours or anyone else’s.

Also: Just up at The Mindful Hack

Albert Einstein’s letter coming up at auction: Does it show that he was an atheist? (I think that’s just a publicity ploy.)

Evolutionary psychology: So you don’t stick to your goals? Blame your kludgebrain … or maybe not

(Excerpt: But why evolution? What happened to our stars, our parents, our societies, our religion, and our genes as the explanations for why we do not meet our goals? Oh, come to think of it, evolution is in the news right now, what with Darwin’s anniversary celebrations and the Expelled film.)

Health can sometimes be fun, free, and painless: The placebo effect gets its own Web site

*Brits call these types ”upper class twits.”

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18 Responses to Are materialists starting to understand that their system is collapsing?

  1. Greetings Denyse. I’m not sure it would be up your alley, but recently there was a big conference where a lot of players in the philosophy of consciousness gathered and exchanged ideas/made presentations. (You can find details at David Chalmer’s blog over at consc.net) One of the attendees’ take-home views was that “panpsychism is no longer weird – it’s the mainstream”.

    In other words, there seems to be exactly what Brooks is describing – a big move away from reductive materialistic explanations of mind, to acknowledgment that some aspects of consciousness are clearly nonphysical. Whether that’s due to property dualism, panpsychism, substance dualism, emergence (Which always strikes me as the stubborn physicalists’ dualism) or otherwise is still the subject of debate.

    But it seems like the sort of thing you’d find interesting, and at least a whole lot of the conference abstracts are online.

  2. “Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.”

    Um, sorry, but this is still materialism. It circumvents determinism, that much is true, but the view that the mind or the soul is an epiphenomenon of the body is still a materialist doctrine.

    The only way to escape materialism is to hold that the soul is an immaterial thing-in-itself which drives the body and causes it to be alive. On this view all those readings you’re getting on your meters are simply evidence of the soul’s activity (inasmuch as every function of the soul save one requires interface with an organ of the body–in most cases, the brain.)

  3. jnewl,

    “Um, sorry, but this is still materialism. It circumvents determinism, that much is true, but the view that the mind or the soul is an epiphenomenon of the body is still a materialist doctrine.”

    Actually, it’s not as clear-cut as that. Brooks seems to be talking loosely about mind/consciousness issues, and the alternatives to materialism/physicalism are both numerous and still ‘real’ alternatives.

    Even descriptions where consciousness/qualia are epiphenomenal are not automatically physical. Jaegwon Kim is a pretty strict defender of physicalism, but he says outright that what he sees as epiphenomenal about consciousness is itself non-physical. He also thinks any explanation of those non-physical things will be natural as well – but you can be a naturalist and still reject physicalism (David Chalmers does the same thing.)

    You may be thinking of emergence, but oddly enough some physicalists accuse non-reductive emergentists as being dualists about the mind anyway. It’s a contentious topic.

  4. My son turned me on to the Einstein letter auction yesterday—I say even if it’s a materialist ploy it’s interesting if it’s not bogus.

    Einstein was a man of his day. Unlike Newton he seems to have rejected any notion of an interventionist God and any authority for the Hebrew Scriptures. Einstein’s deity would have been the Platonic realm that included mathematics—with the laws of physics which are written in that language attesting to the beauty and majesty of that realm.

    Such a god would be more a Grecian template of being than the Hebrew deity of doing. Such, let me suggest, may smack of the TE’s theos but is in no way the biblical God.

    Thus, as I think I’ve mentioned here before, time (just like mind) would be an emergent property for Einstein. Why? Because if agency is fundamental (a la Menuge) maybe its dimension is also fundamental—not the Block Time that has no time for the present. It’s a world where not only do we falsely imagine we have free will, we’re also deluded into believing there is such a thing as the present.

  5. (Quote from the Wolfe essay):

    To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness…. In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems.

    How about this instead: Consciousness literally self-evidently exists in the universe, and it must be inherent in the “architecture” of the universe: It can be no mere “epiphenomenon” because it is fundamentally different from plain, material phenomena; there is simply no way that “atoms and the void,” and chance and necessity could have produced consciousness without accommodations for it being already in place. But if consciousness is inherent in the structure of the universe, then that implies that whatever caused the universe must understand what consciousness is…
    __________

    Albert Einstein’s letter coming up at auction: Does it show that he was an atheist?

    The key quote from the letter in question is:

    The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

    But here are some other Einstein quotes courtesy of Antony Flew (There is a God, pp. 99, 102):

    I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written the books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

    and

    Whoever has undergone the intense experience of successive advances in [science] is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence…the grandeur of the reason incarnate in existence.

    Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order… This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.

  6. Re: Einstein, I think it’s clear that whatever he believed in, it was removed from the mainstream Christian / Jewish / Muslim belief of God, but also removed from a typical atheist belief of ‘nothing’.

  7. From the article: “Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.”

    This has been the subject of my last couple of posts. It’s good to see the universal nature of moral impulses admitted by scientists. We can argue about why it is there; the fact that it is there is beyond dispute.

  8. Re: Einstein

    As can be often observed, incredible brainiacs though certain people obviously are in their strict area of specialty, outside of this specialty their thoughts, judgements and actions can often be unexceptional.

    For example, one can come across accomplished scientists who theologically have never risen above John Lennon’s (or should I say Yoko Ono’s) “Imagine there’s no Heaven”.

    When Einstein’s personal life was in the news recently, Jay Leno said: “Guys, if Einstein couldn’t figure out how to hide his adulturous affairs from his wife, then don’t even think about it”

  9. Interestingly, Brooks leaves the door wide open to a new apologetic—on the editorial pages of the Times, no less!

    Here’s the invitation (& challenge):

    “They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.”

    He’s being extremely careful for strategic reasons, but he has already given an important clue that is needed to take up the challenge and reap the new opportunities created by neuroscience:

    “…people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.”

    “People are equipped” to experience love is a meaningless statement from the materialist point of view but potentially quite meaningful if it is true that: a) humankind was created in the image of God; b) “God is love”; and c) “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

    This explanation of the nature of being has already been systematized by Thomas and his followers, of course, but unfortunately their approach is stained with Aristotle and the notion that the sensuous universe is a coming-together of intellectual and material causes.

    The challenge now is to set aside all easy axioms and bromides—all of the worn-out signs of traditional apologetics, including synthetic metaphysics—and grasp the opportunity presented by neuroscience to describe being and transcendence in a new way.

    Why is the theology of the Bible a guide not only to everyday behavior but also to obtaining happiness and meaning? The answers are there, and they are fully consonant with modern neuroscience as Brooks describes it.

  10. jnewl,

    In a way I agree. John Searle, for instance, tends not to call his views materialist, but in my opinion if one admits that consciousness is causes by the material actions of the brain, one is a materialist.

  11. Is it just me or does it also seem that the logical path of reductionist materialism is very much like astrology. Our actions and thoughts are guided by the purposeless arrangement of atoms in our brains, which are balanced against all other matter and force in the cosmos…so the gravitational arrangement of planetary masses and the stars ‘above’ at the time of one’s birth would very much affect their personality, wouldn’t it? :)

  12. Todd, it’s not just you !

    “One sees this also in his discussion of astrology, which he (Dawkins) attacks not only as false, but as fraught with “sad human consequences.” But one of the problems with materialism is that it is little different from astrology in its human consequences. What is the difference between believing that one’s actions are dictated by the orbits of the planets and believing that they are dictated by the orbits of the electrons in one’s brain?”
    Stephen Barr (First Things Aug/Sep 1999)

  13. Is it just me or does it also seem that the logical path of reductionist materialism is very much like astrology.

    Exactly. I cannot remember where I read it, but you would have to go through all sorts of contortions of the method to be able to consider astrology scientific. It, and other such nonsense, should be sent to the dustbin of history. But, it sells newspapers, and generates the illusion of controversy, so there must be something to it. Right? Right?

  14. Hi Poachy,
    You remember full well where you read it and how it was purposefully misrepresented.
    Your deceitful sarcasm is obvious to anyone who actually reads your comments.
    Out with you, sock.

  15. I’m not an atheist.
    Einstein’s answer to a question posed by interviewer George Sylvester Viereck.

    So what was he?

    I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” (actually, that last one was serious example of quote mining, but he did say it).

  16. 16

    Sort of off topic (but having to do with astrology; somewhat);

    The Star of Bethlehem – unlocking the riddle

    http://www.godtube.com/view_vi.....639ac0b511

  17. 17

    Off Topic:

    Now this looks very interesting for some young mind out there;

    Job Opportunity working under Dr. Anton Zeilinger:

    http://www.quantum.at/fileadmi.....ellows.pdf

    Call for Fellowship Applications
    Templeton Research Fellows Program:
    Philosophers and Physicists Collaboration
    on the Nature of Quantum Reality
    at
    IQOQI – The Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information
    Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria
    Program Director: Professor Anton Zeilinger
    Scientists and philosophers who have been engaged at the junction of physics, philosophy,
    and religious studies are invited to apply for a Residential Templeton Research Fellowship in
    Vienna. Physicists should have a strong philosophical background or inclination, and vice
    versa. The duration of Fellowships will be one year, extendable upon further application.
    Shorter tenures will be considered in special circumstances.

    Anton Zeilinger is one of the leading Physicists in Quantum Teleportation. and had this to say about recent developments he spearheaded:

    In conclusion, it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Thence the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word.”

    http://www.metanexus.net/Magaz.....fault.aspx

  18. Materialism is not like astrology. Astrology, unlike materialism, is rationally coherent.

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