Home » Mind, Neuroscience, News » Materialist neuroscientist admits that his stance is a “leap of faith”

Materialist neuroscientist admits that his stance is a “leap of faith”

In “Free Will: Weighing Truth and Experience: Do our beliefs matter?” (Psychology Today, March 22, 2012), neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman writes,

Given a materialist view of the universe, it makes no sense to talk about consciousness or experience at all. We have absolutely no idea what it is about the three pounds of mush between our ears that allows it to perform this trick of being conscious. If you damage one spot in visual cortex, a person will cease to see motion. If you damage another spot, they may lose the ability to see things in the right side of their visual field. But we have no idea why those regions cause us to have conscious experience of motion or the right side of the visual field in the first place. Knowing that an engine can’t run without a particular part is not the same as knowing why it can run because of that part.

I am a neuroscientist and so 99% of the time I behave like a materialist, acknowledging that the mind is real but fully dependent on the brain. But we don’t actually know this. We really don’t. We assume our sense of will is a causal result of the neurochemical processes in our brain, but this is a leap of faith. Perhaps the brain is something like a complex radio receiver that integrates consciousness signals that float around in some form. Perhaps one part of visual cortex is important for decoding the bandwidth that contains motion consciousness and another part of the brain is critical to decoding the bandwith that contains our will. So damage to brain regions may alter our ability to express certain kinds of conscious experience rather than being the causal source of consciousness itself.

I don’t actually believe the radio metaphor of the brain, but I think something like it could account for all of our findings. Its unfalsifiable which is a big no-no in science. But so is the materialist view—its also unfalsifiable. We simply don’t know how to reverse engineer consciousness. Saying that the complexity of the brain explains why we are conscious is just an article of faith—it doesn’t explain anything. We don’t know why our brains are associated with conscious experience and nothing else in the universe besides brains seems to be. Maybe rocks have consciousness but no way of showing this. I don’t believe this—but again, I can’t prove its false.

He hopes that recognizing this will make materialists a bit more humble, but hey, ain’t gonna happen. Historically, materialism does not usually prompt humility, but rather, demands for power over others.

See also: A materialist account of the human mind that allows for free will?

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allan at Brains on Purpose

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7 Responses to Materialist neuroscientist admits that his stance is a “leap of faith”

  1. I think its quite interresting that you can actually remove any half of your brain, socalled Hemispherectomy, and still function pretty much in the same way as before.
    Hemispherectomy may have effects on your vision or on the control of your libs, but it doesent seem to effect your intelligence, memory, personality, etc.

  2. A friend of mine in Northern Alberta, (I’ve known him since high school some 30+ years ago) was playing pool at a bar recently (I think it was in January of this year). He tripped, fell and hit his head on a concrete floor. Since after the accident, his brain swelled, doctors had to remove 1/3 of his skull in order to release pressure on his brain, or he would die. He lost pretty much most of his short term memory, but has now (slowly but surely), gained most of it back, to the point of remembering to chat with me on Facebook from time to time. Although he lost some brain material in the many surgeries since then, he continues to maintain his personality; his sense of humor, his good will, etc – something that has not been lost as his memory continues to redevelop.

    He shared a photo of himself recently, and you can clearly see a big gaping cravasse near the top of his head, and he currently must wear a helmet and use a walker to protect himself from further injury. While under 24 hour nursing care at home, he is waiting now to have the portion of his skull reattached. It sits in a freezer at the UofA medical center in Edmonton. He jokes that hopefully the rest of his short term memory is with the skull fracture.

    While I believe that the brain functions quite similarly to computer memory, I have my doubts as to whether personality is stored therein. Personality seems to me to be something that functions quite apart from the brain; while it requires the brain for expression. Who we are is not in our brains, but quite apart from it. While this is just one example, I keep encountering countless others.

  3. But so is the materialist view—its also unfalsifiable.

    Nice to see this stated by a materialist for a change.

  4. Well, it’s good to see a materialist admit that his materialism is a non-scientific (i.e. non-falsifiable) “leap of faith”, but I would like to see him go a step further. Answer whether it is a reasonable, and self-consistent view. There are plenty of things I can believe by faith, but if they are not internally consistent, then they should be discarded.

    I think that materialism is essentially defeated if one admits that there exist any beings that can be the causal agents of events which are neither completely random ( by chance ) or completely necessary ( dictated by natural law ).

    Two examples from the world of ordinary human beings:

    1. Schedule of events according to the abstract notion of time. When a human being decides to do things exactly two weeks from now, or two weeks and one day, or two weeks and one day and one hour from now, he is exhibiting control which can not reasonably be attributed to a purely materialist being. He is not simply responding to outside stimuli or planning to respond to outside stimuli. He is planning a definite event and dictating when it will occur in an abstract basis. He is not associating it with something. The passage of an abstract amount of time is not based on any other events. Time is an abstract concept which can certainly be measured in processes – period of revolution of the earth on its axis or orbit around the sun, period of a pendulum, number of times a quartz crystal vibrates – but it is not dependent on any of those processes. When a human being plans an event based on an abstract time – he is exhibiting control over the future which can not logically be attributed to a purely random choice, or to the current physical conditions. He is exhibiting behavior inconsistent with a materialist viewpoint. Materialism and planning of future events in abstract periods of time are mutually inconsistent. Since the latter occur, the former should be discarded as a philosophy.

    2. Fictional stories – It is certainly a true piece of information that Frodo was unable to willingly destroy the ring and Gollum’s part in the story was essential. But how was this piece of information generated. It was not a random choice, neither is it a reasonable assumption that this piece of information was necessary because it followed from natural law. Indeed the reason that Tolkien’s story is so meaningful is the masterful creation of “The Lord of the Rings” defies any explanation by any materialistic philosophy. Purpose, morals, meaning, they are not allowable in a purely mechanistic universe. The story is meaningful, and carries information, specifically because the choices Tolkien made in its construction which communicated purpose and meaning from one being to many. Not a reasonable scenario for beings that only respond to physical impetus alone.

    I would propose that not only is materialism a “leap of faith”, but it is something so inconsistent with observed behavior that it can not reasonably be believed by a thinking human being – that is not also a fool.

  5. I admire Leiberman tremendously. He is a member of a very rare breed—someone who is more committed to the truth than to his own metaphysical position, whatever that happens to be. There are very few such people among the adherents of any particular worldview. Antony Flew also comes to mind.

  6. The article starts with a bizarre question:

    “What would you do differently if you found out there was no such thing as free will?”

    Obviously the question rather answers itself. If one didn’t have free will, one wouldn’t do anything differently because…one…wouldn’t…have…free will.

  7. I invite you guys to look at the work that Henry Stapp (disciple of Pauli and Heisenberg) is making about quantum mechanics taking place in the brain.

    His most recent book: Mindful Universe.

    You can also view some interviews here:

    http://www.closertotruth.com/v.....Stapp-/397

    Materialism has been a flaw theory long time ago, but remains as an ideology enbedded in mainstream science.

    Materialist are stuck at classical newtonian mechanics of the 17th century.

    Even Daniel Dennet allows free will to occur (it’s a matter of common sense, even for a well known materialist).

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