Oct 23 2008

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature

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Comments: 20

The New Scientist has recently discovered what readers of this blog have known for a while – that the denial of materialist neuroscience is the “new creationism.”  In fact I have written extensively over the past year about the embrace by the Discovery Institute (an intelligent design group) of cartesian dualism, the notion that the mind is a different substance from the brain. The primary proponent of this argument for the DI (and a frequent foil of my blog entries) is Michael Egnor, a creationist neurosurgeon. But the New Scientist article correctly points out that this is actually part of a larger movement and a larger strategy.

The Wedge Strategy

This current attack on neuroscience has the same underlying roots as the ID attack on evolution – the real enemy for ID proponents is materialism. The infamous Wedge document makes this clear in its opening paragraphs:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.

It is crystal clear from this and other writings, and well as the history of the ID/creationist movement, that this is about ideology, not science.  ID proponents feel that their spiritual ideological world view is threatened by the findings of modern science, and so have decided to undermine it. They want this to be an ideological and cultural war, because in the arena of science they lose. So they claim that science (at least those sciences with which they feel uncomfortable)  is nothing more than the ideology of materialism. They want to frame the conflict as that between the traditional, moral, and god-fearing spiritualism on one side, and cold, amoral, mechanistic materialism on the other.  This is an emotional fight they feel they can win.

But their dilemma has been (made clear by the recurrent failures of the old-school creationist movement) that the institution of science appears to have a lock on public education, research funding, mainstream publications, and even to a large degree public respect. Therefore they decided, and this is clearly laid out in the Wedge document, to fight fire with fire – to create their own “scientific” institutions, their own scholars, and publications, and funding sources. They set out to pretend to do science and to make scientific arguments (the thin edge of the wedge) so as to break into the established scientific infrastructure, but their farce had a predetermined goal – to undermine the materialist basis of modern science.

ID proponents began their efforts with evolution, but that was only ever a means to an end, that end being the destruction of materialism. Their recent efforts to attack modern neuroscience is simply another aspect of this underlying strategy. At first it may have seemed strange that a neurosurgeon was writing about dualism on the Evolution News and Views propaganda blog of the Discovery Institute.  But in light of the bigger picture, it makes perfect sense.

I also think the New Scientist is correct in pointing out that the ID movement may be shifting their emphasis to neuroscience. I think it is fair to say that the ID attack on evolution has been largely a failure. They failed in Dover (where a conservative judge ruled that ID was warmed-over creationism and could not be taught in public school science classes), and the movie Expelled turned out to be a huge boondoggle.  They are getting some traction with their “academic freedom” deception, but not much, and I think that effort will ultimately fail as well.

The failure of the ID attack on evolution is perhaps due to the fact that there is a generation of scientists, specifically biologists and evolutionary scientists, who grew up during the period of creationist attempts at pushing “equal time”and other ways of either limiting the teaching of evolution or forcing the teaching of creationism in public schools. These scientists and educators understand creationism, and have jumped all over any attempt by IDers to disguise old creationist arguments in new clothing. There are institutions, like the National Center for Science Education, that are effective watchdogs on anything even remotely creationist.

In short, the anti-materialists at the DI and elsewhere, attempting to push their wedge by targeting evolution ran up against a savvy and effective army of evolution defenders who were able to defend the integrity of science from this attack.

Like any predator, the anti-materialists are looking for easy prey. They are probing for a softer spot in the world of science to insert their wedge, and they think they have found it in neuroscience.

Tomorrow I will continue Part II of this discussion.

20 responses so far

20 thoughts on “Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature”

  1. RoaldFalcon says:

    It is my personal opinion that the erosion of religious belief that was precipitated by the discovery of evolution two centuries ago is nothing compared to the damage to religion that neuroscience is going to make in the next century.

    One major factor in my rejection of Christianity was the application of brain science to basic theology. It appeared that a person’s eternal destiny in heaven or hell could be determined by accidents of brain chemistry or fetal development or trauma, and that’s just not a reasonable to me, even as a Calvinist.

    On the other hand, there’s the possibility in a hundred years that someone could cause religious belief in someone else through surgery, and that would be a boon to religion. OK, I’m scaring myself now!

  2. w_nightshade says:

    See, to me surgery-induced religiosity sounds like a huge strike AGAINST religion – any reproduction of anything claimed to be divine by materialist means hurts the cause. Obviously, such surgery against one’s will would be characterised – at best – as assault.

  3. Fifi says:

    Religiosity – by that I mean being very devout and ritualistic about religion, not experiencing euphoria which is attributed as divine – can be a feature of OCD and can be a result of brain damage so, theoretically at least, we could actually operate on someone’s brain to create damage in the same areas and create that form of religiosity. It would, for obvious reasons, be unethical but I’d wager that it IS possible already (though I could be incorrect so I’ll let the experts in neuroscience speak as to whether it’s realistically possible!).

  4. CrookedTimber says:

    Perhaps the dualists have more ammo than I am aware but it seems to me that the arguments proffered by Egnor and Chopra have thus far been thoroughly repudiated by Dr. Novella and others. Also, work by Ramachandran and others on certain lobes of the brain producing out of body experiences and religious experiences would seem to be a great blow to the argument. Is there more that I am missing or is this just a hail mary attempt by the DI?

  5. daedalus2u says:

    It is actually pretty easy to induce religiosity. That is what cults do all the time. You don’t need to do psychosurgery, which would be pretty tricky anyway and probably beyond our capabilities. But there are already plenty of mechanisms in human brains to work on.

    Stockholm syndrome can be thought of as a delusional attachment to someone who has harmed you. This behavior is actually extremely common, essentially all abused children are quite attached to their abusive parents. Many battered women are quite attached to their batterer. In the military, hazing is a common practice to instill unit cohesion. I see religions as similar to those types of dysfunctional bonding, but to an abstract mythic entity.

    I think the mechanism involves first inducing extreme stress, which lowers NO levels and reduces the functional connectivity in the brain below where “higher” functions (such as cognition) can be maintained. Then increase NO levels by reducing the stress, or via other mechanisms (sex for example). Then the functional connectivity is increased but with a bias that can be controlled based on the immediate circumstances. Maternal bonding is the archetypal type of mammalian communication and bonding. Maternal bonding is blocked by inhibiting nitric oxide synthase. This was done in ewes who did not bond to their lambs if NOS was inhibited. If NOS was inhibited and supplemental NO was provided, they did bond.

    In the case of Stockholm syndrome, threaten the hostages with death, then let them live and be friendly toward them. Threaten and beat abused children and then show them affection. Beat the crap out of your wife/GF and then have sex with her. Torture the crap out of your buddies then have a party with women. Threaten church goers with fire and brimstone and then show them infinite love and forgiveness. This mechanism for inducing religiosity is why many religions send missionaries to disaster scenes. Right after people have suffered a disaster is their most vulnerable time.

  6. superdave says:

    Attacking neuroscience will be an even bigger failure than attacking evolution. This is because there are fewer popular misconceptions about neuroscience as well as fewer direct biblical challenges to the findings of neuroscience. Religious conclusions are another story, but at least those bits are not the very first sentences of the Bible. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the benefits of neuroscience are much more tangible an immediate than those of studying evolution. Once you tell people you are trying to help cute their grandmother’s Alzheimer’s or their friends multiple sclerosis, you find they become much less ideological.

  7. godkillzyou says:

    Speaking of Expelled… it’s now available on BitTorrent. In case anyone wants to waste their time watching it. Was the DVD recently released?

  8. alyric says:

    Materialism is not exactly the world’s most attractive philosophy, so seeing this:

    “that the denial of materialist neuroscience is the “new creationism.”

    makes me wonder why the great big strawman. If one denies materialism then one is automatically a ‘creationist’, whatever that means? Isn’t that a specious form of reasoning somewhat reminiscent of ‘if you don’t agree with x then you must believe y, and that’s never been an acceptable stratagem.

  9. superdave says:

    alyric, steve didnt mean that anyone who isnt a materialist is a creationist, he meant that denial of materialism seems poised to take on the same arc that creationism did in the late 90s through the early 2000s. (or even earlier depending on who you count, but i think he meant the ID generation)

  10. Potter1000 says:

    And to add to what superdave just said, I think New Scientist might be (I haven’t read the article) simply saying that based on the level of evidence that continues to come in and support materialism, those who will deny that evidence are approaching a near equivalent level of denial to that shown by creationists.

  11. Heraclides says:

    I would like to think that they will run into people familiar with their past tactics if they take on neuroscience. One of the developments in neuroscience that interests me is the increasing application of gene expression work, molecular biology, computational biology, and so on. I’d like to think that the people working in these areas are familiar with previous efforts from the creationist/ID camp, so I’d like to think that they respond in a similar manner as the current crop of evolutionary biologists do.

    RoaldFalcon: I can’t help thinking that religions will, over time, get more “problems” from neuroscience, evolutionary cognitive science, behavioural studies and so on, to the point that its hard to see what they are going to be able to try hold up as “supernatural” eventually. (You’d think it’d be smarter to figure out a way to move forward than to keep trying to open doors that are closing, so to speak.)

    Fifi: The link with OCDs and brain damage is interesting. Anecdotally, someone I know because quite religious some time before it was realised that she had some brain-related illness.

    CrookedTimber: I think there is plenty against the creationist “arguments”, but a question is how the “lay” person views the neuroscience. I worry that many people see some of this work as a bit vague, so its easy to be played with. That said, I hope superdave is right!

  12. tsiraluces says:

    If my question is naive please forgive me. The extent of my knowledge of science is limited to that which I learned in highschool and college (and have since forgotten.)

    It is my understanding that brain injuries can cause changes in intellectual capabilities and even personality.

    If that is true doesn’t it indicate that mind and brain are not separate, or at least not completely separate?

    If the mind was truly distinct from the brain as opposed to a byproduct of it how could brain injuries result in such changes?

  13. DavidCT says:

    The concept of the mind as separate from the brain sounds very similar to what is called the immortal soul. The soul is that part of us that is the core of our being separate from the body – what would continue on into an afterlife. When you suggest the the mind is a function of the brain, the spiritually inclined are at some level are going to understand this as questioning the existence of the soul. This challenge is something that they will resist like grim death.

    There is likely more going on than just differing points of view as to how the brain (mind) works.

  14. Fifi says:

    DavidCT – Well it is just a plea for the “eternal soul” really but dressed up in more sciency language. While it seems self evident that the mind arises from the brain, I don’t discount the idea of “soul” since I think it’s a useful description of an aspect of being human. I don’t mean “soul” in the sense of an eternal non-physical version of ourselves but rather in people’s experience of themselves that they call “soul”. Putting aside for a moment people’s fear of death and the desire to escape death through immortality, and the usefulness of delayed gratification (the heavenly reward) and repression of individual needs and desires to politcal organizations such as churches and nations: my take on it is that people believe they have souls because they experience certain parts of themselves – generally the more emotional aspects of themselves – as who they truly are. (We have a mental image of who we are externally, “soul” is like our mental image of who we are internally.) While I discount the idea of the eternal soul as an entity, the idea of the soul as being our subconscious and emotional parts of ourselves is actually quite useful (and clearly important to most people). Most people don’t respond well to being told “souls don’t exist” because they have a subjective experience of themselves they call “soul”.

  15. overshoot says:

    The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.

    The theocrats have dealt with hate throughout history and are, if not comfortable, at least practiced in dealing with it. What science has been doing to them for a couple of centuries is much worse — it has ignored them.

    What, after all, is “non-materialist engineering?” How does one design a “non-materialist” airplane? In what way does “materialism” detract from the practice of agriculture?

    A mere eyeblink ago as human history goes, priesthoods controlled nearly every aspect of people’s everyday lives. Agriculture? You planted by the moon and ensured crops by religious rituals. Today, if you suggested that sacrificial blood and a romp in the haystack would substitute for fertilizers or crop rotation, the most fundamentalist farmer in North America would laugh until beer ran out of his nose. (Although he might go for the romp in the haystack, it wouldn’t be for the crops!)

    That’s all why you find the theocrats slinking about in the shadows at the edge of the light. They can’t offer any reason why they shouldn’t be ignored in fields like engineering, accounting, orthopedic medicine, mining, manufacturing, etc. Only where there’s enough fog to obscure the outcomes is there enough cover for them to pretend that they actually make a difference, and they can’t stand being ignored.

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