Oct 24 2008

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature – Part II

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Yesterday I wrote about the Wedge strategy of the intelligent design (ID) movement – namely to undermine and replace the materialist basis of modern science with something that conforms to their ideological spiritual beliefs. This anti-materialist agenda has been primarily targeted against evolution, but now seems to be shifting its attention to neuroscience.

An Unholy Alliance

The Wedge strategy of the Discovery Institute (DI) and other ID proponents is largely a Christian movement. It is interesting that they have found common ground with others who have a very different ideology but share in common a distaste for strict materialism because it is inconvenient to their spiritual agenda.

For example, the New Scientist article discussing this topic quotes Jeffrey Schwartz as saying:

“YOU cannot overestimate how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You’re gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about… how Darwin’s explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it… I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.”

Jeffrey Schwartz is a psychiatrist and a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design (ISCID), which is an ID think tank and also has as fellows prominent IDers Michael Behe and William Dembski. Schwartz, however, also relates that his dualist epiphany came from his study of Buddhism – an ideology incompatible with Christianity.

The Buddhist connection perhaps explains Schwartz’s predilection for abusing quantum mechanics to “justify” his claims for dualism. Eastern spiritual philosophies have taken a liking to quantum mechanics, or at least to twisting this scientific theory so that it seems to support some Eastern notions.

This puts Schwartz in the same camp as Deepak Chopra and his “quantum healing” popular nonsense, although Chopra is a far less serious intellectual than Schwartz. Another Buddhist and quantum mechanics abuser is B. Allan Wallace (see here for my discussion of Wallace and why the quantum mechanical arguments for dualism are fatally flawed.)

A third faction in the anti-materialist camp are the purveyors of New Age mysticism and pseudoscience. This camp, while distinct, has some overlap with the Buddhists, but is largely incompatible with Christian creationists. An example of this philosophy is  Rustom Roy, who began his career (like Schwartz) as a legitimate scientist, but has recently been spending his time supporting demonstrably absurd notions like homeopathy with “water memory” pseudoscience.

During a debate on homeopathy which I attended with Roy, he declared that “the materialist paradigm is dead.” At the time he justified that bold statement by referencing the abilities of John of God – a charlatan faith healer who had apparently bamboozled Roy with his slight of hand.


With all this discussion of materialism I guess I should define it.  Put simply, it is the philosophical position that all physical effects have physical causes. There are no non-physical or non-material causes of physical effects. Historically materialism has been defined as the philosophical belief that matter is all there is – the only type of substance that can be said to exist in nature. Materialism stands specifically in opposition to dualism and other philosophies that posit a spiritual or non-material aspect of existence.

Any viable modern definition of materialism, however, must also include energy, forces, space-time – and anything else discovered by science to exist in nature. In this way materialism is really just a manifestation of naturalism – the philosophy that says that nature (in all of its aspects) is all that there is – there is nothing supernatural. In fact, the term materialism as broadly defined does not have much applicability today. We know that there is more to the universe than ordinary matter, and if you include everything in nature in your philosophy then you have naturalism. Materialism is mostly used in its narrow sense as it applies specifically to consciousness (that consciousness is what the brain does) and stands in opposition to dualism (the belief that consciousness is a non-physical thing unto itself).

Therefore, the broader “anti-materialist” movement of ID, dualism, and various healing pseudosciences is more accurately defined as anti-naturalism. But I guess for propaganda purposes it is better to be against “materialism” than against nature.

The real debate is whether or not science is required to follow methodological naturalism (which it clearly does). Philosophical naturalism is the metaphysical belief that nature is all there is. Methodological naturalism is proceeding as if nature is all there is while remaining agnostic toward the deeper metaphysical question. Another way of looking at it is that methodological naturalism posits that nature is all the we can know, regardless of whether or not it is all that there is (which by definition we cannot know).

Does science require methodological naturalism? Yes. This is the real debate going on between mainstream science and various ideological groups who wish to promote a non-naturalist belief system.  But this philosophical fight was fought in centuries past – and the naturalists won. The fight is over. But the anti-materialists (really anti-naturalists) want to resurrect this fight, and since they cannot win it in the arena of science they want to fight it in the arena of public opinion and then the legal and academic realms.

Science is dependent upon methodological naturalism because a necessary feature of any scientific hypothesis is that it is testable. Non-natural causes are by definition non-falsifiable, and therefore scientific methods cannot act upon them. It is like the now famous cartoon of the mathematician writing out a very complex equation, but in one part simply writes “and then a miracle happens.” His colleague points out that, “I think you need to be a little more explicit in this section.” (I may be paraphrasing.)

Science cannot say, “and then a miracle happens.” There is no way to do an experiment or make an observation that can test a miracle. Miracles, by definition, defy natural forces or explanations. They cannot be constrained, which is a necessary feature of any hypothesis that can be falsified.

ID had this very problem. The notion of an intelligent designer that created life by top-down fiat is not falsifiable because proponents can always argue (and do) that whatever we find in nature was what the designer intended – no matter what it is. The designer is not constrained in any way – not by the laws of physics nor by human logic.

To be clear – science does not say, and cannot say, that all life on earth was not created in an instant by an all powerful designer. It is agnostic towards such a belief. It can only say that such a hypothesis is outside the realm of science because it cannot be tested scientifically. That is methodological naturalism.

As evidence that this is the real issue at stake here is the Kitzmiller v Dover trial involving the teaching of ID in public science classes. Here is a long excerpt from the decision, which makes it clear.

NAS is in agreement that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data – the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.” (P-649 at 27).

This rigorous attachment to “natural” explanations is an essential attribute to science by definition and by convention. (1:63 (Miller); 5:29-31 (Pennock)). We are in agreement with Plaintiffs’ lead expert Dr. Miller, that from a practical perspective, attributing unsolved problems about nature to causes and forces that lie outside the natural world is a “science stopper.” (3:14-15 (Miller)). As Dr. Miller explained, once you attribute a cause to an untestable supernatural force, a proposition that cannot be disproven, there is no reason to continue seeking natural explanations as we have our answer. Id.

ID is predicated on supernatural causation, as we previously explained and as various expert testimony revealed. (17:96 (Padian); 2:35-36 (Miller); 14:62 (Alters)). ID takes a natural phenomenon and, instead of accepting or seeking a natural explanation, argues that the explanation is supernatural. (5:107 (Pennock)). Further support for the conclusion that ID is predicated on supernatural causation is found in the ID reference book to which ninth grade biology students are directed, Pandas. Pandas states, in pertinent part, as follows:

Stated another way, ID posits that animals did not evolve naturally through evolutionary means but were created abruptly by a non-natural, or supernatural, designer. Defendants’ own expert witnesses acknowledged this point. (21:96-100 (Behe); P-718 at 696, 700 (“implausible that the designer is a natural entity”); 28:21-22 (Fuller) (“. . . ID’s rejection of naturalism and commitment to supernaturalism . . .”); 38:95-96 (Minnich) (ID does not exclude the possibility of a supernatural designer, including deities).

It is notable that defense experts’ own mission, which mirrors that of the IDM itself, is to change the ground rules of science to allow supernatural causation of the natural world, which the Supreme Court in Edwards and the court in McLean correctly recognized as an inherently religious concept. Edwards, 482

The last paragraph is key – the anti-materialist/naturalist movement is really about changing the ground rules of science (re-fighting the fight they lost in the past) to include supernatural explanations, but this is impossible within the necessary framework of science.

There is a further hypocrisy in the anti-materialist/naturalist agenda. They accuse scientists (and me personally) of being “materialist ideologues.” However, science does not profess philosophical materialism or naturalism (of course, individual scientists may) – science only professes methodological naturalism, a necessary prerequisite to science as a method of investigation. Science is agnostic toward the deeper philosophical or ideological question (and, for the record, I am personally as well) . Therefore science is non-ideological. It is they who are anti-materialist and anti-naturalism ideologues – they who are professing an anti-scientific ideology.

Materialism and Neuroscience

ID proponent William Dembski wrote an interesting review of Schwartz’s book The Mind and the Brain called Challenging Materialism’s “Chokehold” on Neuroscience. The article is a good indication of the “unholy alliance” I discussed above – Dembski is trying to praise Schwartz for his attack on materialism as it applies to consciousness, without endorsing his Buddhist or quantum mechanical notions. We also see in this essay an interplay between the two main lines of argument for dualism.

Schwartz’s essential argument for a non-materialist interpretation of mind is the phenomenon of plasticity. This is the ability of the brain to change its own hard-wiring in response to use. Incidentally, this is identical to the argument put forward by Deepak Chopra. Schwartz calls this phenomenon “self-directed neuroplasticity.”

Neuroplasticity is well established, and researchers in the last 10 years have discovered that even adults retain significantly more plasticity than previously thought. We have also discovered at least one mechanism of this plasticity – adults also retain neural stem cells is larger numbers than previously thought. This is not controversial.

The dualism argument derives from the fact that we can change our brain activity by thinking. Dembski writes:

From brain scans, Schwartz found that certain regions in the brain of OCD patients (the caudate nucleus in particular) exhibited abnormal patterns of activity. By itself this finding is consistent with a materialist view of mind (if, as materialism requires, brain enables mind, then abnormal patterns of brain activity are likely to be correlated with dysfunctional mental states). Nonetheless, having found abnormal patterns of brain activity, Schwartz then had OCD patients engage in intensive mental effort through what he called relabeling, reattributing, refocusing, and revaluing (the 4 Rs). In the case of compulsive hand-washing, this would involve a patient acknowledging that the hands are in fact clean (relabeling); attributing anxieties and doubts about the hands being dirty to a misfunctioning brain (reattributing); directing thoughts and actions away from handwashing and toward productive ends (refocusing); and, lastly, understanding at a deep level the senselessness of OCD messages (revaluing).

Schwartz documents not only that patients who undertook this therapy experienced considerable relief from OCD symptoms but also that their brain scans indicated a lasting realignment of brain-activity patterns. Thus, without any intervention directly affecting their brains, OCD patients were able to reorganize their brains by intentionally modifying their thoughts and behaviors. The important point for Schwartz here is not simply that modified thoughts and behaviors permanently altered patterns of brain activity, but that such modifications resulted from, as he calls it, “mindful attention” — conscious and purposive thoughts or actions in which the agent adopts the stance of a detached observer.

Schwartz’s technique is really just a form of cognitive therapy.  Interestingly he equates an alternate approach of behavioral therapy (making OCD patients keep their hands dirty, for example) as a manifestation of the materialist view of mind, while his cognitive therapy is more compassionate and spiritual. This is a non sequitur, however. Many therapists use both cognitive and behavioral techniques, and assessments of their effectiveness are independent of materialist philosophy, as is the ethics surrounding specific behavioral techniques. But to the anti-materialists everything is about materialism.

The core argument is that the mind (a non-physical substance) is changing the physical brain. But his is just a circular argument – because if the mind comes from brain, than this is just the brain changing the brain. You can only interpret this as a non-physical cause changing the brain if you assume that the mind is non-physical in the first place.

Even Dembski has to admit this weakness of Schwartz’s argument, writing:

“If you want a knock-down argument against materialism and materialist accounts of mind, this won’t do it.”

But Dembski then goes on to argue (absurdly) that even though this argument by itself is worthless,  it is still compelling when combined with other (worthless) arguments against materialism, such as the strong anthropic principle. As further evidence for the “unholy alliance” he even cites Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe – that’s pretty desperate for a movement trying to grasp at scientific respectability.

The second type of argument used for a non-material interpretation of mind is nothing more than a god-of-the-gaps argument. This is the type of argument favored by Michael Egnor, with whom I have sparred numerous times in the past. Egnor essentially argues that the modern tools of neuroscience do not conform precisely to mental activity, and this discrepancy (gap) is due to the non-material part of the mind. Of course, the far simpler explanation is that MRI’s and EEG’s have limited resolution, and our models of brain anatomy and function are incomplete (gaps). Egnor sees dualism in the current gaps in neuroscience in the exact same logically fallacious way that creationists see God (or ID) in the gaps of the fossil record.

Of course, any science could be targeted with the same god-of-the-gaps strategy, and such arguments have been lampooned, as in this “intelligent falling” article in The Onion, by inserting ID into the gaps in our current theories of gravitation. So, why attack neuroscience and not Newtonian mechanics? I think there are two primary reasons. The first is that some findings in science are more emotionally disagreeable than others. Evolution tells us that humans are animals, and neuroscience tells us that all of our hopes and fears are just chemicals and electrical signals in that lump of meat that sits in our skulls. Evolution and neuroscience are more personal than gravity.

The second reason is that these sciences deal with very abstract and difficult to imagine natural processes. Evolution unfolds over millions of years, a time scale that is beyond human experience and therefore difficult to fathom. Consciousness arises from brain function as an emergent phenomenon of a very complex system. It is difficult even for scientists to fully wrap their imaginations around the concepts involved.

These sciences are therefore vulnerable to ideological attack. Their science is solid and progressing nicely (which is a testament to their underlying assumptions) but there are gaps in our current understanding, they are conceptually very challenging, and they potentially strike at our self-image. The anti-materialists offer in their place a simple and self-affirming ideology. Forget all the nuances about punctuated equilibrium – you were created by a loving parent-figure. Forget emergence and neurons – you are a luminous and immortal being.


This all get’s back to the Wedge strategy – the anti-materialists cannot win (and in fact have already lost) in the arena of science. Science requires methodological naturalism. All this talk about “materialist ideology” is all a diversion from the truth, which is that creationists, dualists, and proponents of various kinds of woo want to change the fundamental and necessary rules of science to allow their religious beliefs to pass as science. They are doing this for purely ideological reasons, and they don’t care if they have to destroy modern science in the process. Yet, they have the gall to accuse scientists of being “materialist ideologues” when they are just defending of method of inquiry from ideological assault.

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