Oct 23 2008

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature

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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.

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