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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Part Two: Who has enough faith to be a materialist?

One convenient aspect of materialism is that any doubt can be labeled "unscientific" in principle. That preempts a discussion of materialism's plausibility. Certainly, materialism is a faith that many intellectuals would never think of questioning. But the strength of their conviction neither shows that it is a correct account of reality nor provides evidence in its favor.

Suppose, for example, a healthy man donates a kidney for free to a dying stranger. The materialist may look for an analogy among moles, rats, mole rats, or chimpanzees, as the best way to understand the donor's motives. He believes that the donor's mind can be completely explained by the hypothesis that his brain was built up painstakingly in slow steps from the brains of creatures like these. Therefore, his mind is merely an illusion created by the workings of an overdeveloped brain, and his consciousness of his situation is actually irrelevant as an explanation of his actions.

This book argues that the fact that the human brain evolves does not show that the human mind can be dismissed in this way. Rather, the human brain can enable a human mind, whereas the mole brain cannot (with my apologies to the mole species). The brain, however, is not the mind; it is an organ suitable for connecting a mind to the rest of the universe. By analogy, Olympic swimming events require an Olympic class swimming pool. But the pool does not create the Olympic events; it makes them feasible at a given location. From the materialist perspective, our human mind's consciousness and free will are problems to be explained away. To see what this means, consider Harvard cognitive scientist Steve Pinker's comments on consciousness in a recent piece in Time magazine (January 19, 2007). Addressing two key problems that scientists face, he writes,
Although neither problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it "the astonishing hypothesis" – the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

Given that Pinker admits that neither problem concerning consciousness is either solved or anywhere close to being solved, how can he be so sure that consciousness is merely "the activity of the brain", with the implication that he draws out, that there is no soul?

One convenient aspect of Pinker's materialism is that any doubt can be labeled "unscientific" in principle. That preempts a discussion of materialism's plausibility. Certainly, materialism is a faith that many intellectuals would never think of questioning. But the strength of their conviction neither shows that it is a correct account of reality nor provides evidence in its favor.

A good case can be made for the opposite view, as this book will demonstrate. Yes, this book - departing from a general trend in books on neuroscience aimed at the general public - does question materialism. Much more than that, it presents evidence that materialism is not true. You will see for yourself that the evidence for materialism is not nearly so good as Steve Pinker would like you to believe. You can only retain your faith in materialism by assuming - on faith - that any contrary evidence you read about must be wrong.

For example, as we will relate, a materialist readily believes - without any reliable evidence whatever - that great spiritual leaders suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy rather than that they have spiritual experiences that inspire others as well as themselves. Where spirituality is concerned, this experiential data is an embarrassment to narrow materialism. That is because a system like materialism is severely damaged by any evidence against it. Consequently, data that defy materialism are simply ignored by many scientists. For instance, materialists have conducted a running war against psi research (research on knowledge or action at a distance) for decades, because any evidence of psi's validity, no matter how minor, is fatal to their ideological system. Recently, for example, self-professed skeptics have attacked atheist neuroscience grad student Sam Harris for having proposed, in his book titled The End of Faith (2004), that psi research has validity. Harris is only following the evidence, as we shall see. But in doing so, he is clearly violating an important tenet of materialism: Materialist ideology trumps evidence.

Next: Part Three: The uses of non-materialist neuroscience

(From The Spiritual Brain)

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