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Monday, December 01, 2008

Consciousness: A physicist on the recent New Scientist flap re non-materialist neuroscience

British physicist David Tyler blogs on the recent flap created by a smear job against non-materialist neuroscientists in New Scientist (non-materialists think that your mind is not merrely an illusion of your brain):
The prevailing paradigm in neuroscience is materialism. Everything about the brain is interpreted in terms of physics and chemistry: our sense of free agency, our consciousness, our hopes and our ability to appreciate beauty. Yet this paradigm has only limited results to show for all the effort expended and "scientists have yet to crack the great mystery of how consciousness could emerge from firing neurons". The UN conference set out an agenda for going beyond reductionism. Jeffrey Schwartz warned the delegates that what they were doing would be met with heated opposition, because materialism is deemed by many to be of the essence of science:

"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."

Sure enough, the event has raised alarm! The New Scientist reported it with the headline: "Creationists declare war over the brain". It has become commonplace for the science media to portray every departure from philosophical naturalism as "creationism" as though that were the ultimate crime for a scientists and no more needs be said. There is evidence that some of the conference speakers have links with the ID Movement, and apparently that is enough to shower derision on them. Since scientists are supposed to be able to grapple with complex issues and think rationally and objectively (rather than emotionally), I do not understand why there is so little outcry against the intolerant attitudes of so many science journalists and writers.
I do understand why there is so little outcry. Believing that materialism is "the truth," many journalists assume that their role is to promote materialism, even at the expense of evidence. Non-materialist views are okay for fooling people into helping the poor, paying their taxes, or avoiding crime, but they are not a source of true information, in their view, jsut sentimental bluff.

So now that non-materialist approaches are gaining a foothold in neuroscience - based on evidence and practical considerations - the New Scientist writer was forced to see the development as "creationism" - oh yes, and also as the work of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

In reality, the institutional sponsors" of the mind-body conference at the UN on which she was reporting are unrelated to the Discovery Institute and are unlikely enthusiasts for its overall views. Their concern is medicine in the 21st century, and the failure of materialist explanations to provide useful answers in a vast range of situations.
But that just isn't something that a New Scientist writer would see.

Changing the magazine's masthead name to "Fast Backward to the Twentieth Century" might make sense at this point.

Tyler muses further,
No interviews with the scientists that were at the symposium are reported. This was noted by Angus Menuge in a letter (unpublished) to New Scientist: "I find it very troubling, that while Amanda Gefter took the trouble of interviewing sources who advocate scientific materialism, she did not interview any critics of that position, instead relying on third-hand reports. This does not seem to reflect journalistic best practice."
No, it doesn't reflect journalistic best practice, but it does reflect the practice of people who think that their readers do not really want to be told what happened at the conference and why, but do want to be told a story that makes them feel comfortable. (links to conference coverage below)

For example, what about Esther Sternberg, Christina Puchalski, Bruce Greyson, Sam Parnia, and Andrew Newberg, who had lots of useful things to say at the conference?
I guess if you "connect the dots" to include them, you don't find a conspiracy that involves creationism or the Discovery Institute. And that is the principal difficulty with connect-the-dots thinking.

See also:

New Scientist publishes non-materialist neuroscientist's letter

Selected moments from "Beyond the Mind-Body Problem Symposium - morning panel

Selected moments from "Beyond the Mind-Body Problem Symposium - afternoon panel

My response to the New Scientist bid to be the National Enquirer of pop science mags. (But, why?)

New Scientist - a philosophy prof responds

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