The Fairytale of Materialism: How ‘Fundamentalists’ Hijacked Science
The Fairytale of Materialism: How ‘Fundamentalists’ Hijacked Science. The notion of forbidden ideas in science is intriguing for obvious reasons. After all, it is undeniable that the intellectual establishment has historically blacklisted some of the most important breakthroughs in science over the centuries. To mention only one example, for decades Isaac Newton’s then-revolutionary idea that an invisible force called gravity acted at a distance between bodies was considered magical woo-woo, unworthy of being taken seriously. 1 What other revolutionary – and perhaps valid – ideas might have been recently proposed but continue to be snubbed today in scientific circles? Few questions are more interesting and relevant.
Yet, the notion of forbidden science raises a less obvious but equally intriguing question: on what basis is something considered heretical in science? What are the underlying assumptions of the self-appointed police of scientific thought? After all, science is supposedly based on the neutral and objective comparison between theory and nature. Nature is the final arbiter of scientific debate and it can be queried directly through experiment. So, if that is the way to settle the questions, why do we so often witness the scientific community engaged in highly subjective and emotionally-charged debates regarding what theory is – or isn’t – reasonable or acceptable? Sir John Maddox, former editor of Nature, once called for nothing less than the burning of a book describing a new theory of biological inheritance, much in the tone of medieval inquisitors. 2 Why all this fundamentalist hysteria?
In this article, I will argue that, at the root of all this, is the fact that the intellectual establishment completely misinterprets and misrepresents what science is about. The fundamentalist hysteria we see in the culture today is the inevitable result of the consistent and outrageous abuse science has suffered, often at the hands of those who were supposed to be its guardians. These abusers – among which I count some of the biggest names in science today – have hijacked science for the benefit of their own philosophical and psychological needs, biases, prejudices, and interests. And you, dear reader, are on the receiving end of this charade. Allow me to elaborate.
Science Isn’t Metaphysics
The scientific method allows us to study and model the observable patterns and regularities of nature. For instance, the observation that objects consistently fall when dropped – a regularity observed anywhere on the surface of the planet – allows us to infer the law of gravity. The observation that crystals form according to symmetrical shapes allows us to infer specific patterns of crystallization for different materials. Modelling the observable patterns and regularities of nature is all that science is about, because it is all that it can be about. Nothing else can be falsified by direct comparison with nature, therefore nothing else can be considered scientific. By observing the consistency of these patterns and regularities, scientists can create mathematical models to capture them, run such models as computer simulations, and then predict how similar phenomena will unfold in the future. Such an ability to predict the phenomena of nature lies at the heart of the technological prowess of our civilisation and represents the main social value-add of science.
But our ability to model the patterns and regularities of reality tells us little about the underlying nature of things. Scientific modelling is useful for informing us how one thing or phenomenon relates to another thing or phenomenon – this being precisely what mathematical equations do – but it cannot tell us what these things or phenomena fundamentally are in and by themselves. The reason is simple: science can only explain one thing in terms of another thing; it can only characterise a certain phenomenon in terms of its relative differences with respect to another phenomenon. 3 For instance, it only makes sense to characterise a positive electric charge relative to a negative electric charge; positive charges are defined in terms of their differences of behaviour when compared to the behaviour of negative charges, and the other way around. Another example: science can explain a body in terms of tissues; tissues in terms of cells; cells in terms of molecules; molecules in terms of atoms; and atoms in terms of subatomic particles. But then it can only explain one subatomic particle in terms of another, by highlighting their relative differences. Science cannot explain the fundamental nature of what a subatomic particle is in itself, since all scientific explanations need a frame of reference to provide contrasts. 4
Capturing the observable patterns and regularities of the elements of reality, relative to each other, is an empirical and scientific question. But pondering about the fundamental nature of these elements is not; it is a metaphysical question. The problem is that, in recent decades, scientists who have little or no understanding of philosophy have begun to believe that science can be a metaphysics. 5 This dangerous combination of ignorance and hubris has done our culture an enormous disservice. Childishly emboldened by the technological success achieved by our civilisation, many scientists have begun to believe that the scientific method suffices to provide us with a complete account of the nature of existence. In doing so, they have failed to see that they are simply assuming a certain metaphysics – namely, materialism – without giving it due thought. They have failed to see that the ability to predict how things behave with respect to one another says little about what things fundamentally are.
The notion that technological prowess is proof of some deep scientific understanding of the underlying nature of reality is simply equivocated. Let us put this in context with an analogy: one needs to know nothing about computer architecture or software in order to play a computer game well and even win; just watch a five-year-old kid. Playing a computer game only requires an ability to understand and predict how the elements of the game behave relative to one another: if your character shoots that spot, it scores points; if your character touches that wall, it dies; etc. It requires no understanding whatsoever of the underlying machine and code upon which the game runs. You can be a champion player without having a clue about Central Processing Units (CPU), Random-Access Memories (RAM), Universal Serial Buses (USB), or any of the esoteric computer engineering that makes the game possible. All this engineering transcends the “reality” accessible empirically from within the game. Yet, the scientific method limits itself to what is empirically and ordinarily observed from within the “game” of reality. Scientific modelling requires little or no understanding of the underlying nature of reality in exactly the same way that a gamer needs little or no understanding of the computer’s underlying architecture in order to win the game. It only requires an understanding of how the elements of the “game,” accessed empirically from within the “game” itself, unfold relative to one another.
On the other hand, to infer things about what underlies the “game” – in other words, to construct a metaphysics about the fundamental nature of reality – demands more than the empirical methods of science. Indeed, it demands a kind of disciplined introspection that critically assesses not only the elements observed, but also the observer, the process of observation, and the interplay between the three in a holistic manner; an introspection that, as such, seeks to see through the “game.”
True science is metaphysically neutral and agnostic. Mistaking it for a particular metaphysical position is a profound disservice to science, because it makes it vulnerable to straw-man attacks. For instance, the materialist metaphysics is often peddled today as synonymous with science; a tragic disfigurement of the latter. Yet, as I will argue shortly, materialism is extraordinarily vulnerable to attack, which is construed by a growing number of people as evidence that science itself is failing. But this isn’t true. An attack on materialism as a metaphysical interpretation of science is not an attack on true science.
To illustrate how true science, as we know it today, can be coherently interpreted according to a metaphysics entirely different from materialism, let us have a fresh look at the so-called “mind-body problem.”
A Non-Materialist Take on the Mind-Body Problem
There are undeniable correspondences between conscious experience and brain states. If you have ever been drunk, you know that the addition of alcohol to ordinary brain chemistry can severely affect how one feels subjectively. Anaesthesia and psychiatric drugs also alter consciousness by interfering with brain function. Functional MRI scans regularly reveal high-level correlations between the activation of certain areas in the brain and certain types of subjective experience. So the link between brain states and subjective experience is a scientifically observed pattern/regularity of reality. As such, it is an undeniable scientific fact, independent of metaphysics.
The question, of course, is how to interpret the underlying nature of this link, which is not a question of science, but of philosophy. Many scientists simply assume that the materialist metaphysics explains the link by stating that the brain generates the mind. As such, the brain – and reality at large – supposedly exists fundamentally outside mind. When the brain is destroyed, mind can no longer exist. Indeed, such metaphysics does seem to explain the high-level correlations between brain states and subjective experience. But it does so at the enormous cost of, first, postulating an unprovable universe fundamentally outside subjective experience; and, second, requiring a magical step by means of which unconscious matter somehow lights up with awareness under particular circumstances – the so-called “hard problem of consciousness.”6 Since subjective experience is the only carrier of reality that anyone can ever know, and since nobody today has the faintest clue about how to solve the “hard problem of consciousness,” materialism suffers from a severe lack of parsimony, explanatory power, and provability.
Nonetheless, many scientists still adopt materialism as the explanation for the mind-body problem. The reason is that they do not see any other reasonable metaphysical interpretation that fits the scientifically observed patterns and regularities linking brain and mind. As such, they end up making the classical error of conflating metaphysics with science itself. But there is at least another, much more parsimonious metaphysical interpretation that fits the data and has more explanatory power. I will discuss it below in order to illustrate my point that the patterns and regularities of nature can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and that true science is neutral and agnostic about which metaphysical interpretation is true.
Here we go: think of a stream. Water can flow along the stream through its entire length; that is, water is not localised in the stream, but traverses it unhindered. Now imagine a small whirlpool in the stream: it has a visible and identifiable existence; one can locate a whirlpool and roughly delineate its boundaries; one can point at it and say “Here is a whirlpool!” There seems to be no question about how clear and concrete the whirlpool is as an identifiable object. Moreover, the whirlpool limits the flow: the water trapped in it can no longer traverse the entire stream freely but, instead, become locked in place, swirling around a specific and well-defined location. The whirlpool thus partially localises the flow of water in the stream. Yet, there is nothing to the whirlpool but water itself. The whirlpool is just a specific pattern of water movement that reflects a partial localisation of that water within the stream.
Now here is my metaphysical interpretation of the mind-body problem: reality at large is the flow of the “stream” of mind. There is nothing to reality but subjective experience itself. The body-brain system is simply the image of a process of self-localisation of mind, just like the whirlpool is the image of a process of self-localisation of water. There is nothing to the brain but mind, yet it is a concrete and identifiable image of the partial localisation of mind, just like a whirlpool is a concrete and identifiable image of the partial localisation of water. You can point at the brain and say “Here is a brain!”
As such, to say that the brain generates the mind is as absurd as to say that a whirlpool generates water! To say that the brain is the cause of consciousness is as absurd as to say that lightning is the cause of atmospheric electric discharge. After all, lightning is merely how atmospheric electric discharge looks, not the cause of it. Do you see what I mean? The brain is an image of the process of consciousness localisation, as viewed from a second-person perspective, in exactly the same way that flames are an image of the process of combustion, as viewed from the outside. In the same way that the patterns and colours of flames correlate well with the inner-workings of the process of combustion, measured brain activity correlates well with the first-person view of consciousness – that is, direct subjective experience.
Notice that this eliminates the “hard problem of consciousness” entirely: the correlations between brain states and mind states are explained by understanding the former to be merely an image of the latter, as perceived from a second-person perspective. There is no attempt to reduce mind to objective brain activity outside mind, so there is no “hard problem” at all. The brain and its activity, as images in mind, are of exactly the same nature as any other subjective experience. There is no need to magically derive experience from something outside experience because there is no need to postulate anything outside experience to begin with. The brain is an experience, an image in mind of a certain process of mind.
The whirlpool represents a partial localisation of the flow of experiences in the stream of mind. This localisation demarcates a centralised, local perspective: the very centre of the whirlpool, the vantage point from which each one of us witnesses our personal subset of the contents of mind-at-large. This is, after all, how we ordinarily experience reality: from a particular vantage point in the middle of the vortex of experiences swirling around us. Ordinarily, we are only aware of the flow of experiences captured in our respective whirlpools, not of the broader stream outside. This is a direct result of the localisation process that pins us to a particular space-time position.
Clearly, we do not need to postulate an entire universe outside the only carrier of reality we can ever know – mind itself, the medium of all subjective experience – to make sense of the patterns and regularities of nature. We do not need to face the insoluble “hard problem of consciousness.” Instead, we just need to correct an old philosophical mistake made in the name of science: the spectacular mistake of taking the image of a process to be the cause of the process. For the same reason that lighting is simply the way atmospheric electric discharge looks – and not the cause of it – the body-brain system is simply the way consciousness localisation looks, and not the cause of it.
The entire metaphysical interpretation I elaborated upon above is fully in accordance with the natural patterns and regularities observed and modelled by science today. None of what I said above contradicts any part of true science; perhaps only the assertions of those who hijack and misuse science. If you would like to know more about my metaphysical position, as briefly described above with the whirlpool metaphor, I refer you to my book Why Materialism Is Baloney.
The fundamentalist hysteria witnessed today stems from the fact that different factions involved in the so-called “culture war” attempt to make of science something it cannot be: a metaphysical position. In the process, they hijack and deface science, contributing to the general disorientation in our society regarding the nature of truth and the purpose of life. It is time we corrected this. It is time we understood that physics, while valuable and extremely important, just models the elements of the “game”: where to “shoot,” which “wall” to avoid, etc. The underlying nature of reality – the inner workings of the “computer running the game” – is an issue of metaphysics. It requires different methods to be properly assessed and understood. For as long as scientists like Stephen Hawking are allowed to make preposterous pseudo-philosophical pronouncements7 and not be either ignored or thoroughly ridiculed by the mainstream media – in exactly the same way that, say, a famous artist would be ridiculed or ignored for making pseudo-scientific statements – our culture will fail to understand its predicament. Part and parcel of this overdue correction in our culture is the need to see materialism not as synonymous with science, but simply as a particular metaphysical interpretation of science; one that happens to be highly inflationary and to lack sufficient explanatory power. By DR. BERNARDO KASTRUP.
Bernardo Kastrup’s new book is Why Materialism Is Baloney. The book deconstructs materialism and offers a new coherent framework to help us make sense of the Universe. For full details, please visit his website www.bernardokastrup.com or go to www.amazon.com and look up “Bernardo Kastrup.”
1. Kuhn, T. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 105.
2. Maddox, J. (1981). A book for burning? Nature, 293(5830), 245–246.
3. Russell, B. (2007). The Analysis of Matter. Nottingham: Spokesman Books.
4. Even in the case of String Theory, according to which subatomic particles can be explained in terms of vibrating strings, it is still the relative differences between the modes of vibration of these strings that explain reality. The fundamental nature of the strings themselves is left unaddressed. See: Davies, P. and Brown, J. eds. (1992). Superstrings: A Theory of Everything? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5. See, for instance: Hughes, A. L. (2012). The Folly of Scientism. The New Atlantis, 37, 32-50.
6. Chalmers, D. (2003). Consciousness and its Place in Nature. In: Stich, S. and Warfield, F. eds. Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 102-142.
7. Hawking has made statements like this: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” (Hawking, S. and Mlodinow, L. (2010). The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life. London: Bantam Books, 227). This is incoherent, since the law of gravity is not nothing. There has been plenty of critical deconstruction of Hawking’s claims, as in: Davies, P. (2010). Stephen Hawking’s big bang gaps. The Guardian, 4 September 2010, London.
BERNARDO KASTRUP has a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering and has worked as a scientist in some of the world’s foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories (where the “Casimir Effect” of Quantum Field Theory was discovered). He has authored many scientific papers and four philosophy books: Rationalist Spirituality, Dreamed up Reality, Meaning in Absurdity, and Why Materialism Is Baloney. This latter book is a grand synthesis of his metaphysical views. Bernardo has also been an entrepreneur and founder of two high-tech businesses. Today, he holds a managerial position in the high-tech industry and, in parallel, maintains a philosophy blog and an audio/video podcast. Bernardo has lived and worked in four different countries across continents. He resides in the Netherlands and his website is www.bernardokastrup.com.Filed under: Philosophy & Psychology
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