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EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

EPS Philosophers Respond to New Scientist Article On "Creationism" and Materialism

Amanda Gefter, an editor with the Opinion section of the New Scientist, wrote a piece titled, "Creationists Declare War over the Brain" (posted October 22, 2008).

Gefter's piece describes what she quotes as a "'non-material neuroscience' movement" that is "attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism ... in hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul."

Among the scholars that she mentions as examples of this "non-material neuroscience movement," Gefter quotes from EPS philosophers and Philosophia Christi contributors J.P. Moreland, Angus Menuge and William Dembski (only Menuge is referenced in the article as being a philosopher).

Moreland, the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Biola University's Talbot School of Theology, recently published his Consciousness & the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument (Routledge), which Gefter describes as having "fanned the flames" with its publication in June of this year.

Of Moreland's book, she says that "Non-materialist neuroscience provided him with this helpful explanation: since God 'is' consciousness." But Moreland's book offers a philosophical explanation for non-materialism; it is not dependent on the findings of neuroscience. (She goes on to quote Moreland, which at first glance appears to be from his Routledge book. Yet upon further inspection, it appears that she selectively quotes from a blog post by Moreland).

Nonetheless, in response to Gefter's piece, Moreland e-mailed us with the following reply:
The simple truth is that in both science and philosophy, strict physicalist analysis of consciousness and the self have been breaking down since the mid-1980s. The problems with physicalism have nothing directly to do with theism; they follow from rigorous treatments of consciousness and the self as we know them to be. The real problem comes in trying to explain its origin and for this problem, naturalism in general and Darwinism in particular, are useless. In my view, the only two serious contenders are theism and panpsychism which, contrary to the musings of some, has throughout the history of philosophy been correctly taken as a rival to and not a specification of naturalism.

(Moreland is set to publish in 2009 a similar book about the philosophical problems of naturalism titled, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism )

Angus Menuge
, Concordia University's (Wisconsin) Professor of Philosophy and Computer Science and Chair of Philosophy, is cited by Gefter for receiving funds from the Discovery Institute for his Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science book and for testifying "in favour of teaching ID in state-funded high-schools."

But as Menuge notes in an e-mail to us, "I did not testify 'in favour of teaching ID in state-funded high-schools,' as the media would have discovered if they had actually reported the testimony given in Kansas instead of recycling a standardized science/religion story-line; we simply maintained that students should learn about the evidence for and against the neo-Darwinian view and insisted that Intelligent Design was not yet sufficiently developed as a theory to be taught in classrooms."

Moreover, Menuge notes, "Amanda Gefter also has her chronology wrong: though I did receive support from the Discovery Institute to research Agents Under Fire, this was not part of a program to develop 'non-materialist neuroscience' (an area in which I have since become very interested) but my attempt to show in detail that scientific materialism is untenable because materialism undermines the rationality of science."

Gefter agrees that "scientists have yet to crack the great mystery of how consciousness could emerge from firing neurons." But she then suggests that the argument against materialism is (quoting naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland) "an argument from ignorance." Churchland says, "The fact [that] something isn't currently explained doesn't mean it will never be explained or that we need to completely change not only our neuroscience but our physics."

Menuge admits "it is possible that a materialistic explanation of consciousness might be found, but that does not make the claim that consciousness is non-physical an argument from ignorance." Menuge further counsels,

At any given time, scientists should infer the best current explanation of the available evidence, and right now, the best evidence from both neuroscience and rigorous philosophical analysis is that consciousness is not reducible to the physical. Churchland’s refusal to draw this inference is based not on evidence, but on what Karl Popper called "promissory materialism," a reliance on the mere speculative possibility of a materialistic explanation. Since this attitude can be maintained indefinitely, it means that even if a non-materialist account is correct (and supported by overwhelming evidence), that inconvenient truth can always be ignored. Surely the project of science should be one of following the evidence wherever it leads, not of protecting a preconceived materialist philosophy. Isn’t it that philosophy—the one that constantly changes its shape to avoid engagement with troublesome evidence, either ignoring the data or simply declaring it materialistic—that most resembles a virus?
In one respect, perhaps it is gratifying that the New Scientist raises awareness (if only out of fear) about important challenges to the materialist establishment. On the other hand, "What irony," wrote William Dembski in an e-mail.
Witch hunts, subversion of science, not following evidence to its logical conclusion -- all the things the author worries will happen to science if a non-materialist neuroscience succeeds -- are the things she herself embraces in reflexively assuming that the only valid neuroscience must be materialist.

Updated 10/24, 6:15 Am (PST)

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Blogger Kevin Winters said:

Isn't it the case, though, that the arguments against physicalist accounts primarily applies to reductionistic and linear physicalistic accounts and have little strength against non-reductionoistic, holistic, and non-linear approaches?

Furthermore, isn't it the case that our experience of being selves isn't that of an unexteded self (an essential aspect of immaterialism), but of a self radically tied to a particular location centered around our bodies? Our own ego-centric experience of ourselves, of thought, and of action lend no support to a self that is essentially non-extended.

Moreland's own arguments for immaterialism from the perspective of "introspection" justify just this spatially situated self and not the immaterial self of dualism. While it is true that my experience of myself pervades my body and cannot be located at any one particular point in it, it is also the case that my experience of myself doesn't include non-spatial content. When I talk about myself I do not list reductionistic 'immaterial' properties that are supposedly essential for my being who I am (I don't even think I could come up with such a list, at least that wasn't incredibly vague). Rather, I tell stories that have an essential holism that escapes any reduction of myself to a set of abstract properties.

By Blogger Kevin Winters, at October 24, 2008 6:16 AM  

Blogger Chad said:

I am very interested in Moreland's new book mentioned, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. Please keep the blog updated on this!

By Blogger Chad, at October 26, 2008 7:50 PM  

Blogger Jime said:

Hi my friends,

I'm not a Christian, but I accept dualism as a better explanation to the mind-body problem. Some materialists have realized that materialism is very flawed.

A recent example is materialist philosopher of mind William Lycan, who wrote a paper (2007) admitting that: "I have been a materialist about the mind for forty years, since first I considered the mind-body issue. In all that time I have seen exactly one argument for mind-body dualism that I thought even prima facie convincing.<1>. And like many other materialists, I have often quickly cited standard objections to dualism that are widely taken to be fatal<2>—notoriously the dread Interaction Problem. My materialism has never wavered. Nor is it about to waver now; I cannot take dualism very seriously.

Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence

It's a very interesting case of intellectual honesty and integrity.

A good philosophical critique of physicalism is this:

I read the book of Beauregard (commented in the New Scientist's article), and I think it shows sound empirical data against materialism. Specially, Beauregard studies on placebo effect and psychotherapy are very interesting.

You can hear a discussion between Beauregard, neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz and physicist Henry Stapp here:

I'd like to read the new book of Moreland too. I hope to do it soon.


By Blogger Jime, at October 29, 2008 6:56 PM  

Blogger george wayne said:

It seems that your final observation: "Rather, I tell stories that have an essential holism that escapes any reduction of myself to a set of abstract properties." hardly refutes the fact that your 'instancing' as an individual and holistic agent meets a number of functional as well as non-functional(abstract) attributes/requirements. As such, your very self-experience is derived from what can only be described as set of abstract (immaterial), highly structured classes. This notion seems neither reductionistic nor linear.

By Blogger george wayne, at October 30, 2008 8:15 AM  

Blogger Charlie said:

If by unextended one means "non-spatial" then this is not essential to non-materialism, since there are spatial accounts of the self as well that would count as non-materialistic. Taking material objects to be things extended in the three familiar spatial dimensions, an account according to which we are not extended in this way would be properly non-materialistic.(E.g., the view that we are point-sized and mereologically simple (cf. Chisholm) or that we are 3 < n-dimensional.) So it is not essential to non-materialism that we are completely non-spatial.

It is amusing that materialist dogmatists still think people are going to fall for the "religious whackos" v. "educated scientists" scare-tactics that are often injected this debate. Spin can only take them so far; eventually they'll have to deal with the specifics.

By Blogger Charlie, at October 30, 2008 9:13 AM  

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