Science Wars: Dualism vs. Materialism
The intelligent design controversy is perhaps the biggest front on the science wars, followed by disputes over the paranormal, but a new front is opening up around the issue of materialism or physicalism. Is science biased in favor of the materialist-physicalist assumption, the idea that nature fundamentally contains only material things? A small but vocal group of self-styled anti-materialist and dualist neuroscientists held a mind-body symposium at the UN last year, arguing that science has indeed been hijacked by dogmatic materialists, who wrongly discount evidence for categorically non-physical phenomena. New Scientist ran a good article about it, quoting some well-respected mainstream scientists and philosophers who, unsurprisingly, see the anti-materialists as the dogmatists, intent on warping science to serve their agenda.
These opposed positions are mirrored in two responses to the 2009 Edge question, What will change everything?. One is by biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who says materialism’s days are numbered: certain questions, for instance about the nature of consciousness, will never be answered unless science is liberated from its assumption that the physical world is all there is. He says “Confidence in materialism is draining away. Its leaders, like central bankers, keep printing promissory notes, but it has lost its credibility as the central dogma of science.” The other is by biologist P. Z. Myers, who says that materialism rules, and that eventually people will adjust to the idea they don’t have souls, widely believed to be the precious immaterial essence of our being: “Mind is clearly a product of the brain, and the old notions of souls and spirits are looking increasingly ludicrous…yet these are nearly universal ideas, all tangled up in people's rationalizations for an afterlife, for ultimate reward and punishment, and their concept of self.” Science writers John Horgan and George Johnson discuss Sheldrake, Myers and the materialism/anti-materialism conflict at Bloggingheads, and there’s been a protracted debate between materialist Steven Novella and dualist Michael Egnor, both neuroscientists, at their respective blogs here and here.
So who’s right and how do we decide? Sheldrake and Myers are both credentialed, published biologists, so they must share considerable common ground in how they practice science on a day-to-day basis. But obviously that isn’t enough to keep them on the same page when it comes to the prospects for materialism.
One way to moderate the argument, if not completely resolve it, is to see that science is primarily a method of inquiry, not a repository of metaphysical truths. Science has no particular commitment to materialism as a final conclusion about the world, it’s just that so far it hasn’t found evidence for, or explanatory justification for, categorically immaterial phenomena such as souls, spirits or disembodied minds and wills (whether agreement could be reached on the defining characteristics of such phenomena is an interesting and open question). If such evidence were to accrue, and were our best explanatory theories to incorporate non-physical entities, no good scientist would complain about it. It’s just the way things turned out. What scientists are after, qua scientists (and not worldview advocates), is explanatory transparency and reliable, maximally predictive models of reality (see here). No one can say in advance where these cognitive desiderata will take us. If Sheldrake and Myers could agree on this point, then their opposing opinions on materialism are not fundamentally about science, but bets on where science is likely to take us.
Sheldrake seems to think science might be limited in its current menu of options when he says “But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone.” Fair enough - no honest scientist supposes that we can know in advance what the final scientific explanations for life and mind must involve. Perhaps totally new fields of inquiry will develop (but I’m not holding my breath). However, what is very unlikely to change is the basic methodological constraints of science and its criteria of explanatory adequacy, which require high levels of evidential support, explanatory transparency, and descriptive specificity for phenomena to be certified as real. It’s these requirements that have thus far ruled out creationism and intelligent design as tenable hypotheses, and they will apply equally to any hypothesis about categorically non-physical phenomena.
Sheldrake says “science will be freer - and more fun” once divested of its materialist bias. But science, properly conducted, has no such bias, and its judgments on anti-materialist hypotheses will be determined by the same rather demanding rules of evidence and explanation it applies to any hypothesis, materialist or otherwise.