Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Science Wars: Dualism vs. Materialism

The prestige of science is such that everyone wants it on their side. Science is a trusted arbiter of facts for most of us, at least when it comes to empirical questions on which evidence can be brought to bear. So it’s little wonder that even those with patently faith-based convictions about the nature of things should try to conscript it to their advantage. The obvious examples are creationists and advocates of intelligent design who argue that were it properly conducted, science would provide support for their supernatural hypotheses (see here). The argument thus becomes about the nature of science itself: does it have canonical methods and assumptions? What are these, and are certain scientists guilty of letting their worldview warp good scientific practice? If science as it’s commonly conducted doesn’t support your metaphysics, then the temptation might be to claim that mainstream scientists are guilty of malfeasance.

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.


Blogger Thoughts said...

I agree that science has no particular commitment to materialism. In contrast scientists often have a materialist outlook. This is unfortunate because relativity permits non-materialist interactions (for instance magnetism is due to the exposing of a new slice of space-time when electrons move and not the simple result of material motions).

Ultimately science is the creation of theories to account for observations and, as I point out in The nature of the soul the mind is an acceptable observation that requires a theory.

Jan 16, 2009, 4:46:00 AM  
Blogger Jean-Michel Abrassart said...


Interesting blog entry. You should blog more often.


Jan 21, 2009, 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Transparent Eye said...


I did not like that New Scientist article, because I thought it was an attempt to make neuroscience a new front in the culture war. I did, however, listen to the recording, and it did sound like Schwartz may have fired the first shot. Nevertheless, I'd prefer to avoid polarizing language that pushes people into either a materialist or dualist camp.

In my opinion, we need to have the freedom to think improbable thought about consciousness, because if the solution to the problem wasn't strange and unlikely, smart people would have thought of it already.

Feb 6, 2009, 6:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...

Trans Eye,

I agree that we don't want to exacerbate the polarization that drives the culture wars. One aim of this blog entry was to show both sides they have common ground in science itself. To do science according to its rules, people must put aside their ideological differences in seeking the best, most transparent explanations for phenomena (your transparent eye!)

And I agree about being free to think improbable thoughts about consciousness. The solution to the mind/body problem might be pretty strange. For anyone to declare that they know in advance that the solution *must* involve dualism or materialism or any other "ism" seems to me unwarranted. Science has no a priori commitment to any particular ontology.

Feb 8, 2009, 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Jason Dollar said...

"So it’s little wonder that even those with patently faith-based convictions about the nature of things should try to conscript it to their advantage."

Tom, like most naturalists you misrepresent faith as believing that for which one has no or very little evidence. This is certainly not the way thinking Christians define faith. Rather faith is that which we trust on the basis of evidence (much that way I have "faith" in my wife on the basis of her trustworthy behavior over a considerable period of time).

Once faith is redefined in this way, it is easy to separate it from "science" (which is also redefined to fit your own preconceived ideas concerning the nature of the universe - a topic much too long for a comment). But in so doing you are putting your own words into the mouths of theists, and this is not a good use of logic.

Apr 17, 2009, 3:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...

Hi Jason,

If Christians define faith as "that which we trust on the basis of evidence," that's fine with me. It means that Christians and naturalists have that much more in common. Of course, what counts as good, trustworthy evidence then becomes the issue. I've had an extended discussion with a self-described thinking Christian (Tom Gilson) about this that might interest you.



Apr 18, 2009, 1:07:00 PM  

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