A Rebuttal to (Bad) Materialist Science

Yesterday, I came across an article (“Are you sleepwalking now?”) on the digital magazine Aeon that I could not help but respond to, because it seems to be such a patent example of someone misusing science to “prove” things well beyond science’s ken.

The article is here: https://aeon.co/essays/are-you-sleepwalking-now-what-we-know-about-mind-wandering. It is well written and certainly thought-provoking, so it’s potentially worth reading on its own. More to the point, it is required reading for this post.

To practice what I preach, here’s my fair disclosure at the beginning, in case this is the first of my posts that you’re reading. I’m a faithful progressive Christian who believes in both science and God. As an existentialist theologian and somewhat of an epistemological pessimist (I’d say “healthy skeptic,” I believe that personal consciousness and experience is the foundational starting place of examining metaphysical questions. Hence why I might take the article so personally, though I think that my arguments stand on their own and I’m explicitly trying to go out of my way (unlike Dr. Metzinger, I think) to admit to what I believe that cannot be proved and what does or does not actually meet with standards of scientific inquiry.

The article was posted on the 22nd of this year by Dr. Thomas Metzinger, a professor at the university of Mainz, where he teaches theoretical philosophy with a focus on the philosophy of the mind (the subject of his article). He has written numerous books, given a TED talk and is undoubtedly a highly-intelligent person well-versed in the subject matter.

Nevertheless, I have to take issue with the assertions he makes in his article.

The article begins with what I can only describe as a masterful metaphor for the movement of “thoughts and ideas” from un- or subconscious to conscious, one that equates them to the motion of dolphins traveling at speed, occasionally breaking the surface of the water and often under it.

From there, Metzinger poses the questions he believes he can answer. He writes, “Philosophers of mind often fall into the trap of assuming that goal-directed, rational thought is the paradigmatic case of conscious cognition. But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them? Is it ever possible to distinguish between mental actions, which we can direct and select, from the more general category of mental events, which simply happen to us? In what sense are we ever genuinely mental agents, capable of acting freely, as opposed to being buffeted by forces beyond our control?” (emphasis Metzinger’s).

This question perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question when it comes to thinking about the mind. Experientially, I think that we can agree that we have thoughts that we would assert we have consciously and willfully called to mind and formed and those thoughts that seem to be generated spontaneously and inexplicably—in other words, the conscious and the subconscious.

The only complaint that I have with Metzinger’s formulation of these questions is the rhetoric that subtly slips in to begin his arguments from the inception of the question. On the other hand, this is easily forgivable as something most, if not all, of us are likely to do even unintentionally.

The next paragraph begins Dr. Metzinger’s tenuous assertions. Relying on the “empirical findings” of neuroscience and experimental psychology in mind-wandering, he asserts that, “Much of the time we like to describe some foundation ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth” (again, emphasis is Dr. Metzinger’s).

Here’s my first complaint: there is no description of these “empirical findings.” Dr. Metzinger does not explain what experiments have been conducted, whether they are peer reviewed, whether they have been replicated, what the specific results are—or, really anything other than that they exist and we should allow him to interpret them for us. This is not evidence; this is the basic rhetorical technique of asking the audience to rely on your authority as evidence enough.

The first sentence of the following paragraph gets to the heart of the matter: “Mind-wandering research suggests that we need to get rid of naïve, black-and-white distinctions such as ‘free-will’ versus ‘determinism’, ‘conscious’ versus ‘unconscious’, and what philosopher’s call ‘personal’ versus ‘subpersonal’ processes (roughly, accounts of cognition that look at the whole person’s reasons and beliefs, versus those based on biological or physiological functions).” What!?! How did we go from “empirical findings” suggesting that there are a lot of subconscious activities going on to positing that we should look to a solely biological basis for consciousness? This is a logical non-sequitur in the extreme.

Nevertheless, the statement is revealing: it’s a 21st Century version of the “bag of chemicals” argument made in the early 20th Century (i.e., that all of our thoughts and actions are really the result of chemical reactions in body and brain without any real volition or self) so readily rebutted by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.

Rather than solely referring to Mr. Chesterton (whose arguments should most definitely be read), I’ll point out a few of the specific problems: (1) lack of any evidence for this provided; (2) lack of consideration of the broader findings of neurological research (which I’ll refer to in more detail in a moment); (3) the solipsism and circularity of the argument (how is it that Dr. Metzinger is so special as to realize the falsity of the illusion and then to explain it to others by random chance of his own mental events)?; (4) the complete and willful ignorance of the human experience. We might phrase the last objection in terms of Occam’s Razor: which is more likely, that when we feel we are exercising our will we are or that there are multiplicative, subtler and (so far) inexplicable mental processes going on that cause this illusion?

In the case of neurological research that seems to point to other than a solely materialistic explanation for cognition, I’d point you to Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul in counterargument. In that book, Dr. Beauregard (a neuroscientist rather than a philosopher) explains how in certain experiments regarding addiction relief, it has been shown that the active cognition of the mind can actually alter the material function of the brain over time by creating new neural pathways. The whole topic of “neuroplasticity,” which is showing us that our brains remain more subject to change in adulthood than we previously thought, seems to cut against Dr. Metzinger’s argument.

As a caveat, when Dr. Metzinger says we ought to get rid of “black-and-white distinctions,” I think he’s right in that we need more complex and nuanced ways to think about the topic of free will as some interaction between personal volition and influence (or perhaps deterministic) influences. But this is nothing new in the philosophy of the mind (or theology, for that matter) and I’ve myself argued for such a position in previous posts. But when Dr. Metzinger’s seemingly-suggested resolution is to ignore one half of the equation entirely, we’re stepping backward instead of forward.

The logic further falters as Dr. Metzinger continues, writing: “As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination.” I would remind you that the dolphin story is a metaphor, by itself it cannot logically hint at anything except the to extent that it can be shown that the metaphor validly represents the things it is trying to explain (though this article contains none of that).

There’s a glimmer of reason after this, though, where Dr. Metzinger says, “Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behavior. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.”

I’d like to point out in the above that Dr. Metzinger wisely uses the words “seems to be” to indicate that he is speculating here. The problem, though, is that despite these subtle hints about the actual logical foundation of his argument (being very slight), he presents most of his ideas as authoritative through the rest of the article’s language.

For sake of time and space, I’m going to skip a few paragraphs where Dr. Metzinger discusses the positive and negative effects of daydreaming. He continues, “My view is that the mind-wandering and the DMN [what he calls the default-mode network of the active parts of the brain during rest periods) basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time” (this time, emphasis is mine).

Again, Dr. Metzinger begins with words of speculation (“My view is…”) but then makes assertions as if they are fact. He’s put the cart before the horse here by assuming that the idea of the self is an illusion rather than a reality. And he’s done that without any evidence whatsoever. It seems here, as I think has become fashionable for some intellectuals investigating the still relatively terra incognita of the mind, to assume a Buddhist sort of worldview and then force the science to fit that mold. But the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion is a religious and philosophical idea, not a scientific one. There is no defensible logic to starting with that assumption and working backwards. That’s simply not how science works.

The truth will out, as they say, and it certainly does in the next paragraph. Dr. Metzinger writes, “I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’” (emphasis mine). It’s a little late in the game here to make that confession—honest scholarship starts with a confession of biases that are known to the writer and probably unknown to the reader so that the reader can read critically. I think that this drives home the disingenuity on Metzinger burying the language of speculation with such extensive assertions of truth.

But it’s the assertion itself that is so ironic—who is making the confession if there is no self? The sentence, under Metzinger’s argument, is itself nonsense. And therein lies perhaps the biggest problem with the materialist approach to the mind—even the people who maintain that position cannot (and do not seem to try to) live as if it were true. The only way it is possible to interact with the world is through an understanding of self. That understanding may see itself as more or less connected to everything around it, but no one acts or thinks without reference to an “I.” If that “I” is an illusion, then there’s really no “I” to make the discovery that it is an illusion in the first place. Hence the circularity of this kind of logic.

To drive the weakness of Dr. Metzinger’s philosophy home, he then refers to “evolutionary psychology,” that perennial favorite of materialist thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. Evolutionary psychology is the field of making unfalsifiable assumptions about the development of the brain (and therefore mind) according to subjectively selected “societal needs” and then presenting those assumptions as fact. Dr. Metzinger joins in by arguing about the societal role of the “fiction” of the self, how “[h]umans have evolved to be a bit like method actors,” and asserting that “The self-as-agent is just a useful fiction, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-model.”

This statement is unfalsifiable by scientific method because consciousness and self are, by their very nature, subjective. And yet, Metzinger presents his assumptions as the inevitable conclusions of science despite the fact that true scientific method (nor basic philosophical logic) would touch such a conclusion with a 10-foot pole. Further, Metzinger delicately (and probably quite deliberately) avoids issues like the “hard problem of consciousness” by simply denying that there is one.

In a further bout of spontaneous honesty, “But just as there is no ‘real’ character, there’s also no such thing as ‘a self’, and probably nothing like an immortal soul either.”

Metzinger is, for such an esteemed scholar, remarkably willing to conflate belief with fact and then to work backward from there.

I think it is sufficient to stop with a detailed rebuttal of Metzinger’s argument there, as the rest of the (lengthy) article simply repeats the same logical errors, rhetorical slight-of-hand and materialism as religious belief (in that it is the given from which all other inquiry begins) as science.

On the one hand, perhaps it is the arguments of the religious that have generated this kind of reactionary response. When we deny the usefulness of science because of religion (which, as I’ve often argued, we oughtn’t) it seems a natural (though not logical) response to use science to deny religion. And that’s really what these kinds of arguments are ultimately about (otherwise, why explicitly deny the existence of an immortal soul when the very argument makes such a distinction meaningless).

Frankly, I’m tired of it, on both sides. I’m tired of atheist materialists trying to claim philosophical and metaphysical truth through science and I’m tired of fundamentalist Christians denying evolution because the Bible doesn’t mention it.

To be clear, I have no problem with atheists saying that science leads them to believe in a solely materialist explanation for existence—they’re well within their right to draw that conclusion, even if I think it is the wrong one, just as some are led to faith because of their interpretation of metaphysical likelihoods based on science. Reasonable people may disagree, as we lawyers like to say. It’s when they claim that science proves their belief that I become offended as a person of deep faith who nevertheless is willing to make careful distinction between what science shows us (and often defers to science to inform theology) and what must be left to faith and belief.

At the same time, I’m upset both by the closemindedness and bad theology of those who question science based on Scripture that in no way asserts that that’s a proper (or even valid) way to analyze the world and the fact that, knowing I’m a Christian, many people with whom I’d like to have a real (and respectful) conversation about these kinds of topics will not listen logically because they somehow assume I’m that kind of Christian.

As I’ve said many times in the past, science is simply not equipped to answer metaphysical questions, which unfortunately must be relegated to the realm of belief, conviction, uncertainty and doubt. Let’s use science to examine and explore the material world, to learn what we can about all that we can. But let’s also admit when science is of no use and properly categorize those beliefs about the metaphysical as matters of faith, no matter who they come from, believer or not.

Skepticism in Faith, Part 2: Logical Skepticism

We talked about a general skepticism of what we can know and how we know what we know in the last post. From this point on, we’re going to take the position that, despite our inability to be absolutely certain about our knowledge, we humans are capable of gaining “functional” knowledge of at least some things—that is, knowledge that approximates capital “T” Truth closely enough that we can reasonably rely on it.

Under that position, the next point of skepticism I’d like to discuss is a healthy skepticism about the ways in which we achieve knowledge and about claims made about the limits (or lack thereof) about certain paths to knowledge.

Let’s talk about science. I must first admit that science does an excellent job of telling us how the world works. However, I would argue that we must maintain skepticism about the extent of science’s ability to tell us about existence, particularly when it comes to the spiritual or metaphysical.

Reputable science requires implementation of the scientific method.[1] Under scientific method, the researcher/investigator must be able to create testable predictions about the object or process under study, a falsifiable hypothesis that may potentially be disproven through experimentation. If the predictions cannot be evaluated in a way that actually tests them, scientific method cannot be applied.

In a way, scientific method follows with a form of epistemological skepticism. Despite talk about the “laws” of physics and such, science doesn’t actually prove things in the way we laypersons tend to think of proof. Instead, science steadily disproves alternative explanations until we reach explanations that seem to be creeping ever closer to reality, but never absolute certainty (although close enough to treat it as such—by this point, Newton’s laws are as much a certainty as is possible).

Science, and particularly theoretical physics (which I greatly enjoy learning about so long as you don’t ask me to do any calculations), does often start with a theory based on observation and testing for refinement, but the testing of theories still involves attempts to disprove them to see whether they survive such analysis.

Here’s the issue where skepticism of the scientific method (as a general example of what I’m calling “logical” skepticism) comes in: some purport that science “proves” things that cannot be falsified by experimentation. Here’s a short list of examples:

(1) The existence of God. There’s not a scientifically testable hypothesis here. Yes, you can have a hypothesis, but it’s only as good as something like “I speculate that the color blue looks the same to me as it does to other people.”

(2) The materialist worldview. Again, this is a hypocritical application of science to try to “disprove” the existence of a spiritual reality; science isn’t equipped to answer those questions and those who use materialist to assert the absence of a spiritual reality have created an atheistic religion around science; a certain threshold of honesty has been crossed. To me, just the fact that there are very intelligent scientists who say “science made me a believer” and also very intelligent scientists who say “science made me an atheist” reveals the failing of science to definitively answer such questions.

(3) Near-death or mystical religious experiences. The problem here is in the name; it’s an experience, and thus not fully communicable between individuals. That said, the thrust of materialist science has been to “prove” that such experiences are actually the result of chemicals affecting the brain (ketamine for one) or electromagnetic effects on the same (the famous “God Helmet” experiment). Scientifically, those types of experiments are flawed in that they can demonstrate correlation but not causation (which takes us back to Mr. Hume, interestingly)—they can say, “we notice high levels of ketamine in the brains of people who later claim near-death experiences,” but they can’t logically claim that that means that ketamine was the cause. It could be possible that a near-death experience causes a release of ketamine in the brain; we just can’t know. Further, many experiments of this nature have been shown to be irreproducible, a key factor in scientific theory—a group of northern European scientists attempting to recreate the “God Helmet” study concluded that the results came from bad scientific method and the power of suggestion upon test subjects, not electromagnetic fields.

(4) Qualia. The “thingness” of subjective conscious experience. Both philosophy and science have thus far proved of little help in the analysis of experience. This is a natural consequence of the existential fact that we do not have the ability to share our own experiences with others and are therefore inhibited by the constraints of language from making deep comparisons of subjective experience between individuals.

Perhaps advances in science and scientific understanding will help us to answer some of the questions above with experiments I simply cannot conceive of with the knowledge available. However, I choose to believe that there is a damn good reason the most important questions are not readily answerable, and I think that that reason points to God’s purposefulness. I digress; we can discuss that another time.

It has become popular among certain scientists, like Steven Pinker, to create new fields of science starting from preconceived suppositions about the way the world works and using the new field to support those suppositions—“evolutionary psychology” is, I think, the foremost offender in this field. If you’re not familiar, evolutionary psychology seeks to explain modern human psychology as the result of greater or lesser degrees of evolution, in a similar way to the evolution of the human physiology. Now, admittedly, the theories of evolutionary psychologists could be absolutely true (though I strongly doubt it). The problem is that they sell the field as science. We don’t know enough about the psychology of ancient homo sapiens and his predecessors to do anything but speculate about the origin of our own psychologies, much less create a falsifiable hypothesis that can be tested—the conditions in which to test such theories have long expired. Interesting ideas to be sure, but it remains disingenuous to call them science.

It is only fair, as someone who believes in both science and faith and sees the relative boundaries for their application to certain questions, to apply the same sort of logical skepticism to faith.

At the end of the day, faith is the belief in certain answers to questions we cannot otherwise answer. That does not mean that we should look only to faith and tradition to answer every question about the world around us.

In the first of two points I want to make about logical skepticism in faith (with, of course, particular reference to Christianity), let’s talk about the Book of Genesis.

There is a trend among evangelical Christians, particularly in America, to believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Having read some of my other posts, you should know that I do not ascribe to, and passionately resist, such a belief as a necessary (or even beneficial) aspect of Christian faith.

Genesis gives us a creation story that, if read for allegory and metaphor, actually doesn’t clash much with what science tells us about the Big Bang, evolution and other well-supported theories about the physical origins of matter and life. Adam Hamilton has written some good work going through the ways in which faith and science coincide in Genesis; I believe that this is in his Making Sense of the Bible but I’m not sure as I write this post.

And yet, many Christians want to read Genesis as a literal explanation of Creation. Here’s where logical skepticism comes in:

First, let’s apply some logical skepticism to Biblical literalism in general. The doctrine asks us to believe that every book in the Bible was written directly by God through some form of automatic writing in the humans that penned it. I would not say that God could not do this (that would be foolish), but experience indicates that this doesn’t seem to be God’s usual modus operandi. Of course, using strict logic, this is not a question that can be definitively answered.

So, let’s consider some additional thoughts. When Jesus speaks, he usually tells stories and uses metaphor (see my earlier posts on Ambiguity in Scripture for an examination of how this makes his words more powerful and effective); rarely does he speak in a straightforward and plain manner—when he does, it is almost certainly a command to love.

If we want to result to hard literary criticism, we can note definite stylistic differences in books of the Bible, sometimes competing purposes or concerns (each of the Gospels recounts many of the same events but with different perspectives, motivations and goals) and even different underlying ideologies (like Platonism in Paul’s epistles). While God is certainly capable of using different approaches and different purposes between books, multiple authorial voices may be a better explanation.

Historically, we can point to the different periods of writing of the books of the Bible—Paul didn’t have access to the Gospels, for instance—and the long history of the compilation of the certain books that form what is accepted as the canonical Bible with the selection of certain texts over others, concerns about forgeries, dubious authorship and poor copies all along the way. We didn’t have the Bible as we commonly think of it until rather late in the 4th century.

One that needs little explanation: If we take Jesus’s statement that we ought to cut off body parts that cause us to sin literally, we ought to have a lot more amputees.

Again, none of this disproves the position of Biblical literalism and infallibility, but the evidence taken together makes it highly unlikely that such a position can stand under its own weight.

More important, because it applies not only to the question of Biblical literalism but to theology in general is that any theological system must maintain internal consistency; it should not contradict itself. When we take literally both the Old Testament events in which we are told that God endorses wholesale slaughter and Jesus’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, we have problems in logical consistency.

I have heard many seemingly-commonly-held theological positions within Christianity that openly court such contradiction. Take “God cannot stand to be in the presence of sin”, for instance, a statement that is sometimes used to explain the need for Jesus’s redemption. The very statement is self-contradictory, because Jesus spends most of his time (all of it really) in the presence of sinners. If Jesus is wholly human and wholly God, the statement cannot stand. That it begins with “God cannot…” should be our first clue. We can’t rightly talk about “God could not”, though we might talk about “God does not” (or, correctly, “God does not seem to”).

To combine our skepticisms of both science and theology, when there is dispute between science and scripture, we ought to rely on the science to tell us how the world works and our faith to explain to us how existence works. I believe in evolution as the likeliest explanation for how humans became humans, but that doesn’t tell us why there are humans, or why, in a cosmic sense, there is life at all. I believe that we should incorporate new scientific understandings into our understanding of God—if God created the world in a certain way, why might God have done that? The synthesis of science and faith can do much more for us than vainly attempting to pit the two against one another.

But this brings me to the ultimate point: logical skepticism gives us some intellectual honesty. The tendency to question whether certain evidences prove something (much less how they prove it) protects us from logical fallacies.


[1] There are some competing theories of scientific methods, such as the “anything goes” approach espoused by Karl Feyerabend, but these I think are sufficiently held to be “out in left field” by the scientific community at large to be largely discounted.