Response to Kelosophy about Science and Materialism

Kel’s blog:

Hey Kel,

So I’d much rather enter a dialogue with you here than on Pharyngula. It doesn’t seem to me to be the best place to critically discuss these issues. I hope that is okay with you.
You wrote

“What I worry about Matthew is that this [my comment that a scientific cosmology could still be sacred] could be taken two ways. There’s the fallacy of taking an intuitive sense about the world and expecting science to hold that sacred – vitalism, dualism, the soul, gods, etc. – trying to impose these ideas into science just makes for bad science. But to celebrate science in the way Carl Sagan did or in the way Michael Dowd is doing, there’s already that now.From my interaction with you on here, I think you fall into the first category. You’ve repeatedly talked about the negative implications of materialism, so I have to wonder just why you would be trying to argue for celebrating scientific knowledge? You reject its implications!”

So far as I am aware, Michael Dowd is not a materialist. He does, however, take the revelations of the scientific method very seriously. I see him in the same lineage as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. The mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme is another for whom scientific knowledge is fundamental to his worldview, but who is also not a materialist. Vitalism, dualism, etc. not the only metaphysical options available aside from materialism that remain live options when considered alongside modern scientific facts. The most well-articulated metaphysical alternative to materialism that I’ve yet come across is that of physicist, mathematician, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. It is not a matter of expecting science to hold certain values sacred, but of holding our knowledge about the world to certain common sense tests of adequacy. If materialism, as a metaphysical system, is true, then all of our common sense notions about responsibility and freedom are wrong and our entire legal system and pretenses to civilized democracy are a sham. To me, this invalidates materialism as a possible metaphysical system, not for consequentialist reasons, but for empirical reasons. It is a a matter of hard-core common sense that human persons can behave intentionally. There is nothing more plainly evident to me than that “I think,” and that these thoughts are both influenced by and have real influences on material processes in the world. We cannot reject this assumption (in the way that materialism does) without a performative self-contradiction. The point isn’t that, as Descartes was lead to believe based upon his deductions from the cogito (“I think”), reality is composed of two different substances, mind and matter. Rather, if (1) material processes are not made of bits of stuff, but of experiential events (or what Whitehead called “actual occasions,” and William James referred to as “drops of experience”) and (2) intelligence is built into matter and not an extra, supernatural addition, then the evolutionary cosmology produced by modern science has all the necessary features to serve as a new sacred story for a new civilization. Check out Brian Swimme’s approach:


5 Comments Add yours

  1. James says:

    It also needs to be added that ‘scientific knowledge’ does not imply materialism, it is a premise of scientific explanations not a consequence. As a result of this, the so called evidence for materialism is simply question begging.

    To be even more annoying, one has to bring into question exactly what scientific knowledge is; it certainly isnt simply an ongoing corrective edifice. On the contrary, the more scientists are ‘discovering’ the more its looking like the entire edifice which it takes itself to be is going to come to have to correct that very premise which allows it to be what it thinks it is in the first instance – an edifice of mutually reinforcing evidence for materialism.


  2. Kel says:

    “To me, this invalidates materialism as a possible metaphysical system, not for consequentialist reasons”
    You’ve stated in discussions on Pharyngula on at least one occasion that you were against the consequences of a materialist universe:
    “I make my argument against materialism both because I find it to be inadequate to the facts and because of its social consequences.” [emphasis added]

    My problem with you saying to embrace science is that it felt as hollow as a creationist who claims to support science – just so long as it doesn’t conflict with The Bible. In the year and a half you’ve been commenting on Pharyngula you’ve made that same kind of argument over and over, dismissing science that didn’t fit with your particular worldview and promoted (at best) fringe ideas that sat more amenable to your position.

    So yes, I’m a little sceptical when you talk about embracing science. Quite simply, I don’t believe you. You’ve shown no interest in science that invalidates your worldview, and argued against science you don’t find agreeable:
    “If human consciousness cannot act purposively (ie, if we are entirely determined machines), then moral responsibility is impossible and the very basis of civilized life is but a delusion.”

    1. Kel, you can disagree with my interpretation of scientific facts, but I’ve never argued against science per say. The last link you provided is to a comment wherein I bring up the example of various scientific fields wherein mechanistic materialism is no longer an adequate metaphysical background. I do not reject science, though I may be more inclined to culturally situate the knowledge it produces than you are. I think the cosmological facts lend more support to panexperientialism and immanent teleology than they do blind, purposeless materialism.

  3. Kel says:

    “Kel, you can disagree with my interpretation of scientific facts, but I’ve never argued against science per say.”
    I’m not really sure how you’re different from a creationist who says they’re pro science then cites Michael Behe and then goes on about how philosophically unsatisfying Darwinian evolution is.

    “I do not reject science, though I may be more inclined to culturally situate the knowledge it produces than you are.”
    I asked you a few months back about whether you’d take a scientific explanation for an experience over the reported experience itself, and you said you’d take the experience. That was to say that if a scientist had induced an OBE by use of targeted magnetic stimulation in the brain, it’s the OBE that should count as evidence and not the experiment. That is being anti-scientific, you’ve explicitly stated that you reject lines of inquiry.

    “I think the cosmological facts lend more support to panexperientialism and immanent teleology than they do blind, purposeless materialism.”
    Again, how his this saying anything other than what a Behe or Dembski would?

    1. I don’t disagree with Behe et al. concerning their dissatisfaction with neo-Darwinism. I disagree with the design paradigm they offer to replace it.

      In regard to the interplay between experience, experiment, and scientific theory, I think we disagree about what is to take priority. I do not ever find it appropriate to attempt an explanation of one phenomena solely in terms of another (Latour’s principle of “irreduction”),, as when not just OBEs but any conscious experience are reduced to brain activity. Science, to my mind, is supposed to elucidate and deepen our experience of the world, not paste over this experience with abstract theory. One of philosophy’s most important roles, especially nowadays, is to be the critique of the abstractions produced by the various special sciences. What is an OBE, really? I don’t think the laboratory researcher’s theory based on brain scans can provide a complete answer to this question. One would also have to have the experience first-hand. Usually, researchers who have had such experiences first-hand tend not to be in such a rush to explain them away for the simple reason that, when considered on their own terms, such phenomena defy reductionistic interpretation.

      Charles Tart’s research on the subject is a good example:

      Theorizing is so very important to knowledge production, but the true experiemental test of theory, especially in the area of mind and consciousness, is whether the theory adequately accounts for our actual experience as conscious agents living in the world.

      I just returned from a conference where Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway were speaking on behalf of the growing relevane of Whitehead’s cosmology. My post in response to Stengers may help make more clear why I take common sense experience as the final judge of the theories of the special sciences:

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