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Richard Smoley's Blog

Contradictions in Scientistic Materialism

The third word in the title is not a typo. I want to distinguish scientism, an ideology that views science in quasi-religious terms, from science per se.

Scientism (a.k.a. scientific materialism) is the worldview behind current mainstream Western thought. It’s not so much a doctrine but a collection of usually unstated assumptions that dictate much of what we read and hear — and believe.

Scientism takes the present findings of science — or some ostensible approximation — as the truth about the way the world is. Its chief axioms:

• There is no creator God. The world is constructed of blind physical forces that managed in some way to generate the entire known universe.
• Life arose as a further result of these physical forces, in a way that, admittedly, remains unknown.
• Living things evolved on earth as the sole and exclusive result of natural selection as explained by Darwin.
• All human consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon (or side-effect) of brain states and activities (only a few of which, however, are understood). Consciousness ceases completely when the brain ceases to function.
• Life is, similarly, an epiphenomenon of matter. Thus there is no life after death.
• Paranormal phenomena, such as psi effects, evidence of life after death, and so on, are illusory. They have been experimentally proved to have no substance. They can be explained, or rather dismissed, solely as the results of illusions and wishful thinking.
• The only forces that affect us are those that are directly and quantitatively measurable by science. There are no unseen forces, no unseen agencies or beings.
• The universe has no teleology. It does not exist for any reason or purpose.
• While future scientific discoveries may enlarge and change our view of the universe — in astonishing and unforeseen ways — they will not significantly alter the view of reality held by present-day materialism.

Again, these are usually unstated assumptions. That’s because if they were set out in clear language — as above — it would be obvious that many of them are standing on the shakiest of legs. Why, for example, should we assume that future scientific findings will validate present-day views of reality? The history of science, in fact, shows that the opposite usually happens.

In some cases, these axioms are directly contradicted by current scientific findings. Just to take one example: discoveries in epigenetics and similar fields challenge Darwinian notions that all mutation is random and that the organism has no control over its own genes.

Scientistic axioms also contradict one another in some important ways. Here I will focus on two:

• All human consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon (or side-effect) of brain states and activities.
• The only forces that affect us are those that are directly and quantitatively measurable by science. There are no unseen forces, no unseen agencies or beings.

Let’s begin with the first. Cognitive science, particularly in the last two decades, has shown, or tried to show, that subjective human experience is conditioned by certain brain states and depends upon these. In other words, these brain states are necessary for us in order to apprehend the world. We have little, if any, way of knowing what is objectively “out there” apart from what is filtered through our nervous systems. Again it’s assumed that future discoveries will validate these claims.

But as a matter of fact, what we can perceive through the nervous system, including the brain, is demonstrably less — much less — than all that exists.

An obvious example: the electromagnetic spectrum. Our eyes can see only the tiniest portion of this spectrum: the narrow band that we associate with color. We have made instruments that can expand our perceptions a little, so that we know about radio waves on the low end of the spectrum and cosmic rays on the high end.

But we have no reason to believe that this range is all, or even most, or even much, of this spectrum. It is merely what we can perceive with our physical senses, enhanced by certain instruments.

Admittedly this is a wide range. It encompasses the whole of physical reality as we know it. Long waves can be as long as the universe, while short waves can be a short as the Planck length, about 10-20 times the diameter of a proton.

It is almost irresistible to believe that this range spans all of what is. But it is still only the range of what we can perceive directly, through the senses, and indirectly, by means of instruments and experimentation and so on.

Dark matter illustrates this point. Dark matter and dark energy, discovered only recently, account for some 95% of the contents of the universe, but we can only perceive it indirectly, through gravitational effects on ordinary (baryonic) matter.

Even this is no absolute limit. It is quite possible that the universe is made up of all sorts of substances that we will never observe physically, even in the most indirect way.

These findings are, as far as I can tell, consistent with what is known scientifically today.

The point is simple: the only barriers in the universe are those imposed by our own senses, which, again according to science, evolved to enhance survival on earth. This is a narrow objective. It gives us no reason to believe that the senses perceive anything close to the total of reality.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that science has proved how limited our senses are (as it has) and then turn out and act as if the evidence of these senses accounts for everything that exists.

This contradiction lies not in science, which has no reason to insist that its findings account for the totality of things, but in scientism, which almost always acts and talks as if they do.

You may make this objection: Very well. Let’s grant that there are all sorts of things in the universe that we do not know about and cannot know about, because they are beyond the realm of the senses, no matter how enhanced. This, after all, is the most reasonable assumption. But in that case, these things do not impinge upon us; for our purposes, they are in another universe and may as well not exist. Thus we are thrown back upon our sensory perceptions of material reality, which (again with the usual enhancements, technical and theoretical) are ultimately all that we can know about and all that really concerns us. Everything else is imagination, delusion, dream.

This argument would work if the experience of the five senses accounted for the sum total of human experience. But it does not. There are mystical experiences, visionary experiences, psi effects such as telekinesis and precognition (yes, these things have been scientifically proved to exist), intuitive insights that do not come either from the senses or from conscious reason.

Psychologist Lawrence LeShan writes that psi research "has shown scientifically that ESP exists." In fact, he adds, "we know far more about the paranormal than is generally believed" (LeShan, The Promise of Psychical Research [Wheaton, Ill: Quest, 2009], 4).

But LeShan goes on to say, this claim "has been unconvincing to the mainline scientific establishment."

Probably because they don't want to be convinced. In an recent interview with me for Quest magazine, Cassandra Vieten, president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, observed, "We've submitted papers for publication on studies of precognition or mediumship. One of the reviews was quite interesting, saying, this is an excellent study with good methodology, and it solves many of the problems of previous studies in this regard, and if it was on a different topic, it would be publishable. [The review] went on to say that publishing this article would call into question hundreds of years of scientific discovery."

And we wouldn't want to do that.

Hence the usual tactic taken with this type of evidence is simply to deny that it exists. A large amount of research has shown that psi effects are real, but we are constantly told by the intellectual powers-that-be that they are not.

Experiences of visions, spirits, gods? They are merely the effects of brain states. Some scientists associate the experience of God with shifts in brain functions such as increased activity in the limbic system (which has to do with emotions) and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (which has to do with analysis; for one discussion, see the link at the left.)

“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” Newberg says Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine. in Philadelphia (quoted in the Telegraph newspaper; link at left).

This may be the case, but it doesn’t quite prove what it sets out to prove. A change in brain state — particularly one that the human brain is particularly prone to have — does not reduce the possibility that spiritual experience corresponds to some reality, but actually increases it.

If spiritual experience did not actually correspond to some reality, why should the brain be disposed to have it?

To put it another way: you can shove some electrodes into the brain at certain points and you will generate an experience of light in the subject. But you don’t turn around and take that evidence to claim that light is “merely” the consequence of some brain state and has no objective correlate. Quite the opposite: you take the presence of light receptors in the nervous system as evidence supporting the existence of light.

Simply put, if there were no light, you wouldn’t have eyes.

Am I saying, then, that this capacity for transcendent experience proves that there is a God?

Not at all. But it does mean that experiences of God cannot simply dismissed as odd quirks of the brain that have no meaning or function.

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