The Discovery Institute is airing Science Uprising, a series of videos at YouTube which presents the evidence for intelligence and design in the natural world in the language of popular culture. As someone who was interviewed for the first two episodes, “Realism vs. Materialism” and “No, You’re Not a Robot Made Out of Meat.” I am hardly impartial, but it’s well done and well worth your time.
Comments from viewers provide an opportunity for discussion. I thank commenters who agreed with the points I made and those who didn’t. This is the kind of thing we should be doing––thinking and talking about issues of materialism and neuroscience, and intelligence and design in nature, carefully and thoughtfully. Here I want to discuss a comment that raised a thoughtful question.
From commenter Joshua Veltman:
I don’t necessarily hold to materialism, but, while I find these examples fascinating, they’re not very convincing to me. There are plausible alternative explanations that would still need to be ruled out. For example, although higher thought is not localizable to one region of the brain, it may be distributed to neurons throughout the brain; it doesn’t have to be the result of something immaterial.
For readers who have not seen the videos, I explained how a series of neuroscience experiments, ranging from studies on phrenology in the 19th century up to functional MRI imaging of people in a vegetative state today clearly point to an immaterial aspect to the human mind. Veltman suggests that plausible alternative explanations for the relationship between the brain and the mind do not require an immaterial mind. For example, I pointed out that abstract thought cannot be localized to one specific region of the brain, whereas perception and movement are highly localizable. I interpreted this as being most consistent with the immateriality of abstract thought.
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Veltman points out that the non-localization may also be due to a distribution of neurons that mediate abstract thought throughout the brain. It’s a valid objection. My point was that there is an immaterial, as well as a material, perspective on the research and that the immaterial perspective also has considerable explanatory power. In some cases, the immaterial explanation has greater explanatory power than the material explanation.
Experimental science does not prove anything. Interpretation of experiments depends upon inferential reasoning, not (primarily) on deductive reasoning. But when you look carefully at the inferential reasoning and the neuroscience, you can make a lot of sense out of a lot of neuroscience by assuming that abstract thought is in immaterial power of the mind. There may indeed be material explanations (at least from the perspective of neuroscience) but the simplest and most convincing explanation for the results of many experiments is that abstract thought is an immaterial power, not a material power, of the mind.
Many experiments support the inference to the immateriality of abstract thought. These include the failure of phrenology to explain abstract thought, the findings of Wilder Penfield, during open awake brain surgery, the findings of Benjamin Libet during research on free will, the findings of Roger Sperry on split-brain surgery, and the findings of Adrian Owen on persistent vegetative states.
An objective look at this research clearly points to the immaterial reality of abstract thought. Perhaps materialistic explanations (with sufficient hand-waving) can be forced on the science—but that is all that it is—forcing materialist ideology on scientific results that are much more naturally explained as a consequence of the immaterial reality of abstract thought.
To summarize, a broad range of neuroscience research is more readily explained by assuming that some aspects of thought–– abstract intellectual thought and free will––are immaterial. It is to the great discredit of neuroscience that these immaterial explanations generally are not considered and that materialist bias is inappropriately applied to the science.
So in reply to commenter Veltman: there are indeed possible alternative materialist explanations for abstract thought. But when you weigh them against the immaterial explanations, the immaterial explanations are much more convincing. The materialist explanations are forced and doctrinaire.
If one did not start with a materialist bias, materialism would not be invoked as an explanation for a whole range of experiments in neuroscience. Immaterial explanations are widely accepted in science—i.e. the mathematical laws of nature, the Big Bang singularity, quantum uncertainty (Heisenberg), quantum entanglement, etc. None of these fundamental inferences in science are material. Why do materialists insist, against the evidence, that abstract thought must be material?
I also hold that the immateriality of the intellect and will is demonstrable —provable in a much more rigorous sense—by logical and philosophical reasoning. I believe this reasoning is decisive. Immaterial thought cannot by its nature arise from matter. That argument has been made in detail by countless philosophers, beginning with Aristotle.
But in dealing with neuroscience, we are dealing with inferential reasoning and with scientific data. Of course, coherent inferential reasoning depends on a coherent deductive metaphysical framework. You won’t get far with inferential reasoning based on nonsense, which is what I believe materialism is. The inference to the immateriality of abstract thought is not only solid philosophy and logic—it is neuroscience at its best.
Also by Michael Egnor: University fires philosophy prof, hires chimpanzee to teach
Can physics prove there is no free will?
Further reading on materialist approaches to the mind: Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug
How can consciousness be a material thing?