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Astrophysicist: Materialism Is on Shaky Ground

Adam Frank ponders the fact that materialism entirely fails to explain consciousness

Toward the close of a long, informative essay explaining why materialism is useless for explaining consciousness, University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank, author of Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth (2017), offers:

It’s been more than 20 years since the Australian philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Following work by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Chalmers pointed to the vividness – the intrinsic presence – of the perceiving subject’s experience as a problem no explanatory account of consciousness seems capable of embracing. Chalmers’s position struck a nerve with many philosophers, articulating the sense that there was fundamentally something more occurring in consciousness than just computing with meat. But what is that ‘more’?

Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overly project mind into matter. Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of. Regardless of the direction ‘more’ might take, the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.

The closer you look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground.

Adam Frank, “Minding matter” at Aeon

Frank is an expert on the final stages of the evolution of stars like the sun. His computational research group has developed advanced supercomputer tools in order to study how stars form and die. So he would incline to a materialist view, surely? But no, he says, quantum physics blew all that away. And some neuroscientists just haven’t caught up:

A century of agnosticism about the true nature of matter hasn’t found its way deeply enough into other fields, where materialism still appears to be the most sensible way of dealing with the world and, most of all, with the mind. Some neuroscientists think that they’re being precise and grounded by holding tightly to materialist credentials. Molecular biologists, geneticists, and many other types of researchers – as well as the nonscientist public – have been similarly drawn to materialism’s seeming finality. But this conviction is out of step with what we physicists know about the material world – or rather, what we don’t know.

Adam Frank, “Minding matter” at Aeon

Many people confuse materialism with science but the two are distinct. If the mind is not a material thing, it just isn’t. He suggests:

Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of. Regardless of the direction ‘more’ might take, the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.

Adam Frank, “Minding matter” at Aeon

While it might sound strange to hear a physicist talking this way, we might wish to keep in mind that

● As Eric Holloway points out, no materialist theory of consciousness is plausible and many have been labeled bizarre by people with no ax to grind in the matter.

● Simple “explanations” like a consciousness signature or point in the brain have not turned up.

● Research that does not assume a materialist approach to the mind has been fruitful. In any event, one of the most widely noted effects in medicine, the placebo effect (you get better in part because you think you will), does not have a materialist explanation.

As neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has noted, the findings of modern medicine have, if anything, confirmed the idea that the mind is immaterial. Materialism may be taking a beating but science is not.


Further reading on a non-materialist approach to the mind:

Four researchers whose work sheds light on the reality of the mind The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot, says Michael Egnor. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple

Yes, the placebo effect is real, not a trick. But the fact that the mind acts on the body troubles materialists.

and

Can materialism explain abstract thought? (Michael Egnor)


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Astrophysicist: Materialism Is on Shaky Ground