Get the FREE DIGITAL BOOK: The Case for Killer Robots
Mind Matters Reporting on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
man-jumping-on-rock-formation-stockpack-unsplash.jpg
man jumping on rock formation
Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash

Is Materialism Falsifiable? Yes, Easily.

Neurologist Steven Novella is sure that materialism is not falsifiable by science

Yale neurologist Steven Novella asked a question in 2007: “[C]an materialism/naturalism be falsified?” And answered “I argue that it cannot be.” He went on to explain,

Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is the essence of why it is not possible to falsify naturalism. If… Dawkins were levitated on stage, how could we know that the feat was not accomplished using advanced technology… The problem is that we are trapped within the physical natural world. We must abide by the physical laws of the universe. In order to falsify naturalism, one would have to somehow be outside of the constraints of naturalism itself.

Steven Novella, “Science and Supernaturalism” at NEUROLOGICAblog

Of course, the answer to Novella’s question depends on how we define materialism or naturalism (the two terms are indistinguishable for his, and our, purposes here). And on this point Novella is unclear.

We may define materialism/naturalism in a most constrained way as the assertion that all that exists is material things extended in space—Descartes’ res extensa. That assertion is transparently false because many things, including our own minds, mathematics, logic, etc., undeniably exist but are not extended in space. Two times three is six, but six isn’t twice as wide or long as three. Not everything has spatial extension so, if we define “material” as extension in space, not everything is material,

Novella probably means by materialism/naturalism “that which is studied by the physical sciences.” Of course materialism/naturalism would not be falsifiable then. If all that exists is materialism/naturalism (i.e. stuff studied by science), then only stuff studied by science could be the means by which materialism/naturalism is falsified. That is essentially a tautology, not an argument.

Now this is basically what Novella says— materialism/naturalism can’t be falsified because it is true, and it can’t falsify itself. You can take that “argument” for what it is worth.

Novella notes that supernaturalism is incompatible with his (tautological) materialism/naturalism. He then asserts:

A truly supernatural event, however, would produce a forever enduring anomaly—one that never yields to scientific research using methodological naturalism. Again, we run into a logical problem—for never never comes. So we cannot say ever that an anomaly will never yield to research, only that it so far has not. Therefore, declaring an enduring anomaly supernatural is still outside the realm of science and requires a leap of faith, and such an anomaly would not falsify naturalism.

Steven Novella, “Science and Supernaturalism” at NEUROLOGICAblog

As it turns out, there are many such “enduring” supernatural anomalies. I won’t here discuss the mind, quantum mechanics, or the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments for God’s existence, among countless other “enduring anomalies” in the natural world. The real world is saturated with enduring anomalies. I will discuss a particularly obvious supernatural anomaly in materialism/naturalism: cosmological singularities.

Cosmological singularities, such as black holes and the singularity from which our universe arose, are wholly supernatural. That is, they are undefined in any materialist/naturalist framework. They are literally undefined—that is, a singularity is a solution to Einstein’s field equations of general relativity which entails division by zero. As you’ll recall, division by zero is undefined in mathematics. A singularity is, in that sense, not a part of mathematics or nature, at least not in the materialist/naturalist sense that can be studied by physical science.

Now you may say, “Of course we study black holes and the Big Bang in science!” But that’s not quite correct. We study the effects of singularities in the natural world—inflationary cosmology and event horizons and the like. But we don’t and can’t study the singularities themselves because they are literally undefined and undefinable using the methods of materialism/naturalism. We don’t know, and can’t know by the methods of science, what is inside a black hole. It doesn’t even make sense to say “inside” a black hole, because “inside” implies a kind of scientific knowledge of what is unknowable.

Singularities are wholly supernatural—they have effects in the natural world while remaining wholly not parts of the natural world. This is incomprehensible for a materialist/atheist but not for a dualist/theist.

Novella concludes, “So while we cannot falsify the naturalistic underpinning of science, we can say that it is methodologically necessary, and also has worked out pretty well.”

Novella is wrong. Supernaturalism—understood as dualist/theist metaphysics— is a cornerstone of science and the study of singularities in cosmology, physics, and mathematics is one of countless examples. To apply Kurt Gödel’s insight as a metaphor to the philosophy of science, there are things true about the natural world that are not part of the natural world. Which, contra Novella, is a falsification of materialism/naturalism both as metaphysics and as a method of science.


Further reading:

Gödel and God: A surprising history A thought-provoking account of master logician Gödel’s largely unknown proof of the existence of God.

God’s existence is proven by science: Arguments for God’s existence can be demonstrated by the ordinary method of scientific inference.

and

Tales of the Mind:A neuroscientist encounters the house of mirrors Materialism is an intellectual trap, out of which neuroscience needs to climb.


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Is Materialism Falsifiable? Yes, Easily.