Posted on Nov 22, 2008
There is a lively debate going on regarding two views of the mind: dualist vs. materialist. Last month’s New Scientist article, “Creationists Declare War Over the Brain,” prompted responses from several quarters, including one of my own. Dr. Steven Novella wrote a two-part response (Part One, Part Two), taking the opportunity especially to make swipes at Michael Egnor of the Discovery Institute who has written on the topic more than once.
Drs. Egnor and Novella are both physicians, Egnor a neurosurgeon, Novella a neurologist. Novella’s scathing disdain for Egnor is, shall we say, not well disguised (here, for example). So it may be rather audacious for me to jump in with my own thoughts, but here I go anyway.
The question, to borrow terminology from Dr. Novella, is whether every physical effect has a physical cause. That’s one useful definition of materialism. Alternatively, it’s the view that nothing exists except for matter and energy, and their interactions in space and time. While it is not technically identical with naturalism (the view that nature is all that exists; there is no supernatural), for all practical purposes the two may be treated synonymously. Novella’s position can be summarized thus: we don’t know whether materialism is an adequate description of ultimate reality (philosophical naturalism), but science must proceed on the assumption (methodological naturalism) that it is.
The opposing position holds that materialist/naturalist explanations are insufficient for at least some of what we know about reality; dualism, which allows for nonnatural reality of some sort, provides better explanations of at least some phenomena. In this case, it is the mind and brain that are the realities in question.
It goes without saying that materialism is atheistic in practice at least, if not in ultimate principle. If every physical thing in the world can be traced back to just physical causes, then there is no God, or at least no God who does anything in the world. There are theists who are not dualists in the sense Novella, Egnor, and I understand the matter (there’s more to discuss there than we have time for), but there are no theists who are materialists. So you can easily guess on which side of the question I stand.
Novella uncorks the big guns in his two articles: dualism is anti-science, he says.
It is crystal clear . . . that this is about ideology, not science. ID proponents feel that their spiritual ideological world view is threatened by the findings of modern science, and so have decided to undermine it. They want this to be an ideological and cultural war, because in the arena of science they lose. So they claim that science (at least those sciences with which they feel uncomfortable) is nothing more than the ideology of materialism. They want to frame the conflict as that between the traditional, moral, and god-fearing spiritualism on one side, and cold, amoral, mechanistic materialism on the other. This is an emotional fight they feel they can win.
He later tells us how hopeless the fight is:
Does science require methodological naturalism? Yes. This is the real debate going on between mainstream science and various ideological groups who wish to promote a non-naturalist belief system. But this philosophical fight was fought in centuries past – and the naturalists won. The fight is over. But the anti-materialists (really anti-naturalists) want to resurrect this fight, and since they cannot win it in the arena of science they want to fight it in the arena of public opinion and then the legal and academic realms.
But is it really over already? Not on the strength of Novella’s arguments. He treats cavalierly the relation between philosophical and methodological naturalism:
[M]ethodological naturalism posits that nature is all the we can know, regardless of whether or not it is all that there is (which by definition we cannot know).
What does he mean by that parenthetical clause? Is it that we cannot, by definition, know all that there is? That’s a safe statement? Or is he saying that nature is all that we can know, and if there is anything else, we cannot know it? Clearly he means it in the latter sense. Following an extended quotation from the Dover decision, he writes,
The last paragraph is key – the anti-materialist/naturalist movement is really about changing the ground rules of science (re-fighting the fight they lost in the past) to include supernatural explanations, but this is impossible within the necessary framework of science.
The “necessary framework of science,” to Novella, is obviously two things at once: the framework of naturalism is necessary to science; and science is the necessary framework for all of knowledge. The same attitude dominates the first Novella passage I quoted above. If it is “about ideology, not science,” the reason that’s such an awful thing is because anything that is not of science is of the devil. Ideology is of course a highly loaded term; Novella could have substituted the word philosophy to make the same essential point, though with less of a rhetorical jab. Indeed ID proponents would agree that this is a question of philosophy (also of science). Novella’s implication is that if it isn’t about science, it isn’t about knowledge. If it isn’t science, it isn’t knowledge.
The trap there is as obvious as it could be: If it isn’t science, it isn’t knowledge purports to be a knowledge statement, but it cannot claim to be a statement of science. It is a self-defeating proposition.
Science is not the only route to knowledge, and there is no scientific reason to believe that nature is all there is to reality or causation. But for many, including Judge Jones of Dover fame, that’s the way it must be. I referred earlier to Novella’s quote from his decision. It ends with this:
It is notable that defense experts’ own mission, which mirrors that of the IDM itself, is to change the ground rules of science to allow supernatural causation of the natural world, which the Supreme Court in Edwards and the court in McLean correctly recognized as an inherently religious concept. Edwards, 482
Apparently the ground rules of science do not allow supernatural causation of the natural world. God has been ground-ruled out of existence. Science came along and made him non-existent. And now the ID movement comes along and (gasp!) argues that science might not have that power after all. (Ironically, even if it did have that power, it would have it by virtue of philosophical argument, not lab work.)
In closing (quickly, before the Michigan State-Penn State football game begins) let’s replay part of the first Novella quote I presented above:
They want to frame the conflict as that between the traditional, moral, and god-fearing spiritualism on one side, and cold, amoral, mechanistic materialism on the other.
Rhetorical dismissiveness aside, what’s wrong with framing the conflict in non-scientific terms? Novella wants to frame the conflict as being between the good guys, the guys who trust only science, and the bad guys who let other thinking into the fray. But we’ve already seen he cannot do that; he cannot play the game as if there were a side that trusts only science. As an ID proponent, I’m perfectly comfortable with letting other ideas enter the discussion. Novella is doing it too, he just doesn’t seem to recognize that he’s doing it. “Science is non-ideological,” he says. Ideally that’s true. He wants us also to believe “Novella is non-ideological.” There are none so blind…
Dualism is not dueling with science. Its gauntlet is laid down strictly with materialist science, especially materialist science that claims it is the only source of knowledge of reality.