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Featured Against Scientific Materialism

Discussion in 'Science and Religion' started by sayak83, Jan 8, 2019.

  1. sayak83

    sayak83 Well-Known Member
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    This is a very interesting essay on the problems inherent in the stance of scientific materialism as a comprehensive worldview. Please read it and comment or rebut. Would be a good starting point for a debate or discussion. :) I am quoting relevant section from the first part of the essay. The next part proposes their own corrective version, which we can discuss later.
    The blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience | Aeon Essays

    Excerpts of interest:-
    Definition of scientific materialism
    Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it. But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

    Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.


    Behind the Blind Spot sits the belief that physical reality has absolute primacy in human knowledge, a view that can be called scientific materialism. In philosophical terms, it combines scientific objectivism (science tells us about the real, mind-independent world) and physicalism (science tells us that physical reality is all there is).

    Problems with Scientific Materialism

    To put it bluntly, the claim that there’s nothing but physical reality is either false or empty. If ‘physical reality’ means reality as physics describes it, then the assertion that only physical phenomena exist is false. Why? Because physical science – including biology and computational neuroscience – doesn’t include an account of consciousness. This is not to say that consciousness is something unnatural or supernatural. The point is that physical science doesn’t include an account of experience; but we know that experience exists, so the claim that the only things that exist are what physical science tells us is false. On the other hand, if ‘physical reality’ means reality according to some future and complete physics, then the claim that there is nothing else but physical reality is empty, because we have no idea what such a future physics will look like, especially in relation to consciousness.


    Faced with this quandary, some philosophers argue that we should define ‘physical’ such that it rules out radical emergentism (that life and the mind are emergent from but irreducible to physical reality) and panpsychism (that mind is fundamental and exists everywhere, including at the microphysical level). This move would give physicalism a definite content, but at the cost of trying to legislate in advance what ‘physical’ can mean, instead of leaving its meaning to be determined by physics.

    Objectivism and physicalism are philosophical ideas, not scientific ones – even if some scientists espouse them. They don’t logically follow from what science tells us about the physical world, or from the scientific method itself. By forgetting that these perspectives are a philosophical bias, not a mere data-point, scientific materialists ignore the ways that immediate experience and the world can never be separated.

    Husserl, the German thinker who founded the philosophical movement of phenomenology, argued that lived experience is the source of science. It’s absurd, in principle, to think that science can step outside it. The ‘life-world’ of human experience is the ‘grounding soil’ of science, and the existential and spiritual crisis of modern scientific culture – what we are calling the Blind Spot – comes from forgetting its primacy.

    Whitehead’s so-called process philosophy is based on a rejection of the ‘bifurcation of nature’, which divides immediate experience into the dichotomies of mind versus body, and perception versus reality. Instead, he argued that what we call ‘reality’ is made up of evolving processes that are equally physical and experiential.


    Insights from Quantum Physics
    For several schools of thought, quantum physics doesn’t give us access to the way the world fundamentally is in itself. Rather, it only lets us grasp how matter behaves in relation to our interactions with it.
    Copenhagen interpretation of Niels Bohr, for example, the wave function has no reality outside of the interaction between the electron and the measurement device.
    A relatively new interpretation known as Quantum-Bayesianism (QBism) – which combines quantum information theory and Bayesian probability theory – takes a different tack; it interprets the irreducible probabilities of a quantum state not as an element of reality, but as the degrees of belief an agent has about the outcome of a measurement. Advocates of this interpretation sometimes describe it as ‘participatory realism’, because human agency is woven into the process of doing physics as a means of gaining knowledge about the world.

    In short, there’s still no simple way to remove our experience as scientists from the characterisation of the physical world.

    Experience and Consciousness
    There’s still no scientific explanation of qualia in terms of brain activity – or any other physical process for that matter. Nor is there any real understanding of what such an account would look like.There’s also the question of subjectivity. Experiences have a subjective character; they occur in the first person. Why should a given sort of physical system have the feeling of being a subject? Science has no answer to this question.
    Philosopher William James (whose notion of ‘pure experience’ influenced Husserl and Whitehead) wrote in 1905 about the ‘active sense of living which we all enjoy, before reflection shatters our instinctive world for us’. That active sense of living doesn’t have an inside-outside/subject-object structure; it’s subsequent reflection that imposes this structure on experience.
    More than a millennium ago, Vasubandhu, an Indian Buddhist philosopher of the 4th to 5th century CE, criticised the reification of phenomena into independent subjects versus independent objects. For Vasubandhu, the subject-object structure is a deep-seated, cognitive distortion of a causal network of phenomenal moments that are empty of an inner subject grasping an outer object.
    To bring the point home, consider that in certain intense states of absorption – during meditation, dance or highly skilled performances – the subject-object structure can drop away, and we are left with a sense of sheer felt presence. How is such phenomenal presence possible in a physical world? Science is silent on this question.

    What the Scientific Method actually Does
    First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

    But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers.

    For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate.

    So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.
    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    For someone who has been a scientist, and a person outside of the West (India), the incompatibility of the scientific methodology with scientific materialism and the monotheistic theological superstructure of the basic idea has long been evident. I agree with most of the issues this essay and their authors raise. What do you folks think?
     
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  2. Sunstone

    Sunstone De Diablo Del Fora
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    Interesting essay. Offhand, I'd say the main weakness of it is that -- while its criticisms of scientific materialism are important and cogent ones -- it does not offer much in the way of a better model.

    EDIT: Just noticed there's a second essay, not linked to, in which Frank, Gleiser, and Thompson discuss their own model.
     
  3. lukethethird

    lukethethird Active Member

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    What's interesting about it?
     
  4. sayak83

    sayak83 Well-Known Member
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    In my view science should avoid metaphysical entanglements. If nothing fits for now, then nothing fits. In time as both science and our thinking advances, something may click spontaneoulsy.
     
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  5. Hockeycowboy

    Hockeycowboy Well-Known Member
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    Interesting. Experience is always important. One of the hardest — but best — teachers.
     
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  6. Sunstone

    Sunstone De Diablo Del Fora
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    I agree. But what are "metaphysical entanglements"? To me, they include the metaphysical claim that mind-independent objects have some kind of ontological existence.

    So far as I can see, there is at least one way of putting together a model for the sciences that does not resort to metaphysical assumptions.
     
  7. lukethethird

    lukethethird Active Member

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    Trust me, it does.
     
  8. sayak83

    sayak83 Well-Known Member
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    Well, it can take what we experience as a given and work with uncovering its characteristics...like reliability, patterns, predictability and ways they can inform and improve on the quality of our future experiences.
     
  9. adrian009

    adrian009 Well-Known Member
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    I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the phrase n = 1? It means the sample size is a population of one so it’s not much use when it comes to quantitative analysis. That’s what’s considered necessary in the field of medical science. Being able to compare the effects of an intervention such as a drug on one group compared to the group that don’t have the drug. Then each group is blinded as to whether they have the actual treatment or not so one group takes a placebo. Then even the person who analyses the data is blinded to which group is which. We call that a double blinded randomised control trial. Yet our experience is something else again as one could be cured or have an adverse reaction to a medication that kills us.

    Science has a vital role in our lives but we should never underestimate the importance of being able to read the reality of our own lives as we learn wisdom, love and compassion and to be true to our inner most selves. Science can only take us so far as your paper highlights well.
     
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  10. exchemist

    exchemist Well-Known Member

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    Possibly nothing to people to those who think in single sentences.
     
  11. exchemist

    exchemist Well-Known Member

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    Some big bang cosmology strays at least very close to metaphysics.
     
  12. exchemist

    exchemist Well-Known Member

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    I agree that one can do science this way. I've always had impressed on me the need to keep in mind that we work only with models of (what we think is) reality and not reality itself.

    However I do believe that most scientifically inclined people implicitly believe there is an objective physical reality, "out there" somewhere, to be modelled, even if our models inevitably suffer from incompleteness and subjectivity. That is certainly how I approach the world.
     
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  13. blü 2

    blü 2 Well-Known Member
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    The definition of materialism I use (from Smart and Armstrong) says it's the view that only such entities and processes exist as are recognized by the physical sciences from time to time.
    Then many of us haven't thought the matter through. Science has never claimed to be complete (and it will be a dispiriting day should we ever complete it). As for objectivity, it only claims to attempt to maximize it, and to have succeeded better than any other method of enquiry. (I can elaborate on how that's done if need be.)
    I don't know what a God's-eye view of nature is. Science continually designs models of how reality works: on the cosmic scale, what the Big Bang was, how matter, stars, elements, planets, formed, and continually explores, tests, retests, and modifies the models.

    Does anyone know a better method for exploring the question?

    Truth is our best opinion from time to time. Truth is therefore not absolute but a work always in progress. This way of seeing distinguishes science from a great many religious views.
    That's odd. I'd have said that all we know about human perception was the result of science ─ how our senses detect and report, how our brains respond to sensory input, how optical illusions arise, how to create OOBs in the lab, the reliability of witnesses, the nature of human responses to testing such that we've evolved our means of testing to have double blinds, and our means of opinion gathering to contain accurate-enough margins of error, and so on.

    Who is said to understand these things better than those who've explored them using scientific method?
    So what?
    That's not very helpful without a definition of consciousness intelligible to science.
    Then what objection could be raised to science's investigations of consciousness? Or to the findings of those investigations?
    I'm not sure what the author means by 'experience' here, but as I understand experience, it arises from memory of things that happened in the past and how they were handled, or mishandled, or ignored &c. We have reasonably good hypotheses on how memory is laid down, and recalled (and less advanced but not vacant models of how we employ memory in aid of our purposes). I don't see the point of this claim.
    Ahm, what quandary?
    I suppose some do. I acknowledge that materialism has problems with perfect reductionism at this stage of our understanding, but I've never heard of a demonstration "that life and the mind are emergent from but irreducible to physical reality".

    And once again we need a nice clear definition of what we mean by 'life', and when that might be relevant to enquiries into reality.

    Even more do we need a nice clear definition of 'mind', which as far as I can tell refers to a basket of brain functions where what is and isn't in the basket changes from speaker to speaker and from this moment to that moment with the one speaker.
    Wow! Now we really need that definition of 'mind'!

    Why do I suspect that our author's denial (above) that the supernatural is involved here was ─ how shall I put it ─ not really thought through?
    Neither that case, or any useful semblance of it, has been made.
    It seems to me they're logically consistent with my three assumptions: that a world exists external to me, that my senses are capable of informing me of that world, and that reason is a valid tool.

    Since anyone who posts here demonstrates by doing so that they agree with at least the first two, and I trust the third, maybe our author here has some fourth assumption that I don't share. If anyone knows what it is, I'd appreciate a tip-off.
    What, our author says that once the problem of subjectivity is grasped, there's nothing we can do about it? Well, we can't get rid of it entirely, but there's a great deal we can do about it. Scientific method, as I said, consciously aims to maximize objectivity, to an extent that no other method of enquiry can match.
    My reaction to that is, pshaw! But before I dismiss it out of hand, perhaps someone could give me an example of what our author is talking about ─ a demonstration of this complaint in action.
    Therefore?
    I completely disagree. Think of it in evolutionary terms: the critter gets certain sensory inputs that trigger appropriate brain responses. How are these inputs to be perceived by the parts of the brain that have to process them? By the various sensations of receiving the signals that have been turned into woo by calling them qualia. By the sensations of pain, itch, tickle, sensual stroking, by the smell of flowers, methane, smoke, mud, by the colors, by the sounds including the words. And bear in mind that when memory is brought to bear in the course of responding, not just historical memory but somatic and affective memory are also involved in shaping the emotional reaction ─ the closest I can take you towards qualia.
     
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  14. PureX

    PureX Veteran Member

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    One big problem with trying to discuss this issue is that a lot of people confuse the realm of metaphysics with the realm of the supernatural. And until this confusion is cleared up, the discussion will get nowhere. Because supernaturalism as an idea is a trigger for personal bias that generates a "Tower-of-Babble effect" on everyone involved.
     
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  15. Jumi

    Jumi Well-Known Member

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    Underlying assumptions are always fun to discuss...
     
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  16. viole

    viole Metaphysical Naturalist
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    Experiences, qualia, consciousness etc are very likely the result of the computation of a set of neurons. There is nothing metaphysical about it. Or it is as metaphysical as the propulsion generated by an engine when it burns fuel.

    For sure, they seem to be easily affected by very material causes. Like ingestion of alcohol, deprivation of oxygen, degenerative processes, etc.

    Ciao

    - viole
     
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  17. blü 2

    blü 2 Well-Known Member
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    I'm familiar with metaphysics standard ─ in a post above I mentioned I take my definition of materialism from metaphysicians Jack Smart and David Armstrong ─ and also with metaphysics in theology.

    The supernatural ─ literally, having the quality of being above nature ─ means not in nature / the world external to the self / the realm of the physical sciences / reality; not a member of the set of all things with objective existence. Hence imaginary and / or non-existent.

    That's why no objective test can distinguish the supernatural from the imaginary.

    But if I'm wrong, and you in fact have an objective test that will make that distinction, I'll be delighted to eat my words.
     
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  18. Jollybear

    Jollybear Hey

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    Scientific materialism is a disease of the mainstream.

    When is it going to hurry up and die and wake up to and catch up with true reality?
     
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  19. Jumi

    Jumi Well-Known Member

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    Assuming only negative or "something wrong" as "causes" of qualia seems completely one-sided though. Whereas a completely clear, well-functioning mind and healthy body seem as likely and the things that people commonly experience with alcohol and such don't qualify as much of an exclusive experience.
     
  20. sayak83

    sayak83 Well-Known Member
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    Are you having an experience now? If so, let me assure you that science has nothing to say regarding how there exists such things as experiences.
     
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