Scientific Materialism Is No Alternative to Catholic Faith

What Else Is There?

A new Cradle Catholic

I previously quoted approvingly Walker Percy when he posed to himself the option of holding to some worldview besides the Catholic faith, and queried himself the answer “what else is there?” Though himself a convert, I as a Cradle Catholic felt he summed up my experience of considering the various alternatives of worldviews, religions and philosophies against the one in which I was raised, and finding them all wanting. I suppose it must be true that whatever we each end up believing and believing in, is and must be the result of making choices against alternatives. I think for perhaps most Cradle Catholics, (as many Cradle Muslims, -Lutherans, -secularists) the choices for and against various alternatives aren’t usually as explicit as they are for converts, but we all make them nonetheless. I suppose the convert actively investigated “what else” there is in a way a Cradle Believer does not, and in the end with no little deliberation adopted some alternative, maybe even against repulsion or opposition. As a Cradle Catholic, I never saw the appeal of “what else” there is. But, like the convert, it was not for lack of consideration.

In previous posts on this blog, I indicated that I was intrigued, from my upbringing, by the description of God as being “all good and deserving of all my love.” I also made the perhaps audacious claim that you too, dear reader, could find meaning, peace and happiness by pursuing a relationship with God and that the best (most appropriate) way to do this was by being or becoming Catholic. I proposed that the reason not everyone is Catholic is that they, on the one hand, are repelled (not without some justification) by bad Catholics or, on the other, by opting for one of two broad alternatives to the Catholic Church: Protestantism or religiously skeptical secularism (under the (ironically) metaphysical umbrella of scientific materialism (aka physicalism)). I also argued, though, that these two modern worldviews are likewise ultimately the result of bad Catholics.

Since I myself wasn’t driven from the Church by bad Catholics, I managed to remain Catholic by rejecting both these intellectual alternatives. In these previous posts, however, I did not offer much in the way of a compelling case for the Catholic faith against these alternative views. I hope to begin to make that case now, and of the two considered alternatives I see as attractive to most people (at least in the United States), Protestant and physicalist, it seems to make the most sense to start with latter since if physicalism is true, God or an immortal soul would be impossible.

Like everything that has to do with whole worldviews, the case for or against any of them will be complex and, because of this, necessarily lengthy. I apologize for the length of this post, but feel it was unavoidable. I hope to show, however, that physicalism, despite supposedly grounding itself in modern empirical science, entails insuperable problems precisely as a basis for scientific knowledge, and so it can provide no viable alternative to belief in something non-physical (ultimately God and the spiritual human soul as such belief is embodied in Catholic belief). Along the way, I hope to show that physicalism’s failures stem from or are entailed by its denial of the reality of inherent objective natures; that is, it fails to the extent that it clings to, or unconsciously contains, the nominalism from which it sprang. The arguments against physicalism will thus likewise include arguments for inherent realism. Though I did not progress through these arguments in the way I am presenting them here, these are cumulatively the reasons (with regard to physicalism) I have remained Catholic, and (part of) why you should be, too (or at least should not be a physicalist).

As a first step in arguing against physicalism as one alternative to Catholic faith, I want to explore what knowledge is not, and cannot be (at least not exclusively as scientific materialists contend). An exclusive reliance on empirical science, and the physicalist worldview that thus results, fails to explain much of what we know to be true about the world and ourselves, but most damning, it cannot explain science itself, both its foundations and how it arrives at conclusions.

In subsequent essays I will propose more positively what knowledge is (what I will characterize as intentional conformity) and argue for inherent realism of essential natures over and against physicalist accounts of even sense knowledge, and against nominalism which is at the heart of such accounts. Indeed, I hope to show how modern empirical science itself rests on and aims to uncover inherent essential natures. Finally, I will argue that our grasp of inherent essential natures is evidence of our spiritual nature enforming what about us is also physical. This will show that we are at least partially spiritual beings, and will be further evidence that physicalism is false.

What knowledge is not, and cannot be (exclusively).

In my lackluster teenage years, I did manage to excelled somewhat in math and science, and as one does in the affluent culture of an Orange County, California, all-boys Catholic college prep high school, I supposed I should go to college and study for a career in engineering. I suppose my exposure to academic philosophy and theology in my senior year must have resonated with my speculative bent, for I found the mercenary pursuit of science in engineering to be rather hollow, and, coupled with academic setbacks, led me to re-evaluate not only my choice of career, but also my commitment to the Catholic faith.

Yay! Cobalt!

Up to that point, I was like most people who appreciated the accomplishments of science, but was never exactly in thrall of the technological achievements. My experience learning to program the newly accessible personal computers caused me no little frustration, and left me rather underwhelmed by the marvels of which computers were capable.

Moreover, I suppose I became aware at this time of the anti-religious tendency of many a scientific devotee. Then, but more so in the decades that have followed, it has become commonplace in American culture to account for the rise of science by confidently asserting that what the gods used to explain (thunder, crop abundance or failure) gradually came to be explained by science, and so the gradually increasing success of science would mean (especially for the really seriously scientifically minded) that there would be a diminishing reliance on (or acknowledgement of) any gods (much less the One God favored by Theists (especially Christians)).

Of course (I hope it is obvious) such a story is an historical over-simplification, to the point of being misleading. But more importantly it misunderstands the nature of true religious (especially Christian) belief: while Catholic belief does make truth claims about the origin and purpose of life, the universe and everything (apologies to Douglas Adams), religious believers assert the reality of God not primarily as an explanation for the phenomena of the observable world (though, as we will see, some observable facts about the world cannot be adequately explained without recognizing He is real – that is an argument for a later blog post).

Personally, at this point in college I became much more interested in and active in the practice of my Catholic faith, but even at that time, and increasingly since then by pursuing academic philosophy, I have seen ever more clearly that such an atheistic, skeptically scientific alternative falls short as “what else” could possibly a true appraisal of the life, the universe and everything (again, apologies to Douglas Adams).

Science, thus, is commonly thought to entail disbelief in (or at least a considered ignorance of (agnosticism about)) the existence of God or any god or other supernatural being. Instead what is proposed as an alternative worldview is scientific materialism (also known as naturalism or physicalism): a metaphysics in the sense of a description and explanation of everything that is (with unintended irony since it pointedly does not go beyond (meta) the physical). This worldview even has its eschatological hope: that science can or will explain everything, and all (or almost all) human problems can and eventually will be solved by the wise application of scientific knowledge (unless human stupidity, or dumb luck, destroys us first). Scientific materialism or physicalism has three basic convictions:

  • 1. Faith in empirical science as the only reliable source of knowledge about the observable world which comes through sense data and the necessary inferences from such data.
  • 2. Science, in investigating the material origins of life, the universe and everything, has (or in principle can) discover a complete explanation in purely material terms, above all, by specifying the completely physical process (Darwinian evolution) by which every living thing, including ourselves, came to be.
  • 3. Science, in specifying the material constituents of which everything, including living things, especially ourselves, has (or in principle can) discover a complete explanation in purely material terms, as being more or less complex physical processes.

Must all true knowledge be scientific?

To the first point, the success of science leads some to declare that the only true and valid way of knowing whatever can be known is scientifically empirical truth. In Finding Darwin’s God (Harper Collins 2002) Brown University professor of molecular biology, Kenneth R. Miller, documents the tendency of many scientifically minded thinkers, mostly evolutionary biologists, to embrace “a brand of materialism that excludes from serious consideration any source of knowledge other than science.” (185). Indeed, this exaggeration of the power and reach of science continues to be endemic in the culture. For instance, I recently came upon a superficial version premised in Woody Allen’s 2014 film Magic in the Moonlight and given voice in Colin Firth’s character, Stanley. Or again, the character of Steven/Esqueleto in Jack Black’s 2006 Nacho Libre, who resists the faith of Brother Ignácio because, as he says, “I only believe in science!

Somewhat more seriously, in a recent video, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) comments at some length about the relative worth of philosophy versus science, describing philosophical questions as interesting but ultimately less valuable than the pursuit of science. He tells us he is skeptical of any argument that would lead to the conclusion that we should doubt the deliverances of our senses (that perhaps we are merely dreaming (ala Descartes) or a brain in a vat being fed false sensory inputs). “But the idea that reality is not real or what you sense and feel is not authentic is something I’m very skeptical of. I mean I think that your senses, the reality that you interact with – with light, heat, sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, absolutely hearing. These are real things.”

What Nye seems to miss in these comments is that claims of the fundamental and systematic unreliability of the senses are the extremes of skeptical thinking, and to reject them is not itself a kind of skepticism, but to embrace reasonable, but non-empirical, assumptions, basic knowledge about ourselves and the world, on which sensation and thus empirical science is built. Nye rather blithely remarks that of course the senses are reliable; he is pretty secure in the knowledge of the causal expectations of tomorrow’s sunrise or that a hammer does in fact cause you pain if dropped on your foot.

Most tellingly, though, in one offhand remark, he elides a core question on which the value of science stands or falls as he avers “humans discovered or invented the process of science.” Well, which is it? For if science is just invented (as nominalists assert), it leads to just the sort of skepticism Nye casually dismisses. Rather, in order to have any claim to genuine (lasting, objective) knowledge, scientific conclusion have to be “out there,” objectively inherent in a rationally ordered world, in order to be discovered. Indeed, all these epistemic truths underpin any scientific conclusions one might draw from observation of quantifiable features of the physical world which repeated experimentation confirms of falsifies.

It’s good that Nye has a high degree of confidence in the reliability of the senses, that our understanding of the earth’s rotation allows for anticipating its future continued rotation, even so far as to acknowledge that he does in fact know such truths. But a moment’s reflection reveals that such knowledge is not gained by empirical observation, but that such observation depends on such knowledge. To view empirical science as the exclusive source of reliable knowledge is incredibly philosophically naïve since empirical science can easily be shown to rest on all sorts of non-empirical assumptions despite nominalists and skeptics (David Hume perhaps most famously) historically having claimed that these assumptions are not in fact known at all but merely our unjustified feelings. [As a side note, to his credit, Nye has acknowledged that his earlier dismissal of philosophy was unfair, and has since come to see the need to address underlying epistemological questions.]

Comparison of absorption lines in light spectra showing a red shift.

There are indeed other truths a scientist must presuppose in order to draw scientific conclusions. For instance, among such non-empirical assumptions is the fact that physical laws apply universally across time and space. When Edwin Hubble discovered that distant astronomical objects were moving away from earth and each other (and that such objects surprisingly turned out to be separate galaxies), he did so by observing that their light produced absorption lines in spectra which paralleled the absorption lines of known elements, but that these lines in the astronomical spectra were shifted in the red direction of lower color frequencies. From this he reasoned that their light was appearing to him redder than it was in the stars due to the Doppler effect, as happens in sound when, for instance, a fire truck’s siren appears to have a lower pitch as it moves away from the observer. That the various elements each produce the same pattern of absorption lines in spectra of light in distant objects as they do on earth and that light can be “stretched” as sound can in the Doppler effect were not empirical observations, but reasonable, intuitive assumptions Hubble used to infer scientific conclusions from his empirical observation of the light from stars and the spectra they produce.

Now, none of these observations about the knowledge that must necessarily obtain in order for us to sense anything, or the assumptions we make about the consistency and knowability of the observable world, prove that God or a spiritual human soul exists. (Though, as I noted in a previous post, Bishop Barron credits to Josef Ratzinger an argument that such assumptions can provide the basis for just this kind of proof.) But they should tell us that empirical science is not the only, or even the most basic, way of discovering truth about the world. This will be important because when we do consider proofs for the existence and attributes of God, or for a spiritual soul, they will not be strictly scientific proofs, but rational arguments based on fundamental truths about the world and ourselves on which science itself rests. Despite not being strictly scientific (indeed because they are not) they have more, not less, probative force.

One might say that these assumptions about the basic reliability of the senses, the uniformity of laws and principles across space and time, and the principle of causality (in addition to logical and mathematical truths) are just the background against which all human action and knowing have to take place. Yes! Exactly! That is just the point. Human action involves ways of knowing more fundamental than empirical science, and science itself, as a particular sphere of human action and knowing, likewise depends on them, too. These observations, then, should indicate, as they have for me, that some alternative to scientific materialism or physicalism has to be true.

But the fact that there are non-scientific assumptions on which science depend (even if one can argue that they are empirically confirmed), is not the only, and to my mind not the most telling observation that militates against scientific materialism as the true alternative to Catholic faith. The very existence and reliability of science itself cannot be explained or supported in scientific materialist or physicalist terms, and this can be shown by considering the two perspectives from which it views the world, but most especially human beings, namely from the perspective of evolution and materialist reductionism.

Science as a Product of an Exclusively Physical Process, Evolution, Is Unreliable

Based on the standard account of the origin of living organisms from non-living material elements, physicalism asserts that everything, certainly everything on earth, is exclusively composed of physical constituents and the result of physical laws and forces. For instance, noted philosopher of mind, Paul Churchland provides what for him apparently is the most conclusive argument in favor of physicalism: “the argument from evolutionary history.

What is the origin of a complex and sophisticated species such as ours? What, for that matter, is the origin of the dolphin, the mouse, or the housefly? Thanks to the fossil record, comparative anatomy, and the biochemistry of proteins and nucleic acids, there is no longer any significant doubt on this matter. Each existing species is a surviving type from a number of variations on an earlier type of organism; each earlier type is in turn a surviving type from a number of variations on a still earlier type of organism; and so on down the branches of the evolutionary tree until some three billion years ago, we find a trunk of just one or a handful of very simple organisms. These organisms like their more complex offspring, are just self-repairing, self-replicating, energy-driven molecular structures. (That evolutionary trunk has its own roots in an earlier era of purely chemical evolution, in which the molecular elements of life were themselves pieced together.) …

For purposes of our discussion, the important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species is the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. … Our inner nature differs from that of simpler creatures in degree, but not in kind.

If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.

Matter and Consciousness (MIT Press 1988) 20-21.

It seems to be a natural consequence of this naturalism that a natural process explains everything and so the natural process of evolution must explain all human behavior. Kenneth Miller documents just this tendency in evolutionary biologists and allied thinkers, like the philosopher, Daniel Dennet. Miller, indeed critiques Dennet’s

assertion that we can extend Darwinian analysis to solve problems in nearly any field in truly scientific fashion. Science works. And Darwinism is science. Therefore, he reasons, a Darwinian analysis of any discipline is also a scientific one. If that were true . . .  it would lead to the conclusion that any trait, any character, or any behavior of any organism must be the direct product of natural selection….

Finding Darwin’s God 178-9.
Jesus and Mary appearing in toast

Indeed, many have observed that there are many tendencies or predilections in human behavior, while inclined to result in false conclusions about the world, were nevertheless probably selected for evolutionarily because they favored proto-human survival. Among these are the human propensity to see patterns, especially human faces, in natural phenomena (pareidolia), and the predisposition to interpret bumps in the night, rustling in the bushes, as a potential threat or lurking predator. Such mistake-laden tendencies have conduced to survival in the hostile environments of our very distant ancestors, and so were ‘hard wired’ into human behavior. None more so, according to Darwinians such as Dennet, than religion.

Dennet’s view, widely shared by social psychologists and behavioral ecologists, would allow every aspect of human thought to be explained away as an evolutionary adaptation. As we have just seen, this applies to the capacity for language, but just as surely it can be applied to the capacity for religion. As a result, his view of evolution leaves no room for God except as a psychological curiosity to be studied and explained. Our abilities to imagine the divine, which are surely part of human nature, must exist because of natural selection. They surely do not exist because the Deity is real.

Finding Darwin’s God 179.

Thus, our species has been conditioned to believe in divine or supernatural agency by projecting on the world our proclivity for pareidolia and threat detection, among many other survival-favoring, but cognitively faulty, psychological proclivities. This line of critique of the truth-claims of religion in terms of its supposed evolutionary development is elaborated in much greater detail by Pascal Boyer in his Religion Explained (Basic Books 2001).

As a general account of human behavior and knowing, however, physicalism poses a serious threat to the very behavior that produced this account, namely empirical science. Indeed, as should be obvious, science is as much a part of human behavior as religion, and arguably is but a sophisticated form of recognizing patterns within natural phenomena. If, then, other evolutionary produced human behaviors have no necessary connection to, or even are poised to subvert, a true understanding of the world, science might be just as truth-subverting. The conclusive deliverances science should not, at the least, be trusted with any degree of confidence, and that include the intellectual framework of physicalism itself.

This basic argument has been developed in greater detail, though along somewhat different lines, by Alvin Plantinga

Science as a Product of an Exclusively Material Process, Reductionism, Becomes Incoherent

An even more damning implication for the reliability of science emerges from the physicalist view of human beings as exclusively composed of and reducible to their material constituents and the necessary physical laws which govern the interactions and behavior.

In addition to offering a complete, and completely material, account of the origin of living things, scientific materialism encompasses the more expansive yet fundamental claim that all that exist at all are physical things, their properties, and the necessary physical laws which govern and describe their past behavior and invariably predict their future behavior. Physical things themselves are nothing more than the ultimate physical constituents combining and interacting according these necessary physical laws.  These physical constituents, together with the forces that determine their interaction and composition into complex bodies, ultimately developed into complex systems of interaction we call living things, defined chiefly by their ability to replicate themselves.  But ultimately the living things are what they are, do what they do, exclusively because of the constituents that make them up, and the properties and forces they generate or are necessarily subject to.  Nothing beyond the material world and its elements is believed to be required, nor even allowed, since scientific materialism presupposes completeness and adequacy of its physical explanations.

John Searle, for example, ends his book Minds, Brains and Science (Harvard University Press, 1984) by explaining how this physicalist understanding of human action plays out.

Our basic explanatory mechanisms in physics work from the bottom up.  That is to say, we explain the behaviour of surface feature of a phenomenon such as the transparency of glass or the liquidity of water in terms of the behaviour of microparticle such as molecules.  And the relation of the mind to the brain is an example of such a relation.  Mental features are caused by, and ultimately realized in neurophysiological phenomena. …  But we get causation from the mind to the body, that is we get top-down causation over time because the top level and the bottom level go together.  So, for example, suppose I wish to cause the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at the axon end-plates of my motor neurons, I can do it by simply deciding to raise my arm and then raising it.  Here, the mental event, the intention to raise my arm causes the physical event, the release of acetylcholine – a case of top-down causation if ever there was one.  But the top-down causation works only because the mental events are grounded in the neurophysiology to start with.  So, corresponding to the description of the causal relation that go from the top to the bottom, there is another description of the same series of events where the causal relation bounce entirely along the bottom, that is they are entirely a matter of neurons and neuron firings at synapses, etc. (93)

Searle, however, clearly understands that this physicalist understanding of ourselves and our behavior is at odds with another very basic belief we have about ourselves, namely our personal freedom. Indeed, he is at pains to lay out clearly the nature of the conflict between these two conceptions of ourselves.

On the one hand we are inclined to say that since nature consists of particles and their relations with each other, and since everything can be accounted for in terms of those particles and their relations, there is simply no room for freedom of the will.  …  So it really does look as if everything we know about physics forces us to some form of denial of human freedom (86-7).

As many philosophers have pointed out, if there is any fact of experience that we are all familiar with, it’s the simple fact that our own choices, decisions, reasonings, and cogitations seem to make a difference to our actual behaviour.  There are all sorts of experiences that we have in life where it seems just a fact of our experiences that though we did none thing, we feel we know perfectly well that we could have done something else.  We know we could have done something else, because we chose one thing for certain reasons.  But we were aware that there were also reasons for choosing something else, and indeed, we might have acted on these reasons and chosen that something else.  Another way to put this point is to say: it is just a plain empirical fact about our behaviour that it isn’t predictable in the way that the behaviour of objects rolling down an inclined plane is predictable.  And the reason it isn’t predictable in that way is that we could often have done otherwise than we in fact did. Human freedom is just a fact of experience. If we want some empirical proof of this fact, we can simply point to the further fact that it is always up to us to falsify any prediction anybody might care to make about our behaviour. If somebody predicts that I am going to do something, I might just damn well do something else. Now, that sort of option is simply not open to glaciers moving down mountainsides or balls rolling down inclined planes or the planets moving in their elliptical orbits.

This is a characteristic philosophical conundrum, On the one hand, a set of very powerful arguments force us to the conclusion that free will has no place in the universe. On the other hand. a series of powerful arguments based on facts of our own experience inclines us to the conclusion that there must be some freedom of the will because we all experience it all the time. (87-8)

Nevertheless, Searle believes that our (or at least his) commitment to the truth of the contemporary scientific view precludes the possibility of human beings really being free, our subjective experience notwithstanding.

Why exactly is there no room for the freedom of the will on the contemporary scientific view?  Our basic explanatory mechanisms in physics work from the bottom up. …  As long as we accept this conception of how nature works, then it doesn’t seem that there is any scope for the freedom of the will because on this conception the mind can only affect nature in so far as it is part of nature.  But if so, then like the rest of nature, its features are determined at the basic micro-levels of physics (93).

In the end, Searle believes that we can’t help but think that we are free, even though we (or at least he) believes that all our actions are determined physically.  He believes that our sense of freedom is rooted in the logical structure of viewing ourselves as originators of intentional behavior.  But, in spite of this subjective feeling, he believes that modern science is committed to denying the truth of this feeling.

As long as we accept the bottom-up conception of physical explanation, and it is a conception on which the past three hundred years of science are based, then psychological facts about ourselves, like any other higher-level facts, are entirely causally explicable in terms of and entirely realised in systems of elements at the fundamental micro-physical level.  Our conception physical reality simply does not allow for radical freedom.

(F)or reasons I don’t really understand, evolution has given us a form of experience of voluntary action where the experience of freedom, that is to say, the experience of the sense of alternative possibilities, is built into the very structure of conscious, voluntary, intentional human behaviour (98).

If you decide you are determined, you still have made a choice. (apologies to Rush)

It seems, then, that intellectually one has a choice.  Searle recognized the incompatibility of his contemporary scientific view (physicalism) with the feeling that he was free, and so he decided the scientific view was more well-grounded and chose to view his feeling of freedom as illusory.  Likewise, depending on the horn of the dilemma the truth of which we are more committed to (theoretically or practically), we may choose that we have personal freedom, on the one hand, or that humans are only a collection of atoms, since it seems that both cannot be true.

To my mind, it has always seemed as though the denial of personal freedom that is entailed in the physicalist position should weigh decisively against its truth. As Searle points out, it is just a fact of our subjective experience that we make decisions freely. The denial of personal (libertarian (as opposed to compatibilist) for any philosophical sticklers out there) freedom makes complete nonsense of almost every aspect of social life: personal responsibility, promises, resolutions, pride, shame, regret, praise, blame, merit, guilt, heroism, cowardice, prudence and other concepts besides. For if we are determined by our physical make-up, personal history and environment to do what we do, none of these concepts would ever be fittingly applied – at least not once one knows that humans are physically determined. For it would be just as inappropriate (I dare say, incoherent) to praise or blame a clock for displaying the time accurately or erroneously, since a clock would be just as determined to exhibit the time it does according the same necessary physical laws.

But this determinism also makes a farce even of the supposedly privileged human behavior that informs us of its truth, namely empirical science and arguments in favor of scientific materialism. For, as we have seen, physicalism claims that every event in the world must be the necessary result of the physical properties of things (their ultimate atomic constituent parts) obeying necessary laws of physics and chemistry, and the necessity of this physical causality would apply to beliefs and conclusions which are themselves physical states of the brains of the people who hold them.

In this theory, brain states – like every other physical state – are ultimately the necessary result of physical properties of things (brains, neurons, neural transmitters, synapse firings) obeying necessary physical laws (brain chemistry).  Thus, the brain states which instantiate the conclusion of any theory are the necessary physical result of prior brain states. Concluding brain states (like everything else) are completely described and governed by physical laws of physics and chemistry. Therefore, brain states which instantiate the conclusion of any theory are not the logical result of the meaning and truth of the premises.  That is, the neural instantiations in a person’s brain of any conclusion are not the result of the meaning and truth of the neural instantiations of the premises which preceded them in the person’s brain.

But there is a tension here that mirrors, and as we’ll see below, includes the tension between physicalism and personal freedom. For, physicalism also claims to be itself is a theory, or system of beliefs, and as the result of a true and valid arguments, it is a set of conclusions logically based on premises, well-grounded beliefs about the physical world as a whole. As Edward Feser notes, when we entertain the meaning of propositions, as when making an argument or giving reasons for why we do what we do or believe what we believe

… there are logical relations between mental states that partially determine precisely which mental states one will have, if one has any at all. But there seem just obviously to be no such relations between neurons firing in the brain. It would be absurd to say – indeed, it isn’t clear what it could even mean to say – that “neuronal firing pattern of type A logically entails neuronal firing pattern of type B,” or that “the secretion of luteinizing hormone is logically inconsistent with the firing of neurons 6,092 through 8,887.” Neurons and hormone secretions have causal relations between them; but logical relations – the sort of relations between propositions like “It is raining outside” and “It is wet outside” – are not causal. There seems to be no way to match up sets of logically interrelated mental states with sets of merely causally interrelated brain states, and thus no way to reduce the mental to the physical.

Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld Publications 2006) p. 68.

At most, the chemically causative properties of premising-brain-states which bring about argument-concluding-brain-states may incidentally parallel the logical implications of their semantic content (i.e., what the premises and conclusions mean), but such logical implications are not the true, i.e., physical, cause of the concluding-brain state. (Given, however, that propositions can be expressed linguistically in many ways, in many different speakers, the hope that semantic content would map to brain states according to the necessary type-type identity seems so unlikely as to be impossible; the empirical data from brain scans, at any rate, does not seem to support the incidental parallelism, either.)

And, if the meaning of the premises of an argument (their semantic content) do not provide the reason for holding the alleged conclusion, the argument is either invalid or false, or both (though perhaps incidentally (but non-causatively) sound).

Thus, it seems a logical conclusion, if not a physical necessity, that if physicalism is true, the premises of any argument never provide the reason a person holds to their alleged conclusion; brain chemistry is the true, i.e., physical, reason a person believes a conclusion. Thus, if physicalism is true, physicalism (and every theory) is false, or at least, irrelevant.

But, as with the undeniable truth of personal freedom, it just seems obvious that theories and arguments do explain (either well or poorly) and cause (by bringing about) what and why people believe what they believe. Indeed, part of being convinced by an argument is choosing to accept that the premises are true and the conclusion validly follows from them, and that one has an obligation to (which implies a freedom not to) accept the conclusion as true.

Given certain evidences, I “ought” to believe certain things. I am intellectually responsible for drawing certain conclusions, given certain pieces of evidence. If I do not choose that conclusion, I am irrational. But “ought” implies “can.” If I ought to believe something, then I must have the ability to choose to believe it or not believe it. If one is to be rational, one must be free to choose her beliefs in order to be reasonable. Often, I deliberate about what I am going to believe, or I deliberate about the evidence for something. But such deliberations make sense only if I assume that what I am going to do or believe is “up to me” – that I am free to choose and, thus, I am responsible for irrationality if I choose inappropriately. It is self-refuting to argue that one ought to choose physicalism. . . on the basis of the fact that one should see that the evidence is good for physicalism. . . 

Gary R. Habermas & J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death, (Crossway Books, 1998) p. 65.

For all of these reasons, adduced and considered over many years, I must conclude that therefore, physicalism is false. There are, however, positive reasons I have come to accept for why an alternative understanding of knowledge is true, one consonant with (and as I am arguing, a precondition for) the truth of the Catholic faith. I will lay out my case for this alternative in another post.

Thanks for making it this far.

Published by Joe Magee

I earned my PhD in 1999 and published my dissertation in 2003. I invented the Variably Expanding Chain Transmission (VECTr) which was patented in 2019 (US 10,167,055). I teach and work at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: