Not a War But a Revolution: Materialism is Wrong

            In War of the Worldviews, Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow (perhaps best known for co-authoring The Grand Design with Stephen Hawking) debate, through dueling essays, the question of whether a spiritual consciousness should play a part in our current scientific worldview.  Mr. Mlodinow adopts the staunch materialistic standpoint, constantly arguing that only what can tested, weighed and measured is real.   According to him, this invisible spiritual element, advanced by Mr. Chopra, is simply an illusion; a nice thought without scientific credibility.  Taking out his ruler and compass, Mr. Mlodinow finds he cannot measure “consciousness” and therefore concludes it does not exist. 

            One of Mr. Mlodinow’s often repeated attacks in his essays is that metaphysics and philosophy are worthless, too malleable, and of no use for science.  What is real is what we see, and what we see is a world independent of our brains.  Who needs metaphysics?

             He writes that “For while metaphysics is fixed and guided by personal belief and wish fulfillment, science progresses and is inspired by the excitement of discovery.  The scientist’s dream is to make new discoveries, especially when they mean that established theories must be revised.”

             But here’s the problem: materialism itself is a metaphysics.  And, indeed, this metaphysics is fixed for most modern scientists who are guided by their personal belief and wish fulfillment in adopting materialism as their guiding principle.  Scientists do not practice their craft in a rarefied place where no-one engages in metaphysics; instead modern scientists almost uniformly adopt the metaphysics of materialism, and proceed as if no other way of looking at the world, — or being rationale — has any credibility. 

            So let’s first define a few terms.  Metaphysics “is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.”           

            “Materialism” is the “theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena.” So the metaphysics of materialism holds that matter wins, mind loses; if mind exists it will some day be found to be an emergent property of matter.  Materialism follows from “naïve realism,” or as its proponents prefer, “realism.”  “Realism” is the position that what appears to exist really does exist in the same manner as its appearance, external to the mind.  Mr. Mlodinow writes that “scientists deal only with phenomena we can see, hear, smell, detect with instruments, or measure with numbers.”  Nobel prize-winning physicists Steven Weinberg speaks directly to this point in his book, Dreams of a Final Theory.  He writes that “Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy.  For most of us, it is rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories.”  (p. 167).           

            And the problem is two-fold: First, scientists, as typified by Leonard Mlodinow and Steven Weinberg, do in fact follow a metaphysics known as materialism or naive realism.  Second, this metaphysics is called naive realism for a reason. 

             The reason naive realism is naive is because, as thinkers have shown for several centuries, not only do our senses sometimes deceive, but we all have experiences, such as dreams and hallucinations, where we do not need our physical senses to experience an outside world: our mind itself is capable of conjuring a real-seeming world as if from nothing.  These experiences put into question not only whether some of the physical world is mind-created, but whether it all is.      

            Naïve realism ignores an entire series of important findings by philosophers in the 17th and 18th century.  In short order, it goes like this: John Locke (1632-1704)  concluded that some qualities of an external object, such as color, taste, and sound, or secondary qualities, are subjective and added to experience by the mind.   If this were not true, then everyone would like the taste of beer and enjoy the same music, and there would be no such thing a color-blindness.   But other qualities of object, such as number and shape, or primary qualities, Locke believed really did exist outside in the world apart from the mind.   This is similar to the view currently held, at least in theory, by modern science, which holds that certain physical qualities in external objects create the experience of reality in our brains. 

             George Berkeley (1685-1753) then took the next logical step.  He reasoned that since color, taste, and sound are inseparable from a physical object (such as an apple), it makes no logical sense to say that some parts of the object are in the mind and rest are actually outside of the mind.  This led Berkeley to conclude that all physical reality resides in the mind of an eternal spirit. 

             David Hume (1711-1776) adopted Berkeley standpoint in concluding that we have no logical or empirical reason to believe that a world existed independently of the mind; rather, he said, most people, including the “vulgar” and the philosopher, simply take a mind-independent world for granted.  He writes that even though an objective, studied inquiry into the subject shows that nothing is ever present to the mind but its own perceptions and ideas, the belief in a world outside of the mind “has taken such a deep root in the imagination, that ’tis impossible to ever eradicate it, nor will any strain’d metaphysical conviction of the dependence of our perceptions be sufficient for that purpose.” (Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. I, Pt. IV, Sec. II). 

             So why is this little detour into the thoughts of great philosophers important?  Because it shows that the existence of a mind-independent world is an assumption based neither on reason nor empiricism.  In other words, science, using the methods of empiricism, cannot prove a mind-independent world exists; rather this is an assumption that scientists take for granted in developing their theories.

             So what is wrong with this?  A few things. Modern scientists convey an air of invincibility when discussing their theories, as if no other approach to understanding the world will ever have credibility.  But when we look deeper, we find that scientists have based the scientific enterprise upon a metaphysical framework — materialism —that not only can never be proven true but, as scientists themselves know, does not accurately describe the physical world.  (See quantum theory.)   Thus, scientists practice the highest form of intellectual investigation within the most naive of frameworks. 

             Metaphysics is as important to science as a foundation is to a skyscraper.  And yes, our modern scientists do follow a metaphysics, as they have build the scientific enterprise upon the foundation of materialism. 

             It is this foundation that is in doubt, not the scientific method.






  1. At last, a confrère! Philip’s blog posts are well-conceived as befits a philosopher, well-reasoned as befits as student of scince, well-argued as befits a lawyer, and well-expressed as befits a writer. I look forward to reading your future posts and recommend that my readers follow you as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.