February 28, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

If Materialism Is Bad, This Could Be Far Worse

A new movement in some science circles could have theists wishing for the good old days of battling materialism.

It’s called panpsychism. Live Science writes about it in “Minds Everywhere: ‘Panpsychism’ Takes Hold in Science.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Aren’t minds better than molecules as a philosophical foundation? Not so fast. Here’s how the article opens:

Are humans living in a simulation? Is consciousness nothing more than the firing of neurons in the brain? Or is consciousness a distinct entity that permeates every speck of matter in the universe?

A conference was held in San Francisco recently at “the Victorian home of Susan McTavish Best, a lifestyle guru” who met with truth-seeker Lawrence Kuhn, who interviews leading leading thinkers (see his excellent interview with consciousness philosopher David Chalmers at Evolution News & Views). The present article reports that some scientists are moving away from materialism (which is good). But if “consciousness” is viewed as an entity that “permeates every speck of matter in the universe,” theists will have a whole new ball of wax to deal with. Actually, it’s an old ball of wax called pantheism (or panentheism). In its extreme form, it could undo science altogether.

Philosophers have put forward many notions of consciousness. The materialist notion holds that consciousness can be fully explained by the the firing of neurons in the human brain, while mind-body dualism argues that the soul or mind is distinct from, and can potentially outlive, the body. Under the notion of panpsychism, a kind of re-boot of ancient animistic ideas, every speck of matter has a kind of proto-consciousness. When aggregated in particular ways, all this proto-consciousness turns into a sense of inner awareness. And other, Eastern philosophies have held that consciousness is the only real thing in the universe, Kuhn said.

Neuroscientists and many philosophers have typically planted themselves firmly on the materialist side. But a growing number of scientists now believe that materialism cannot wholly explain the sense of “I am” that undergirds consciousness, Kuhn told the audience.

Theists may find it refreshing that a growing number of scientists are finding materialism to be inadequate. Jumping to the opposite extreme, however, bypasses the balance of mind-body dualism that has been friendly to science. In not seeing this danger, Kuhn may be too open-minded. As refreshingly skeptical of materialism as he has shown himself to be, if he seriously advocates panpsychism, he could give aid and comfort to a worse pit of error that could undo science altogether. The balance is mind-body dualism, which includes classical theism. That was the worldview that allowed Newton, Kepler and the founding fathers of science to appeal to the purposeful intentions of a conscious Creator for investigating a material world that is “other” than the divine mind. As a “thing” distinct from the mind of God, the mechanics of nature was accessible to the mind of man.

But if everything is conscious, what is science to work on? Understanding the world becomes a process of subjugation of the individual mind to the universal mind. Visions of Eastern meditation, prayers to trees and fear of spirits in everything comes back into view: a return to the paganism from which science tried to escape.

The San Francisco conference didn’t go that far, of course. The attendees were heavily into thoughts about artificial intelligence, neural networking and other futuristic engineering concepts. If history shows anything, though, it’s this: ideas have consequences.

You can reason with a materialist because usually the person respects science, logic, and observation. Anyone who has tried to reason with an Eastern mystic or animist knows how much harder it is to come to any agreement on a propositional argument. It’s like trying to nail jello to a wall. Pantheism robs the soul of any desire to understand the world; it turns the believer’s eyeballs inwards, makes the world mushy, and leads to philosophical navel-gazing. Christian apologists will rue the day that panpsychism replaces materialism. Better get equipped now to deal with it.

Recommended resource: Dembski’s latest book Being as Communion is a thought-provoking exploration of the ontology of information as the fundamental reality in the universe. Information is the signpost of a mind, but it is distinct from mind, so this is a dualistic defense of classical theism. As usual, Dembski writes with clarity, logical rigor and a breadth of the history of ideas.

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  • johan says:

    Elephants. Whales. They have more matter to be permeated by that kind of proto-consciousness. They should have a larger aggregate consciousness than a 6 year old boy. Strangely, there is scant evidence of this.

  • bem49 says:

    The irony of claiming that Intelligent Design is “religion” is that one could start with pantheism and ask “How could nature have made us?” and get the evolutionary theory!

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