March 18, 2024 | David F. Coppedge

Philosopher Debunks Scientism But Falls Into His Own Pit

It’s not necessary to be a scholar in
academia to recognize logical blunders.
It just takes common sense.

 

 

Having awakened from his dogmatic slumbers, he forthwith rolled over and went back to sleep.

Phillip Goff, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, wrote an insightful essay at The Conversation debunking scientism—insightful, at least, until he fell into his own pit.

In his March 15 article, “The mystery of consciousness shows there may be a limit to what science alone can achieve,” Goff first defined scientism as “the view that the scientific method is the only way to establish truth.” Goff showed why this view, also historically defended by the logical positivists, is illogical because it refutes itself:

Perhaps the most worked out form of scientism was the early 20th century movement knows as logical positivism. The logical positivists signed up to the “verification principle”, according to which a sentence whose truth can’t be tested through observation and experiments was either logically trivial or meaningless gibberish. With this weapon, they hoped to dismiss all metaphysical questions as not merely false but nonsense.

These days, logical positivism is almost universally rejected by philosophers. For one thing, logical positivism is self-defeating, as the verification principle itself cannot be scientifically tested, and so can be true only if it’s meaningless. Indeed, something like this problem haunts all unqualified forms of scientism. There is no scientific experiment we could do to prove that scientism is true; and hence if scientism is true, then its truth cannot be established.

It must have been disconcerting for logical positivists to realize that their own logic was illogical. That’s not exactly a positive contribution to philosophy. But does it take a philosopher to recognize this error? No. A common sense rancher home on the range can realize at a glance that a worker sawing off the limb he is sitting on is in for a rude awakening.

Consciously Undermining Consciousness

The first part of Goff’s essay debunking scientism is a welcome breath of fresh air from the stench of leftist propaganda permeating most articles at The Conversation (11 March 2024). That is, it was until Goff let out his own illogical fart.

How is it possible to find out about reality without doing science? The distinguishing feature of philosophical theories is that they are “empirically equivalent”, which means you can’t decide between them with an experiment.

Goff proceeds to describe three views of consciousness, which is within his own area of research. The three views are physicalism, panpsychism, and dualism.

  • Physicalism: “consciousness emerges from physical processes in the brain”
  • Panpsychism: “consciousness is primary, and the physical world emerges from consciousness” such that “consciousness goes all the way down to the fundamental building blocks of reality”
  • Dualism: “both consciousness and the physical world are fundamental but radically different”

Are these three views empirically equivalent? Goff alleges that they are. No experiment, he says, will dissuade a proponent of any one of these views that it is incorrect. The proponent will simply reinterpret the argument within his framework:

For example, suppose we discover scientifically that a certain form of brain activity is correlated with the conscious experience of an organism. The physicalist will interpret this as the form of organisation which turns non-conscious physical processes – such as electrical signals between brain cells – into conscious experience, whereas the panpsychist will interpret it as the form of organisation which unifies individual conscious particles into one larger conscious system. Thus we find two very different philosophical interpretations of the same scientific data.

Goff then alleges that dualism violates Ockham’s Razor because it is “less simple than its rivals in so far as it posits two kinds of fundamental stuff – physical stuff and consciousness” as opposed to the simpler views of physicalism (only matter exists) and panpsychism (only consciousness exists). This quality, Goff asserts, makes dualism less “elegant and simple” whereas the other views possess more “theoretical virtues” in their favor.

He does, however, argue that physicalism can be criticized as incoherent which, if true, is considered a theoretical vice by philosophers. With dualism rendered not simple, and physicalism rendered incoherent, this allows Goff to fave panpsychism. Strangely, he provides an embedded link to a review of his book Galileo’s Error in The Guardian, posted a few years ago, by a physicalist who is quite critical of Goff’s book. We will see in a moment whether both views stab each other in a deadly embrace.

Before ending his article, Goff appeals to underdetermination without using that word: the realization that there may be many more rival theories than we know that are equally coherent and simple. “Philosophy can be frustrating because there is so much disagreement,” he says. “However, this is also true in many areas of science, such as history or economics.” His point is that frustration should not deter us from the pursuit of truth.

But is consensus a guide? He appeals to a “moderate consensus” on the topic of free will (which is good, because without free will his own writing becomes incoherent and self-refuting—forces outside his consciousness determine his beliefs). If Goff did not write his essay freely, he doesn’t even believe anything he wrote, because belief presupposes the ability to evaluate and choose between valid arguments. As for consensus, Michael Crichton reminded Caltech students, “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. ” So let us agree that free will is a requirement for any view to be debated, and let us dispense with consensus as a guide.

And now, a word from Goff’s sponsor, the climate change consensus campaign against science deniers:

A tendency to mix up philosophy with a growing anti-science movement undermines the united front against the real and harmful opposition to science we find in climate change denial and anti-vax conspiracies.

Goff knows what side his bread is buttered on. We won’t bother to ask him if panpsychism is a conspiracy to undermine science, because we have a sounder criticism to make, coming up. But first, notice how Goff agrees with many theists that philosophy is inescapable. “Like it or not, we can’t avoid philosophy,” he says. “When we try to do so, all that happens is we end up with bad philosophy.” But does it take an expert within academia to do good philosophy or recognize bad philosophy?

If I wrote a book making controversial pronouncements on particle physics, it’d be rightly ridiculed, as I haven’t been trained in the relevant skills, haven’t read the literature, and haven’t had my views in this area subject to peer scrutiny. And yet there are many examples of scientists lacking any philosophical training publishing very poor books on philosophical topics without it impacting their credibility.

This analogy does not hold. Yes, particle physics requires education into the terminology and concepts foreign to common folks. But common sense does not. Much of philosophy involves elaboration of common sense, such as ‘What is meant by evidence?’ or ‘What is meant by explanation?’ or ‘what is the nature of virtue?’. Socrates’ ability to expose misunderstandings in common-sense topics like this was legendary, and still today, clear thinking is available to anyone who is conscious and observant, like the rancher watching the guy sawing off the limb he was sitting on.

The Goff Goof

Previously we identified the “Guth Goof” when Alan Guth proposed inflation as a solution to the horizon problem in cosmology. It turned out his solution was worse than the problem. Now, a goof is made by our otherwise agreeable anti-scientism philosopher Phillip Goff. Try your hand at identifying it, then scroll down to see our argument.

[Selah: pause and ponder]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, we can rule out physicalism. As C.S. Lewis and others have noted, if our thoughts are mere secretions of the brain or epiphenomena of mindless forces, then we have no assurance that any of our beliefs are true (the argument from reason). Physicalism cannot survive itself, Nancy Pearcey explained (Evolution News). Thus, physicalism refutes its own truth claims. So we agree with Goff that physicalism is incoherent, but we can make a stronger case that it is necessarily false. Arguing for physicalism refutes physicalism! Why? Because the attempt to defend it requires appeals to non-evolving logical and moral concepts which are non-physical (i.e., truth exists and seeking truth is virtuous).

Notice that this is not mere presuppositionalism, which some caricature as ‘assuming your belief and then claiming you won the debate’ which would be circular reasoning. Instead, it is a refutation of an illogical position. Logic is the starting point of all debate. Without it, one can ‘prove’ anything, even opposite things, and therefore prove nothing. Physicalism plagiarizes theistic concepts of eternal truth, eternal virtue, and the ability of conscious minds to access truth and virtue with free will. Whether our access is perfect or not is beside the point. Truth and virtue are preconditions of argument, like pole stars used as guides by sailors. The sailors may misread or violate the guide stars, but they cannot deny their existence and get anywhere. Physicalism therefore saws off the limb it sits on.

Second, we can ask if these considerations also apply to panpsychism. Does Goff’s view appeal to non-evolving logic and virtue? It’s hard to see how it could. Panpsychists are usually Darwinians who, like physicalists, invoke evolution everywhere in the universe. They cannot simply displace the reliability of our thinking to particles of consciousness that they believe constitute reality. Are these particles of consciousness mental? Do they think? Do they employ logic? No; panpsychists redefine atoms as indivisible bits of mindless consciousness. What mindless force, though, could make the particles evolve into a being who can use coherent logical arguments to prove a point? Panpsychism assumes what it needs to prove. It is no different in essence from physicalism, except that it redefines atoms as bits of consciousness. Atoms of consciousness have no obligation to be logical.

Dualism, therefore, is a necessary precondition for rationality. It cannot be dismissed with Ockham’s Razor, or criticized as less elegant, or more simple. This C.S. Lewis quote bears repeating:

The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and that therefore something other than Nature exists. The Supernatural is not remote and abstruse: it is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.

The Goff Goof now becomes obvious. By writing as if he had free will, and arguing as if truth and virtue are real and accessible, he sawed off the limb on which he was sitting if he thought he was getting rid of dualism. Once again the import of Paul’s treatise in Romans 1 is illustrated: the attributes of God are self-evident in the things that are made, and by denying what men know in their hearts, “professing to be wise, they became fools.”

For more on Goff’s panpsychism, see comments by Denyse O’Leary (2021) and Eric Hedin at Evolution News. Hedin notices a reversion to pagan idolatry in panpsychism.

Recommended Resource: Being as Communion, by William Dembski. This book presents information as the fundamental reality of the physical universe, extending George Berkeley’s often-misunderstood philosophy of idealism with modern concepts of information theory. In this view, information is basic, and atoms are manifestations of information. It’s a theistic/dualistic perspective because the communication of information requires a source in the mind of God.

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