Is materialistic reductionism self refuting?

In his book “Is Religion Dangerous?” Keith Ward makes the statement:

“The only reasonable beliefs are those that can be confirmed by the methods of science, by public observation, measurement, and experiment is self-​​refuting.”

Materialism, he says, is “entirely dissolved by quantum physics”, and “consciousness resists translation into purely physical terms”.

“If truth, beauty, and goodness are things that really exist, then materialism will not match our experience at all.”

Similarly, the English philosopher Mary Midgley argues there are many windows through which we can view reality, with empiricism being only one.

“We need scientific pluralism; the recognition that there are many independent forms and sources of knowledge, rather than reductivism — the conviction that one fundamental form underlies them all and settles everything.”

Mary writes that it is helpful to think of the world as:

“… a huge aquarium. We cannot see the whole from above, so we peer in through a number of small windows, each with its particular and unique perspective. We can make sense of this habitat if we observe for long enough and patiently assemble the data from these competing viewpoints. However, if we insist that our own window is the only one worth looking through, we shall not get very far.”

Are revelation, the transcendental, and empirical materialism really equal paths to truth?

While I agree with Mary’s premise of a single shared reality, a reasonable measure of a viewpoint’s accuracy is the predictive powers and utility it wields on this reality. So far, empirical science beats everything else hands down. But according to both Keith and Mary, the idea that “nothing exists except matter” is self-​​refuting because if it were true neither it, nor any other idea, would actually exist.

Behind each of these notions is the premise that ideas, thought, and conciseness itself simply cannot be fully explained by purely materialistic means. There must be some additional realm of existence in which our minds (or spirits) reside — one which interacts with our physical being, but is nonetheless separate and distinct. This is supported by Keith’s commentary:

“There is no spiritual dimension to reality. To make matters worse, thinkers like Richard Dawkins hold that religious views are based on ‘blind faith’. Looking around my philosopher colleagues in Britain I would say that very few of them are materialists.”

Identity theorists such as J. J. C. Smart, Ullin Place, and E. G. Boring claim ideas exist materially as patterns of neural structure and activity. They challenged the dominant theories of their time (behaviourism and dualism) by arguing consciousness was nothing more than brain processing. This view is now known as “The Identity Theory of Mind” or “Australian Materialism”.

Interestingly, Ullin Place donated his brain the to the Adelaide University where it is on display with the words:

“Did this brain contain the consciousness of U.T. Place?”

While it may be true to say that matter itself does not have a property called “consciousness”, it is an error to extrapolate this observational fact of constituents toward the whole. No amount of scientific inquiry into flour, butter, sugar, or eggs will lead to a cake. There is no property of flour called “cakiness”. However, this does not prevent a cake from emerging from the combined properties of its ingredients. In a similar manner, consciousness is a emergent function of brain structure, composition, and chemistry. This form of materialism does not eliminate the mental, it encompasses it as an emergent (and entirely physical) property of a physical brain.

Consider the computer you are using at this moment. While images and words flick across the screen these do not actually exist in the computer as identifiable entities. Each image, word, and sound is stored, processed, and transmitted as pits on the surface of a DVD, as changes in magnetic polarisation on a hard drive platter, as electrical signals in microchips or network cables, or the glowing pixels of your monitor. At no stage are the images, words, or sounds within the computer separated from the physical, they remain encoded within the physical at every step.

The language we use to describe this reality somewhat obfuscates the truth. We tend to think of software running ON the computer, but the fact is software is part of the computer. It forms a aspect of the computer’s physical construction, whether it’s on a USB stick, hard drive, within the memory banks awaiting processing by the CPU, or as an electrical signal on a wire — the software physically exists within the computer.

In much the same manner (albeit in a biological sense) the human brain consists of trillions of interconnected neurones which pass chemical and electrical signals to each others, producing a symphony consciousness and subconsciousness activity. Consciousness is the software of the brain — not separate from the brain, but an emergent property from the culmination of these trillions of neural interactions.

It can be difficult to think of ourselves in this manner as we seem to experience ourselves as somehow separate from our body. Our experience of existence seems to originate somewhere above our neck, behind our eyes, and between our ears — does anyone find this purely coincidental?. We often don’t stop to consider we are looking out at the world through physical senses and processing the information with physical brains. The temptation toward the Cartesian theatre is strong.

Dualists would have you believe this sensation is due to the “mind”, “soul”, or “spirit” within — the ghost in the machine. However, given what we know about human physiology and neurology, this does not seem to be the case. Alcohol, drugs, injuries, and even deliberate surgery can alter the character and behaviour of individuals. We now know enough about biology and biochemistry to explain exactly how these substances and processes affect our brains. Recent experiments with with magnets (how do they work?) can induce strong spiritual feelings — the so called “god helmet”. Every advance in modern science is tearing down the artificial walls between neurology, psychiatry, and the spiritual.

It’s not that ideas, concepts, consciousness, truth, beauty, and goodness do not exist. They do, but as complex patterns of structure and neuro-​​chemical interactions within entirely physical and highly complex brains. I find this explanation far more wondrous and exhilarating than a simple “mind” or “soul”.

The ghost in the machine is not only dead — it never existed in the first place.

Further Reading