Why Materialism is Baloney is an original and engaging work. Bernardo Kastrup neatly pokes glaring holes in the dominant scientific narrative of our age: materialism.
Below are some highlights.
There’s No Consciousness, Obviously
In the pursuit of an external truth, scientistic materialism has forgotten the internal, most fundamental reality of human existence: we can know nothing but that which appears in our own mind. Our mind is our reality and, when we attempt to reify either the subject or the object, we chase our own tail at light speed.
The ontological vertigo produced by this exercise has extended to the point where materialist philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, Owen Flannigan, and Pamela and Paul Churchland, tell us that consciousness itself does not exist. And, as if this were not enough, they utter this pronouncement with the smugness and self-assuredness of a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.
The influence of materialism
No society on Earth has a single worldview coordinating the lives of all its citizens, though many a dictator would like just that. Western societies, for instance, host myriad contradictory world-views: religious fundamentalism, material consumerism, showbiz hysteria, political activism, spirituality and New Age, scientism, militant skepticism and so on. Each of these general amalgamations of ideas and beliefs entails a particular way to relate to oneself and to reality at large. Their mutual contradictoriness leads to all kinds of cultural conflicts that, ironically, help sustain and vitalize each faction by providing them with reasons to close ranks.
For instance, from my own personal perspective, little did more to help galvanize religious fundamentalism than militant atheism, and vice-versa. And all these different factions operate simultaneously in our society.
Materialism subtly pervades our expectations, value systems, goals, and nearly every aspect of our lives. Take, for instance, people who consider themselves deeply religious, holding beliefs about the immortality of the soul and the reality of heaven: they, too, often fear and resist death as if, deep inside, they actually believed that it represented oblivion.
Fear of death can be seen as a genetic inheritance.
There is, of course, some validity to this. However, ethnography shows us that truly internalized belief systems can supplant this programming. Take, for instance, the Zuruahã tribe in the Brazilian Amazon: their worldview entails the belief that the soul (‘asoma’) reunites with lost relatives after physical death. This belief is so deeply internalized that, in the period between 1980 and 1995, 84.4% of all deaths among adults — defined as people over 12 years old — in their society was caused by suicide.
As a result, a population known for excellent health and very few diseases has an average life expectancy of only 35 years. Be it as it may, when looked at coldly, the case of the Zuruahã is dramatically illustrative of the point I am trying to make: unlike modern Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., the Zuruahã have never been exposed to an overwhelmingly materialist culture, which explains their ability to deeply internalize the alternative cultural notion that death is but a transition. The example of the Zuruahã, as well as others, shows clearly that the way human beings relate to death is indeed largely a question of worldview, not only of genes.
Either way, materialism influences our ‘subconscious’ reactions, attitudes, and values in many other aspects of life as well, not only our beliefs regarding the after-death state. For instance, the implications of materialism lie directly behind the Western love affair with things. It is our often-’subconscious’ belief that only matter truly exists that drives our urge to achieve material success.
After all, if there is only matter, what other goal can there conceivably be in life other than the accumulation of material goods? And this belief is highly symbiotic with our economic system, for it is the drive towards material success that motivates key people to work long hours, often having to tolerate unpleasant circumstances, in order to improve their status and financial condition well beyond otherwise acceptable levels. It is also this belief that motivates people to spend their hard-earned income on unnecessary goods and premature upgrades. The materialist worldview has caused many of us to project numinous value and meaning onto things.
The role of the intellectual elite
The power of the core materialist worldview comes from its adoption by intellectual elites and its amplification by the mainstream media. Social validation is often crucial to our ability to truly hold onto a belief system, both consciously and ‘subconsciously.’ And no form of social validation is stronger than the validation provided by the segment of society that has become perceived as the learned elite.
The reason for this is simple: our progress in understanding the complexities of nature is now so great, entailing such proliferation of evidence and details, that it has become completely impossible for any single person to study and evaluate all the relevant evidence on her own. We fundamentally depend on a collective, distributed effort to develop a critical opinion regarding what is going on. We need to share the task of studying and evaluating the relevant evidence. We have become dependent on others in the process of converging to a personal worldview. Intellectual specialization and a certain form of narrow-mindedness have become the norm in our epistemology in a way analogous to how the division of labor became the norm during the Industrial revolution. In this sense, trust is now a crucial ingredient of the whole process, since we must be able to trust the conclusions of others in order to put together the whole jigsaw puzzle. And it is in this regard — trust — that the intellectual elite holds the cards, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.
If we cannot trust the recognized specialists in different domains, who can we trust? The problem is that the specialists in the intellectual elite — in our age, mostly scientists — are people like you and me. They, too, need the validation of a group to develop and hold onto a worldview.
No specialist can hold the whole jigsaw puzzle in his mind so they, too, lack the all-important overview. But instead of receiving collective validation from the outside, the validation emerges organically and iteratively from within the group of specialists itself. This process is only partially guided by evidence, and largely by psychosocial dynamics, as Thomas Kuhn cogently showed.
Each person plays the dual role of, on the one hand, contributing personal insights to the emerging consensus and, on the other hand, calibrating her own opinions based on the validation (or lack thereof) she gets from the emerging consensus.
Once the system has evolved to a point where a strong consensus has emerged, and all serious dissenting views have been purged, most members of the intellectual elite begin to see it as their job to reinforce and promote this reigning consensus. Individuals who attempt to question the consensus at this stage become traitors primed for debunking, for their efforts, if successful, could deprive everyone of the collective validation they need to ground their intellectual and emotional lives. Nobody fancies falling back into the dark abyss of intellectual chaos and uncertainty that, according to our modern account of history, characterized the pre-Enlightenment years.
The scientific method allows us to study and model the observable patterns and regularities of nature…But our ability to model the patterns and regularities of reality tells us little about the underlying nature of things.
Scientific modeling is useful for informing us how one thing or phenomenon relates to another thing or phenomenon — this being precisely what mathematical equations do — but it cannot tell us what these things or phenomena fundamentally are in and by themselves. The reason is simple: science can only explain one thing in terms of another thing; it can only explicate and characterize a certain phenomenon in terms of its relative differences with respect to another phenomenon. For instance, it only makes sense to characterize a positive electric charge relative to a negative electric charge; positive charges are defined in terms of their differences of behavior when compared to the behavior of negative charges, and the other way around.
Capturing the observable patterns and regularities of the elements of reality, relative to each other, is an empirical and scientific question. But pondering about the fundamental nature of these elements is not; it is a philosophical question. The problem is that, in recent decades, scientists who have little or no understanding of philosophy have begun to believe that science alone can replace philosophy.
This dangerous combination of ignorance and hubris has done our culture an enormous disservice, which was exacerbated by the fact that scientists are over-represented in our society’s acknowledged intellectual elite, to the detriment of artists, poets, psychologists, philosophers, etc.
We, as a society, are guilty, by ignorance or omission, of allowing science to outreach its boundaries on the basis of the equivocated assumption that technological prowess is proof.
Playing a computer game only requires an ability to understand and predict how the elements of the game behave relative to one another: if your character shoots that spot, it scores points; if your character touches that wall, it dies; etc. It requires no understanding whatsoever of the underlying machine and code upon which the game runs of some deep scientific understanding of the underlying nature of reality. Let us put this in context with an analogy: one needs to know nothing about computer architecture or software in order to play a computer game well and even win; just watch a five-year-old kid.
You can be a champion player without having a clue about Central Processing Units (CPU), Random-Access Memories (RAM), Universal Serial Buses (USB), or any of the esoteric computer engineering that makes the game possible.
All this engineering transcends the ‘reality’ accessible empirically from within the game. Yet, the scientific method limits itself to what is empirically and ordinarily observed from within the ‘game’ of reality. Scientific modeling requires little or no understanding of the underlying nature of reality in exactly the same way that a gamer needs little or no understanding of the computer’s underlying architecture in order to win the game. It only requires an understanding of how the elements of the ‘game,’ accessed empirically from within the ‘game’ itself, unfold relative to one another.
On the other hand, to infer things about what underlies the ‘game’ — in other words, to construct a metaphysics about the fundamental nature of reality — demands more than the empirical methods of science. Indeed, it demands a kind of disciplined introspection that critically assesses not only the elements observed, but also the observer, the process of observation, and the interplay between the three in a holistic manner; an introspection that, as such, seeks to see through the ‘game.’ The construction of a metaphysics demands, thus, the methods of philosophy
Our culture has become so blindly enamored with technology that we allowed science, on the basis of a misunderstanding, to be over-represented in our intellectual elite.
The basics of materialism
The most basic assertion of materialism is that reality is, well, exclusively material. Materialism asserts that reality exists outside your mind in the form of assemblies of material particles occupying the framework of space-time.
Even energy fields are imagined, in current physics, to be force-carrying material particles. The existence of this material reality is supposed to be completely independent of your, or anyone else’s, subjective perception of it. Thus, even if there were no conscious beings observing reality, it would supposedly still go merrily on: the planets would still orbit the sun, the continents would still drift, volcanoes would still erupt, crystals would still form in the bowels of the Earth and so on.
That there is such a thing as consciousness is, according to materialism, a product of chance configurations of matter, driven mechanically by the pressures of natural selection. We are supposedly an accident of probabilities, there being nothing more to a human being than an arrangement of material particles — maintained rather precariously out of thermodynamic equilibrium through metabolism — which will eventually lose its integrity and dissipate into a gooey entropic soup.
When you die, materialism states that your consciousness and everything it means to be you — your memories, your personality, your experiences, everything — will be lost. There is little, if any, room for meaning or purpose under a materialist worldview.
Consciousness as a phenomenon is produced, and entirely explainable, by the assembly of material particles that we call a brain. There is supposedly nothing to consciousness but the movements and interactions of material particles inside a brain, so that consciousness is material brain processes at work. How the mechanical movements of particles are accompanied by inner life is a question left unanswered by materialism. After all, just like in the case of computers, all the ‘calculations’ taking place inside our brains could, in principle, just happen ‘in the dark,’ completely unaccompanied by inner experience. This question is known as the ‘hard problem of consciousness,’10 or the ‘explanatory gap.’
In its 125th anniversary edition, Science magazine listed the ‘hard problem’ as the second most important unanswered question in science. It should have been the first.
In principle, there is nothing mysterious about the emergence of higher-level properties as systems become more and more complex. For instance, beautiful and highly complex sand ripples emerge in dunes when there are enough grains of sand and wind. So why can’t consciousness emerge when there are enough subatomic particles arranged together in specific ways?
The problem here is that, unless one is prepared to accept magic, the emergent properties of a complex system must be deducible from the properties of the lower-level components of the system. For instance, we can deduce — and even predict — the shape of sand ripples from the properties of grains of sand and wind.
We can put it all in a computer program and watch simulated sand ripples form in the computer screen that look exactly like the real thing. But when it comes to consciousness, nothing allows us to deduce the properties of subjective experience — the redness of red, the bitterness of regret, the warmth of fire — from the mass, momentum, spin, charge, or any other property of subatomic particles bouncing around in the brain. This is the hard problem of consciousness.
As a matter of fact, consciousness is a sore on the foot of materialism. The materialist understanding of the world would seem a lot more solid if there were no such a thing as subjective experience at all. It is conceivable — though not necessarily possible — that science could eventually explain all structure, function, and behavior of a human being on the basis of the positions and movements of the subatomic particles composing the human body. But how and why that structure, function, and behavior are accompanied by inner experience is deeply problematic for materialism.
Your personal computer also has structure, function, and behavior. However, its internal calculations do not seem to be accompanied by any inner experience at all, otherwise we would need to think twice before turning our computers off. From a materialist perspective, the case of the computer makes perfect sense. But a human being whose internal ‘calculations’ are accompanied by inner experience is an uncomfortable anomaly.
Consciousness clearly is a problem for materialists, some of whom resort to ludicrous attempts to even deny its very existence! Here is what materialist philosopher Galen Strawson wrote about this denial: “I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy.”
As a materialist, at the very moment he acknowledged the existence of consciousness Strawson had to confront the ‘hard problem.’ To do so, he proposed what seems to me to be a logical implication of materialism: panpsychism.18 Panpsychism is the notion that all matter is conscious, even though the intensity or quality of consciousness may depend on the particular arrangement of matter at hand. This way, as philosopher David Chalmers pointed out, the implication is that your home thermostat must be conscious; it must experience every single time it turns the heating system on or off.
If you play the piano, beware: the piano must be conscious of every keystroke you perform. Every electric appliance you own, from your home computer to the vacuum cleaner, is also supposedly conscious under panpsychism. As a matter of fact, all matter, dead or alive, and every combination thereof in the form of sub-systems, systems, and meta-systems, is supposedly conscious.
Under materialism, if you cannot explain consciousness in terms of emerging dynamics of unconscious subatomic particles, you must then postulate that consciousness is itself a fundamental property — like electric charge, mass or spin — of all particles.
So you must believe that all arrangements of matter — from single subatomic particles, to windmills, to electronic devices — are conscious in different degrees.
This is another ‘hidden’ implication of materialism that most people are not aware of, and it entails an unfathomable explosion of conscious entities in nature. The problem with panpsychism is, of course, that there is precisely zero evidence that any inanimate object is conscious. To resolve an abstract, theoretical problem of the materialist metaphysics one is forced to project onto the whole of nature a property — namely, consciousness — which observation only allows to be inferred for a tiny subset of it — namely, living beings. This is, in a way, an attempt to make nature conform to theory, as opposed to making theory conform to nature.
And here is where Strawson should have heeded his own advice: “ We should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at …the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith.”