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Andy Ferguson Denudes Daniel Dennett

And not just the famous atheist Daniel Dennett, but all the clever-clever people who suppose science somehow proves the non-existence of free will, good, evil, and–yes–God.

In the cover story of the current Weekly Standard, Andy describes the controversy surrounding philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  Like no one else I know, Andy is capable of writing about complicated concepts clearly, engrossingly, and–really, no one else even attempts this–humorously.  And along the way, Andy draws a few conclusions of his own.  

“[M]aterialism,” Andy writes, is

the view that only matter exists…the view that all life, from tables to daydreams, is ultimately reducible to pure physics…the view that every phenomenon, including our own actions, is determined by a preexisting cause, which was itself determined by another cause, and so on back to the Big Bang.

Scientists such as Daniel Dennett, Andy continues, have elevated materialism to the level of a grand over-arching explanation of all existence–and the new atheists, including the late Christopher Hitchens, have likewise championed the materialist view, insisting–insisting!–that  the view is superior to other explanations of existence because, unlike religion, materialism is so very scientific.

Andy then points out a logical flaw in the materialist world-view–and does so concisely and devastatingly:

Materialism…is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations. And the materialist assumption works really, really well—in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jawdropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result….

But the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial “manifest image” of our mental life is proved to be an illusion….

But this is a fatal weakness for a theory that aspires to be a comprehensive picture of the world. With magnetic resonance imaging, science can tell us which parts of my brain light up when, for example, I glimpse my daughter’s face in a crowd; the bouncing neurons can be observed and measured. Science cannot quantify or describe the feelings I experience when I see my daughter. Yet the feelings are no less real than the neurons.

imgres.jpgThe point sounds more sentimental than it is. My bouncing neurons and my feelings of love and obligation are unquestionably bound together. But the difference between the neurons and the feelings, the material and the mental, is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind. And of the two, reductive materialism can capture only one.

Materialism is a premise of science, not a finding.

With one sentence, Andy strips Daniel Dennett and his fellow materialists of everything but their hubris.

Brilliant prose, beautiful close reasoning, and an utterly fearless insistence on the truth.  All by himself, Andy Ferguson is enough to restore a man’s faith in journalism.

  1. Crow

    I was bemused, reading Andy’s piece, to find the following gem:

    One notable division did arise among the participants, however. Some of the biologists thought the materialist view of the world should be taught and explained to the wider public in its true, high-octane, Crickian form. Then common, nonintellectual people might see that a purely random universe without purpose or free will or spiritual life of any kind isn’t as bad as some superstitious people—religious people—have led them to believe.

    Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes.

     

  2. Crow

    Now, there is a difficulty here for Dennet. Let us suppose that all of these premises and findings are in fact true (we, for our own part, rather think that whatever the chemical origin of the feeling of wonder and reverence, such a clustering of neurons does not yet quite explain the ‘evolutionary necessity’ of Bach’s Mass in B minor, but be_that_as_it_may), his behavior toward Nagel is nonsensical.

    If Dennet understands that the moral consequences of publicly teaching reductionist materialism would lead to societal chaos–to take one example which is more than a simple example, that sons would defraud their creditors and beat their fathers, leading to the fathers burning down scientific academies (see Aristophanes’ Clouds)–then one ought to conclude, as Dennet does, that we ought to either hide the truth or preach a noble lie.

    But since modern science requires orientation in thinking, that is a peer review process conducted in public, hiding the trutht is not an option. Funding must come from somewhere, in addition, and funders will want to know what their money has bought. So, like Dennet, the only logically valid conclusion here would be the necessity to preach a noble lie.

     (cont)

  3. Crow

    (cont)

    Now, what would a noble lie have to look like in order to be fully consonant with the procedural mechanisms of science that allow peer review of ugly truths–again, Dennet’s implicit assumption–in public be?

    One gets the sense that it would look an awful lot like the argument put forth in Nagel’s book.

    The point here is not that I think Nagel is somehow crafting a noble lie–far from it, I think he, like many of us, has realized that scientific reductionism and logical positivism are immensely flawed and based on that finding after a lfietime is providing for us his honest interpretation.

    But the point is that if Dennet was capable of thinking a few steps further down exactly the same trajectory his own thought has so far carried him–if he truly had intellectual daring and probity and the prudence he claims for himself, rather than some simple-minded half-wrought images of them–he would necessarily conclude that he ought to be a friend, not an enemy, to Nagel–and to do so on the basis of his own premises and the logic of his own argument.

  4. A Beleaguered Conservative
    Crow’s Nest: I was bemused, reading Andy’s piece, to find the following gem:

     

    What a gem indeed! Dennett wants to adopt an esoteric teaching!  What is so amusing is the total lack of self-knowledge of Dennett and his ilk.  The pre-Socratics, who were also materialists, at least recognized that if man were nothing but a constellation of particles in motion, there was no reason to care about man and civilization.  Dennett is devoted to what deep in his bones he regards as a moral cause — the cause of naturalism.   According to materialism, however, there is no such thing as morality.  Further,  there is no reason to be concerned about the fate of civilization.   It might be desirable to exploit civilization (as some pre-Socratics taught), but there is no reason to bother yourself about it otherwise.  Civilization is simply an artificial collection of “jumped-up monkeys.”   The modern materialists are foolish children who have no passion to understand themselves and therefore fail to recognize that their view of the universe leads straight to the abyss.  The abyss might be real, but Dennett’s inability to face it is almost comical.      

  5. Mafuta Kizola

    I am going to shut up, buy the book, think about it and maybe in 20 years I will comment.

     Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False is going to join David Berlinsk Devil’s delusion in my collection of books that I must not read lightly. Ricochet should provide us with a Books subsidy, at this rate I am going bankrupt. ;)

    I understand people’s impulse to discuss the subject in the comments, but lets be honest, if you have not read the book it is a bit over your heads to criticize or concur with its ideas here.

  6. MMPadre

    Ricochet members might also want to check out related books by Berlinski pere, such as The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions or Black Mischief: Language, Life, Logic, Luck.  

  7. dash

    I could follow Daniel Dennet for 50 years, noting his fluctuations in mass, how his organism reacts to the environment, how it changes with the passing of time and never know the man until he expresses to me his thoughts, insights and emotions–which are mass-less and timeless. And yet for as long as there are Men on earth his words (immaterial and eternal– independent of time and without mass) will provoke reactions in the physical realm: a spike of bile, a rise in stomach acid, the involuntary twitching of neck muscles causing the head to shake…

    Moses’ words still inspire after 3500 years, Homer still enthralls but where are the molecules that formed the neurons that fired and the the tongues that moved? Scattered among the dust of the earth. But their words endure as if they stood among us today.

  8. Daniel Jeyn

    I’m an atheist of sorts who has never been satisfied with materialism.  

    On one level, yes, I believe we are a temporary bit of star dust that has achieved self consciousness.  

    But I’m not claiming that consciousness is not part of something more infinite that stretches to the Prime Motivator of the universe.  I don’t expect that the physical laws of this universe are broached, nor to find the Creator address me in my form speaking English.  But I’m not “anti-religious” because of the simple fact that it clearly speaks to something innate in humans as much as any individual cell.

    I say this because I don’t like to see atheists dismissed so condescendingly as they are in here.  I find the “moist robot” hypothesis comes more from the more diligent IDers who insist we were “designed” by a human-like mind much as a piece of clockwork is.  Tosh.  Those of us who study the natural world find it quite full of wonder as it is. And while I disagree on the “how,” I do not try and impeach the deeper question of “why?”

  9. Aurelius

    To be fair, Dennett has essays answering argument’s about qualia (the subjective part of experience to which Andy Ferguson appeals). Ferguson may be correct, but he is merely restating argument that a number of analytic philosophers have made against “eliminative materialists” such as Dennett. The wikipedia articles on eliminative materialism and qualia are good introductions to Dennett’s side of the argument.

  10. Peter Robinson
    C
    Scott Reusser: 

    Re materialism as a catch-all explanation: A preexisting cause of the Big Bang remains the mother of all loose ends.   · 10 hours ago

    Beautiful!  Had never thought of it quite that way, but the moment you state the problem, Scott, it’s obvious.

    And then of course there’s Darwin:  Evolution presupposes the existence of life–that is, there must be some form of life in the first place for species to evolve from.  But if evolution accounts for the origin of species, what accounts for the origin of that first life?  Another large-ish loose end, no?

  11. Adam Koslin

    “But the difference between the neurons and the feelings, the material and the mental, is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind.”

    Really?  If we can replicate a state of matter that, in each subject, causes an identical feeling, can’t we then say that the state of matter and the feeling are one and the same?

  12. Group Captain Mandrake
    Peter Robinson

    But if evolution accounts for the origin of species, what accounts for the origin of that first life?  Another large-ish loose end, no? · 31 minutes ago

    This is the problem of abiogenesis and it appears in the writings of Coyne, Dawkins and sundry other evolutionary biologists.  Hypotheses have been put forward to explain it, my favourite being Graham Cairns-Smith’s inorganic crystal replicator idea.  It doesn’t weaken the theory of evolution.

  13. Jeff

    I read Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos three weeks ago. I liked it. Nagel’s thinking was “stimulated by [unfair] criticisms” of scientists and mathematicians who defend intelligent design.

    Those who have seriously criticized these [intelligent design] arguments have certainly shown that there are ways to resist the design conclusion; but the general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position - skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given available evidence – does not appear to me to have been destroyed in these exchanges. At least the question should be regarded as open. [...] Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine – that the appearance of lofe from dead matter and its evolutions through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law – cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-formed scientific hypothesis.

    I very much enjoyed Nagel’s The View from Nowhere. It develops his ideas about consciousness in a much deeper way than Mind and Cosmos.

    Both would be good reading for Ricochet readers.

  14. Group Captain Mandrake
    Aurelius: To be fair, Dennett has essays answering argument’s about qualia (the subjective part of experience to which Andy Ferguson appeals). Ferguson may be correct, but he is merely restating argument that a number of analytic philosophers have made against “eliminative materialists” such as Dennett. The wikipedia articles on eliminative materialism and qualia are good introductions to Dennett’s side of the argument. · 1 hour ago

    I would strongly recommend a recent book (which I think was originally a Ph.D thesis) of Maarten Boudry which goes into great details about  provisional methodological naturalism and what it really is (there’s plenty about naturalism, materialism and reductionism).  You can find his book here

    Also, all the discussions that took place at the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop referenced by Andrew Ferguson are available at this site.  I have not yet watched them, but the comments in Andrew Ferguson’s article have motivated me to do so.

  15. David Williamson
    Peter Robinson

     ”[M]aterialism,” Andy writes, is

    the view that only matter exists…the view that all life, from tables to daydreams, is ultimately reducible to pure physics…the view that every phenomenon, including our own actions, is determined by a preexisting cause, which was itself determined by another cause, and so on back to the Big Bang.

    Physicists have no idea about matter – the Higgs boson raises more questions than it answers. Not to mention dark matter or dark energy, which (maybe) make up most of the Universe, and of which we know almost nothing.

    Spirituality (not Religion) is closest to the truth, until Physics finds its Grand Unified Theory (don’t hold your breath).

  16. Matthew Bartle

    Meh. As has been pointed out, discussions of qualia have been going on for some time. And “what happened before the big bang?” is not exactly a new challenge, nor is “how did life start?” It’s not like materialists have been ducking these questions. although obviously some find the hypotheses advanced so far to be unsatisfactory.

    There’s a principle to be wary of “explaining the obscure with the more obscure.” So to answer “why does blue look blue” with “because we have immortal souls and there’s a God who crested the universe” doesn’t really move the discussion forward.

  17. Sabrdance
    Taliesin: “But the difference between the neurons and the feelings, the material and the mental, is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind.”

    Really?  If we can replicate a state of matter that, in each subject, causes an identical feeling, can’t we then say that the state of matter and the feeling are one and the same? · 23 minutes ago

    Only by being reductive, which is the point.  Matter in Motion is not thought or feeling.  Both are immaterial and non-tangible.  You may deny the existence of immaterial things -but to do so assumes the premise.  You may claim that immaterial things are real, but they have material causes -but this is an interpretation, not a finding.

    It reminds me of a college class on Logical Positivism: nothing is true except that which is directly observable, or logically derived from direct observation.  Which sounds quite logical until you realize that it can neither be directly observed, nor logically derived from direct observation.

    Materialism sounds quite plausible until someone asks “what is the materialism particle?”  If the idea itself cannot be matter in motion, then the question is not does the theory have limits, but where are the limits.

  18. Mantis9

    The problem of scientific positivism, materialism, and naturalism are they are effective philosophies as long as the foundationala priori knowledge of our conscious mental states accurately reflect reality around us. This correlation between perception and reality is not likely based on these philosophies and they lack they intellectual tools to investigate this area of deficiency.

  19. Scott R

    “ Like no one else I know, Andy is capable of writing about complicated concepts clearly, engrossingly, and–really, no one else even attempts this–humorously.”

    Would have to stick P.J. O’Rourke in that category too — though he’s maybe not as varied as Ferguson. (Are they friends, I wonder?)

    Re materialism as a catch-all explanation: A preexisting cause of the Big Bang remains the mother of all loose ends.  

  20. Group Captain Mandrake
    Mantis9: they are effective philosophies as long as the foundational a priori knowledge of our conscious mental states accurately reflect reality around us.

    What happens if they don’t accurately reflect reality?

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