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Materialism of the Gaps

I must say that I’ve never understood the rhetorical force of the ‘God of the Gaps’ argument. The God of the Gaps sneer is invoked to imply the inexorability of materialism as a complete explanation in natural science. Any critique of materialist dogma in science from a design or immaterial perspective is derided as a ‘God of the Gaps’ argument. But the real issue is the gaps, which are plentiful and very wide.

Dr. Novella is fond of the God of the Gaps sneer, in the form of “Dualism of the Gaps.” I have not met a materialist as supremely confident of the complete explanatory power of materialism as he is. It’s ironic, as Dr. Novella claims the appellation “skeptic,” yet he shows no skepticism for his own materialist dogma. Profound skepticism for the views of opponents, combined with complacent credulity for one’s own views, is the stuff of ideological advocacy, not skepticism.

Dr. Novella responded recently to my post in which I clarified my views on the mind-brain problem. He accuses me of using a ‘Dualism of the Gaps’ argument. I’ve merely pointed out that the salient characteristics of the mind, such as intentionality, qualia, free will, incorrigibility, restricted access, continuity of self through time, and unity of consciousness (the ‘binding problem’) seem to be impossible to explain materialistically. Materialistic explanations for subjective mental states are not impossible merely because we lack experiments or evidence. Materialistic explanations for the mind are impossible within the framework of materialism itself, because mental properties are not physical properties. Nothing about matter as understood in our current scientific paradigm invokes subjective mental experience. The essential qualities on the mind are immaterial. Invocation of immaterial causation that incorporates subjectivity seems necessary for a satisfactory explanation of the mind.

Dr. Novella argues:

My “dualism of the gaps” point, however, is that lack of complete knowledge does not justify inserting a magical answer. Our lack of complete knowledge about life does not justify inventing a vital life force to explain it, our incomplete knowledge of evolution does not justify inventing an intelligent designer who miracled life into existence, and our current state of neuroscience does not require inserting a non-corporeal mind separate from the brain.. Further – you cannot logically justify a positive claim based upon a lack of information. Where is the evidence for a vital force, or an intelligent designer, or the ghost in the machine? There isn’t any, such claims are based entirely on perceived gaps in knowledge.

But we don’t ‘lack knowledge’ about the mind. We have a rich knowledge of the mind. Much of philosophy, art, literature, psychology, politics, and history are essentially knowledge of the human mind. It’s fair to say that most of what mankind knows is knowledge about the mind. By any measure, we probably know much more about the mind than we do about the natural world.

And we certainly don’t ‘lack knowledge’ about the brain. We have made astonishing strides over the past century in understanding neuroscience, from the molecular level to the functioning of the nervous system as a whole. We can image the brain functionally in real time with considerable precision. We can record brain waves with relative ease from the whole brain, and we can do surgery that enables us to record electrical activity in regions of the brain a few cubic millimeters in volume. We know an enormous amount about the brain.

Yet we know nothing — nothing — about how subjective experience could arise from matter alone. We certainly know a lot about correlations. But about causation — how matter even could cause subjective mental states — we know nothing. We don’t even have a scientific paradigm by which we could even imagine what such an answer could be like. Subjective mental states share no properties whatsoever with matter. The ‘explanatory gap’ — our inability to explain the subjective in terms of the objective — is as wide as ever. It’s infinitely wide. We don’t even know where to begin to answer the question ‘how does subjectivity arise in association with matter’ from a materialistic standpoint.

Dr. Novella is wrong to attribute the inference to dualism to an argument from ignorance. The exact opposite is true. The reason that immaterial causation is invoked to explain the mind is because we know so much about the mind and about the brain, and it’s evident to most people (that is, people who aren’t dogmatic materialists) that the mind isn’t material. It isn’t an argument from ignorance. It’s an argument from deep knowledge — deep knowledge of the mind and of the brain. The invocation of immaterial causation for aspects of mental states is the result of our deep knowledge of the difference between mind and matter.

Perhaps it was more understandable several centuries ago for the philosophically naive to hold to a confident assurance that science would ultimately explain the mind purely in terms of the material brain. Neuroscience has rendered that view no longer tenable. The explanatory gap is real, and our evolving knowledge of neuroscience only makes the futility of materialist attempts to close the explanatory gap even more clear. This is not, pace Dr. Novella, infering a positive conclusion from negative evidence. This is coming to accept the obvious; neuroscience has failed to show how subjective experience arises from objective matter. In this, materialist neuorscientists are a bit late. Philosophers have pointed out the fundamentally different ontologies of mind and matter for several millenia, and it’s time for materialistic neuroscientists to admit the obvious. The inference to immaterial causation is an honest effort to address the questions inherent to the mind-brain problem.The inference to materialism is an effort to evade the questions; materialism is an effort to explain the gap away.

And Dr. Novella’s reference to “magic” is ironic. It is materialism that invokes “magic” in the mind-brain problem. Materialists insist that meaning and subjective experience arise spontaneously from amalgams of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, although a rigorous scientific description of brain physiology can be done without any reference to subjective experience. There’s no ‘science’ there; the inference to subjective experience is epiphenomenal on materialistic science, which inherently lacks reference to subjective states. By denying the real problems raised by the subjective nature of mental states, materialism invokes magical explanations for the mind. The materialist argument is essentially this: ‘materialism is the complete explanation for the mind, and if you ask questions, you’re a neuroscience denialist’.

Dr. Novella asserts:

…it is clearly established, in my opinion, that the brain causes mind. The gap in our knowledge is in how the brain causes mind. I am open to any hypothesis that is scientifically testable and is compatible with existing established scientific knowledge…To put it another way – Egnor would have you believe that any scientific hypothesis is the same as a “god of the gaps” argument, but they are not. A hypothesis is testable. A”god of the gaps” argument simply inserts a final and untestable answer into a current gap in our scientific knowledge.

Dr. Novella insists that the only question that remains is how the brain causes the mind. And he implicitly restricts the explanations to his dogmatic philosophical materialism, which he confuses with the scientific method, which is the method by which natural effects are studied. Yet natural effects in science need not have natural causes; Big Bang theory, which posits the creation of all matter and time ex-nihilo, explains material effects (matter, time, and natural laws) using an immaterial cause (creation ex-nihilo).

There is no philosophical, logical, or empirical basis to insist that materialism, or any monistic understanding of nature, is the necessary explanatory framework in natural science. Science is the inference to best explanation for the natural world, and, in keeping with contemporary evidence and scientific gestalt, materialism is no longer in ascendency in the scientific world. Its scientific heyday was in the 18thand 19th centuries, in which Laplace famously bragged that given all of the current physical information about the world he could know the future with certainty. In the 19th century, Darwin proposed to explain all of the complexity of life as a product of material chance and necessity. Yet the 20th century has not been kind to materialist complacency. Quantum mechanics, in many of its interpretations, invokes an observer in order to collapse a waveform. Relativistic cosmology invokes creation ex-nihilo and multiverses. The origin of life problem is essentially intractable, an inference that is supported, rather than weakened, by the panoply of wild guesses as to how it could have happened. Random genetic variation and ‘survival of survivors’ is grossly inadequate to explain the genetic code and intracellular molecular nanotechnology. The inference that brain matter entirely explains the immaterial aspects of mental states isn’t even logically coherent, let alone scientifically verified. The 20th century, materialist denial notwithstanding, has been a catastrophe for strict materialism.

It’s mere dogma on Dr. Novella’s part– and historically ignorant dogma, at that– to assert that materialism explains everything, and to insist that we just wait patiently for the next materialistic revelation.

Materialism explains what it can. As a method — the invocation of material and efficient causatio n– it has been quite successful, particularly in classical physics and chemistry as they were developed in the 18th and 19th century. But the 20th century has been very hard on materialism — creation of the universe ex-nihilo, the observer effect in quantum mechanics, the origin of life, the origin of biological information, the cause of the immaterial mind — all seem to belie materialist reduction.

There’s much that materialism can’t explain. Some philosophers and scientists believe that the problem may lie with the artificial restrictions that dogmatic materialism imposes on natural science. Perhaps the natural phenomena on which materialism flounders, such as the Big Bang, the origin of life, the overwhelming evidence for intricate intelligent design in molecular biology, and the immaterial aspects of mental states, are better understood using all four Aristotelian causes — formal and final causes, as well as material and efficient causes. Perhaps design and teleology play a role in natural science.
To the dogmatic materialist, teleology in nature is a very dangerous inference, because it’s incompatible with atheism, which is the materialists’ religion. Acceptance of the obvious evidence for design and teleology in nature would force materialists to rethink their worldview, which never comes easy, especially for fundamentalists.

The evidence that some aspects of the mind are immaterial is overwhelming. It’s notable that many of the leading neuroscientists — Sherrington, Penfield, Eccles, Libet — were dualists. Dualism of some sort is the most reasonable scientific framework to apply to the mind-brain problem, because, unlike dogmatic materialism, it just follows the evidence.

Michael Egnor

Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics, State University of New York, Stony Brook
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and is an award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.