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Tom Bethell on Mind, Matter, and Self-Defeating Darwinism

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Over at The Stream, Tom Bethell, author of Darwin’s House of Cards, clarifies why Darwinists don’t talk so much about one straightforward inference from their own commitment to materialism.

If mind is just a special configuration of brain cells, then mind is nothing but matter. How can neurons “decide” to do one thing rather than another? Nerve cells can’t make decisions. So, materialism repudiates free will.

The consistent materialist sees this, denies free will and dismisses consciousness as a delusion. “Our sense of self is a neuronal illusion,” said Jerry Coyne, a fully paid-up materialist and author of Why Evolution Is True. Molecular biologist Francis Crick said the same thing. “Your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,” he wrote. Or as he put it more succinctly, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

How deeply do materialists believe this? Notice that many of them grow outraged at public intellectuals who reject Darwinian materialism. But why the outrage if beliefs, ambitions and will are “nothing but a pack of neurons.” On that view the person skeptical of Darwinism can’t help himself, so why get outraged at the poor fellow?

The materialists might concede that their outrage is irrational, a byproduct of evolution — the fight-or-flight mechanism run amok. But that explanation opens a can of worms. If mind is a byproduct of an evolutionary process that maybe saddled us with various irrationalities, why trust human reason? Why trust it to lead us to the truth about biological origins?

In my decades as a journalist covering evolution and interviewing some of the world’s leading evolutionary thinkers, I have found that materialists have no good answers to this question, or to many of the evidential challenges that have endured and grown since Darwin’s time.

For me the conclusion is inescapable: Modern Darwinism is built on a foundation of sand — a house of cards, threatened even by the outraged huffing and puffing of its defenders.

In short, there’s no sense in placing faith in the kind of reasoning done by a brain that’s a product of Darwinian processes.

Beyond this, as Bethell notes in the book, anyone with some common sense and self-knowledge must realize that denying free will is bunk. Our will, the freedom to make good or bad choices, is something we experience every waking moment. The assertion of materialism, which is the foundation of Darwinian theory, runs headlong into what we know about our own inner lives. It’s self-defeating. So evolution’s defenders naturally play all this down, while being unable to deny it.

I’m on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.