Materialism responds to any challenge to its strictures by calling the challenge “anti-science,” or “science denial.” However, it’s materialism that demands faith that on key points, against the available evidence, physical processes alone can explain the most striking aspects of existence: the origin of life, the origin and diversification of complex animal life, and the emergence of human consciousness.
Our novelist friend Bruce Buff writing with Fr. Robert Spitzer drives home the point about consciousness in an excellent piece up now at National Review Online. They write in the days leading up to Halloween, a perfect occasion. Why? What do pumpkins, ghosts, and spiders have to do with evidence for the human soul as an objective reality?
They start with some historical background to the upcoming holiday that may be new to you; of interest to me personally is an unexpected parallel to the Jewish observance Yizkor.
Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, originated as the first in a three-day celebration of the dead consisting of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. It is not a remembrance of beings that no longer exist, but an honoring of the faithfully departed and the relationship between the living and those in heaven. The essential element of this is the belief that souls are real, they live on, and the way we live has consequences for our souls. Even in today’s secularized Halloween, with the religious element stripped out, the focus is often on mortality, the supernatural, and what may happen after death.
But is the soul real? Or is it just an old construct used to explain what a scientifically illiterate society could not? What does the evidence indicate?
As it turns out, science, viewed as a means to knowledge and not as a limit of inquiry, provides strong reasons to believe that something besides physical matter is needed to explain what the human mind experiences. The same science that exclaims we are made of stardust also suggests that every time we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and think, it’s evidence of immaterial minds — our souls — in action.
Otherwise, for physics alone to explain what we experience, there would need to be a means to turn states of matter, such as the spin of an electron or a collection of atoms, into subjective experiences. This would require that discrete physical entities can constitute a whole; that this whole can perceive its own subjective meaning; that multiple subjective perceptions can be aggregated into a larger, whole experience; that a subjective perception can evaluate itself and then act on the physical properties that constitute it.
But subjectivity is not a property of matter. Summing neurons does not equal a mind. To suggest otherwise would be to say that the experience of being in love with someone else, and the self-aware action of putting your arm around that person, can be explained simply in terms of firing neurons.
Our subjective experience, which is that of having a soul, is an everyday refutation of physicalism. Much as Darwinian theory is intended to rescue materialism from the counterevidence of the panoply of life we see around us, the first defense against personal experience of the soul is the concept of emergence.
Some materialists, also known as physicalists, give a naturalistic explanation for the mind. One way they try to overcome these known limitations is through the concept of emergent properties. The idea is that if parts come together in a complex system, new properties sometimes emerge that aren’t otherwise apparent in the individual components. So from a group of neurons may emerge a mind capable of subjective experiences.
But when it comes to the mind, this idea has its issues. First, all scientifically observed emergence is actually unanticipated behavior resulting from known physical properties, and not new properties that exceed what physics can explain. Some materialists suggest that consciousness might emerge from physical processes on the quantum level, but any emergence there would be disrupted by anything that has an effect on quantum physics — such as holding up a cell phone to your head or getting an MRI. Simply put, emergence depends on properties that already exist in the system’s constituent parts. It doesn’t matter how many Legos are assembled in incredibly complex arrangements, they will never generate a nuclear reaction. Just as radioactivity cannot emerge from the plastic used in the blocks, consciousness does not emerge from the physical parts of the brain.
The insistence that human life can be explained without reference to a soul is, you might say, “anti-reality,” or “reality denial.” Buff and Spitzer make a detailed, dispassionate, and convincing case. Read the rest here.
Image: All Souls’ Day, by Jakub Schikaneder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.