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To Refute Materialism, Consider a Chocolate Sundae

David Klinghoffer


I was thinking about the challenge related by Dennis Prager to Steve Meyer. (See “Dennis Prager on Evolution: Stephen Meyer Turned Me Around.”) Mr. Prager cites an atheist friend who denies that it’s valid for science to infer an intelligent designer. Why? Because “science can only talk about that which is material.”

Dr. Meyer has two responses. “Actually, that’s an artificial restriction on the scientific method. Point one. Point two is that we infer the activity of mind all the time.”

Jay Richards brings this observation down to a very elemental level. From “A Short Argument Against the Materialist Account of the Mind”:

Imagine a scenario where I ask you to think about eating a chocolate ice cream sundae, while a doctor does an MRI and takes a real-time scan of your brain state. We assume that the following statements are true:

1. You’re a person. You have a “first person perspective.”
2. You have thoughts.
3. I asked you to think about eating a chocolate ice cream sundae.
4. You freely chose to do so, based on my request.
5. Those thoughts caused something to happen in your brain and perhaps elsewhere in your body.

Notice that the thought in question — your first person, subjective experience of thinking about the chocolate sundae — would not be the same as the pattern in your brain. Nor would it be the same as an MRI picture of the pattern. One glaring difference between them: Your brain pattern isn’t about anything. Your thought is. It’s about a chocolate sundae.

We have thoughts and ideas — what philosophers call “intentional” states — that are about things other than themselves. We don’t really know how this works, how it relates to the brain or chemistry or the laws of physics or the price of tea in China. But whenever we speak to another person, we assume it must be true. And in our own case, we know it’s true. Even to deny it is to affirm it.

Points (1) through (5) above are common sense. In other words, everyone who hasn’t been persuaded by skeptical philosophy assumes them to be true. But it’s not merely that everyone assumes them. They are basic to pretty much any other intellectual exercise, including arguing.

That’s because you have direct access to your thoughts and, by definition, to your first-person perspective. You know these things more directly than you could conclude, let alone know, any truth of history or science. You certainly know them more directly than you could possibly know the premises of an argument for materialism.

That matters because (1) through (5) defy materialist explanation.

The materialist will want to say one of three things to avoid the implication of a free agent whose thoughts cause things to happen in the material world:

A. Your “thoughts” are identical to a physical brain state;
B. Your “thoughts” are determined by a physical brain state; or
C. You don’t really have thoughts.

And if any one of (A), (B), or (C) is true, then most or all of (1) through (5) are false.

So here’s the conclusion: What possible reason could we have for believing (A), (B), or (C) and doubting (1) through (5)? Remember that if you opt for (A), (B), or (C), you can’t logically presuppose (1) through (5). Surely this alone is enough to conclude that we can have no good reason for believing the materialist account of the mind.

In other words, either a mind through free will alone may cause scientifically measurable change in the physical world, or we are forced back to embrace blather, fantastic or nonsensical ideas like “I don’t really have thoughts.” And why would you embrace blather? From thinking about what immaterial will can do, it follows that studying how, from change effected in the world, we can infer the past action of a mind, a designer, is certainly both common sense and rational science.

Photo credit: Maksym Kozlenko [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.



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