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What Explains the “I Suck” Principle?

David Klinghoffer

Science Uprising

I’ve called it the “I Suck” principle, after “Science Guy” Bill Nye’s statement to that effect in Episode 4 of the Science Uprising series. The principle is that materialists share a troubling impulse to run down and degrade the condition of the human being in the cosmos. 

It’s self-hatred of a very peculiar kind, though, since it has an egotistic flip side. See, for instance, the boast from atheist cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, also in Episode 4, about how “If you were designing a universe for life, I suspect you might design it differently.” It would be interesting to ask Dr. Krauss for some details of his own superior cosmic design. Just how would he fine-tune the laws and constants of physics, I wonder?

As in cosmology, so too in neuroscience. Writing at Mind Matters, Michael Egnor dissects another illustration of the “I Suck” impulse at work. It’s from his fellow neuroscientist Steven Novella.

A Long History

Novella, who teaches at Yale, repeats the often heard thesis that our perceptions of the world are just an evolved hallucination or “illusion.” The illusion tells us that “the reality we perceive is real, rather than a constructed representation.” In fact, “reality” isn’t real. Now that would really suck if it were true, invalidating our whole relationship with the world as we sense it. As one consequence, among others, it would invalidate science itself.

This idea has a long history. Egnor:

The fallacy stems from 17th-century philosopher John Locke’s flawed theory of mind. Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was the first explicit modern exposition of what has been called the “Cartesian theatre”: the metaphysical fallacy that our senses project a representation of reality in our brains, and that we watch these representations, much as an audience watches a movie in a theatre. Picture yourself as a little “man” (a homunculus) snacking on popcorn. This childish concept marks the beginning of the modern Western conception of the self.

The Cartesian theatre is bad neuroscience and catastrophically bad metaphysics because it cuts us off from reality. If we understand it and accept it (Novella obviously doesn’t really grasp his own point), we deny any real knowledge of the world and implicitly any real knowledge of ourselves. This is the end to which materialist gibberish leads.

The truth is that the reality we perceive is real, and it must be real if we are to make any sense of the world. The things we perceive are not “constructed representations.” We perceive reality itself, and we know reality itself. We, of course, perceive and know it imperfectly, which is what Novella is really trying to say, muddled as he is.

A Slap in the Face

Dr. Egnor notes the contradiction in Dr. Novella’s own writing. Regarding some interesting research, growing brain matter in a lab, Novella says it “just slaps us in the face with…reality,” namely that “our consciousness is the result of a clump of tissue shuttling ions around.” Egnor nails it: “He first asserts that everything he knows is an illusion. Then he insists that his illusions have slapped him in the face with reality.” You can’t have it both ways.

Read the rest at Mind Matters. Now here’s what I’d like to ask Professor Egnor, or anyone with an acute sense of social psychology, to address: What is it about materialism that drives those under its influence to tell us over and over that the world sucks, we suck, everything sucks, even as they imagine they could do a lot better job of designing the cosmos, or the human body? 

By the way, I am using the word “sucks” advisedly here since I have told my kids countless times not to say things “suck.” But the truth is that putting it vulgarly that way captures the sentiment from people like Nye or Novella. From some random man on the street, the self-hating message doesn’t carry much weight. But from a scientist at Yale, it does. It is extremely toxic. What explains it? Tell me your thoughts here.

Photo: Bill Nye in a scene from Episode 4 of Science Uprising, “Fine-Tuning: You Don’t Suck!”