Tuesday, May 1, 2007

New podcast and a great article about fundamentalist materialism

I haven't listened to the latest Skeptiko interview with Neal Grossman yet, but I did notice that Alex linked to a remarkably worthy article by Grossman over at the IONS website.

Here are a few cogent paragraphs:

When researchers ask the question, "How can the near-death experience be explained?" they tend to make the usual assumption that an acceptable explanation will be in terms of concepts—biological, neurological, psychological—with which they are already familiar. The near-death experience (NDE) would then be explained, for example, if it could be shown what brain state, which drugs, or what beliefs on the part of the experiencer correlate with the NDE. Those who have concluded that the NDE cannot be explained mean that it cannot be, or has not yet been, correlated with any physical or psychological condition of the experiencer.
I wish to suggest that this approach to explaining the NDE is fundamentally misguided. To my knowledge, no one who has had an NDE feels any need for an explanation in the reductionist sense that researchers are seeking. For the experiencer, the NDE does not need to be explained because it is exactly what it purports to be, which is, at a minimum, the direct experience of consciousness—or minds, or selves, or personal identity—existing independently of the physical body. It is only with respect to our deeply entrenched materialist paradigm that the NDE needs to be explained, or more accurately, explained away. . .

Perhaps the "smoking gun" case is the one described by Michael Sabom in his book Light and Death. In this case, the patient had her NDE while her body temperature was lowered to 60 degrees, and all the blood was drained from her body. "Her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain." A brain in this state cannot create any kind of experience. Yet the patient reported a profound NDE. Those materialists who believe that consciousness is secreted by the brain, or that the brain is necessary for conscious experience to exist, cannot possibly explain, in their own terms, cases such as this. An impartial observer would have to conclude that not all experience is produced by the brain, and that therefore the falsity of materialism has been empirically demonstrated. Thus, what needs to be explained is the abysmal failure of the academic establishment to examine this evidence and to embrace the conclusion: Materialism is false, and consciousness can and does exist independently of the body. . .

Our collective irrationality with respect to the wealth of evidence against materialism manifests in two ways: (i) by ignoring the evidence, and (ii) by insisting on overly stringent standards of evidence, that, if adopted, would render any empirical science impossible.

One of my earliest encounters with this kind of academic irrationality occurred more than twenty years ago. I was devouring everything on the near-death experience I could get my hands on, and eager to share what I was discovering with colleagues. It was unbelievable to me how dismissive they were of the evidence. "Drug-induced hallucinations," "last gasp of a dying brain," and "people see what they want to see" were some of the more commonly used phrases. One conversation in particular caused me to see more clearly the fundamental irrationality of academics with respect to evidence against materialism. I asked, "What about people who accurately report the details of their operation?"

"Oh," came the reply, "they probably just subconsciously heard the conversation in the operating room, and their brain subconsciously transposed the audio information into a visual format."

"Well," I responded, "what about cases where people report veridical perception of events remote from their body?"

"Oh, that's just a coincidence or a lucky guess."

Exasperated, I asked, "What will it take, short of having a near-death experience yourself, to convince you that it's real?"

Very nonchalantly, without batting an eye, the response was "Even if I were to have a near-death experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain." He went on to add that dualism (the philosophical thesis that asserts mind and matter are independent substances, neither of which can be reduced to the other) is a false theory, and that there cannot be evidence for something that's false.

This was a momentous experience for me, because here was an educated, intelligent man telling me that he will not give up materialism, no matter what. Even the evidence of his own experience would not cause him to give up materialism. I realized two things in that moment. First, this experience cured me of any impulse to argue these things with recalcitrant colleagues; it is pointless to argue with someone who tells me that his mind is already made up, and nothing I can say will change it. Second, this experience taught me that it is important to distinguish between (a) materialism as an empirical hypothesis about the nature of the world, which is amenable to evidence one way or the other (this is the hallmark of a scientific hypothesis—that evidence is relevant for its truth or falsity) and (b) materialism as an ideology, or paradigm, about how things "must" be, which is impervious to evidence (this is the hallmark of an unscientific hypothesis—that evidence is not relevant for its truth).

My colleague believed in materialism not as a scientific hypothesis that, qua scientific hypothesis, might be false, but rather as dogma and ideology that "must" be true, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. For him, materialism is the fundamental paradigm in terms of which everything else is explained, but which is not itself open to doubt. I shall coin the term "fundamaterialist" to refer to those who believe that materialism is a necessary truth, not amenable to empirical evidence. I call it fundamaterialism to make explicit comparison with fundamentalism in religion. Fundamentalism connotes an attitude of certainty towards one's core belief. Just as the fundamentalist Christian is absolutely certain that the world was created in the manner described by The Bible (fossil evidence notwithstanding), so also the fundamaterialist is absolutely certain that there exists nothing that is not made up of matter or physical energy (NDE and other evidence notwithstanding). In fact, and this is the crucial point, their respective beliefs have nothing to do with evidence. As my fundamaterialist colleague put it, "There can't be evidence for something that's false."

With respect to (a), materialism held as an empirical hypothesis about the world, the evidence against it is overwhelming. With respect to (b), materialism held as an ideology, evidence against it is logically impossible. A complicating factor is that the fundamaterialist typically holds the metabelief that his belief in materialism is not ideological, but empirical. That is, he misclassifies himself under (a), while his behavior clearly falls under (b). The debunker and skeptic believe they are being "scientific" in ignoring and rejecting the evidence against materialism. But when asked what kind of evidence it would take to convince them that materialism is empirically false, they are, like my colleague, usually at a loss for what to say. If they're not familiar with the data, they'll come up with a criterion of evidence that in fact has already been met. When it is pointed out that there exist many well-documented cases that satisfy the proposed criterion, they will simply make the criterion more stringent, and at some point they cross the line between the reasonable demand for scientific evidence and the unreasonable (and unscientific) demand for logical proof. . .


Book Surgeon said...

You've got to be careful with the NDE described. The woman's pseudonym was Pam Reynolds and her case is infamous. Contrary to many breathless accounts, she did not have any veridical perception during the period when her brain stem was completely inactive. However, she did report very accurate perception during a time when none should have been possible. So NDE researchers consider this a very important case, if not the smoking gun implied in the article. See "Irreducible Mind" for a thorough breakdown of the pros and cons of the Reynolds case.

MindEnergy.net said...

Skeptiko is a great podcast and I enjoy every show of Alex.

Steve said...

Good point...but the page was about materialism as a dogmatic ideology not whether NDE's are valid or invalid...materialist dogma seems to influence people to assumptions in everyday life and in paranormal possibilities.