Glance at the sun. See the moon and stars. Gaze at the beauty of the green earth. Now think.
—Hildegard von Bingen
Writing in 1966, undoubtedly encouraged by his recent co-discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, British scientist Francis Crick asserted with confidence that, “the ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.” In an historical collaboration with James Watson in 1953, Crick had ostensibly resolved the phenomenon of life to material processes, and in the decades to follow, Crick would bring his attention to bear on the phenomenon of consciousness. Under the premise that “the study of consciousness is a scientific problem,” Crick sought to reduce consciousness to “physics and chemistry” in the same manner that he had done with the object of his prior study. Thus, in 1994, Crick would proclaim “The Astonishing Hypothesis” in a book by that title:
The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” 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.
One only singles out Crick from countless of his contemporaries in that he exemplifies, in the quotes above, the metaphysical doctrine of scientific materialism. It is this doctrine that the present consideration will seek to contest. Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead described the worldview of scientific materialism in the Lowell Lectures of 1925, subsequently collected and published under the title Science and the Modern World. In Whitehead‘s words:
There persists … [according to this conception, a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’
By the twentieth century, when Whitehead provided this description, scientific materialism represented a fully-established intellectual edifice. Its construction had begun some twenty-centuries prior in Ancient Greece when the philosopher Democritus laid its foundation-stone: “By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void,” the Pre-Socratic thinker purportedly declared. Aristotle subsequently elaborated Democritus’ construction, and Islamic philosophers of the Middle Ages refashioned it, but it was not until the seventeenth century that this structure achieved its completion. As the dawn of scientific revolution burst forth over Europe, Copernicus, Galileo, Locke, Bacon, Harvey, Newton, and Descartes, jointly placed the keystone on this grand erection. Continual additions to the edifice of physical science in the centuries to follow have seen it come to tower above all other metaphysical constructions. Despite the magnificence of this achievement, however, the annexation of a new ward to confine the human spirit itself represents a bold development of recent times. René Descartes, for example, one of the said patriarchs of modern materialism, left posterity with perhaps its clearest and most memorable formulations when described the material aspect of his substance dualism as “entirely distinct” from its immaterial side. Res extensa, “things extended” in physical space, were, according to Descartes, sheer quantitative stuff: “brute matter,” just as Whitehead described it above. Descartes, however, had no intention to flatly reject the existence of incorporeal aspects of experience. For this reason, those phenomena which failed to fall into the category of inert corporeal substance, Descartes termed “rescogitans,” which is to say, “things cognitive.” The latter Descartes attributed to the human mind. Despite that res cogitans lacked extension in physical space, they nevertheless enjoyed no lesser ontological legitimacy than manifest spatial bodies. Significantly, Descartes never attempted to explain away these mental phenomena (i.e. res cogitans) in material terms. This ultimate reductionism was left to thinkers in modern times. For instance, in the lineage of Descartes and Crick, the well-known neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of UCLA declared with confidence in 1999:
In an effort that continues to gain momentum, virtually all the functions studied in traditional psychology — perception, learning, and memory — are being understood in terms of their brain underpinnings. The mystery behind many of these functions are being solved, one by one, and it is now apparent that even consciousness, the towering problem in the field, is likely to be elucidated before too long.
It follows that all other theories of the mind…are consigned to the trash heap.” Indeed, many thinkers have (1) drawn the conclusion that consciousness is merely a product of unconscious material processes, and (2) furthermore adopted the said conclusion as a premise to derive the ultimate conclusion: that consciousness does not in fact exist. Thus the philosopher Daniel Dennett does not hesitate to posit that consciousness—and all of the psychological phenomena that are most immediate to our living experience—is an illusion: “We’re all zombies. No one is conscious,” Dennett asserted without qualification in his 1992 work Consciousness Explained. By 2017 Dennett’s views have hardly changed: in From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Dennett contrasts the world according to the apparent, or “manifest image:”
full of other people, plants, and animals, furniture and houses and cars…and colors and rainbows and sunsets, and voices and haircuts, and home runs and dollars, and problems and opportunities and mistakes, among many other such things. These are the myriad “things” that are easy for us to recognize, point to, love or hate, and, in many cases, manipulate or even create…. It’s the world according to us…
to the actual, or “scientific image,” in which reality “is populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?).” In other words, reality ultimately consists in quantifiable particles and forces. These essential foundations of the world are entirely devoid of qualities and, for that reason, in principle cannot be experienced.
Many other prominent thinkers of today advance the worldview of scientific materialism in their work. Some examples of the former include astrophysicist David Lindley, who wrote that, “We humans are just crumbs of organic matter clinging to the surface of one tiny rock. Cosmically, we are no more significant than mold on a shower curtain.” According to linguist Karen Stollznow, “Thinking is just the meat talking to itself. It’s generated by the brain and when we die, unfortunately that dies with us. We can state that categorically.” Astronomer Carl Sagan stated in no uncertain terms that, “[the brain’s] workings — what we sometimes call mind — are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology, and nothing more.” And as psychiatrist and sleep researcher Allan Hobson asserted, “Consciousness, like sleep, is of the Brain, by the Brain, and for the Brain.” These several quotes from respected scientists in their respective fields leave little doubt as to the philosophical consensus amongst these contemporary thinkers. When the Romantic poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller asks, “Is Nature only great because she gives you something you can count?” the unequivocal rejoinder of the typical physical scientist today must be that this very question represents “a consequence of its anatomy and physiology, and nothing more.” In the next section, one will attempt to chart a path of escape from this nihilistic fortress of scientific materialism.
Painting by the great Chris Manvell! Thank you to him.