The New War for the Soul

With the release a few months ago of Curtis White’s new book, The Science Delusion, another volley has been fired in what has come to be the holy war of our time. The war pits evangelists against non-believers—only this time the evangelists call their religion “science.” What they really proselytize is not science but scientism, a worldview, which, among increasing numbers of educated people, is so obvious that questioning it like doubting gravity: unthinkable, even mad. Scientism is the notion that science can and will explain everything, even the deepest questions of the human mind and spirit.

It is built on the idea that we are our brains and that since evolution can explain our brains, it can explain us. We do not fall in love; our brains do. Any belief in God is not just debatable, it is unscientific—though understandable given how our brains formed on the savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago. Scientism grinds away at every human virtue, trying to show how creativity, empathy, and morality are simply mechanical devices clothed in flesh instead of metal, honed over millennia because they aided survival. Because thinking is nothing more than a clever computer program, scientism looks forward with fear and excitement to the point when computers snowball in power and finally exceed human intelligence in an explosion groupies dub the “singularity.”

The hordes of the scientismists are voluble and their numbers increase daily. They include the four ‘horsemen’ of New Atheism: Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, along with their comrades-in-arms, evolutionary scientists like Steven Pinker, anti-philosophical physicists like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, Singularity proponents like Ray Kurzweil, and the numberless enthusiastic heralds of neuroscience and evolution who fill bookstores, newspapers, and magazines with their scribblings. Together, they control the assumptions of mainstream intellectual life.

White’s book joins the sparse but courageous ranks of heretical philosophy books like Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies, Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind. Together these brave thinkers and others lead a ragtag disarray of skeptics, perhaps large in number, but dazed and uncoordinated. They differ greatly in their approaches, but they all feel stifled by scientism. They feel in their bones that we cannot ultimately be disassembled into sprockets and plugged into equations or algorithms, that there is something more, that we are not merely evolved robots.

Among this group’s weapons, the strongest concerns the status of consciousness. It’s a well-known question among academic philosophers, but not among the educated public.

In philosophy, the experiences we have – the redness of a rose, the smell of fresh coffee, the feeling of anger – are called “qualia.” If we are nothing but physical mechanisms, qualia must be explicable in physical terms.

They are not. To show you why, imagine that where you saw the color green, I saw the color blue, and vice-versa. Importantly, though, we both called things by the same names and acted towards them in the same way. In other words, we both called a cucumber “green” and the sky “blue,” ate one and flew kites in the other. Would we ever be able to tell that our colors were reversed in this way? No.

Because try as anyone might to examine our bodies or brains, they could never find out, by looking at cell activity, what color each of us saw in our private mental movie theater, what it is like for each of us to have a particular experience. There is a fundamental disconnect between what brain cells or chemicals look like and the colors we see. Where in the brain is the color red? Dissect away to your heart’s content: you will never find it. That redness takes place in our minds, our private domains.

And even if a machine existed that supposedly read from neurons what color another person was seeing and displayed it – how would anyone tell if it was accurate? Someone would have to observe the monitor. Their own colors might be reversed. No one could ever know if the monitor were calibrated correctly. No amount of physical observation with even the most sophisticated physical instruments would solve this problem. My mind allows me to experience things, but from that same nature bars me from knowing the experiences of others.

The fact of our perceiving switched colors would remain forever unknown. The thought experiment above is called the “inverted spectrum.” It shows that scientism, which holds that everything there is can be understood by examining the physical world, cannot explain what it is like to have an experience – which is the most fundamental, everyday thing there is!

The basic responses of the scientistic philosophers to these arguments fall into two categories. First, they claim that qualia are an illusion – that we literally do not experience them at all, but only talk as if we do. There is no “inner movie” playing in front of you right now; you do not see these words in some space in your mind. These are just misleading words. To call our most intimate experience illusory sounds like gibberish to me, but some people buy it.

Second, they argue that science has not yet but will someday show the physical basis for qualia, even though we cannot conceive how, because science solves everything. This is just blind faith, of course, since science has not solved everything. It has never said what is good and evil, for example. And it never will. It can tell us facts, but not what to value.

Similarly, it is not only currently impossible for science to explain qualia, it will remain forever so. Scientists will always have minds themselves, their own qualia machines, which will prevent them from ever knowing anyone else’s. That means the scientistic worldview is broken; not everything in human experience can be explained by examining the mechanisms of physical matter. Evolution cannot hope to fully explain conscious experience as an adaptation. Computer scientists are unlikely to produce awareness mechanically, since it is not merely a matter of assembling physical materials.

Why does all this matter? If consciousness can never be fully explained by science, it means that there is a realm of personal, private truth which must be investigated by other means. The way is cleared for art, meditation, spirituality, and introspection, devalued in recent years, as alternative and necessary paths to truth — not just personal growth, but truth.

Don’t get me wrong. Science should proceed and make what headway it can to understand the human condition. It only has no right to foreclose as irrational or archaic those private paths of truth-seeking that human kind always has, and always must, continue to pursue, each person ultimately looking within.

It is high time that the rebels strike back.