Mar 21, 2011 | By

Materialism – Scientific Hypothesis or Over-reaching?

The materialistic worldview espoused by some scientists excludes the possibility of a spiritual reality. Most theologians, on the other hand, believe natural and spiritual realities coexist. This may explain the hostility some scientific writers express towards religious beliefs – it may also affect their science….

Reading the various works dealing with the science vs. religion debate (for example – see the JTF Big Questions Series) I have been struck by the difference in tone between various writers and thinkers. While common stereotypes suggest the scientific thinker would be dispassionate and rational, and the religious thinker defensive and argumentative, the opposite often seems to be true.

The problem may be that, for some scientists, their worldview excludes the possibility of a spiritual reality, while for most theologians, natural and spiritual realities coexist. This may explain the hostility some scientific writers, if they are confirmed materialists, express towards religious beliefs.

In certain fields, including for example physics and brain research, the exclusively materialist worldview may also result in an effort to stretch theory or evidence too far. Both fields are delving into the frontiers of science, where hard data may be scarce and the theoretical gaps extreme. The drive to squeeze the most out of the data and to explain away all of the gaps can lead to extreme positions which may end up being as implausible as any “religious” hypothesis would seem to be.

Two examples come to mind.

In brain research, there are scientists who are uncomfortable with the notion of an active agent exercising free will, at least in part because there is not, at the present time, any conceivable physical correlate to “free will”. What happens in human consciousness is nothing more than physical, neurological states of the brain. Actions result from physical brain states – not from choices of some immaterial mind or soul.

In some psychological tests (ref. Mele, Effective Intentions) the neurological signals in the brain leading to an action, sometimes appear to precede the ability of the subject to report a decision to take the action. Mele explains that some researchers have taken this as proof for the non-existence of free will and made some quite extravagant claims about its import. However, as he points out, this is a significant over-reach, both in terms of what the data actually shows and the limits to this kind of research. Rather it seems that the researchers already had a pre-set notion that free will does not exist, and are trying to use this very limited empirical evidence of the experiment to bolster their position.

In the field of physics, the major challenge of the last century has been to unify the powerful findings of classical physics with those of quantum mechanics. There are some excellent works describing this challenge, notably including Brian Greene’s 2004 book The Fabric of the Cosmos. The most widely discussed approach to bridging the divide is what is known as superstring theory. These developments have been popularized by Greene as well as Stephen Hawking and others. One of the great theoretical puzzles that has arisen is to understand why our universe has the very specific configuration of forces and particles it does, something the theories do not have an answer for. Even a minuscule variation in this configuration would have resulted in a radically different universe, or no universe at all, and the possibility of biological life would have been zero. There is no scientific principal or mathematical symmetry in the theory to account for why we have the universe we do.

For the theologian, this is not a problem. For a confirmed materialist, however, any appeal to a non-material explanation is anathema. As a result, the most common “solution” proffered is the “many worlds” explanation that postulates that any possible configuration of physical states that could exist, does exist – and constitutes a different universe than the one we happen to be in. Just by coincidence, we happen to be in this one, the unique one that supports human life……

In the end this leaves the physicist postulating a solution that is just as unverifiable and unprovable as the theologian’s solution, that of an infinite God, creator of the universe.

4 Responses to “Materialism – Scientific Hypothesis or Over-reaching?”

  1. […] of an old debate, one that I dealt with in previous articles on Experimental Philosophy and Materialism. ┬áNeuroscientists like Burton seem determined to extrapolate from the finding that “we are […]

  2. Kathy Campbell says:

    Has anyone read the book titled “God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God?” by John C Lennox? Would love to hear back.

    • George Gantz says:

      Thanks for the reference. The work looks to be right on point with the discussion, and John Lennox has great credentials. For an abstract, follow this link. – George

  3. JG says:

    I read this (in part) as saying theologists believe in science but scientists don’t believe in theology, which I am not sure is the case. Or at least there are enough fundamentalists out there who really do NOT believe in science to take even things up. I do believe that, in the end, science is asking for as much “belief” as religion,but I also believe science is more dynamic. Theories of science change a lot faster than theories of religion.

    But well written and well thought out!

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