Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.
- Introduction: The Failure of Materialism
Few scientists are aware that what has been called the “modern scientific worldview” is predicated on a number of metaphysical assumptions—i.e. hypotheses about the nature of reality—that were first proposed by some of the pre-Socratic philosophers (Burtt, 1949). These assumptions, which several centuries later became associated with classical physics, include materialism—the notion that matter is all that truly exists, i.e. everything in the universe is composed of collections of material/physical particles and fields (*the terms ‘materialism’ and ‘physicalism’ are used interchangeably in this article)—and reductionism, the idea that complex things can be understood by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things such as tiny material particles. Other assumptions include determinism, the notion that future states of physical or biological systems can be predicted from current states, and mechanism, the idea that the world works like a machine.
During the 19th century, these assumptions hardened, turned into dogmas, and coalesced into a belief system that came to be known as “scientific materialism” (Burtt, 1949; Sheldrake, 2012). This belief system implies that mind and consciousness—and all that we subjectively experience (e.g. our memories, emotions, goals, and spiritual epiphanies)—are identical with or can be reduced to electrical and chemical processes in the brain, and these brain processes are ultimately reducible to the interaction between basic physical elements. Another implication of this belief system is that our thoughts and intentions cannot have any effect upon our brains and bodies, our actions, and the physical world, since the mind cannot directly affect at a distance physical and biological systems. In other words, we human beings are nothing but complex biophysical machines. As a result, our consciousness and personality automatically vanish when we die.
The ideology of scientific materialism became dominant in academia during the 20th century—so dominant that a majority of scientists started to believe that it represented the only rational view of the world. This dominance has seriously constricted the sciences and hampered the development of the study of mind, consciousness, and spirituality. Furthermore, faith in this belief system as an exclusive explanatory framework for reality has compelled many scientists to neglect certain aspects of the subjective dimension of human experience. This has led to a severely distorted and impoverished understanding of ourselves and our place in nature (Beauregard and O’Leary, 2007; Nagel, 2012; Wallace, 2012).
Over a century ago, physicists discovered phenomena, at the atomic level, that could not be accounted for by classical physics. This led to the development of a revolutionary new branch of physics called quantum mechanics (QM). This “new physics” has convincingly refuted the metaphysical assumptions underlying scientific materialism. For example, QM has called into question the material foundations of the world by showing that atoms and subatomic particles are not really objects—they do not exist with certainty at definite spatial locations and definite times. Rather, they show “tendencies to exist,” forming a world of potentialities within the quantum domain (Heisenberg, 1976). Moreover, physicists have discovered that particles being observed and the observer—the physicist and the method used for observation—are somehow linked, and the results of the observation seem to be influenced by the physicist’s conscious intent. This phenomenon led towering figures of QM (such as Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, John von Neumann, and Eugene Wigner) to propose that the consciousness of the physicist is vital to the existence of the physical events being observed, and that mental events, such as intention, can affect the physical world. This interpretation of QM is supported by well-known living physicists (such as Freeman Dyson, Henry Stapp, Paul Davies, and Andrei Linde).
Although QM has invalidated the metaphysical assumptions associated with scientific materialism, several contemporary scientists and philosophers still hold to this belief system and, therefore, adopt a very narrow view of what humans are and can be. They firmly believe that science is synonymous with methodological and philosophical materialism; further, they are convinced that the view that mind and consciousness are simply by-products of brain activity is an incontrovertible fact that has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt (Dossey, 2015).
Undoubtedly, scientific methods based upon materialistic philosophy have been highly successful, not only in increasing our understanding of nature but also in creating numerous benefits for the world, such as greater control and freedom through advances in technology. Nevertheless, science is, first and foremost, a non-dogmatic, open-minded method of acquiring knowledge about nature through the observation, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena. Science is not synonymous with materialism and should not be committed to any particular beliefs, dogmas, or ideologies.
Furthermore, materialist theories have utterly failed to explain how the brain could generate the mind and consciousness. Thus, these theories cannot solve the “hard problem” of consciousness, the problem of explaining how and why we have phenomenal experiences (or qualia; Chalmers, 1995). In addition, these theories are unable to account for a plethora of empirical findings that are considered to be anomalous with regard to the materialist framework. This leads me to Thomas Kuhn’s conception of scientific revolutions.
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
In the 1960s, historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn published a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which became very influential in both academic and popular circles. In this book, Kuhn proposed that paradigms—theoretical frameworks of scientific disciplines within which theories are formulated and experiments performed—can and should change because sooner or later, they fail to explain observed phenomena. Importantly, Kuhn demonstrated that scientists are generally unable to acknowledge phenomena not allowed by the paradigm they are committed to:
“Can it conceivably be an accident, for example, that Western astronomers first saw change in the previously immutable heavens during the half-century after Copernicus’ new paradigm was proposed? The Chinese, whose cosmological beliefs did not preclude celestial change, had recorded the appearance of many new stars in the heaven at a much earlier date”. (Kuhn 1970, p. 116).
According to Kuhn, when anomalies—experimental observations or other empirical evidence which violates the widely accepted theoretical framework—that the paradigm cannot accommodate accumulate, and persistent efforts by scientists fail to elucidate these anomalies, the scientific community begins to lose confidence in the dominant paradigm and a crisis period ensues. A new paradigm, competing with the old for supremacy, can now be entertained. This new paradigm is not just an extension of the old paradigm, but a completely different worldview.
The new paradigm is typically championed by bolder scientists storming the bastions of accepted dogma. Unsurprisingly, as conservative scientists often believe that the anomalies will be resolved soon from within the old paradigm, they fight to salvage this theoretical framework. But if the new paradigm shows sufficient promise, i.e. if it is better able to account for anomalous observations, it then attracts a significant group of scientists away from the old paradigm, and a paradigm shift (or scientific revolution) occurs. Following this paradigm shift, scientists return to solving puzzles, but within the new paradigm.
A good example of a capital paradigm shift is the Copernican Revolution, the radical change of perspective from Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the heavens to the heliocentric model with the Sun at the center of the solar system. It is noteworthy that Aristarchus had already laid the foundations of heliocentrism in the third century BC. However, as the power of the geocentric view was too strong, it took another 18 centuries before Copernicus proposed that the Earth moves around the sun and not vice versa (Kuhn, 1970). Another instance of a major paradigm shift in science was the development of QM between 1900 and 1930. This new physics began as mathematical explanations of certain anomalies, at the atomic level, that could not be accounted for by the predominant theories of classical physics.
Present day scientists working in the field of consciousness research and interested in the mind-brain problem find themselves in a situation similar to that of the physicists at the turn of the 20th century. Undeniably, they are confronted with an increasing amount of anomalous evidence that cannot be elucidated by materialist theories of the mind and consciousness. In the next section, I examine summarily some of this evidence, guided by the radical empiricist view that we should study any human experience, no matter how unusual it may seem at first glance (James, 1904).
* This paper contains material originally written for “Expanding Science: Visions of a Post-Materialist Paradigm (Param Media, forthcoming 2018).
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