Materialist neuroscientist: materialism is a “leap of faith”

This article by Matthew D. Lieberman appeared in the secular leftist magazine Psychology Today. (H/T Uncommon Descent)


Given a materialist view of the universe, it makes no sense to talk about consciousness or experience at all. We have absolutely no idea what it is about the three pounds of mush between our ears that allows it to perform this trick of being conscious. If you damage one spot in visual cortex, a person will cease to see motion. If you damage another spot, they may lose the ability to see things in the right side of their visual field. But we have no idea why those regions cause us to have conscious experience of motion or the right side of the visual field in the first place. Knowing that an engine can’t run without a particular part is not the same as knowing why it can run because of that part.

[…]I am a neuroscientist and so 99% of the time I behave like a materialist, acknowledging that the mind is real but fully dependent on the brain. But we don’t actually know this. We really don’t. We assume our sense of will is a causal result of the neurochemical processes in our brain, but this is a leap of faith. Perhaps the brain is something like a complex radio receiver that integrates consciousness signals that float around in some form. Perhaps one part of visual cortex is important for decoding the bandwidth that contains motion consciousness and another part of the brain is critical to decoding the bandwith that contains our will. So damage to brain regions may alter our ability to express certain kinds of conscious experience rather than being the causal source of consciousness itself.

[…]I don’t actually believe the radio metaphor of the brain, but I think something like it could account for all of our findings. Its unfalsifiable which is a big no-no in science. But so is the materialist view—its also unfalsifiable. We simply don’t know how to reverse engineer consciousness. Saying that the complexity of the brain explains why we are conscious is just an article of faith—it doesn’t explain anything. We don’t know why our brains are associated with conscious experience and nothing else in the universe besides brains seems to be. Maybe rocks have consciousness but no way of showing this. I don’t believe this—but again, I can’t prove its false.

This sounds similar to the car analogy used by J.P. Moreland, where the brain is the car, and the mind is the driver. If you damage the car, the driver cannot do certain things. That doesn’t mean the driver is the car, just like the brain is not the mind.

3 thoughts on “Materialist neuroscientist: materialism is a “leap of faith””

  1. Dr. Lieberman’s humility is both refreshing and timely. I was just debating this very issue with a friend on Facebook last night. Thanks for the post!

  2. There seems to be a common thread among materialists: they do not seem to understand that their entire world view sits atop nothing but fog. I am currently reading God and Stephen Hawking, by John Lennox, Oxford mathematician, who coincidentally states on the page I am at, "… it is only belief in a Creator that gives us a satisfactory ground for believing in the uniformity of nature (the inductive principle) in the first place!"

    Lieberman's piece is refreshing though because he understands that even if materialism is true, there is no way for us to know. The problem is that he does not take the obvious and unavoidable next steps: that if materialism is true then there is no way for us to know anything at all. We may as well assume we are living in a Matrix world.

    This is just a scientific-sounding version of solipsism and if you think about it (heh!) is just a gussied up variety of Hinduism's teaching of maya, that nothing is real but illusion itself.

    And yet if, as Lieberman says, the answer won’t affect the way we act – nor even what we think we know – then we had better do what Robert Heinlein advised: even if the deck is crooked, cut the cards. So we’d better live as if free will is real because betting that it is not has potentially devastating, eternal consequences.

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