Dr. David Eagleman Owes us a Theory of Knowledge and Reality

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Published on: November 30, 2015

“Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering….Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental states upon bodily conditions must be thorough-going and complete. If we adopt the assumption, then of course what medical materialism insists on must be true in a general way, if not in every detail….According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see “the liver” determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul…. They are equally organically founded, be they religious or of non-religious content.”

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

In this passage from his lectures on religious experience, William James is dealing with the question of how scientific knowledge becomes objective, for surely it cannot be objective and reliable if it is mechanically determined by our biological states. The truth value of any proposition, any scientific theory, cannot be determined by its source as a cause. In other words, if we are determined, by material processes, to believe everything that we in fact believe, then we cannot possibly know that what we believe corresponds to Reality. Something real causes us to believe proposition P, but P bears no inherent logical relationship to this Reality. If P actually “represents” this reality in some sense this cannot be known and is purely accidental. This problem confronts science the moment science claims that this problem confronts religion.

This is just another way of restating the “Cartesian Bifurcation” in which western science separated itself, a long time ago, from our subjective experience as a source of objective knowledge. Science rejects experience as a falsification of Reality. (See Dr. Brian Greene.) Science has never recovered its connection to Reality which would require a whole new view of it in which objective knowledge of Reality is actually possible; in which human experience itself is Reality, rather than a mere effect of it. But then religious experience would be as real as scientific experience.

The Cartesian Bifurcation is a prescientific (philosophical) view of reality in which matter, a thing in itself, and its states, exist independently of human consciousness, independently of the observer. Quantum mechanics has begun to challenge this prescientific view of Reality. It has been challenged philosophically for centuries by various forms of metaphysical idealism. The irony of western scientific premises, which the scientist embraces before observation and theory construction begins, is that it leads straight to skepticism. Tasteless, colorless, odorless, silent matter is simply causing the appearances of a whole world in this closed interior domain we call our minds. Even quantitative perceptions are caused and merely subjective. We have no direct contact with the true object, the particle, the chair, the other person, the brain, in themselves. This seems to be exactly the prescientific, philosophical point of view adopted by Dr. David Eagleman in his PBS series on the human brain. He seems to be a materialist Cartesian and Kantian, believing that the brain is subjectively predetermining our experience as outside causes simply trigger its dispositions. All observation, including Dr. Eagleman’s own, is experience caused by things in themselves to which we have no direct access.

Dr. Eagleman, like so many scientists, embraces a view of Reality and human knowledge which make his own knowledge claims impossible. The brain, for Dr. Eagleman, is nothing but the appearances of the brain, never the thing in itself. Like so many scientists, he seems to be completely oblivious to the logical fact that his view of Reality is undermining his view of Reality. The separation of science from speculative metaphysics is pure mythology.

Scientists who talk about Reality, while refusing philosophical questions — without explicating their inherently philosophical view of Reality and knowledge — are frauds. They should stop talking about Reality. This avoidance, by some scientists, of all talk about Reality is a position in the philosophy of science called “phenomenalism” and sometimes “pragmatism.” Many scientists are sophisticated enough to understand this position and embrace it. They confess that their conceptual schemes, while offering the prediction and control of experience in the lab, are not to be taken as literal descriptions of a Reality which they cannot hold their schemes up to for comparison, because this Reality is hidden by its very nature.

Without putting too fine a point on it, science reduces and unifies experience by adopting a Parmenidean theory it can never prove — that it is all caused by some kind of unchanging being behind the constant flux of experience. This being, like massless, extensionless particles, cannot be directly experienced. If it was, ironically, we could not know that it is not reducible, divisible, into something else. It would be subject to change. Atoms, in your furniture, and in your brain, are the non-observable, pure, invariant being which science is looking for. But as such, it is just as immune to direct observation as God. The reduction of the changing object to pure invariant being requires a constant search for the pure invariant subpart. In the meantime all of our observations are mediated by instruments like cloud chambers (digital or analogical). Being in itself has dispositions but they can only be experienced indirectly. In contemporary physics the particle is just a concentration of energy, and no one has ever seen energy in itself. Energy is the new thing in itself; pure, invariant being.

The idea that scientific language about Reality is somehow more literal and clear than ordinary language, is little more than philosophical dogmatism. Scientific terms take on meaning in precisely the same way that ordinary terms do — through their practical use. Their meaning is exactly equivalent to what they can accomplish. They are not a mystical apprehension of Reality in itself.

Scientists are constantly talking about Reality, as if they have a literal description of it. Just study their literature. But if you ask those who make truth claims about Reality to deal with the question of how they could possibly have knowledge of Reality, given their own view of it, they cannot provide satisfactory answers without rejecting classical western scientific premises — the materialism which anchors their claims in the first place. Medical materialists are sure that their knowledge is not subject to the very Reality they impose on other forms of knowledge. James ridicules this intellectual inconsistency.

To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one has already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise, none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our DIS-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of the possessor’s body at the time.

It is needless to say that medical materialism draws in point of fact no such sweeping skeptical conclusion. It is sure, just as every simple man is sure, that some states of mind are inwardly superior to others, and reveal to us more truth, and in this it simply makes use of an ordinary spiritual judgment. It has no physiological theory of the production of these its favorite states, by which it may accredit them; and its attempt to discredit the states which it dislikes, by vaguely associating them with nerves and liver, and connecting them with names connoting bodily affliction, is altogether illogical and inconsistent.

Does Dr. Eagleman believe his children are mere appearances of something which is more real but inaccessible, and his love for them no more significant, as a symptom of Reality, than the chemical activity in his brain? Or does he live his life like the rest of us, assuming that his experience is Reality and therefore the foundation of his entire, practical (moral) life, including his research, which must accumulate evidence in the only arena it can — human experience. If our experience is unreal, the evidence is unreal. If our experience is Reality then the brain is a cypher, a symbol on which we can quite literally operate. It is all semiotic. The meaning of scientific language is its practical use, and a scientific theory is true because it works. But then religion, as William James noticed so long ago, becomes both meaningful and true as well. It is this arbitrary goal of keeping the door of knowledge closed on religion which leads all rationalists to a self-subverting view of Reality. Noticing this sort of thing, analyzing it, is what we do in postmodern philosophy. It is called “deconstruction” and it can be an intellectually healthy process.

Perhaps Dr. Eagleman will accept the challenge of providing a coherent account of Reality, reason, and knowledge, which can support his scientific knowledge claims, insofar as those claims are about Reality, about things in themselves. But if he remains committed, during the course of doing so, to the separation of experience and Reality, which is very much the traditional position of western science, and seems to be his own, then he cannot save the objectivity, the truth, of any of his “scientific” propositions about the human brain. He cannot embrace both medical materialism (the brain determining what we experience, its meaning) and the Cartesian bifurcation, without making his own science worthless as an insight into Reality. His own claims become nothing more than subjective responses to stimuli — exactly what he tries to study. We end up studying, objectifying, him.

We have reached a new phase in human history where we are no longer content to accept the notion that science is the ultimate observer in the all-encompassing frame of reference. We have no good reasons for believing this which are not themselves rooted in speculative metaphysics. Instead, we are turning science on itself, studying and analyzing the scientific community and its processes from a sociological, psychological, and biological point of view. We also analyze it, whether scientists like it or not, from a political, philosophical, and religious point of view. The observers are now being observed. All of their claims may be determined by a Reality which they do not even recognize. If they think this kind of speculation is impractical, then they should announce their conversion to pragmatism, abandoning rationalism and its scientific realism.

Scientists should either stop talking about Reality or they should not be surprised when we prosecute them in the court of public opinion, for fraud. If they will not deal with the philosophical questions, then they should stop suggesting that their science has any real bearing on them.

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