Deconstructing Materialism: An Outdated Scientific Theory
Note: This post is part of my "philosophy bites" series that expands my social media posts about philosophical topics into blog form. These are not academic essays with a plethora of footnotes and agonizingly constructed arguments, but I do hope they spark conversation. Please remember to share, like, and comment! The original instagram post can be found here.
Last week, I critiqued philosophical materialism as an illogical theory (you can find that post here). But I did not critique an assumption that is important to understand in interpreting the scientific evidence against materialism. That assumption is called ontological dualism, which is the belief that the world consists of two substances, mind and matter, and one of those substances (matter) generates the other (mind). Philosophers try to avoid dualism, both because it transgresses Ockham's razor (choose the simplest explanation), and because it leads to the nearly intractable mind-body problem: how do two totally separate substances interact? This assumption of ontological dualism is necessary in order to even ask this question: does the brain (matter) generate consciousness (mind)?
To the layperson or the uncritical scientist, this is precisely what the evidence implies. Researchers have shown that the stimulation of particular brain regions produces particular conscious experiences. And neuroplasticity shows the opposite is also true, as certain conscious decisions can shape the physical structure of the brain over time. In addition, brain scans have become increasingly exact in their mapping of conscious experience. What are we to make of this evidence? Doesn't this nearly exact correlation between consciousness and the brain imply that one generates the other? For one who is untrained in philosophy, the assumption in this question may be carefully veiled. But look closer: that word "generate" implies ontological dualism, or two separate substances interacting with/ causing the other to act in a particular way.
There is another to see this correlation without assuming the highly problematic dualistic stance. An idealist would say: of course consciousness and the brain correlate with one another, because matter is simply consciousness as seen from the outside. Let's repeat that claim because it completely reframes the problem: the brain is simply the physical manifestation of consciousness. Neither consciousness nor the brain generate the other. There is only consciousness (mind), and symbols of that consciousness (matter). Matter must correspond to mind in the same way your reflection in the mirror corresponds to your actual facial expressions, without one "causing" the other.
Before diving into the evidence, let's make one more philosophical clarification. Although empirical evidence may challenge a particular scientific paradigm, the paradigm itself cannot be proven or disproven by evidence because they are philosophical/ theoretical rather than scientific (if you understand the difference between a philosophical and scientific question, you are already smarter than Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Sam Harris, among many others). A paradigm filters and selects for evidence in order to craft a narrative about reality. We only consider changing paradigms if a large amount of evidence can no longer fit into the narrative. Then we have to start asking hard philosophical questions to determine if we need a different kind of filter, one that can capture and explain a larger quantity of evidence. If you follow neuroscience or quantum physics in a philosophically curious way, you'll have seen that evidence challenging the materialist paradigm is growing exponentially.
We have already questioned the assumption of ontological dualism embedded in the question of the brain generating consciousness. But scientific evidence can help us clarify whether or not your consciousness is contained, conditioned, sustained only by this symbol called the brain. The research is compelling.
People who experience self-transcendence describe these events as the richest conscious experiences of their lives. If the brain-generating-consciousness model were correct, then you'd expect brain scans to light up like Christmas trees during these experiences. Instead, the opposite is true. Neuro-imaging studies show a decrease in cerebral blood flow during the use of psychedelics, even while the conscious experiences being reported are incredibly vivid. The same could be said for a number of other transcendent experiences. Near-death experiences or out of body experiences are reported by as many as 11% of people who survive cardiac arrest. Though brain function is dramatically reduced, vivid and life-changing experiences are reported. Other examples of physiological stress that could compromise brain function include traditional initiatory rituals in which one may spend long sessions in a sweat lodge, be deprived of food and water, or be subject to over-exertion. This physiological stress often encourages visions or feelings of oneness and bliss. Cerebral hypoxia (which is caused by fainting, hyperventilation, and holotropic breath work, among other things) often induces expansive feelings of freedom, transcendence, and even dreams similar to near-death experiences. In the practice of psychography, a medium writes down information that they claim to be receiving from a supernatural source. It doesn’t matter whether their claims or true or not; what interests us is that experienced mediums display a reduction in activity in the hippocampus and frontal lobes when compared to non-trance writing. With such marked reduction of brain activity, the writing should have been “vague, unfocused, obtuse garble” (in the words of one science journalist). Instead, the writing scored significantly higher in complexity compared to non-trance writing.
All these examples of self-transcendence are linked to a decrease in brain activity, which would undermine the materialist maxim that the brain generates consciousness. But if, as idealists claim, the brain is simply the simultaneous image of what is happening internally, then why is an increase of consciousness not correlating with an increase in brain activity? If you look in the mirror, you expect to see your reflection matching your every facial expression, right?
This is where we need to parse experience: whose consciousness is increasing during these experiences? Recently scientists have identified a small part inside the frontal portion of brain as the seat of ego, consciousness and sense of self, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and Fronto-insular Cortex (FIC). These regions of the brain (in addition to others) are suppressed during self-transcending experiences, which aligns with the ego-death sensations reported. So, individual consciousness is suppressed, but consciousness itself somehow continues, and with greater vividity, without being bound by the brain. People who report near-death-experiences often describe suddenly being flooded with information and knowledge that they immediately forget or cannot process upon returning to their body. This aligns with a model that sees the brain as a limited sieve or selector of a consciousness, concentrated in the spacetime- bound egoic body.
Experiences like the ones described above— involving extreme physiological stress, breathwork, or psychedelics—point to smaller consciousnesses (as imaged by the brain) selecting from a larger consciousness. Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup argues in Scientific American that human egos are in fact dissociative identities (or, alters) of a larger consciousness. And if transpersonal consciousness is primary and personal consciousness is simply a dissociative identity, this would imply that an individual's death would free their consciousness—like a single drop of water— back into the endless sea of "I am."
There are quite large implications of such a paradigm shift from physicalism to idealism. So, what do you think? Do you find these arguments convincing or do you still have serious doubts? When I first studied arguments for idealism, I knew the logic was sound and the science was convincing. But I had a lot of questions. Perhaps we will address questions and common misconceptions in a future post. In the meantime, leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Watch this shorter argument against materialism:
Are you merely a dissociated personality of a larger mind?
Read all of Bernardo Kastrup's articles in the Scientific American here:
Watch this free course on analytic idealism from the Essentia Foundation: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL64CzGA1kTzi085dogdD_BJkxeFaTZRoq
Derrida's critique of metaphysics (mind as inescapable):