The bias of scientific materialism and the reality of paranormal experience


In my recent post about Jeff Kripal’s article “Visions of the Impossible,” I mentioned that biologist and hardcore skeptical materialist Jerry Coyne published a scathing response to Jeff’s argument soon after it appeared. For those who would like to keep up with the conversation, here’s the heart of Coyne’s response (which, in its full version, shows him offering several direct responses to several long passages that he quotes from Jeff’s piece):

For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting anti-materialist views. . . . I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the dreaded incursion of science — the bogus disease of “scientism.”

That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas. Given his position, it’s not surprising that Kripal’s piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although the piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):

“People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and because these events can’t be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm beyond our ken. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that naturalism is not sufficient to understand the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of ‘transhuman signals.'”

That sounds bizarre, especially for a distinguished periodical, but anti-naturalism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia.

. . . But our brain is not anything like a radio. The information processed in that organ comes not from a transhuman ether replete with other people’s thoughts, but from signals sent from one neuron to another, ultimately deriving from the effect of our physical environment on our senses. If you cut your optic nerves, you go blind; if you cut the auditory nerves, you become deaf. Without such sensory inputs, whose mechanisms we understand well, we simply don’t get information from the spooky channels promoted by Kripal.

When science manages to find reliable evidence for that kind of clairvoyance, I’ll begin to pay attention. Until then, the idea of our brain as a supernatural radio seems like a kind of twentieth-century alchemy—the resort of those whose will to believe outstrips their respect for the facts.

Full article: “Science Is Being Bashed by Academic Who Should Know Better

(An aside: Is it just me, or in his second paragraph above does Coyne effectively insult and dismiss the entire field of religious studies and all the people who work in it?)

Jeff responded five days later in a second piece for the Chronicle, where he met Coyne’s criticisms head-on with words like these:

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, though, Coyne drew absolute conclusions from absolutely false statements: “Finally,” he declared toward the end of his piece, “when the brain expires, so does consciousness. Nobody has been able to communicate with the dead.” The first statement is simply an assumption. It is a perfectly reasonable assumption in the production model of the brain-mind relationship, but it is an open question in the transmission or “radio” model (destroying a radio, after all, does nothing to the radio signal).

The second statement, that “nobody has been able to communicate with the dead,” is patently false. The historical record is filled with honest and sincere people reporting exactly that. In fact, I began my essay with just such an event, as reported by a forensic pathologist. But none of this, of course, is genuine data for Coyne. He sneers at all of it as “woo,” takes it all off the academic table, and puts it in the trash of pseudoscience and professors of religious studies.

But that is not an intellectual argument. That is name-calling and an attempt to control and manipulate the data so that the “proper” conclusions are reached. My point is a simple one: If you put the “impossible” data on the table, you will arrive at different conclusions.

Full article: “Embracing the Unexplained, Part 2

I strongly urge readers of The Teeming Brain to click through and read the full text of both articles, since the conversation they create and represent is a crucial one right now.

For my own small part in all of this, I want to weigh in regarding an assertion that appears several times and in several different forms among the more than 300 reader comments that have been posted in response to the original “Visions of the Impossible” article, and that also serves as something like a fundamental tenet of Jerry Coyne’s outlook. Various Chronicle readers spoke up to assess, discuss, praise, and criticize Jeff’s article, and among the latter group a number rejected one of his major points by asserting that materialism, instead of being an a priori assumption that is brought to the evidence ahead of time, is instead a conclusion drawn from the available evidence itself. Materialism, these commenters claimed, is the scientifically revealed truth about The Way Things Really Are, and therefore people who try to challenge it are trying to undo one of the crowning cultural-philosophical achievements of scientific progress.

The problem with this claim is simple and obvious: It’s completely wrong. It is wrong as a matter of clear philosophical principle, and it is wrong a matter of sheer and verifiable historical fact. Far from being a revealed result or proven reality, scientific materialism is the result of applying a specific mental/philosophical filter to the totality of experience. This filter is made up of the scientific method in its various iterations, methodological naturalism, and an assortment of highly inflected sociocultural motivations, biases, and assumptions stemming from the late Renaissance and, especially, the Enlightenment.

Nor is this filter applied to some existing field of phenomena that presents itself spontaneously as “evidence,” since what counts as “evidence” in the first place is determined by the filter itself. Everything else is screened out and effectively hidden from awareness for those who choose to construct their view of reality as a whole based on the results of, and from within the bubble of, this single philosophical filter.  For a pertinent identification of this principle in action, see again Jeff’s observation, quoted above, about Coyne’s attempt to manipulate and exclude certain data by denying that it even counts as genuine data at all.

“Far from being a revealed result or proven reality, scientific materialism is the result of applying a specific mental/philosophical filter to the totality of experience.”

Of course, the same could be said of pretty much any attempt at constructing an all-encompassing worldview. But since scientific materialism is what’s at issue, and since it has long been the dominant cultural paradigm for you, me, and all of us, like an enveloping ideological fog that we absorb through our very pores as we’re growing up, it is important to call it out for the pointedly arbitrary, limited, and provisional — and, I might add, destructive and deadly — picture of reality that it really and truly is.

I think the very transformation of academic and cultural discourse that Jeff describes and advocates in his Chronicle articles, and also in his books, is the type of thing that will, or could, or may, contribute to a general correction of the situation and a re-enriching of our collective experience as both academics and human beings.

Of course there are those who will say they feel empowered and enriched, not enervated and impoverished, by the scientific-materialist worldview itself, but I think they may be failing to take into account both the negative philosophical/spiritual effects and the negative practical effects that have flowed, and that continue to flow, from the ontological flatland viewpoint of the materialist ideology. Think of the twentieth century with its proliferation of war and genocide on a previously inconceivable scale. Think of the possible real-world science fiction-type super-technological dystopia awaiting us in the near future (or beginning to envelope us now). These are just two signposts on the road we’ve collectively taken. What more is it going to take to shake us out of our consensus trance and make us realize that we made a wrong turn somewhere?

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong /

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 24, 2014, in Paranormal, Psychology & Consciousness, Science & Technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Another great post, Matt. I feel like Kripal’s article is indicative of a turning of the tide. The opponents of Reductionist Materialism are tired of being ridiculed and told to go away—we aren’t going away, and I sense a circling of the wagons as more and more academics are willing to speak up against the high priests of rationality.

  2. Urgghh! Every time Jerry Coyne puts something “paranormal” into his “woo” category, I want to bang my head on the wall.

  3. Perhaps the main reason why science and the scientistic world-view receive such reverence in Western culture, at least among the educated, is because they are strongly pro-social and cohesive forces in an increasingly irreligious age of alienated fragmentation.

    The unacknowledged aim of science when misapplied is to reduce our perceptions and understanding of phenomena to the stage where only one interpretation is possible. In that sense, modern science is a high-tech, fully up-to-date variant of that hardy perennial, the herd mentality. It is a rationalized, mechanistic “Kumbaya” that unites the flock around the campfire, all one in their nodded agreement that “this” can only be “that”, that “X is X”, and how could anyone ever perceive otherwise, or think differently in any way?

    To shift the metaphor: Encased in Scientism’s hard tortoise shell is the soothing balm of primitive religious explanation, recast in a form palatable to the people of a post-Enlightenment age, and perfectly crafted to relieve their particular anxieties.

  4. Thanks, Matt. I am glad that my attempt at a substantive contribution to your comments section met with such a kind acknowledgment from you. I won’t make that mistake again.

  5. Rodney Whitehouse

    One thing to consider is that scientism is a handy tool for the religious to fight back against what they view as encroachment on their, exclusive, territory. If PSI become just another subject of scientific research, many fear that religion will lose it’s exclusive authority on “spiritual” matters, which, for many, can be the only reason they worship.

    Fundamentalists have no trouble working behind the scenes to discredit Psi, just as they have climate science, evolution, geology, medicine, and any other field of knowledge that they feel threatens their beliefs. If a debunker seems completely unscientific and dogmatic, it could be that they have no interest in science at all, they just want to keep psi in the shadows as long as possible. Something to think about.

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