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A blog post I just finished on Materialism
A common argument from materialists is that Occams Razor favours their viewpoint. Materialism is a philosophical view that states that everything in existence is reducible to matter which is defined quantitively in terms of mass, frequency, momentum etc, etc whilst qualities like taste, colour and pain are said to be generated epiphenonmenally by the brain. Materialists also believe that consciousness is produced by the brain and is identical with brain states although the eliminative materialists (who I don't intend to discuss further today) such as Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland believe that consciousness is an illusion and doesn't actually exist at all. Materialism is therefore incompatible with other well known philosophical worldviews such as panpsychism, metaphysical idealism or interactive dualism as a few examples.

Invented by a 14th century Franciscan Friar by the name of William of Ockham, Occams Razor postulates that if there are multiple potential explanations for a phenomenon then the explanation that requires the smallest number of assumptions, i.e the simplest theory, is usually correct. There is a caveat here however, and this will be essential to my argument, that the application of the Razor is only valid when both explanations are equally plausible and even in this case, it is not universally valid. In this post I intend to argue that whilst this argument that the Razor favours materialism may look compelling to a lot of people, the truth is that Occams Razor is actually anything but favourable to materialism when thought about critically. I should add that there won't be anything original in any of my arguments, I'm just aiming to write a piece that combines the most crucial arguments against this outlook into one post.

Before I dive into my reasons for why I think this however, I want to quickly outline some of the reasons that I've been able to deduce as to why materialists think they have a good argument here. I will not claim to be able to produce an exhaustive list of the reasons why someone would become a materialist but I'll do my best to outline what I think the major reasons are. For starters, I can see that it's easy to look at our biological origins as a result of Darwinian evolution, the vast size of the universe and the amount of suffering in the world and from all this conclude that our existence is a random accident. It may well be that it is and this idea doesn't necessarily validate materialism or mean that consciousness isn't fundamental to existence rather than something produced by the brain for some evolutionary purpose (the latter is a common argument by materialists for the existence of consciousness but as we will see later it has its share of problems). Nevertheless, I can understand why some people look at these things and become materialists as a result.

There is also an undeniable relationship between brain states and conscious states (although it may not be as straight forward as materialists like to think it is ) which materialists often take as conclusive proof that the mind is the brain and therefore dies when it dies. This assumption is so common in academia that many people, consciously or perhaps unconsciously, think that the scientific method and science itself are identical with materialism when the latter is at most a philosophical interpretation of scientific data. One also might be inclined to suspect that the backlash against religion that has grown increasingly in strength in the west since the enlightenment plays quite a large role in academic hostility towards parapsychology and anything else that doesn't fit easily into the materialist paradigm. Lastly, in the modern age, it's common for a lot of people to look at the world and simply assume that what you see is what you get.

Where to begin in demonstrating why I think these arguments don't line up? For starters, it's common for materialists to mistakenly assume that materialism is simply the belief that everything that exists is physical. In actuality, what reductionist materialism states about reality is more specific than this as it claims that everything in the physical world is reducible to quantitive measurements such as mass, frequency and velocity whilst claiming that the brain somehow produces our perception of qualities like colour, taste, pain etc, etc. In other words, the redness of the colour red is fully reducible to a wavelength frequency. As critics of materialism have pointed out, this reductionism creates an insurpassable explanatory gap because a purely quantitive description of reality can never capture the qualitive aspects of experience and thus can't be considered a complete description of existence. For example, one can know the wavelength frequency of a particular red but knowing that frequency wouldn't enable a blind person to be able to experience the redness of that red in their head because there is something inherently qualitative in the experience of doing so. This problem is known as the "Hard Problem of Consciousness" as coined by Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers. As computer scientist and metaphysical idealist Bernado Kastrup puts it:

"there is nothing about the parameters of material arrangements—say, the position and momentum of the atoms constituting our brain—in terms of which we could deduce, at least in principle, how it feels to fall in love, to taste wine, or to listen to a Vivaldi sonata."

What is perhaps equally problematic in the reductionist model is that if the brain as a physical organ can only be defined in quantative terms, as this model claims, then it seems impossible that it could generate qualities or qualia epiphenomenally since it would not possess these in the first place. It's worth noting here that whatever their issues might be, none of the major alternatives to reductionist materialism suffer from problems as intractable as this. So right from the get go, making the argument that Occam's Razor favours this model is highly problematic in my eyes because I don't accept that the competing models are equal in their explanatory power.

Another weakness of reductive materialism is that it struggles to provide any compelling reason as to why consciousness should exist if it is just an epiphenomenon that doesn't do anything and is at the whim of unconscious processes within the brain. Some might argue that it is a necessary for making the brain care more about survival but there is really no evidence that this actually occurs and the ever expanding ability of AI to carry out more and more tasks without consciousness suggests that it would be superfluous. Some materialists like evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne have suggest that consciousness could be a spandrel, i.e accidental byproduct of the complexity of the brain as it developed over time. As Kastup pointed out in his reply to Coyne, most spandrels have been shown to serve some functional purpose, there is no reason to believe that the complexity required for strong cognitive skills and for the production of consciousness would look similar. He also notes that this argument also fails to explain why consciousness appears to be present to some degree in organisms that don't appear to have the required complexity for this argument to be plausible. In a minute, I'll also show why mind-matter experiments in parapsychology also have troubling implications for the view that the mind is an epiphemenon that doesn't do anything.

Furthermore, while the undeniable correlation between brain state and mind can serve as an argument for the materialist notion that the former is a product of the latter, it can equally be made to fit a transmission theory of the mind-brain relationship in which the brain serves as a filter or intermediary for mind just as a TV set serves as a means for transmission of the content it displays without ever being the source of or containing the content in question. Chris Carter discusses this model in more detail:

"The argument in its essence is that the transmission and production hypotheses are equally compatible with the facts materialism tries to explain - such as the effects of senility, drugs, and brain damage on consciousness - but that the hypothesis of transmission has the advantage of providing a framework for understanding other phenomena that must remain utterly inexplicable on the basis of the materialistic hypothesis. The materialists simply deny that these other phenomena even exist, as they rightly realize that the existence of these phenomena threatens their ideology with extinction."

At this point, putting aside the earlier philosophical arguments against reductive materialism dicussed in this post, one might be tempted to argue, even if a transmission based understanding of consciousness can be plausibly reconciled with the relationship between the brain and mind that it is still simpler to presume that the materialist production theory of brain and mind is correct. Unfortunately for this argument, there exists a wealth of experimental data in Parapsychology to support the existence of extra sensory perception (ESP or psi), some of which is documented here by Dean Radin. Before you go dismissing parapsychology as a quack or fringe science, please consider the fact that the Parapsychological Association is an affiliated organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (when no skeptical organization is) and that parapsychologists have published their work in the most prestigious science journals in the world. In fact, a recent and comprehensive meta-analysis of the experimental evidence for ESP of Psi by Parapsychologist Etzel Cardeña stated that:

"The evidence provides cumulative support for the reality of psi, which cannot be readily explained away by the quality of the studies, fraud, selective reporting, experimental or analytical incompetence, or other frequent criticisms. The evidence for psi is comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines, although there is no consensual understanding of them"

Furthermore, although skeptics have devoted considerable time and resources to lengthy and often fanatical attacks on parapsychology, much of this has been shown to be meritless as one can see if they take a look at Johann Baptista and Max Derakhshani's lengthy and meticulous critical analysis of CSICOP skeptic Richard Wiseman's criticisms of Parapsychology and the Ganzfeld Telepathy experiments in particular. Nancy L. Zingrone also devoted her Ph.D thesis to demonstrating that while parapsychology has made major advantages over the last 120 years, the quality of the criticism directed at it has not advanced much at all. Zigrone believes that this is largely a result of the criticism of this field being plagued by a lack of critical thinking, a lack of self-reflection and a lack of openess to communication. While I'm not a parapsychologist, I do have a lot of anecdotal experience in debating with skeptics and that experience would firmly lead me to consider Zigrone's criticism to be entirely valid. In fact as George P.Hansen has noticed in an article published in the American Society for Psychical Research, organized skepticism towards ESP is far less focused on producing scientific research to challenge the findings of parapsychological experiments than it is on an agenda driven public relations campaign to discredit the field through the use of media.

What is the relevance of all this to materialism? Well while it may be possible that the reality of ESP can be reconciled with it, this seems highly unlikely as telepathy and field consciousness (both of which have been demonstrated to exist beyond any credible doubt) imply that our individual consciousness is not an epiphenomenal product of the brain that is seperate from everyone elses consciousness but rather than that there is a universal consciousness that our individual consciousness is a part of. Also problematic for materialism is that mind-matter experiments in parapsychology imply that mind can act directly on the physical world which doesn't fit with the materialist argument that mind is an epiphenomenon that doesn't do anything and is controlled by unconscious mechanisms in the brain.

To borrow Kastrup's analogy, our individual consciousness would be like a whirlpool in the ocean. Dean Radin speculated that it's quite likely that we are all constantly having Psi experiences as a result of this but that the brain subconsciously filters almost all of this out the vast majority of the time because the information overload would not be useful to our surivival. A lot of this may seem far out but it's actually supported by several intepretations of quantum physics, Stapp's version of the Copenhagen Interpretation which you can read about here and David Bohm's interpretation which postulates that that as well as being an outer world of separation that we see and interact with, there is also an implicit order in which nothing is separate which explains how quantum entanglement is possible and also explains why the fact that quantum entanglement can't function as a form of information transfer (a criticism that skeptics use routinely) doesn't prevent it from potentially providing a mechanism for ESP/Psi because no information transfer would need to take place in a system whose parts are already all connected. It may also be that quantum physics isn't really needed much to provide a mechanism here as ESP may just be an inherent byproduct of our individual consciousness being interconnected fragments of a universal one.

Potentially even more devastating to the materialist view of consciousness, although not as well established yet as ESP, is that there is now considerable evidence that near death experiences ( commonly referred to NDEs) aren't hallucinations but may actually be real, based on the amount of cases with verified veridical perceptions. I won't dwell on this subject but you can read about it here and here. Suffice to say, this is an exciting field of research that is growing rapidly and that I strongly believe we will know a lot more about within the next decade.

I could continue to go on and on but these are basically my main objections to the assertion that Occams Razor sides with materialism as the best explanatory model for our existence and our consciousness. This is mostly because I think the argument could only be valid if all the competing explanatory models here were equally plausible and for all the reasons given, I don't think that they are at all. Materialism suffers from a huge range of theoretical problems, cognitive bias amongst it's adherents that they don't even appear to be aware of, let alone capable of fixing and has also been challenged by a considerable bulk of experimental evidence. For all these reasons I don't think Occams Razor can be employed as an argument in favour of materialism and I also consider it a worldview in a serious, irredeemable state of crisis.



Footnote: excuse some of the typos and poorly phrased sentences, I've since fixed some of this within the blogger post itself.
So are you for or against Materialism? Ha! ha!
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