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The fundamental proposition of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness is nothing but brain activity. It is either like a shadow, an ‘epiphenomenon’, that does nothing, or it is just another way of talking about brain activity. However, among contemporary researchers in neuroscience and consciousness studies there is no consensus about the nature of minds.
Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the ‘hard problem’. It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experienceof redness is not accounted for.
In biology and psychology the credibility rating of materialism is falling. Can physics ride to the rescue? Some materialists prefer to call themselves physicalists, to emphasise that their hopes depend on modern physics, not nineteenth-century theories of matter. But physicalism’s own credibility rating has been reduced by physics itself, for four reasons.
First, some physicists insist that quantum mechanics cannot be formulated without taking into account the minds of observers. They argue that minds cannot be reduced to physics because physics presupposes the minds of physicists.
Second, the most ambitious unified theories of physical reality, string and M-theories, with ten and eleven dimensions respectively, take science into completely new territory. Strangely, as Stephen Hawking tells us in his book The Grand Design(2010), ‘No one seems to know what the “M” stands for, but it may be “master”, “miracle” or “mystery”.’ According to what Hawking calls ‘model-dependent realism’, different theories may have to be applied in different situations.
‘Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.’
String theories and M-theories are currently untestable so ‘model-dependent realism’ can only be judged by reference to other models, rather than by experiment. It also applies to countless other universes, none of which has ever been observed. As Hawking points out,
M-theory has solutions that allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled. M-theory has solutions that allow for many different internal spaces, perhaps as many as 10500, which means it allows for 10500 diff erent universes, each with its own laws … The original hope of physics to produce a single theory explaining the apparent laws of our universe as the unique possible consequence of a few simple assumptions may have to be abandoned.
Some physicists are deeply sceptical about this entire approach, as the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin shows in his book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next(2008). String theories, M-theories and ‘modeldependent realism’ are a shaky foundation for materialism or physicalism or any other belief system, as discussed in Chapter 1.
Third, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has become apparent that the known kinds of matter and energy make up only about four per cent of the universe. The rest consists of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. The nature of 96 per cent of physical reality is literally obscure (see Chapter 2).
Fourth, the Cosmological Anthropic Principle asserts that if the laws and constants of nature had been slightly different at the moment of the Big Bang, biological life could never have emerged, and hence we would not be here to think about it (see Chapter 3).
So did a divine mind fine-tune the laws and constants in the beginning? To avoid a creator God emerging in a new guise, most leading cosmologists prefer to believe that our universe is one of a vast, and perhaps infinite, number of parallel universes, all with different laws and constants, as M-theory also suggests. We just happen to exist in the one that has the right conditions for us.
This multiverse theory is the ultimate violation of Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’, or in other words, that we should make as few assumptions as possible. It also has the major disadvantage of being untestable. And it does not even succeed in getting rid of God. An infinite God could be the God of an infinite number of universes.
Materialism provided a seemingly simple, straightforward worldview in the late nineteenth century, but twenty-first-century science has left it behind. Its promises have not been fulfilled, and its promissory notes have been devalued by hyperinflation.
I am convinced that the sciences are being held back by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos. These beliefs protect the citadel of established science, but act as barriers against open-minded thinking.
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