The contemporary scholarly climate is, I hear, one of scientism and naturalism. Thinking peoples do not currently believe that there is any way to know anything but by means of touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, or seeing. Scientists are the only arbiters of truth.

I would like to propose a simple challenge to this view.

If there is a single object of knowledge that I can show is not known empirically, then it will open a Pandora’s box of sorts for these thinkers, and the possibility of non-empirical ways of knowing will be accepted and discussed among intellectuals (as it has been, incidentally, for the last 2,500 years or so.)

I think there is such an object, and, I will begin the demonstration with a question: Who is reading this post?

“I am,” you might say.

“Who are you?” I ask. Or, better, “What are you?”

“I am a human being, of course, you silly blogger,” You might respond.

“Well, have you, reader, ever seen, smelled, touched or tasted yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now have you ever seen, smelled, touched, tasted your consciousness?”

“No, but I see where you are going. You are going to say consciousness is non-physical or some such nonsense. That is simply not the case. We have not done enough neuroscientific research to discover how it is that the brain produces consciousness, but we will, so your silly argument falls flat,” you might say.

“You are getting ahead of me. Let’s start here: Have you ever seen your brain?”

“Not mine, not personally.”

“Yet you say that your thoughts are physical events in your brain, correct?”

“Right.”

“Do you say that you are aware of and have some knowledge of your own thoughts, and, more generally, of yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Yet you have never seen your thoughts, or ‘yourself’, that is, your conscious self?”

“We do not understand enough about consciousness.”

“I agree. But we understand enough to say that we are aware of our thoughts and our personal identities, right? As you read this, you can close your eyes and think about what you had for breakfast, how you feel, what you are thinking.”

“Right.”

“Is there any reasonable doubt that at least these two things: my thoughts and my personal identity, are things of which I can be aware non-empirically? Do you not assume that you are knowable to yourself? That when you say, ‘I,’ you are referring to something to which you have direct access, rather than by way of your brain?”

“I do assume it, but we do not understand enough about consciousness to say one way or the other. It is perplexing, I will grant that, but there is no reason to jump to such unlikely conclusions as that we are metaphysical ghosts.”

“You say this conclusion is unlikely. Is it unlikely for this reason, or some other? That we are assuming the ‘metaphysical’ does not exist. An assumption that, if true, makes any assertion of non-physical substances absolutely silly and impossible…?”

“That is the reason,” You might say.

“Why are we assuming that?”

I do not know what you might respond here. If you have a response, please share it in the comments. I will conclude with an invitation to consider this assumption in light of the fact that the most reasonable explanation we have at this point in time — it may change with the research, I will grant that — is that conscious identity is non-physical. If this is the case, then there is at least one way of knowing that is non-empirical, namely introspection, or something like it.

If I have made some mistake in reasoning, I would be pleased to have it pointed out to me that I may be refuted and change my beliefs. If not, I want to explore the nature of ways of knowing, empirical and otherwise. And rather than fear what else might be in Pandora’s box, let us search for the truth and rejoice in the identification and rejection of falsehood, no matter how dear to us it once was.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Keith E. Buhler

13 Comments

  1. That when you say, ‘I,’ you are referring to something to which you have direct access, rather than by way of your brain?”

    Keith, I’m trying to make sense of that, which seems to beg the question, assuming that “direct access” to one’s own thoughts is somehow not mediated by the brain. Or am I completely misunderstanding?

    Reply

  2. Who proposes such scientism as you describe in your first paragraph? Who claims scientists as the only arbiters of truth? Where?

    Have you checked out either Antonio D’Amasio’s work (such as Descartes’ Error) or Francis Crick’s Astonishing Hypothesis?

    Reply

  3. Ed,

    In my experience, the semi-literate trumpets science above all else, though philosophers of science know better. Thus, it’s hard to find true scientism defended in print (after the death of logical positivism). The catch line is “We now know…” Any time you hear it, you can bet it’s some discovery of science (see reports two years ago that we now know what part of the brain ’causes’ religious experiences…)

    I haven’t read Damasio’s work, though it’s been recommended to me a couple times now. Too many books on the list, I tell you. Oh, and I’m not Keith, but I’m broadly in the same camp as him.

    Reply

  4. I think some people read into news stories things that are not there. Here is the BBC coverage of the brain research, for example — it’s thorough, but nowhere does it say that “we now know” religious experiences are not manifestations of God. In fact, a careful reading would suggest the research absolutely cannot make such a conclusion: http://www.economist.com/printedition/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=2478148

    Of course, reports that say “we now know” often reveal things we now know. Those who reject such conclusions may do so at some risk. Not the smallest risk, I suppose, is a separation from reality.

    Those who refuse to believe what we now know cannot really claim to know, can they?

    Reply

  5. Ed,

    I would agree that people read too much into news stories–yet in my experience (conversations with friendly atheists), the claims of science becomes the trump card for everything. Examine this piece from 2001 (Newsweek: http://www.cognitiveliberty.org/neuro/neuronewswk.htm). It contains the caveat that The bottom line, he says, is that “there is no way to determine whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual experience mean that the brain is causing those experiences … or is instead perceiving a spiritual reality.”
    It seems we would both agree this is true. And yet the article repeatedly refers to the “neurological underpinnings” and “neurological basis” of religious experience. It’s a question of metaphysics, not epistemology.

    As for your statement that “Those who refuse to believe what we now know cannot really claim to know, can they?” You simply beg the question by assuming that we now know what we claim. I haven’t rejected anything that we now know, if we really know it. It seems for pop-level misinterpretations of scientific “conclusions” we aren’t warranted in claiming knowledge of everything we wish.

    Reply

  6. I fail to understand your complaint about the Newsweek article. Specifically, contrary to the general tone of your argument, it denies religious experiences in no way. It refers to the “neurological underpinnings,” but it doesn’t say they are causes and not effects. So what is your real complaint?

    We are not justified in claiming what we know not to be accurate, either. No, we don’t have a full understanding of consciousness (nor do I believe we ever will). That’s not a rejection of the metaphysical. It’s a description of what is known.

    Now I’m perplexed about why you leap to a conclusion that stating what we know is the same as denying metaphysical. That’s not my experience in the lab, or in research funding.

    Reply

  7. I don’t think you’re misunderstanding, Jim. That’s a good question. Let me see if I can be less unclear by asking the following question that we both, I think, need to address:

    Given that I have a veridical experience of myself… that I “feel” like myself…
    is it be possible to have that experience if I am no more than my brain?

    Here’s my first attempt at answering it:

    I have seen my thoughts, but I have never seen my brain. So it seems that the answer is no. It seems my thoughts are not such as to require being seen (or empirically verified in any other way) to be known.

    The challenge to that, and what I think you are getting at, Jim, is this: Though I have never “seen” my brain cells with my eyes, yet certain brain cells, namely, those that are the seat of consciousness, are such as to be “empirically” (now the term is stretching) “experienced” by each other, basically by electro-magnetic means. The interaction of these cells simply is conscioussness.

    Is that the argument? I have a thought in response to that, but I want to see a) if I’m getting the objection right and b) if you have anything to add to it.

    Reply

  8. Ed, thanks for your thoughtful contributions.

    A few comments in response:

    The post was intended (aside from being food for thought) to be a challenge to anyone who consciously or unconsciously ascribes to some form of scientism. If there are no such actual persons in the world, the post was for no one.

    I haven’t checked out D’Amasio’s work or Crick’s. What’s their gig? Can you give me a taste of their work?

    I will respond to your second post below…

    Reply

  9. Ed said: “Of course, reports that say “we now know” often reveal things we now know. Those who reject such conclusions may do so at some risk. Not the smallest risk, I suppose, is a separation from reality.”

    I am a firm believer in the scientific enterprise. “All men desire knowledge” and I am a man, therefore I desire knowledge.

    So far I think we are on the same page, yes?

    Now, I am also a believer in the limitations of empirical or sense-oriented ways of knowing.

    Are you not so sure about those limitations, or are you only cautioning me (for which I would be grateful) against throwing out the baby with the bath water? I don’t yet understand your comment.

    Reply

  10. “Whether the Unio Mystica has anything in common with out-of-body experiences, or even phantom limbs, remains to be seen—though all are certainly mediated by the brain.”
    -from the article on “Spiritual Neurology”
    (http://www.economist.com/printedition/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=2478148)

    Ed responded to Matt by saying: “I fail to understand your complaint about the Newsweek article. Specifically, contrary to the general tone of your argument, it denies religious experiences in no way. It refers to the “neurological underpinnings,” but it doesn’t say they are causes and not effects. So what is your real complaint?”

    The cautious reserve of the article writer is what I do not understand.

    Perhaps I can answer with an analogy. If my roommate walked in and said, “Man, I feel so relaxed. I just got a massage.” I would say, “Cool.” If this happened repeatedly, say he got weekly massages at the local hotel sauna, I would not think much of it (except for being a little jealous).

    If he walked in and said, “Man, it’s so weird. I was just cleaning the kitchen and shuffling around the house, and I suddenly felt really relaxed. I have no idea why,” And if this happened repeatedly, without apparent cause, on a weekly basis, I would want to study his body chemistry, measure his blood-sugar levels, do brain scans, measure the amount of oxygen in his blood, and basically understand everything that was going on in his body.

    Why, when a nun tells us about the emotional experience of communing with God, do we want to study her brain chemistry, rather than just saying “Cool”?

    When I hear about a nun’s experiences, though I am also curious about her brain states, mostly I feel a little jealous. But then again, I believe in masseuses.

    Reply

  11. So, Mr. Buhler: When science confirms the religious experience, you’ll deny it?

    I’m not sure why religionists are so nervous about studying any phenomenon, especially those which are reported to be good and virtuous. We could always learn something. Is that the fear?

    Reply

  12. Mr. Darrell said: “When science confirms the religious experience, you’ll deny it?”

    No… but I don’t understand the question. Did I deny some scientific confirmation? If so, I didn’t mean to. If not, was it something else?

    To restate: As a rule, I am for gaining as much knowledge and understanding as humanly possible, starting with the most important things and continuing on to everything else.

    That means understanding experience itself (religious or any other kind), as well as the physiological extensions or effects (the realm of science).

    My only fear — the thing I want to avoid — is of neglecting to pay attention to some part of humanity. I want to see the whole.

    What would be the best way of advancing our understanding of experience? To grant that some of it may have extra-physical causes, and proceed to study it as best we can, accounting for first-person reports and using the most advanced technology available.

    Reply

  13. Ed,

    I hope you see this. I’ve been away for some time and am just returning.

    Regarding the Newsweek article, my complaint is with the metaphors they employ to talk about the body/soul issue. To regard the neurological as the ‘basis’ and ‘underpinning’ of religious experience suggests that at its core, religious experience is neurological. I’m arguing about a bias, a notoriously difficult thing to do. I’ll give it up if you’re not persuaded, and be left in a position of simply appealing to my own experience–many of my high school students are unconscious adherants of scientism–they resonate with the N.I.C.E. of Lewis’ That Hideous Strength far more than they should.

    Now I’m perplexed about why you leap to a conclusion that stating what we know is the same as denying metaphysical. That’s not my experience in the lab, or in research funding.

    That’s encouraging. You have had (I’m sure) more lab experience than I. Scientists may not be guilty of perpetuating the myth of scientism. Logical postivists certainly were. But what about education? It’s empiricism (statistics!!!) that rules the day there. For anything to be considered a “serious discipline,” doesn’t it have to meet the conditions of science (i.e. empirically testable)? That’s the prevailing attitude–see the death of philosophy departments in Britian and the death of non-empirical education departments here in the States. Does that help my case at all?

    Enjoying the dialogue,

    Matt

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.