THE BLOG
08/25/2005 04:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting off the Skyhook: A Reply to Michael Shermer

Dear Friends,

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com), the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American (www.sciam.com), and the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil. His latest book is Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown (all published by Henry Holt/Times Books. He posted a critical review entitled Skyhooks and Cranes: Deepak Chopra, George W. Bush, and Intelligent Designon this blog. My response to him is posted below. It is an ongoing dialogue with the hope that one day there will be reconciliation between science and transcendence.

Michael Shermer was unusually polite to me in his comments on "skyhooks and cranes" and my supposed need to jerk theories out of thin air in order to find explanations that science, if given enough time, will arrive at on its own. I am well aware of the skeptical position on consciousness, although Shermer's passing reference to it as "supernatural" is wrong. To a skeptic, anything that transcends materialism can be loosely called magic, superstition, ignorance, bad science, and faulty thinking.

I am neither frustrated nor exasperated by the skeptical position. To the general public the materialist position may seem self-evident in its truth. After all, who would deny science in the face of its technical triumph? I am grateful not to be tarred as a reactionary who is trying to throw Galileo back into the jaws of the Church.

However, I also know that in a sincere way my own position merely extends the profound speculations of minds much greater than mine, and whom I have always acknowledged. In physics these minds include Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrodinger, and others like David Bohm who have speculated about what lies beyond space-time and how something like a transcendental consciousness interacts with the material universe.

One has to stand on the shoulders of great minds because there are hugely important issues at stake. In neurology I refer to Wilder Penfield and Sir John Eccles. In philosophy I depend on the tradition of Vedanta in India, which is almost untaught in the West, although it has had its influence on Schopenhaur and Emerson, primarily, and through them Nietzsche. I am well aware of the debate on A.I. In the argument between Daniel Dennett and his critics I side with the critics, especially John Searle.

So much for establishing a bit of credibility by association. Michael Shermer's point seems to be that anyone who agrees with any point in the Intelligent Design camp has laid down with dogs and deserves to get up with fleas. Sorry, but I have not the slightest association with anyone in the Christian wing of Intelligent design, and I long ago gave up my official card to the skeptic's society.

Skepeticism often taints discussions by veering into cheap debate tactics and stubborn close-mindedness. A truly intelligent skeptic knows when to quit and to admit that certain problems may admit of a paradigm shift beyond the scope of current thinking. The tradition of consciousness that I represent is philosophically sound. I remember in college that we freshmen were assigned to find a fallacy in Plato. We eagerly did this and were given our grades of A, B, or C. Does that in any way make us the equal of Socrates? Skeptic magazine can publish all the cover stories it wants on my supposedly fallacious science, and for any errors I have made, I accept correction.

However, Skeptic magazine lives in fantasy land if it feels that its position automatically trumps the greatest thinkers about consciousness or that the tradition of skepticism, which can count Freud, Marx, and other giants, automatically negates the other side.

Among those who are actually able to remain open-minded, the following issues are very much open questions, not because they are waiting for science to solve them but because they exist at the limits of psychology, epistemology, physics, religion, and neurology.

1. Is consciousness an emergent property? The materialist position is that consciousness "appeared" at a certain stage of chemical evolution, and is in any case an epiphenomenon. This assumption is far from being proved, and the counter-position, that consciousness is an inherent property throughout Nature, is equally credible. I have written hundreds of pages describing the counter-position, so has Rupert Sheldrake, among others.

2. The quantum effect associated with observer and observed, whereby a photon behaves like a wave or a particle depending on who is observing it, remains mysterious in many ways. It seems most likely that the human brain is itself a quantum machine, in some way closing the gap between subjectivity and objectivity.

3. The relationship between the brain and the mind is open to dual interpretation. One can see the brain as our only proof of mind, in which case the current bent of neurology, to equate consciousness with neural function, makes perfect sense. But to me this is like saying that a radio playing a Beethoven symphony is also creating the symphony. Evidence for mind outside the brain isn't trivial, stupid, or religiously motivated. Activity in the synaptic gap, the whole field of memory, and the philosophical area of epistemology all raise the possibility, as the eminent British neurologist Sir John Eccles once said, that God could be in the gap, not in the molecules.

4. The ability of the brain to turn chemical reactions into an entire world of sensation remains a mystery. We aren't talking about locations and neural activity. That is an order of explanation removed from where the answer lies. There is a fundamental difference between the action of potassium across a neural membrane and conscious thought and sensation. Materialists ignore this schism but cannot really fill it.

I have posted my own theory that biology will not explain life or consciousness without filling in the gaps between quantum theory and biology. Therefore I am not the victim of Michael Shermer's "skyhook" but exactly the opposite. If he had read my post--not that it's a failing for him not to--he would have seen that I, too, realize that we cannot hoist an unprovable X factor to fill in gaps of knowledge. Where we differ is that he trusts in simple materialism to finish the job, and I am quite sure it will take a shift away from strict materialism to do it.

Materialism can build better and better radios. It will never reconstruct Beethoven's mind. The basic activity of the universe that gave us the material world includes consciousness, and at this moment that same consciousness is expressing itself through Mr. Shermer and me. I look forward to the day when our explanation of consciousness is therefore equally acceptable to both of us, and a reconciliation between science and transcendence emerges.

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