It’s one of the dominant myths of our time. But scientism, as frequent BreakPoint listeners will know, isn’t science. Instead, it’s the ideology that science offers answers not just about the physical world, but about ultimate meaning, morality, or even the lack thereof. George Gilder at The Intercollegiate Review, calls this “the materialist superstition,” and BreakPoint online columnist Tom Gilson dubs it “science gone imperialist.”
C. S. Lewis inspired an even better name for it: “Nothing-buttery.” Christians, he said, are frequently confronted by the claim that experiences like love and joy are “nothing but” illusions created by evolution or chemical reactions in our grey matter. Advocates of scientism dismiss consciousness, mind and soul as “nothing but” the working of our material brains just as they dismiss life itself as “nothing but” accidental collisions and mutations in an only material universe.
The problem is that neither mind nor matter wants to be explained away. These things keep insistently drawing us into what NASA physicist Robert Jastrow once called “the supernatural.” But that doesn’t stop proponents of scientism from trying anyway.
With advances in brain scanning technology emerging almost daily, scientists and journalists are asking with ever greater urgency: where, inside our heads, do we live? What part of the brain is essentially “us”?
1996 might have been the year TIME Magazine set the tone for scientism when it ran a cover story entitled, “In Search of the Mind.”
“Consciousness,” the author speculated, “may be nothing more than an evanescent by-product of more mundane, wholly physical processes...being awake or being conscious is nothing but a dreamlike state [that has] no objective reality [because we can] never actually touch or measure it.”
That’s “nothing-buttery” at its finest!
But “Guardian” columnist Andrew Brown, commenting on the last chapter of this debate, thinks it’s nonsense.
“Can science tell us whether the soul exists…?” he asks. “This is…like asking whether brain imaging can tell us whether love exists. It’s just a category mistake. There are things going on in the brain of a lover which would not be there but for love… [And] you can’t know that they mean love without talking to the person whose brain you examine.”
Anyone familiar with the work of Princeton physician Wilder Penfield will recognize this allusion immediately. Penfield, who performed brain surgery on over a thousand epileptic patients during the 1970s, set out to locate the material seat of consciousness.
Using an electrical probe, Penfield writes that he could cause patients to turn their heads and eyes, move limbs, vocalize and swallow. He could even change the way they heard and saw the world.
But even after years of work, he couldn’t find what made them, them. He could manipulate their brains, but not their consciousness—not their minds or souls.
In his book, “Mysteries of the Mind,” Penfield observed, “If the electrode moves [the patient’s] right hand, he does not say, ‘I wanted to move it.’ He may, however, reach over with the left hand and oppose his action.”
From this he concludes: “The patient’s mind…can only be something quite apart from neuronal reflex action...I, like other scientists, have struggled to prove that the brain accounts for the mind.”
Of course, the fact that our experiences, our decisions, and our beliefs are more than just electrical currents in wetware is exactly what Christians would expect. Understanding and reminding our culture of that fact is crucial to restoring a right understanding of human beings—one which views us not as mere material, but as naturally supernatural creatures that no amount of “nothing-buttery” can explain away.