June 14, 2010

B. Alan Wallace and His Criticism of Materialists

Well, I'm glad to see that my first post about B. Alan Wallace was pretty well received as far as I tell. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be, but I was sure that something had to be said about his criticisms and it also responds to the argument that skeptics aren't being skeptical. That last post was really just covered a defense of how I perceive skepticism at the current time, but B. Alan Wallace also attacks a view I hold with a charge that it is 'eurocenteric'. That view being materialism, or that all phenomena can be broken down and shown to have material causes. 

While the claim that materialism is 'eurocenteric' does nothing to combat the truth of the idea, nor does his appeal to the popularity of the existence of the non-physical, Wallace does make some real arguments. To support his contention he goes on to attack materialism through some pretty interesting facets. These arguments were taken, once again, from his appearances on both Skeptiko and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and I will summarize and break them up here.

1.Materialists are making a leap of faith that everything must be physical. 

This is a major contention Wallace makes and I think this is more of an "Oh yeah!" argument that really is as shallow as a kiddie pool. It probably stems from non-materialists being accused of making a leap of faith, and he wants to be able to make the same accusation. The only problem with that assertion is that anyone who looks at the evidence finds only materialist explanations and really no overwhelming evidence for anything else. To say that materialists are making a leap of faith is to miss-characterize what is going on, they are not assuming that everything is physical, but rather inferring from everything we've found out so far. It may turn out that there is a non-physical realm, and materialists will have to adjust for that, but there is no unreasonable 'faith' behind materialism.Wallace's first point is more a contention in place of evidence and does nothing to further his cause. Which brings up an argument that actually has some meat to it.

2. The definition of what is 'material' has changed greatly over time, and the description really doesn't encompass what is known anymore.  (Dark Energy, Dark Matter, Electrons)

In this argument Wallace talks about how what we know about what constitutes the physical has changed so much in the last hundred years that the term material doesn't really apply anymore. He goes further to say the materialist are constantly shifting the goal posts with any new information that is found out, the electron is discovered and it's a material, light is discovered to be a wave and a particle and it's still a material, dark energy is theorized about and it too seems to be a material.

There is a grain of truth to what Wallace is describing in his argument, the conception of the physical has undergone a lot of change in the recent past. Quantum Mechanics has some really weird and counter-intuitive findings, that have been incorporated into the description of the world. The description of the physical cannot stay constant, because people keep finding out more about it than was known before, the description must adapt or be useless. This is fine along as long as what is described as material and physical still accurately describes what is going on. For this to really be shifting the goal posts it would have to be shown that the definition of the physical is not just expanding, but fundamentally changing and I don't think that's the case. Wallace himself even goes as far to say that he wouldn't deny an electron a physical existence. I also don't think he would argue that light has a non-material existence and because he doesn't he keeps his scientific dignity, but fails to make his true point.
The point he tries to make through one last ditch effort. Wallace points out that nothing is known about dark matter, except that something like it must exist. It must exist because the weights of galaxies need it to hold them together as Zwicky discovered. Yet, other than their necessary existence, not a whole lot else is known about it. Wallace argues that even thought nothing is really known about it, it is still described as matter and that is an assumption that is wrong to make. I would argue that it would be wrong if there were some non-physical explanation for other things. If prayer or meditation was proven to affect machines, if the mind could be proven to be able to float outside the body, if ghosts were shown to be real and still act as they reportedly do, there would be a reason to doubt that dark matter is in fact matter. Until then it is a safe assumption to make and there is still no reason to not be a materialist.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic


  1. can you explain why, after Richard Wiseman acknowledged (spring, 2010, I think) that by conventional standards of scientific evidence, psi has been proven (specifically, he was referring to telepathy, remote viewing, precognition and psychokinesis), the evidence is not good enough because the evidence needs to be "extraordinary"? What would constitute sufficient evidence to be "extraordinary", when even in the 1950s, die hard skeptics like George Price could not refute JB Rhine's psi experiments except by accusing him of fraud? Plese mail me at donsalmon7@gmail.com if you're interested in more on this, and check out yoga-psychology.com for information on reading a refutation of materialism

  2. I'd have to look at what Wiseman said, and I'm also willing to look at Rhine, but one persons experiments, while valuable, aren't definitive no matter who does them.

    I have blogged before on The Burden of Proof, http://themoralskeptic.blogspot.com/2010/06/burden-of-proof-and-how-it-applies-to.html, and I think that covers why proof for psi would have to be 'extraordinary' and would have to be repeated numerous times, to even prove there was a phenomena going on.

  3. Hi,

    Wiseman wasn't taling about his own experiments. He was talking about someone who has been involved, as an active scientific researcher with credentials accepted by other skeptics like Ray Hyman and Susan Blackmore, evaluating over 100 years of parapsychology research. His point was that these many decades of research have resulted in psi experiments - which have been repeated many times, to a degree almsot wholly absent in the social and life sciences, and rather rarely even in "hard" sciences like physics. So it is not about one person's experiments.

    I just had a brief exchange with William Klemm, a neuroscientist, who exemplifies the typical materialist's attitude of refusing to deeply consider scientific evidence contrary to the materialist belief system (Alan Wallace has some very good writings describing how materialism is a belief rather than an "empirical finding" - whatever that might mean.

    Once again - proof for psi has been "repeated numerous times", The problem is not the research but the false idea that it might be harmful to the scientific endeavor (or let "religion" have too much influence, which I agree would be not a good thing) if psi was accepted.

    Please look at Chris Carter's books on parapsychology, and the near-death experience. You might even look at the amazon reviews of the NDE experence - in which Chris responds to one of the negative reviews.

  4. sorry, an error in the first sentence, which should read, "He was talking AS someone". And I didnt' complete my thought about Dr. Klemm. I am patiently, since 2003, looking for another materialist who is willing to engage in a rational discussion about experiments that challenge materialism. The last person to do this - and she amazed me with her openness, and we made no attempt to change each other's minds - was my dissertation advisor, a brilliant woman who is an expert statistician. I simply invited her to challenge me regarding something I wrote on parapsychology. She did, thoroughly. I answered each of her challenges to her satisfaction, and we left it with her accepting a position of being an agnostic with regard to psi (though otherwise a committed physicalist). I would very much like to find another physicalist/materialist willing to engage wiht the facts. I haven't found any in the last 7 years. (if any one else wishes to try, you can write me at donsalmon7@gmail.com) thanks!

  5. Yeah, I'm not sure where to start...I think we disagree fundamentally on the amount of evidence required to prove something so counter-intuitive as psi. The problem really is the research and not a materialist paradigm. I'd read my blog post I linked as well as http://www.ruudwetzels.com/articles/Wagenmakersetal_subm.pdf , which states some of the problems with psi research.

  6. Well, all I can say is we don't disagree because we're not talking about the same thing. I've read the posts you referred to. I am skeptical as to whether this conversation can go any further. i haven't any idea what one can add when a leading psychologist, who has dedicated years to debunking parapsychology, has openly admitted lying when his own results replicated a major parapsychology experiment (after being asked repeatedly and denying it for over 5 years) and finally after more than 2 decades as a fully committed debunker comes out and says that the "big 4" - remote viewing, telepathy, psychokinesis and precognition - have been, using the same standards applied to any other area of science - proven.

    All that's left - and Wiseman continues to evade this - is to define "extraordinary". I personally think it's easy. What is extraordinary is to posit the absolutely unnecessary article of faith that there is such a thing as "matter" or "energy" that is inherently existent; that is, self existent material or physical energy apart from any sort of awareness whatsoever. Such a thing is an unnecessary metaphysical postulate which science is better off abandoning (the same problem accrues to both dualism and idealism by the way; even though scholars continue to label yogic views as dualistic or idealistic, they're not, but that would take too long to go into in a comment here). Anyway, I dont' know if I'll find your site again, so if you are interested,please write at donsalmon7@gmail.com. Thanks.

  7. ok, I just re-read the blog post more carefully (ruudwetzels.com). I had a conversation like this with Arthur Reber. Here's how it happened. His wife, Rhiannon Allen, was my dissertation advisor (I have Arthur's permission to tell this story in public, by the way). I sent Rhiannon an outline I wrote about parapsychology. Rhiannon is a brilliant statistician besides being an all round excellent academic psychologist. She objected to a number of things in the outline, being herself a committed physicalist. I answered each of her objections. Unlike almost all famous skeptics (Randi, Gardner, Wiseman, etc). she considered each of my objections, attempted to counter them, and then, when i responded to each of her counter statements, and she was unable to provide a furhter counter statement, she happily agreed to change her position to one of agnosticism. Thoroughly rational and a good scientist. But, she added, I should write to her husband, who at the time was teaching a course debunking parapsyhology at Brooklyn College. I thought, "great!". I wrote to him, and after getting over being shocked at the utter irrationality of his replies (and his almost limitless ability to either ignore or twist what I was saying) showed his responses to a few other people to see if I was just prejudiced. All were equally amazed to see an otherwise intelligent scientist write in such an irrational manner.

    The same with this article. As soon as someone cites Randi's million dollar challenge, you know they're not to be taken seriously (see Michael Prescott, among others, for a thorough critique. Just to fulfill Randi's requirements would cost more than a million dollars in research). As far as their critique of the statistics, if you're seriously interested in science rather than just supporting materialist dogma, start with the 1937 proclamation of the president of the (I think it's called) American Statistical Society, regarding Rhine's work, and then jump ahead to UC Berkeley statistician Jessica Utts 1995 comments on the CIA remote viewing work (along with Hyman's repeated attempted to avoid actually dealing with her critique).

    And you might look at at least a dozen statistician and psychologist comments on the Bem study, including a follow up in psychology today, that disagree with the post you linked to.

    Finally, look at Chris Carter's book on NDE. I've seen truly laughable attempts by neuroscientists to claim that, "Yes, someone had a flat EEG, no brain stem activity, and no blood flow to the brain, and we accept the proof that they accurately reported events outside the range of normal sensory percpetion WHILE their brain was in this state, but of course, we are confident we'll discover new ways that the brain could record this activity and (big 'whew!!!!) we'll thus maintain the dogma of materialism and thereby rid ourselves of this dreadful heresy, which no doubt can be explained by sloppy research and/or fraud.

    See James Alcock and then reverse his research for the psychology of the skeptic.

  8. Wallace's critique of materialist dogma rings true to me. Many scientists will not even consider research or review evidence of psi phenomena and colleagues who do are subject to ridicule. As just one example, consider the case of Ian Stevenson, reincarnation researcher. He spent 50 years amassing evidence 'suggestive of reincarnation' as he put it, in the form of 3,000 cases of early childhood memories in many countries. Skeptic Sam Harris had this to say about Stevenson: "Either he is the victim of truly elaborate fraud, or something interesting is going on." Stevenson's work, however, was mostly ignored by the mainstream scientific community. He said near the end of his life that his biggest regret was not that his critics dismissed his work but that they did not even bother to read it first.

    Dogmatic materialism is also a self-fulfilling prophecy: because psi phenomena are obviously nonexistent, few people research them, the evidence gathered is low in comparison to other fields - and then psi phenomena are attacked because there is little evidence.
    Stevenson worked alone or with only a few colleagues for most of his career, and yet he was able to gather a considerable body of evidence. If the academic community was more open to reincarnation as an acceptable area of study, and it attracted as many researchers as many other fields do, the volume of evidence could grow considerably.

  9. Hi anonymous, I don't think the moral skeptic is inclined to examine his faith-based belief system. The very idea of ""materialistic explanations" in science is an oxymoron. If you have any idea how it could possibly get any clearer than to say we have absolutely no way of knowing if anything mind-independent exists. Now at this point people usually say, "oh you're an idealis" (I said nothing of the kidn) or you're anti scientific (???) and I don't know how to respond to that since it has nothing to do with what i wrote.

  10. "The only problem with that assertion is that anyone who looks at the evidence finds only materialist explanations and really no overwhelming evidence for anything else"

    You only find materialist explanations because all explanations you trust are explanations based on Western physical paradigm. On Eastern there are a plethora of explanations about consciousness based on introspection observation, and this is also falsifiable method just like looking through a microscope. But to reproduce an experiment you have to be trained with this instrument, meditation, just like a scientist have to be trained with microscope to see a cell. But Western science just reject meditation as a consciousness observation method, and prefer to find the answers through correlation between physical properties of brain and mental phenomena. The last method is not wrong, but why reject a direct method?

    1. Hi Andre, I think one possible solution to the problem of getting more scientists on board with the findings of Eastern contemplatives is to make refined concentration and states of perception more easily available to people.

      Right now, in order to 'prove' the findings of the Eastern traditions you have to engage in an incredibly time-consuming process of becoming skilled at meditation and stability of attention in a way that very few people can or will ever be able to do. But if technologies can be developed that can radically expedite this process (and such technologies are indeed in vigorous development as our capacities with a plethora of digital and neuroscience-based applications rapidly expand) I think that the greatly increased number of people who are then able to affirm the findings of historical contemplatives will greatly strengthen their case.

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