The Materialist Superstition

George Gilder
American Enterprise
September 1, 1998
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The continued prevalence of the materialist superstition was manifest in a recent Time cover story titled "In Search of the Mind." The magazine authoritatively declaimed that "consciousness may be nothing more than an evanescent by-product of more mundane, wholly physical processes." According to one neuroscientist, "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."

This materialist superstition has long roots in Western culture. Indeed, for 300 years most intellectuals have been dedicated to its agenda of self-destruction by seeking to overthrow mind and replace it with inert, blind, and meaningless matter. The effort originated in the triumph of Newtonian physics in the seventeenth century. Newton was himself a deist, but he had a vision of the world that was profoundly materialistic and determinist. He believed that at the basis of the universe were solid, immutable, impenetrable, mindless bits of matter. Further, he maintained that the universe was built up from these bits of matter in a great determinist machine, like the workings of a clock. Although he acknowledged his theory required a watchmaker God, this need was rejected by followers who exulted in the enormous power over nature that machines based on Newtonian physics gave them.

Since man subsists not on his practical possibilities but on his ultimate philosophies, this sort of materialist determinism soon became the implicit religion of science and the profound enemy of all other religion and morality. Even as the scientist’s practical advances promised to prolong life and enrich its pleasures, his philosophy seemed to destroy life’s meaning.

The computer initially contributed to this vision of materialist determinism, because even human intelligence was now seen as likely to succumb to a mechanistic rival. In gaining dominion over the world, we worried about losing control of our own machines. When transistor switching speeds plummeted into the trillionths of a second, it seemed plausible that for all its user-friendliness and endearing idiosyncrasies (such as "common sense") the brain was no longer "merely a computer" but in fact far inferior to computers in speed and computing power.

The computer thus lent enormous new authority to the determinist vision. Not only could it be used to achieve enormous new advances across the range of the scientific enterprise, but the computer itself constituted a model for comprehending the very fabric of thought in materialist terms. The computer seemed to subordinate thoughts to things, mind to matter, soul to solid-state physics. It seemed to unmask the mind and demystify it, and thus to banish sacred and spiritual powers from the world.

With science believed to have abandoned man and the dignity of his soul, men rose up to claim the dignity of science for squalid temporal schemes of the State and to ascribe soul to the new machines. Religion, in turn, after having contributed indispensably to the birth of science, began renouncing the great human enterprise of understanding and mastering nature.

Desperate to reassemble the shattered grail of faith, the public clutched at a new pagan polytheism: Materialist intellectuals widely worshipped the god of the machine, artists reveled in the god of the senses, and churches retreated to a pre-industrial vision of an ecological Eden.

People came to believe in a religion that closely resembles that of pygmies in the jungle: believe only in things you can see, and touch, and measure. The pygmies worship the Sun, the trees, and the world. Modern intellectuals worship the measurable, palpable, visible, mechanical kinds of phenomena that their senses can present to them, and deny as a matter of principle all that exists beyond this domain.

The pygmies in the jungle have at least this advantage: they believe the trees are fundamentally alive. The vision emerging from the triumph of materialism was one of death. Modern science granted us incomparable riches, but only as part of a Faustian pact: a deal with the devil whereby we gained wondrous machines in exchange for our very souls. Plunging into the world of modern science, we lost first our human dignity and then our free will. The physical world was ultimately a tomb: the death site of both God and man. God died with the eclipse of the Creator and the end of meaning. With the death of human dignity and uniqueness, man degenerated into a mere intelligent machine that differed from a computer chiefly by thinking more slowly, and by more quickly and irremediably wearing out.

Yet all this anguish and ardor, all the fatalist philosophies of nihilism and existentialism, were mere delusions arising from the great modern superstition of materialism, a superstition that has now been refuted by an entire century of modern science and by the findings of computer theory itself. For the central fact of the twentieth century is not the overthrow of mind, but the overthrow of matter.

The overthrow of matter reached its climax in the physical sciences when quantum theory capsized the rules that once governed all solid objects. Scientists no longer see the foundation of all matter as inert, blind, impenetrable particles. Rather, physicists now agree that matter derives from waves, fields, and probabilities. To comprehend nature, we have to stop thinking of the world as basically material and begin imagining it as a manifestation of consciousness, suffused with sparks of informative energy.

The fundamental entities in quantum theory are wave-particles, a profound paradox that was first launched in 1887 when Albert Michelson and E. W. Morley did their famous experiments which showed that there is no ether in the universe. Until the experiments of Michelson and Morley, the fundamental belief was that the universe is filled with solid matter—"ether"—which would be needed as the medium through which light waves could move just as sound waves travel through air. Earlier experiments had demonstrated conclusively that light is a wave; it was assumed, therefore, that a material medium must exist through which the waves of light could travel. By dispelling the notion of ether as the medium bearing light, Michelson and Morley effectively banished most of the matter from the universe.

Light emerged as an esoteric paradox of waves without substance that travel at a fixed speed in relation to a medium with-out substance. In 1905, Albert Einstein declared that if there were no ether, light could not be a wave; it had nothing to wave through. Instead, Einstein said, light consisted of quanta—packets of energy—that he called photons. Although said to be "particles," photons observed the equations of wave motion developed by James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s. They seemed to be a cross between a wave and a particle.

In terms both of classical physics and of human observation, this wave-particle cross was an impossible contradiction. Waves ripple infinitely forth through a material medium; particles are single points of matter. At once definite and infinite, a particle that is also a wave defies our sensory experience. In successive steps, Niels Bohr, Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, and others showed that not only light but also electrons, protons, neutrons, and other atomic "particles" likewise exhibited wave action. Eventually, the paradoxical duality of wave-particles would come to exclude all materialist logic; quantum physics does not make materialist sense.

Quantum physics can make sense, how-ever, if it is treated in part as a domain of ideas, governed less by the laws of matter than by the laws of mind. Atomic phenomena, the paradoxical stuff of the quantum domain, seem to represent the still-mysterious domain between matter and mind, where matter evanesces into probability fields of information and mind assumes the physical forms of waves and particles. Paradox, which is a perplexity for things, is a relatively routine property of thoughts. Conceiving of the quantum world as a domain of ideas, we make it accessible to our minds. The quantum atom is largely an atom of information, a rich domain of information at the foundation of matter.

Thus the fundamental entity in quantum theory is a cross, a cross between a wave, which is infinite in extent, propagating infinitely through its surrounding medium, and a particle, a point of no extent. All the universe is based on these crosses of waves and particles which are utterly paradoxical, but which deeply accord with the fundamental paradoxes of the Christian religion: the Word made flesh, the God-Man, the eternal and the temporal, the infinite and the particular. In place of what had been an inert, blind bit of matter at the foundation of the universe, we find a cross.

If the discovery of the wave-particle was the first great breakthrough in the battle against materialism, the second breakthrough came in 1975 from neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield of Princeton. Penfield’s researches were altogether as unprecedented as the ether tests. He performed surgery on 1,132 epileptics over a 30-year period. After removing a part of the skull of the patient under anesthesia, he would bring him back to full consciousness. Then Penfield would explore the brain widely with an electronic probe. Since the brain lacks sensitivity, the patient, though fully alert, could feel no physical pain.

With the patient reporting the results of stimuli at different cerebral sites, the doctor would often find and remove the cause of the epilepsy. In the process, Penfield gained a unique and voluminous body of data on the responses of different parts of the brain to an electrical stimulus, and he made many original contributions to the mapping of brain functions.

But as in the case of Michelson and Morley’s ether tests, more important than all Penfield’s findings was a momentous absence: Nowhere in the brain did he discover any evidence of mind—the consciously deciding, willing, imagining, and creative force in human thought. Penfield summed up his conclusion: The electrode can present to the patient various crude sensations. It can cause him to turn head and eyes, or to move the limbs, or to vocalize and swallow. It may recall vivid re-experience of the past, or present to him an illusion that present experience is familiar, or that the things he sees are growing large and coming near. But he remains aloof. He passes judgment on it all. He says, "things are growing larger," but he does not move for fear of being run over. If the electrode moves his right hand, he does not say, "I wanted to move it." He may, however, reach over with the left hand and oppose his action.

Penfield found that the content of consciousness could be selectively altered by outside manipulation. But however much he probed, he could not enter consciousness itself. He could not find the mind or invade its autonomy. Penfield concludes, "The patient’s mind, which is considering the situation in such an aloof and critical manner, can only be something quite apart from neuronal reflex action.… Although the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neuronal activity, aware-ness itself does not."

Like Michelson and Morley before him, Penfield began his investigations with the goal of proving the materialist superstition. Like them, he failed utterly. "I like other scientists have struggled to prove that the brain accounts for the mind." Instead, he showed that the brain’s activity always occurred within the dominating and enveloping radiance of an autonomous mind. While Penfield’s electrodes could cause specific events, he could not usurp awareness of them. The patient could always distinguish between authentic mental processes he had willed and processes evoked by the probe. Stampedes of electrons could not cause a conscious whim in the mind, but a whim of the consciousness could cause stampedes of organized electrical and chemical activity in the brain.

Penfield’s book is entitled The Mysteries of the Mind, but he did not purport to have resolved those mysteries before he died. His conclusion, however, accords with the reports of anguished armies of other investigators throughout the domains of cognitive science, neurophysiology, and artificial intelligence. Computer pioneer Norbert Wiener made the essential point as early as 1948: "The mechanical brain does not secrete thought ‘as the liver does bile,’ as the earlier materialists claimed, nor does it put it out in the form of energy as the muscle puts out its activity. Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism that does not admit this can survive at the present day."

The brain is a kind of computer. But if the brain cannot function without a human mind, it should not be surprising that a computer cannot function without a human mind either. The idea of the computer as a mind, not an artificial brain, is an idol of the materialist superstition. The human brain serves the mind. The artificial intelligence vanguard wanted to show that the mind was merely brain in order to support the notion of building computer minds. But the industry will now have to give up its goal of usurping mind and focus more effectively on serving it, as the brain does.

In his book, Penfield gave a clearer view of the relationship between mind, brain, and computer: "Because it seems to me certain that it will always be quite impossible to explain the mind on the basis of neuronal action within the brain… and be-cause a computer (which the brain is) must be programmed and operated by an agenda capable of independent understanding, I am forced to choose the proposition that our being is to be explained on the basis of two fundamental elements." He concluded, "The mind seems to act independently of the brain in the same sense that a programmer acts independently of this computer, how ever much he may depend upon the action of that computer for certain purposes." Penfield’s researches were compelling and unprecedented. But it is impossible to prove a negative. That his elaborate probes failed to find the mind in neuronal activity does not establish that the mind is not matter.

So in the long run, the quantum revolution in physics provides a more powerful reason for moving beyond the materialist superstition to a recognition that thought dominates things. Once this move is made, the reverberations sweep through social science as well as natural science. Gone is the view of a thermodynamic world economy, dominated by "natural resources" being turned to entropy and waste by human extraction and use. Once seen as a physical system tending toward exhaustion and decline, the world economy has clearly emerged as an intellectual system driven by knowledge.

The key fact of knowledge is that it is antientropic: it accumulates and compounds as it is used. Technological and scientific enterprise, so it turns out in the age of the quantum, generates gains in new learning and ideas that dwarf the loss of resources and dissipation of en-ergy. The efforts that ended in writing E=mc2 or inventing a design for a silicon compiler—or in spreading the message of a moral God—are not usefully analyzed in the images of entropy. To see the world primarily in terms of its waste products is possibly the most perverse vision in the history of science. The history of ideas cannot be comprehended as an entropic cycle of the production and disposal of paper products.

The materialist superstition succumbs to an increasing recognition that the means of production in capitalism are not chiefly land, labor, and machines—things present in all economic systems—but emancipated human intelligence. Capitalism, supremely the mind-centered system, finds the driving force of its growth is innovation and discovery. In the age of the microcosm, value added shifts rapidly from the extraction, movement, manipulation, and exhaustion of matter to the creative accumulation of information and ideas.

At the heart of this progress is a bold human sacrifice. After centuries of struggle against the elements—human masses pushing and pulling on massive objects at the behest of armed rulers—man stopped hoarding gold and jewels, land and labor. He stopped trusting only the things he could touch and feel. He stopped believing only his eyes and ears. At last relinquishing slavery to the sensory world, he gained access to a higher power and truth. And all those other things are being added unto him.

Overthrowing the superstitions of materialism—of anthropomorphic physics, of triumphant entropy, of class conflict and exploitation, of national and tribal bigotry—modern man is injecting the universe with the germ of his intelligence, the spoor of his mind. Sloughing off every layer of macrocosmic apparatus, the computer will ultimately collapse to a pinhead that can respond to the human voice. In this form, human intelligence can be transmitted to any tool or appliance, to any part of our environment. Thus the triumph of the computer does not dehumanize the world; it makes our environment more human. We can overcome our alienation from things. We can escape our absorption in the trivi-alities of subsistence. We can rise to the larger challenges of life.

Giving up the superficial comforts of a human scale world, man moves to mindscale. In the image of his Creator, he exalts the truly human—and godlike—dimension of his greatest gift: his creativity. Giving up the material idols in his ken, he is gaining at last his promised dominion over the world and its creatures.

The key lessons of the era spring from an understanding of hierarchy and freedom. Just as the large integrated circuits at the heart of computers cannot be designed from the bottom up, just as evolution could not have occurred from the bottom up alone, the human mind cannot be understood without a clear comprehension of the hierarchical structure of the universe.

The central error of materialism is to subordinate a higher level of creative activity to a lower one: the dramas of human freedom to the determinations of lifeless and unintelligible monads of matter. Opening the atom to find a world of information, we discover that the inverted hierarchies of materialism are as false empirically as the ancient philosophers found them bankrupt logically. In the hierarchies of nature, the higher orders cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts.

The dream of physicists that by studying the structure of atoms we could comprehend the purpose of nature, and the dream of biologists that the study of evolu-tion would reveal the meaning of life, have both proved false. In the same way, neither the physics nor the chemistry of DNA will explain the code of genetic information, any more than the analysis of ink will reveal the meaning of a word or phrase.

Here we can see how the computer reinforces rather than replaces the human mind. The usual materialist assumption is that the brain—the hardware—comes first and mind somehow emerges from it. But the computer offers a contrary example. The computer design itself is a software program and determines the structure of the electronic circuitry that constitutes the computer.

Knowing the location of every electronic charge and connection in either brain or computer gives scarcely a clue of its purpose. It is the human mind that brings meaning to the syntax of the machine, whether hardware, software, or wetware. The higher-level languages of software lend significance to the dumb electrons circulating through the system. But the language is still sterile until it is translated by the human consciousness. Neither brain nor computer could think without an embracing presence of mind.

Any lower level of existence finds mean-ing only in higher orders outside itself. Physics finds meaning largely in chemistry, chemistry in biology, biology in man, and man both in knowledge and culture and in that higher level of meaning ordained by God. The study of science is thrilling and rewarding on its own level and imparts new powers and technologies for action on higher levels. But movement up a hierarchy leads to domains of increasing freedom and dignity and spiritual fulfillment, not into a materialist or determinist trap.

The entire history of technology suggests a similar awakening to new powers and horizons, new freedoms and opportunities. The new age of intelligent machines will enhance and empower humanity, making possible new ventures into outer space and new insights into atomic structure. It will relieve man of much of his most onerous and unsatisfying work. It will extend his lifespan and enrich his perceptual reach. It will enlarge his freedom and his global com-mand. It will diminish despots and exploiters. It may even improve music and philosophy.

By overthrowing matter, humanity will also be able to escape from the traps and compulsions of pleasure into a higher morality of spirit. The pleasure principle is the governing force of a physical determinism, whether in psychology, sociology, or economics. Physiologically defined, pleasure makes the materialist world go round. Optimizing for bodily pleasures, human beings can take their place in a determinist scheme. Believing in determinism, they can escape the burdens of a higher morality. But pleasure-seeking is entropy in social life. It leads to the notion that dissipation is the effect of happiness. By contrast, the exaltation of mind and spirit leads to a higher order of experience and a richer access of power than any of the forms of physical dominance and exploitation that pervade the precincts of material pleasure.

Matter is subordinate to mind and spirit and can only be comprehended by free men and women. As computers master new lev-els of the hierarchy of knowledge, human beings can also rise to new pinnacles of vision and power and discover new continents of higher truth. The computer will give mankind new vessels to rule the waves of possibility. Its promise can be betrayed only by the abandonment of the freedom and faith that made it possible.

George Gilder is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle. This article is adapted from a lecture he gave at the Acton Institute.

Published in Making Sense of Science September/October 1998