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Faith, Reason, and Secular Hegemony (cont.) Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 25 May 2012

Last month in this space, I wrote about some judges and legal scholars who claim that religious beliefs are irrational. I critically assessed a standard applied by one legal scholar: “Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, necessarily deny that any truth is incontestable.”

Today I want to discuss a slightly different standard offered by another scholar:  “Religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on ‘faith,’ are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, the ones we employ in both common sense and science.”

Although there are a number of ways to critique this standard, I want to single out one in particular. It seems that some views that claim to be consistent with the deliverances of modern science are not only inconsistent with common sense – and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification – but insulated from them as well.

Take, for example, the work of thinkers such as Paul Churchland, who maintain that modern science establishes the truth of philosophical materialism, and thus conclude that we have no grounds to believe in any immaterial realities. Writes Churchland:

The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. . . .If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any non-physical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.

This seems to be obviously inconsistent with common sense and our ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification. For Churchland intends his statements to be about something, which means his powers of reasoning allow him to grasp ideas that provide warrant for the propositional content of his statements.

But the relationship between these ideas is logical, not spatial or material, and the power to grasp and offer these ideas as reasons for a conclusion requires intentionality, an of-ness or about-ness (e.g., “This thought is about materialism”), something that cannot be had by a physical state.

For this reason, Churchland maintains that intentionality and all our mental states literally do not exist. That is why he calls his view “eliminative materialism,” for it literally eliminates certain apparently obvious realities from the realm of the real.


       Low Tide by Maurice Prendergast, c. 1897

Churchland explains:

Eliminative materialism is the thesis that our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both the principles and the ontology of that theory will eventually be displaced, rather than smoothly reduced, by completed neuroscience. Our mutual understanding and even our introspection may then be reconstituted within the conceptual framework of completed neuroscience, a theory we may expect to be more powerful by far than the common-sense psychology it displaces, and more substantially integrated within physical science generally.

Churchland also tells us that “we should learn to live” with materialism, implying that we intellectually err if we do not do as we ought to do. This seems to be grounded in the more primitive notion that our mental powers are ordered toward the acquisition of truth, and thus to frustrate that end is inconsistent with our good. 

But such a normative judgment – grounded in ends and goods – implies final causality, which, like all our mental states, has no place in Churchland’s materialism. Yet despite its apparent inconsistency with common sense and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, Churchland, like many other philosophical materialists who hold similar views, has not abandoned his materialism.

Does it follow from this that Churchland’s unwavering posture means that philosophical materialism, or at least Churchland’s version of it, is insulated from common sense and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification? It depends.

On the one hand, if one treats modern science as the measure of rationality, and if one believes that modern science requires belief in philosophical materialism, and philosophical materialism seems to be inconsistent with common sense and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, then perhaps common sense and its attendant notions may not be rational.

On the other hand, if one believes, as the legal scholar quoted above apparently believes, that common sense is of a piece with the standards and methods of modern science as well as the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, then philosophical materialism, or at least Churchland’s version of it, may not be rational.

The point here is that there are just too many philosophical considerations that have to be addressed before one can confidently suggest that a claim, religious or otherwise, is insulated from common sense and the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification. Ironically, by ignoring these considerations, the secular critic of faith insulates his position from just the sort of criticisms that may count against his point of view.  

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University. His most recent book (with Robert P. George and Susan McWilliams) is the forthcoming A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics, a festschrift in honor of Hadley Arkes.
 
 
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Comments (26)Add Comment
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written by Martial Artist, May 25, 2012
Given Churchland's statement "The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. . ." I am inclined to wonder how he would cope with the challenge posed to the standard evolutionary story of Darwinian gradualism by Biochemist Prof. Michael Behe's argument from irreducible complexity, which pretty thoroughly demolishes the gradualist argument.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
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written by Other Joe, May 25, 2012
If any truth is incontestable, then it cannot be the whole truth or else the term truth has no real meaning. The statement is true not because there is no complete truth, but only because we can not know truth completely in an imperfect world with our limited powers and fallen nature. DNA is a curious thing. It is obviously a physical method to transmit a "code" which by definition is non-material. There are no known precursors to DNA as we might expect if it evolved. There is no evidence, none, zero, that it evolved. When neuroscience is complete, (on the day after forever) men will scratch their head and women will too and wonder how the code came out of material. We are more fortunate to recall that in the beginning was the Word. Material came out of the Word, not the other way around.
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 25, 2012
Dr. Beckwith,

I was hopeful that you would discuss the (to me) interesting claim that you promised in the beginning of the article:

"Today I want to discuss a slightly different standard offered by another scholar: “Religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on ‘faith,’ are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, the ones we employ in both common sense and science.”

Instead, you proceed to dismantle a quite unsubtle and crude version of materialism by showing how it is inconsistent with such standards. I am not so interested with these inconsistencies, because the statement "there are no non-material entities" is without justification. However, just because this might be the case does not offer justification for the statement "there are non-material entities."

Let me make this more concrete:

Let there be a thing with no material component, no underlying material or energy structure, and no extension in space. Furthermore, such a thing has no effects that cannot already be contributed to material causes. Now, such a thing might very well exist - there is absolutely no way to verify this one way or another. It is open to speculation - philosophical, theological, poetic, and so forth. But any such speculation is speculation of the most pejorative sort and are fundamentally unjustified (except by reference to the role they are allowed to play, say, as a storytelling device).

Religious beliefs tend to proliferate the cosmos with such entities (God or gods, angels, demons, invisible powers, and so forth). But why should anyone believe in the existence of such entities, even if we admit that there is no positive reason to deny their existence? When I first started reading, I thought this was the question you were going to address; I hope there is yet another part to this article where you will address this important question.
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written by Grump, May 25, 2012
Sounds like Churchland merely builds on Lucretius' theorem that the universe is nothing more than atoms and the void. He leaves out man's imagination.
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written by Tony Esolen, May 25, 2012
The results of Churchland's reasoning are utterly irrational, by any definition of "reason" that mankind has ever accepted: they include that Churchland himself does not exist; indeed that there is no such thing as things, let alone God and angels. It is what I'd call the Constitutive Fallacy, which reduces all things to their material substrates. On this account, there is no way to affirm the perdurance of things from one moment to the next; and I wonder if there is even a way to affirm the perdurance of a particle from one moment to the next. This illustrates Chesterton's dictum, that the madman is not someone who has lost his reason, but someone who has lost everything but his reason -- meaning, someone who has been seized by a single idea and turns it into the explanation of everything he encounters. Eliminatist indeed.

Grump, my friend: you are quite right, he leaves out man's imagination; but he also leaves out things, which ol' Lucretius never quite did. I have a lot to say about Lucretius, having translated him into English verse ... A very fine poet, underrated even; a poor philosopher.
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written by Other Joe, May 25, 2012
Dear Mr. Ellis, you are the living proof of Dr. Beckwith's proposition. Empiricism is a sterile tautology. It defines out anything that contradicts itself. We all know by now that you will not be deflected by reason or logic because you have defined away those concepts that might give you pause. Your thought experiment of bringing to mind a thing that is not a thing is an interesting example of circular reasoning. Congratulations on your certainty. The rest of us in humility must rely on revelation, tradition, reason, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and something ineffable - the hunch, or suspicion that there is something greater than our own lights. It is the same hunch that caused our ancestors to proliferate the cosmos with gods, angels, and invisible powers such as Natural Selection and Blind Chance. The entities in the Catholic tradition have more human-like qualities (we are made in His image)of love, mercy, or malice and mischief depending on the entity. Why do you darken our deliberations with your superstitions? Does it amuse you to toy with the deluded?
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written by Jacob, May 25, 2012
Not being a philosophical heavyweight like the other commenters here I quite enjoyed the article.

I did have to slap myself in the face to keep from dozing off in the middle of Churchland's quotes but that's a common problem for me when reading materialist critiques of religion--even if they're "eliminative" believe it or not.
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written by Achilles, May 25, 2012
What a dead and dread dark world Scotty inhabits. There are no important questions that rise out of disbelief, only self approbation.
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written by Grump, May 25, 2012
Tony, also from Lucretius, which has always stuck in my mind:

Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratam
Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa
"Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see."
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 25, 2012
Other Joe:

"Empiricism is a sterile tautology. It defines out anything that contradicts itself."

It depends on what you means by empiricism and how it is held. I don't think the only means of justifying beliefs is through empirical means, which is clearly self-defeating. I do think that all our knowledge comes from experience, and that sensory experience is the only source of information we have about reality. Without access to this information, our brains would have nothing to work on (indeed, they would never have evolved as they have).

"We all know by now that you will not be deflected by reason or logic because you have defined away those concepts that might give you pause."

What have I reasoned away?

"Your thought experiment of bringing to mind a thing that is not a thing is an interesting example of circular reasoning."

My thought experiment describes God.

"Congratulations on your certainty."

I may very well be wrong. If I were certain, I wouldn't bother continually asking questions in a forum that has shown itself increasingly hostile to anyone even questioning its assumptions.

Achilles:

"What a dead and dread dark world Scotty inhabits. There are no important questions that rise out of disbelief, only self approbation."

You got that from me asking Dr. Beckwith if he was actually going to deliver on the promise he makes in this article?
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written by Tony Esolen, May 25, 2012
Yes, Grump -- "There's too much wrong with it!" That's how I translated, if I remember. Yet the judgment presumes a standard of right and wrong that Lucretius himself cannot supply. The whole philosophy is parasitic upon the thought of previous men, which Epicurus was too impatient to understand. I like Epicurus as a human being, and Lucretius too, but they did not take their predecessors seriously. They did not even take mathematics and natural science seriously ... Last year a perfect stranger sent me this message: "How can you have translated Lucretius and be a religionist? Did you learn nothing from the experience?" I learned a lot from the experience, but not what the writer wanted me to learn, or rather unlearn.
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written by Manfred, May 25, 2012
Epicurus, Lucretius, Paul Churchland: Were any of these men baptized? If not, they cannot possess Sanctifying Grace. They will only serve as blind guides.When John Henry Newman wanted to find the True Faith he studied the Fourth Century Fathers of the Church as everyone he knew, both Protestant and Catholic in his day,had memorized the New Testament. Fides quarens intellectum. Faith (which is a gift which only comes from God)seeking understanding. If the Faith is not present, understanding will never come. One can make a case that most Saints in the history of the Church were ILLITERATE,BUT THEY ARE IN HEAVEN. What else could possibly matter?
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written by Grump, May 26, 2012
Tony, I read On the Nature of Things years ago and do not remember much except to say he struck a minor chord that vibrates to this day. As you suggest, his poetry was first-rate, and some put him up there with Virgil and Horace. Ovid wrote, "The verses of the sublime Lucretius will perish only when a day will bring the end of the world."

As for his philosophy, which was largely derivative of Epicurus, I'd rate him somewhat higher than you although not in either the first or second row of thinkers. But we must remember that living some 50 years before Christ was a disadvantage in terms of new illumination.

Among the moderns, Santayana admired the old Roman, as did Goethe and Dante well before.

Perhaps, Tony, you will find enough grist here to write another piece for TAC reflecting on his philosophical thought and what impact, if any, it had on generations to come. In some ways, I see a lot of Lucretius in Schopenhauer, whose pessimism appealed to me. They don't call me Grump for nothing.

Unrelatedly, but perhaps to tie up a loose end, TAC regulars will recall that I am a lapsed Catholic working my way back. To this end I did go to confession a couple of weeks ago after decades of staying away. I emailed Brad separately about my experience. The tabula rasa that resulted left me in a positive frame of mind though doubts linger and the slate is no longer clean again.

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written by Tony Esolen, May 26, 2012
Dear Grump,

Ah, those scribblings! I'm no spiritual counselor, but I'm guessing that they are a part of the burden of being Grump, the thorn in your side. When God determines to whisk them away forever -- that lies in His providence. I'll be praying for you, my friend; please also pray for me and my family in turn.

I do believe that Lucretius, like most people who reduce, had to hang onto ideas that his own program couldn't justify. He's a humane fellow, to a certain extent; but he can't give a sufficient reason for being humane, other than that it gives you some pleasure, or averts pain. But that won't do. Lucretius could never understand or justify a Damien of Molokai or a Francis Xavier or a Francis of Assisi; and that's another way of saying that there is a truncated view of courage there, and no real joy. Cicero had already noted how jejune the Epicurean moral philosophy was, though he did not therefore turn to their bitterest opponents the Stoics, not quite.

As is also typical with reducers, there is in Lucretius a certain myopia that sometimes borders on the absurd; as when he praises Epicurus as the greatest benefactor of mankind, and evinces no interest whatsoever in the achievements of Plato or Aristotle. The converse, though, isn't true -- you will find Cicero, Seneca, Lactantius, Boethius, and even Augustine taking Epicurus seriously, as far as they can. Which may be another way of saying that the spiritual man judges all, and is judged of none.

And then there is the hidden teleology in all these would-be antiteleologists. It's there in Lucretius' best poetry; even ol' Dawkins can't shake it off...

But I think your suggestion is a good one. I already have an article in the hopper, but I may take you up on it for the one afterwards. Il buon Dio ti benedica.
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written by Other Joe, May 26, 2012
Dear Mr. Ellis, there isn't time or space to satisfy all of your uncertainties, if that is what they are, but you state, "I do think that all our knowledge comes from experience, and that sensory experience is the only source of information we have about reality." Most of what we learn we are told and do not directly experience. I have never been inside an atom, but I know quite a bit about what goes on there. If you include the reception of a thought as a direct sensory experience, then we are back to a closed loop argument. When I look at letters on a page I "experience" the letters through the optic nerve, but I abstract from them the thought intended by the one who put the letters in a specific order. The thought might originate ages ago, or even involve revelation. In such a way, I am informed of things I could never experience.
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written by Tony Esolen, May 26, 2012
Thomas Aquinas helps enormously here. All our knowledge originates in the senses. Originates -- there you have it; originates. It does not end there, nor is it limited to what we can sense. I know many things, for example, about circles, but I have never seen a circle, and I never will. That's the thought that got Plato going ... And then too, as far as it goes, the "proper object" of sight is, as Aquinas shrewdly notes, color. It isn't dogs and trees and fences. There's a lot of ontological and epistemological freight carried by the simple statement, "I see a tree," that is irreducible to C's brand of empiricism.
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written by Achilles, May 26, 2012
Scotty Plato would not be impressed by your thinking and Socrates would see you as he saw the sophists. Your perversion of the dictum "know thyself" is merely used in your case for self stimulation and adulation. We know that to seek God first and then to love our neighbor is the only true way for us to know ourselves. You have it all just upside down. I still wish you the best of luck.
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 26, 2012
Other Joe:

""I do think that all our knowledge comes from experience, and that sensory experience is the only source of information we have about reality." Most of what we learn we are told and do not directly experience."

When you are told, information encoded in the form of a culturally-determined set of sound waves enters your ears. You have a sensory experience - the experience of hearing someone tell you something. Sensory experience remains the way in which you gain information about reality.

This is the case whether you are reading Lucretius, staring at the moon, or looking at cells through a microscope. The processes of abstraction are completely posterior to these experiences; without sensory experience, there would be no information from which to abstract or construct meaning (a process itself informed by nothing other than previous sensory experiences).
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written by Other Joe, May 27, 2012
Dear Mr. Ellis, we can end this here at the crossroads. You choose to believe that personality, intention, creativity, love, hope and a hundred similar states are reducible to material patterns with a cultural overlay. The intention to broadcast does not count in your view. You say that ALL of our knowledge comes from experience and that sensory experience is the ONLY source. That leaves out creative thought and inspiration. You also deny the possibility of revelation. The bridge between your “all” and your “only” does not exist. It takes but a single visionary to demolish it. Of course, you assert that there is no such thing as a visionary. The saints and the visionaries assert that there are. It is a case of he said - they said. I’m going with the saints and visionaries. I wish you the very best of luck on your chosen path. I hope you find happiness.
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 27, 2012
Other Joe:

"You choose to believe that personality, intention, creativity, love, hope and a hundred similar states are reducible to material patterns with a cultural overlay."

I didn't say anything of the sort.

Although science would actually agree with that statement (in fact, we know now that your memories and thoughts are actually combinations of specific neurons - and a scientist can alter, destroy, or implant those memories by doing nothing other than altering the matter in your brain), I do not think this rules out the possibility that soul is more than a mere epiphenomenon. I am open to this possibility and do not hold much stake in materialistic reductionism.

"You say that ALL of our knowledge comes from experience and that sensory experience is the ONLY source. That leaves out creative thought and inspiration."

Try to create something you have not seen/touched/tasted/smelled/heard before. And keep in mind: composites do not count. You can imagine the head of an eagle on the body of a lion; you imagined something that doesn't exist, true, but every bit of it is derivative of things that you experienced through the senses.

"You also deny the possibility of revelation."

I don't. I have absolutely no grounds to make such a denial. However, I am skeptical about particular claims of revelation. I assume you would not wish me to take Gabriel's supposed revelation to Mohammed at face value? Then I would appreciate if you accepted that I may be hesitant to simply take the whole of claimed Catholic revelation at face value.
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written by Achilles, May 29, 2012
Scotty, this is a wonderful example of the disordered modern mind: you asked me:

"You got that from me asking Dr. Beckwith if he was actually going to deliver on the promise he makes in this article?"


That doesn't make any sense at all, but that you allow yourself to hack off all context related to the comment, your conclusiion of absurdity is amazingly absurd.

As if I am speaking to a child: "of course I didn't say that to you because of what you claim to have asked Dr. Beckwith, but because of a preponderance of evidence amassed through a prodigious and concerted effort on your part to assault Truth Goodness and Beauty to the detriment of the Body of Christ by spewing forth copious amounts of intellectually and morally irresponsible musings designed to provide wall paper for your universe. And quite honestly Scotty, all this would really have been great fun if not for your comment that you actually work with the RCIA. I will defend your right to question as you try to sort out what ever needs sorting out until you can give the full assent of your will to the Truths of the Magisterium, but to question as you do and then to take a position in The Body of Christ to instruct initiates is malevolent. Of course I don’t blame you Scotty, but who on earth would allow you around RCIA? Those are the people I would like to see.
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written by Scotty Ellis, May 29, 2012
Achilles:

1) Did Dr. Beckwith not promise:

"Today I want to discuss a slightly different standard offered by another scholar: “Religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on ‘faith,’ are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, the ones we employ in both common sense and science.”

2) Did he not instead critique eliminative materialism?

3) Is 1 identical to 2?

I argue that 1 is obviously not 2. I don't have to be an eliminative materialist in order to wonder what possible basis of justification a religious claim might have and its relationship to other forms of justification. As I mentioned, I find this much more interesting that swatting down a reductionistic materialism. What any of this has to do with the increasingly hostile harangues you like to hurl at me is somewhat obscure.

I am also unsure why you have chosen to replace a sincere response with nothing but a lot of hot air, a bunch of presumptuous labels that you have thrown at me. I of course have no control over how you respond to me. I would ask, however, that if you have nothing to say that specifically addresses my questions, that you would mind not indulging in your standard response. I will assume that your silence means the following, which is the basic gist of nearly every response you have made to me:

"Scotty, what are these colleges teaching you nowadays? I am horrified at the thought you might be leading your students in RCIA astray" (by the way, I do not teach RCIA, I taught a few adult education classes on Genesis and Job) "I don't feel the need to respond to anything specific you have written, Scotty, except to say that you are a sad example of the proud arrogance of modern liberalism, your thought is illogical, your ideas an absurd and twisted attack on everything good, true, and beautiful. To quote the Song of Roland, 'Pagans are wrong and Christians are right.' You would do well to dwell on the mountains of insight contained in that truth and stop worrying about all the non-Christian jibber jabber of the last five centuries."
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written by Achilles, May 30, 2012


Dear Scotty, I am not the only one blowing hot air. I defend Mother Church and admit to all that I am a poor representative. You defend yourself and are well qualified to do so.
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written by Rick DeLano, June 03, 2012
"Try to create something you have not seen/touched/tasted/smelled/heard before."

That has been accomplished each and every time a discovery of new valid physical principle of nature is made by crucial experiment.

Newton did not see, touch, taste, or feel gravity, any more than did Mozart see, touch, taste, or feel the principle of feel-tempering, or than did Einstein see, taste, touch, or feel space-time.

Now.

One might argue that gravity, well-tempering, and space-time do not exist.

But this would lead in the end to the very materialism you admit has been demolished in the essay above.

It appears we are left with empirical evidence of the soul as much more than mere epiphenomenon.

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written by Scotty Ellis, June 04, 2012
Rick Delano:

"That has been accomplished each and every time a discovery of new valid physical principle of nature is made by crucial experiment."

What is used to observe the experiment, Rick?

"Newton did not see, touch, taste, or feel gravity,"

Newton only knew about gravity because he could see, touch, taste, and feel. The senses are the beginning of all knowledge.

"One might argue that gravity, well-tempering, and space-time do not exist."

Who does this, exactly?

"But this would lead in the end to the very materialism you admit has been demolished in the essay."

I did not use the word demolished. No one here is denying the existence of space-time, gravity, and so forth.

"It appears we are left with empirical evidence of the soul as much more than mere epiphenomenon."

You have empirical evidence of the soul? Please do share.
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written by Rick DeLano, June 05, 2012
But I just did.

Since gravity is not sensed- we do not know what gravity is, we only observe effects consistent with the hypothesis of an attractive force between bodies which falls off as the inverse square of the distance between them- gravity is not a sense object, it is an intellectual object, an hypothesis, which originates not in the senses but instead in the intellect's attempt to explain what the senses report.

Well-tempering is precisely the same.

Strings (or pipes) divided at certain ratios yield pitches which, taken together, define scales and modes.

But these ratios are incapable of allowing music to be played in all of the modes and keys associated with those ratios.

No one ever "sensed" the solution whereby all modes and scales could be traversed- the solution was an intellectual object, unattainable by naive sense perception.

Only the attainment of the intellectual object (first) provided the senses with the confirmation, that well-tempering yielded a solution to the problems encountered by hypothesis based on sense perception.

Therefore it is false that knowledge is comprised of sense perceptions.

Sense perceptions in fact always lead to contradiction and paradox, and it is the application of the spiritual (psychological if you prefer) faculty unique to the human species- creative hypothesis confirmed by crucial experiment- that demonstrates, unequivocally, that materialism is not only false, but is self-refuting.

Since the source of new, creative hypotheses, subject to crucial experimental validation, is neither sense perception, nor random firings of neuron synapses......

You have now come face to face with an actually-operative, physically-determining force which cannot be reduced to any material cause whatever.

The soul.

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