Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review of Alex Tsakiris' Why Science is Wrong...About Almost Everything

I am familiar with Alex Tsakiris through his very interesting Internet podcast show Skeptiko.  I have been a listener for about five or six years now, and I have always been impressed with both the quality of the guests and Tsakiris's forthright interviewing style.  The show is essentially an investigation into the nature of consciousness with experts from differing points of view.  Given the show's penchant for controversy, many of the interviews are thickly laced with debate, which in my opinion is one of the greatest methods of weighing competing positions.

Tsakiris's new book, Why Science is Wrong...About Almost Everything, is largely a collection of excerpts from interviews from Skeptiko.  Although the title of the book targets "science" as what's wrong about almost everything, I think Tsakiris really ends up targeting "materialism" or "scientific materialism" as what's really wrong.  Science is essentially a method of systematic empirical study, and that method--properly understood--has no vested interest in what turns out to be true (or possibly true).  By contrast, materialism is a global philosophical position or paradigm.  As such, materialism definitely has a vested interest in what is (or can be) true.  That is, materialism is a universal claim about all of reality: specifically, materialism claims that all of reality is completely reducible, without remainder, to "matter in motion."  One candid advocate of this view is Alex Rosenberg who wrote in The Atheist's Guide to Reality (2011) the following:
"All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another" (p.21).

The paradigm of materialism, then, explicitly prohibits the existence of anything non-material.  Now, in Tsakiris's defense, there is much overlap between "materialism" and what we conventionally consider "science"; many scientists seem to adopt the materialist paradigm, so it is difficult to separate where their "science" ends and their "materialism" begins.  Being that as it may, I find it worth while to separate the terms because I think it is crucial to understand that non-materialists can be perfectly good scientists.  After listening to Tsakiris for several years, I believe he is deeply sympathetic to the scientific method, yet he is deeply critical of materialism. This is why I think his title doesn't quite capture the substance of the book.

With that distinction out of the way, let me discuss the content of Tsakiris's book.  The thesis of the book seems to me to have two broad claims: a) materialism is false, particularly about human consciousness, and b) materialism is often defended more so by conviction than by argument.

With respect to (a), Tsakiris argues that we have several lines of evidence suggesting that consciousness can reach, transcend, or otherwise get outside of the limits of the physical brain.  These lines of evidence include varieties of extra-sensory perceptions (ESP)--like remote viewing, telepathy, and psychic communication with deceased persons--as well as near death experiences (NDEs)--which suggest that consciousness survives physical death.  The structure of Tsakiris's argument against materialism is quite simple.  I will put the argument formally as I understand it:

Argument Against Materialsm:
  1. If materialism is true, consciousness cannot exist or operate beyond the boundaries of a corresponding and properly functioning physical brain (or something brain-like)
  2. Consciousness can exist or operate beyond the boundaries of a corresponding and properly functioning physical brain (or something brain-like)
  3. Therefore, materialism is false
I take premise (1) to be uncontroversial.  Some might quibble over the definitions of some of the terms, but the essence of the premise captures the prevailing sentiment behind materialist philosophy.  For any consistent materialist, the brain is the engine of consciousness.  Full stop.  Just as a light bulb only illuminates insofar as its parts are functioning correctly and electricity is flowing, so, for materialists, consciousness only exists insofar as the brain's parts are functioning correctly and, we might say, blood and oxygen are flowing.

Premise (2) is clearly the controversial one, and is, therefore, the one Tsakiris attempts to justify in his book.  To do this, he draws on conversations he's had with experts in the fields of ESP and NDEs.  These two fields examine whether consciousness does, in some circumstances, get beyond or outside of the physical brain.  Tsakiris is persuaded by the researchers he's interviewed (as well as the shortcomings of the skeptics he's interviewed) that the evidence in favor of genuine ESP and NDE phenomena is remarkably strong.

One researcher he converses with is Dr. Jeffrey Long.  Dr. Long has become a leading NDE researcher by creating an Internet database of NDE accounts.  He launched a website in 1998 called The Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) where individuals who've had NDEs can record their experiences through a uniform questionnaire system.  After about a decade, NDERF had collected over 1,300 NDE accounts from around the world.  Dr. Long reported his findings from his ongoing study in his 2010 book, Evidence of the Afterlife.  In that book, Dr. Long discusses nine lines of evidence from his research supporting the claim that consciousness survives bodily death.  One line of evidence is the phenomenon of out-of-body experience typical of NDEs.  Dr. Long reports in his book that 75.4 percent of respondents said they experienced a separation of consciousness from their bodies during their NDEs.  These accounts of out-of-body experiences reportedly occurred during segments of time where the brain was severely compromised--e.g. when the heart was no longer pumping, blood/oxygen had quit flowing to the brain, and/or electroencephalograph (EEG) meters were flatlined.  Furthermore, the experiencer, when returned to normal consciousness, was often able to produce extremely precise and unique information about events either near or far from his or her body at that time.  For example, Dr. Long reports in his book one of his favorite out-of-body cases where a woman had an NDE in a hospital and she experienced floating outside the hospital and spotting a tennis shoe on a third-story window ledge of the hospital.  She went so far as to say it was a man's shoe, left-footed, and dark blue with a shoelace tucked under the heel.  Her observation was reportedly later verified as accurate.

There are of course many more accounts of NDE out-of-body experiences in the literature, but my purpose here is to simply give an illustration of how Tsakiris's argument against materialism essentially proceeds.  In order to justify premise (2), he needs to show that these ESP and NDE accounts produce a strong cumulative case for the claim that consciousness can transcend the physical brain.  Surely, if accounts like that of the woman getting outside her body and the hospital are true, then consciousness can operate far beyond the confines of the physical brain.  It then follows logically that materialism is false.

Now, materialists understandably will object to the merits of premise (2) in the argument against materialism, and Tsakiris is very good at engaging with some of these materialists on his show and in his book.  Tsakiris makes the case that their objections tend to leave plenty to be desired.

This leads to the second main assertion in the book: materialism is often defended more so by conviction than by argument.  Since materialism is the prevailing view within academia, it is easy for a materialist to publicly subscribe to materialism without much need to defend that subscription.  Many of Tsakiris's interviews with materialists illustrate how much this dependence on the status quo does the heavy lifting for materialist views.  Given that Tsakiris's work is primarily in a conversational format, it is difficult for me to provide representative samples of this second main assertion.  This is so because conviction is best detected by the way someone says something, not so much what they say.  With that in mind, I will still attempt to illustrate what Tsakiris tries to show in his book.

One of the conversations highlighted in the book is with Dr. Michael Graziano, a Princeton University neuroscientist.  In this conversation, Tsakiris was explaining to Graziano that NDE researchers are well-qualified individuals working out of major universities and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  Tsakiris was pressing Graziano to provide citations of any of this NDE work that he had read, and Graziano did not appear to actually be very familiar with any of it.  Instead, he attempted to uniformly diminish the credibility of NDE research in prinicple.  In response to Tsakiris questioning Graziano about a refutation of an NDE paper published in the Lancet, Graziano said, "I don’t know any serious or reputable scientists who have bothered to do experiments to refute psychic phenomena."  Graziano appeared to refer to NDE phenomena pejoratively as "psychic phenomena," and further dismissed its credibility by saying it isn't even worth a "reputable" scientist's time, presumably because it is just so silly.  He further filled out his derisive attitude of NDE research by saying, "There is a large literature on astrology that I wouldn’t bother to read as an astronomer."  The implication in this statement is again that NDEs are somehow so obviously false that there's no need to even "bother" with the research.

Interestingly, even though Graziano suggests that NDE research isn't something reputable scientists will even bother with, he goes on to say the burden of proof rests on NDE researchers.  Graziano says the following in the interview:
"Yeah, I think the burden is on the NDE people to show us that there are really NDEs and I think pretty much most of my neuroscience colleagues would conclude that no, there are these experiences that are related to brain function. There is no mind or experience independent of the functioning of the brain."
Even though Graziano says he knows of no reputable scientist who bothers to refute NDEs, he nevertheless then cites his colleagues for authoritative support for his claim that NDE phenomena are dependent on functioning brains.  His position is one in which it simply makes no difference whether or not NDE research even exists.  His position on NDEs is simply nowhere based on, or sensitive to, NDE research.  This leaves one wondering what exactly his position is based on.  A likely candidate is simply a conviction that materialism is true.  I find Graziano's position very revealing, and Tsakiris's work does a nice job of showing how often this same mind-set operates in a number of materialist advocates. 

I encourage readers to pick up Tsakiris's book or listen to some of his interviews on Skeptiko to get a better idea of how much materialist convictions can influence academic thinking.  I think Tsakiris has done a good job of revealing that materialism is often taken for granted--it is often assumed as a "given."  The burden is instead placed on those who would challenge materialism, but the challenges to materialism are then simply dismissed without substantive reply.  It seems to me that Tsakiris is uncovering circularity to materialist thinking: materialism is taken to be the default position; materialists invite challengers to show that materialism is wrong; however, challenges to materialism are then ignored or denigrated precisely because they are inconsistent with materialism.  In effect, materialism is used to defend materialism--surely a poor logical foundation for a position, but surprisingly effective given the prevalence of materialist-subscribers filling the halls of major universities.

In sum, Why Science is Wrong...About Almost Everything is a very interesting and thought-provoking read.  It is also remarkably easy to read.  The book is fairly short and the dialogue format allowed me to read the whole thing in a single afternoon.  The dialogue format and Tsakiris's sharp questioning style also make me think of him as a modern day Socrates--a compliment of the highest order.  For interested readers, the links to the full, free Skeptiko interviews you'll find in the book (as well as the host of interviews available on the website that weren't cited in the book) also provide a really substantive interaction with cutting-edge consciousness research.  Thanks to Alex Tsakiris for all of his great contributions to the philosophy and science of mind!


  1. Replies
    1. That was a fascinating review and I was wondering what you would make of my own book 'Science for Heretics'. This criticises science within its own terms and using its own methods. It is more wide-ranging than Alex Tsakiris' work but it does not deal with metaphysics (I figured its criticism of science would get me into enough trouble). I would be happy to send you a free Kindle copy or PDF if you wished. Please let me know if you would be interested,
      Best wishes,
      Barrie Condon

  2. Hi Barrie,

    Thank you for the kind remark about my review. I would be happy to take a look at your book. Feel free to send me the PDF by email.