The rise of modern science, accompanied by its many technological triumphs, has led to widespread acceptance among intellectual elites of a worldview that conflicts sharply both with everyday human experience and with beliefs widely shared among the world’s institutional religions.
Most contemporary psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers of mind, in particular, subscribe explicitly or implicitly to some version of “physicalism,” the modern philosophical descendant of the “materialism” of previous centuries. On such views all facts are determined by physical facts alone. We human beings are thus nothing more than extremely complicated biological machines, and everything we are and do is explainable, at least in principle, in terms of our physics, chemistry, and biology—ultimately, that is, in terms of local interactions among self-existent bits of matter moving in accordance with mathematical laws under the influence of fields of force. Some of what we know, and our capacities to learn more, are built in genetically as complex resultants of biological evolution. Everything else comes to us by way of our sensory surfaces, through energetic exchanges with the environment of types already largely understood. All aspects of mind and consciousness are generated by (or in some mysterious way identical with, or supervenient upon), neurophysiological processes occurring in the brain. We are “meat computers” in Marvin Minsky’s chilling phrase, or “moist robots” in its Dilbert parody. Mental causation, free will, and the self are mere illusions, by-products of the grinding of our neural machinery. And of course since mind and personality are entirely products of our bodily machinery, they are necessarily extinguished, totally and finally, by the demise and dissolution of the body.