October 26, 2013
The “scientific worldview” is immensely influential because the sciences have been so successful. No one can fail to be awed by their achievements, which touch all our lives through technologies and through modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed through an immense expansion of our knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.
Yet in the second decade of the 21st century, when science and technology seem to be at the peak of the power, when their influence has spread all over the world, and when their triumph seems indisputable, unexpected problems are dis-rupting the sciences from within. Most scientists take it for granted that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along established lines, but some, including myself, think that they are symptoms of a deeper malaise. Science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The sciences would be better off with-out them: freer, more interesting, and more fun.
The biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details still need working out, but the fundamental questions are settled, in principle.
Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.
These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they do not. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology.
THE SCIENTIFIC CREED
Here are the 10 core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.
1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, “lumbering robots,” in Richard Dawkins’ vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.
3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).
4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.
5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not “out there,” where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief system became dominant within science in the late 19th century, and is now taken for granted. Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption; they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis.
In everyday usage, materialism refers to a way of life devoted entirely to material interests, a preoccupation with wealth, possessions, and luxury. These attitudes are no doubt encouraged by the materialist philosophy, which denies the existence of any spiritual realities or non-material goals, but in this article I am concerned with materialism’s scientific claims, rather than its effects on lifestyles.
In the spirit of radical skepticism, each of these 10 doctrines can be turned into a question, as I show in my book Science Set Free1 (called The Science Delusion in the UK). Entirely new vistas open up when a widely accepted assumption is taken as the beginning of an inquiry, rather than as an unquestionable truth. For example, the assumption that nature is machine-like or mechanical becomes a question: “Is nature mechanical?” The assumption that matter is unconscious becomes “Is matter unconscious?” and so on.
THE CREDIBILITY CRUNCH FOR THE “SCIENTIFIC WORLDVIEW”
For more than 200 years, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, minds are nothing but brain activity, and nature is purposeless. Believers are sustained by the faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made.2 Despite all the achievements of science and technology, materialism is now facing a credibility crunch that was unimaginable in the 20th century.
In 1963, when I was studying biochemistry at Cambridge University, I was invited to a series of private meetings with Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner in Brenner’s rooms in King’s College, along with a few of my classmates. Crick and Brenner had recently helped to “crack” the genetic code. Both were ardent materialists and Crick was also a militant atheist. They explained there were two major unsolved problems in biology: development and consciousness. They had not been solved because the people who worked on them were not molecular biologists—nor very bright. Crick and Brenner were going to find the answers within 10 years, or maybe 20. Brenner would take developmental biology, and Crick consciousness. They invited us to join them.
Both tried their best. Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on the development of a tiny worm, Caenorhabdytis elegans. Crick corrected the manuscript of his final paper on the brain the day before he died in 2004. At his funeral, his son Michael said that what made him tick was not the desire to be famous, wealthy, or popular, but “to knock the final nail into the coffin of vitalism.” (Vitalism is the theory that living organisms are truly alive, and not explicable in terms of physics and chemistry alone.)
Crick and Brenner failed. The problems of development and consciousness remain unsolved. Many details have been discovered, dozens of genomes have been sequenced, and brain scans are ever more precise. But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone.
The fundamental proposition of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness is nothing but brain activity. It is either like a shadow, an “epiphenomenon,” that does nothing, or it is just another way of talking about brain activity. However, among contemporary researchers in neuroscience and consciousness studies there is no consensus about the nature of minds. Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the “hard problem.” It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.
In biology and psychology the credibility rating of materialism is falling. Can physics ride to the rescue? Some materialists prefer to call themselves physicalists, to emphasize that their hopes depend on modern physics, not 19th-century theories of matter. But physicalism’s own credibility rating has been reduced by physics itself, for four reasons:
First, some physicists insist that quantum mechanics cannot be formulated without taking into account the minds of observers. They argue that minds cannot be reduced to physics because physics presupposes the minds of physicists.3
Second, the most ambitious unified theories of physical reality, string and M-theories, with 10 and 11 dimensions, respectively, take science into completely new territory. Strangely, as Stephen Hawking tells us in his book The Grand Design (2010), “No one seems to know what the ‘M’ stands for, but it may be ‘master’, ‘miracle’ or ‘mystery’.” According to what Hawking calls “model-dependent realism,” different theories may have to be applied in different situations. “Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.”4
String theories and M-theories are currently untestable, so “model-dependent realism” can only be judged by reference to other models, rather than by experiment. It also applies to countless other universes, none of which has ever been observed.5
Some physicists are deeply skeptical about this entire approach, as the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin shows in his book The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next (2008).6 String theories, M-theories, and “model-dependent realism” are a shaky foundation for materialism or physicalism or any other belief system.
Third, since the beginning of the 21st century, it has become apparent that the known kinds of matter and energy make up only about 4% of the universe. The rest consists of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” The nature of 96% of physical reality is literally obscure.
Fourth, the Cosmological Anthropic Principle asserts that if the laws and constants of nature had been slightly different at the moment of the Big Bang, biological life could never have emerged, and hence we would not be here to think about it. So did a divine mind fine-tune the laws and constants in the beginning? To avoid a creator God emerging in a new guise, most leading cosmologists prefer to believe that our universe is one of a vast, and perhaps infinite, number of parallel universes, all with different laws and constants, as M-theory also suggests. We just happen to exist in the one that has the right conditions for us.7
This multiverse theory is the ultimate violation of Ockham’s Razor, the philosophical principle that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity,” or in other words that we should make as few assumptions as possible. It also has the major disadvantage of being untestable.8 And it does not even succeed in getting rid of God. An infinite God could be the God of an infinite number of universes.9
Materialism provided a seemingly simple, straightforward worldview in the late 19th century, but 21st century science has left it far behind. Its promises have not been fulfilled, and its promissory notes have been devalued by hyperinflation.
I am convinced that the sciences are being held back by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos. These beliefs protect the citadel of established science, but act as barriers against open-minded thinking. Here, for example, I explore Dogma 2, the assumption that matter is unconscious
IS MATTER UNCONSCIOUS?
The central doctrine of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore, consciousness ought not to exist. Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist. You are conscious now. The main opposing theory, dualism, accepts the reality of consciousness, but has no convincing explanation for its interaction with the body and the brain. Dualist–materialist arguments have gone on for centuries. But if we question the dogma that matter is unconscious, we can move forward from this sterile opposition.
Scientific materialism arose historically as a rejection of mechanistic dualism, which defined matter as unconscious and souls as immaterial, as I discuss below. One important motive for this rejection was the elimination of souls and God, leaving unconscious matter as the only reality. In short, materialists treated subjective experience as irrelevant; dualists accepted the reality of experience but were unable to explain how minds affect brains.
The materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained (1991), in which he tried to explain away consciousness by arguing that subjective experience is illusory. He was forced to this conclusion because he rejected dualism as a matter of principle:
I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up [his italics].10
This dogmatism of Dennett’s rule is not merely apparent: the rule is dogmatic. By “giving up” and “wallowing in mystery,” I suppose he means giving up science and reason and relapsing into religion and superstition. Materialism “at all costs” demands the denial of the reality of our own minds and personal experiences—including those of Daniel Dennett himself, although by putting forward arguments he hopes will be persuasive, he seems to make an exception for himself and for those who read his book.
Francis Crick devoted decades of his life to trying to explain consciousness mechanistically. He frankly admitted that the materialist theory was an “astonishing hypothesis” that flew in the face of common sense: “‘You’, your joys, and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, and your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”11 Presumably Crick included himself in this description, although he must have felt that here was more to his argument than the automatic activity of nerve cells.
One of the motives of materialists is to support an anti-religious worldview. Francis Crick was a militant atheist, as is Daniel Dennett. On the other hand, one of the traditional motives of dualists is to support the possibility of the soul’s survival. If the human soul is immaterial, it may exist after bodily death.
Scientific orthodoxy has not always been materialist. The founders of mechanistic science in the 17th century were dualistic Christians. They downgraded matter, making it totally inanimate and mechanical, and at the same time upgraded human minds making them completely different from unconscious matter. By creating an unbridgeable gulf between the two, they thought they were strengthening the argument for the human soul and its immortality, as well as increasing the separation between humans and other animals.
This mechanistic dualism is often called Cartesian dualism after Descartes (Des Cartes). It saw the human mind as essentially immaterial and disembodied, and bodies as machines made of unconscious matter.12 In practice, most people take a dualist view for granted, as long as they are not called upon to defend it. Almost everyone assumes that we have some degree of free will, and are responsible for our actions. Our educational and legal systems are based on this belief. And we experience ourselves as conscious beings, with some degree of free choice. Even to discuss consciousness presupposes that we are conscious ourselves. Nevertheless, since the 1920s, most leading scientists and philosophers in the English-speaking world have been materialists, in spite of all the problems this doctrine creates.
The strongest argument in favor of materialism is the failure of dualism to explain how immaterial minds work and how they interact with brains. The strongest argument in favor of dualism is the implausibility and self-contradictory nature of materialism.
The dualist–materialist dialectic has lasted for centuries. The soul–body or mind–brain problem has refused to go away. But before we can move forward, first we need to understand in more detail what materialists claim, since their belief system dominates institutional science and medicine, and everyone is influenced by it.
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