Materialism in Science
This May thru July 2015, TheBestSchools.org is hosting an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Michael Shermer and Rupert Sheldrake. For details about this dialogue, along with a complete guide to other portions of it, click here.
To give our readers context for this dialogue, Drs. Sheldrake and Shermer graciously provided the following interviews:
Thank you for your Response to the questions I asked in my Opening Statement.
At first I was puzzled by the contradictions in your positions. But then I read your chapter on free will in The Moral Arc (Henry Holt, 2015). I was struck by your endorsement of the theory of modular minds, according to which we have many different compartmentalized brain functions, or mental apps (as on a smart phone). As you put it, “There is no unified ‘self’ that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. . . . Instead, we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules that are often at odds with one another” (p. 338). Suddenly, your inconsistencies became easier to understand. There are several different Shermer modules that predominate in different contexts:
- The libertarian module, with a passionate belief in the importance of freedom and individual autonomy. This gives you a strong incentive to argue for the reality of freedom and individual autonomy. “Morality involves conscious choice,” as you make clear in The Moral Arc (p. 335), which presupposes free will. This belief in freedom also inspires you to quote scientists like Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer who advocate free inquiry. Indeed, The Moral Arc opens with Oppenheimer’s words: “There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science.”
I agree. But other Shermer modules pull your brain in different directions:
- The scientific materialist module, powered by a faith in scientific authority. You dismiss problems that cast doubt on this worldview as verbal quibbles, easily solved by re-asserting materialist beliefs. For example, as you wrote in your Response, thought and mind “are just linguistic place-fillers for a complex electro-magnetic exchange going on inside our brains.” But if everything is determined by physical causes, and consciousness is nothing but as aspect of physical brain activity, materialism denies the existence of any genuine freedom of choice, a conclusion accepted by many of your fellow atheists and materialists, including Sam Harris. However, a denial of free will is in conflict with your libertarian and secular humanist modules. So, in The Moral Arc, the lack of free will in a materialist universe is dissolved away, as if by verbal magic, in seven pages. Free will is reinstated to your own satisfaction, enabling the libertarian and materialist modules to coexist in your brain, even though they seem at odds with each other.
- The philosophy of science module. As you say, according to some philosophers of science, laws of nature are not “out there”; they are just human-made descriptions and mathematical models. But this view conflicts with the views of your friend, fellow atheist Lawrence Krauss, and a highly respected cosmologist. He speculates that the universe arose out of nothing in accordance with the laws of quantum physics, and presupposes that laws were already there at the beginning of the universe, long before there were any humans to describe them. This is surely a metaphysical assumption. Moreover, in an evolutionary universe, if the laws are just descriptions of regularities, the laws must evolve because the regularities of nature evolve.
- The secular humanist module. As the atheist philosopher John Gray puts it in his book Straw Dogs (Granta Books, 2003), “Humanism is not science but religion—the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived. Humanism is the transformation of the Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation.” Gray argues that nothing in atheism or materialism or neo-Darwinism supports this optimistic faith. If the implications of these theories are taken seriously, “we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on Earth are the same.” The optimistic humanist module is very different from the materialist module, even though they coexist in your brain, and in millions of others.
- The crusader module. Crusaders were warriors, fighting against infidels and heretics. Organised skeptical movements are modern secular crusades, defending scientific orthodoxy, opposing heresy, and expanding the influence of scientific materialism. But crusaders and their successors, the inquisitors, were not noted for encouraging free inquiry, especially if it was directed towards the foundations of their faith. The crusader module is inherently intolerant.
Luckily, when your libertarian module is uppermost, we agree that scientific inquiry should be free, and not constrained by dogma. We will return to this subject next month.
* * *
In response to your second letter, and your point about seeing living organisms as “organisms, not machines,” again I ask: why can’t they be both? An organism is a living machine, and a complex enough machine can become a living organism! Proponents of Artificial Intelligence would likely agree for future machines that reach a certain level of intelligence—the singularity, say—at which point these machines will be indistinguishable from living organisms in their actions and cognitions, even though we could lift the hood and see that they are just complex machines. So we’re really talking about degrees of complexity here, and at some point a machine can become so complex that it appears for all intents and purposes to be alive and organic, as our intuitions understand those concepts. (And future AI will force us to revise those intuitions, along with our legal and moral systems about what constitutes a sentient being deserving of rights and personhood.)
Now, we both agree that these complex organic machines were not designed from the top down (or from the outside by an intelligent designer), so the problem to explain is the source of the complexity, the creative spark behind the complex design. Stephen Hawking once famously asked, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations?” And he equally famously answered “no one”—the universe comes equipped with fire already built into the equations. You and I seem to agree that there is no “who” on the outside breathing life into inorganic matter, so the answer to the question about the source of life’s fire must come from within.
You argue that “creativity is inherent in nature.” I agree, if by creativity you mean that certain laws of nature—in particular those laws governing biology, embryology, epigenetics, genetics, etc.—lead organisms to unfold embryologically from a tiny cluster of cells into a full-fledged organism (e.g., a mammal), and for species to evolve from simple to complex (and even for the evolution of evolvability). That is, inherent in what Aristotle called the “final cause” of a thing (in this case an organism) is what it is, by nature, destined to be—a seed to become a plant, a human embryo a human being—under the right conditions. Just as a star is destined to convert hydrogen into helium under the right conditions of heat and pressure, a seed or an embryo must become a plant or human under the right conditions that allow the processes of genetics, epigenetics, embryological development, and the like to unfold as they are destined to do by the laws governing the actions of their molecules.
As you know, the great German philosopher and writer Goethe developed a biological theory of morphology (he invented the word!) based on the formalist idea that the wide diversity of plant and animal complexity can be reduced to single archetypes or forms—a “leaflike” form for leaves, for example. But Goethe’s formalist morphological theory never panned out because no underlying mechanism to drive it was ever found, much less the source of the archetype in the first place. Darwin’s genius was to turn this theory on its head by showing how all current forms are derived from prior forms, modified by natural selection to be adaptive to current environments. Thus, the “archetype” of our arms and hands—the tetrapod forelimb with a humerus, ulna, and radius, and carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges bones—evolved in fish 375 million years ago as an adaptation for transitioning from the water onto the land (amphibians), most famously in the Tiktaalik fossil discovered by Neil Shubin in 2004. And fossils before and after that type (see the Wikipedia entry for “transitional fossils”) show no “archetype” at all, only local adaptations to local environments all the way back and forward from that particular type.
So we already have a purely materialist explanation for the diversity of types in nature without the need to invoke the “memory” of forms (in your theory) that guide molecules toward them (if I’m understanding your theory correctly), but if you are right in your claim that “genetic programs” do not explain forms, body types, anatomy, or physiology, then I have three questions:
- What do you think DNA is for and what is it doing, if not what geneticists think it is doing?
- Where is the “memory” for forms (say, the tetrapod forelimb) stored?
- How does this memory act on physical systems, such as the molecules that make up cells or organs or (in keeping with my example) tetrapod forelimbs?
I think the reason your theory of morphic resonance has not gained acceptance within the scientific community is the same as why Goethe’s formalist theory of morphology never succeeded: in science we need both theory and mechanism. Alfred Wegener had a theory of drifting continents but no mechanism that could drive plates around the globe. Once that mechanism was found in the 1960s in the form of plate tectonics, the theory gained acceptance. It’s true that Darwin didn’t have an understanding of genetics as a mechanism for natural selection, but the evidence for his theory was so overwhelming from so many different lines of inquiry that it gained acceptance despite this shortcoming. And of course after 1953, genetics synthesized the theory of evolution into the fully mature science it is today.
For your theory to follow a similar trajectory, you would need to:
- provide more reliable and consistent (i.e., replicable) evidence that such memory in nature exists;
- explain where this memory is stored (i.e., what’s the mechanism of storage); and
- explain how morphic memories affect physical systems (e.g., molecules)
If you were able to do these things, then I and most everyone else in science would change our minds and accept your theory.
Until then, it is reasonable to be skeptical.