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:
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Scientists in general, and myself in particular, are not materialists because of historical contingencies related to French and Russian reactionary governments, or because we’re afraid that if we give up materialism religion and belief in God will come roaring back. Last time I checked the polls, in fact, religion and belief in God seemed to be doing just fine in this age of scientific materialism, although I am encouraged by the recent increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation. But my desire to see the power of religion attenuated has nothing to do with scientific materialism and everything to do with human rights and moral progress (which I claim is primarily driven by science and reason and Enlightenment humanism). And I am an atheist not because I am a materialist, but because I do not believe there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God.
Materialism became the predominant worldview of science by the end of the nineteenth century because it works — it enables scientists to search for and find mechanistic explanations for a wide spread of phenomena, from atoms and molecules to ecologies and economies. This is not an act of faith, as you say, but of confidence built over centuries of data-gathering, hypothesis-testing, and theory-building, all contested through the competitive enterprise of science in which skeptics have, as you note in quoting Feynman, tried to find out what might be wrong with their own and especially others’ ideas.
Neither is materialism an ideology, as you also suggest. An ideology is a set of beliefs about how society should be structured, and traditionally those beliefs have had less to do with science and more to do with preconceived notions of the proper place of people in a society (usually held by the dominant group as a way of keeping minority groups in their place — or eliminating them altogether). Communism and National Socialism, for example, were not scientific societies (as often claimed by theists in their eagerness to indict atheism by linking it to science and materialism), but utopian societies grounded in the faux religions of Marxism (for Communist states) and nationalism (for the Nazis). Also — in the case of the Nazis — their eugenics program had nothing to do with scientific materialism or atheism, and their science was (as I write in The Moral Arc [p. 137]) “a thin patina covering a deep layer of counter-Enlightenment, pastoral, paradisiacal fantasies of racial ideology grounded in ethnicity and geography.”
As seen in these examples, much of our dialogue turns on the meaning of words. My example from my first letter about the discovery of the material mechanism of the nerve impulse illustrates the point. And just as we no longer have to depend on fuzzy phrases like “nervous energy” or force mentale (because we now understand the underlying molecular process), we should be cautious when we employ fuzzy words like “thought” or “mind” so as not to reify them into causal explanations. It’s okay to say “I think” or “my mind” in conversation, as long as we all understand that these are just linguistic place-fillers for a complex electro-chemical exchange going on inside our brains.
Such linguistic clarification goes a long way to answering your many questions. “Is nature mechanical?” As opposed to what . . . non-mechanical? What would that mean? What would be an example of a non-mechanical system? Yes, scientists use metaphors like the heart as a pump or the brain as a computer, but metaphors are just a way of talking and thinking about something with the end goal of understanding the underlying mechanical processes. Communication is easier when I say “my heart pumps blood” or “my brain computes the consequences,” instead of a long description of muscle contractions and nerve impulses.
You ask do I see myself as a complex machine or as a conscious living organism? Yes. Both. But, again, these are just words, and you have used them in a manner that implies one can’t be both. A conscious living organism is a complex machine — very complex. As well, being a “complex machine” in no way detracts from the elegance and beauty of being a “living organism”; it only adds to it. This reminds me of the nineteenth-century English poet John Keats, who once bemoaned that Isaac Newton had “destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.” Natural philosophy, he lamented in his 1820 poem "Lamia,"
…will clip an Angel’s wings
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine —
Unweave a rainbow . . .
Richard Feynman gave as good a response as anyone to Keats in his 1988 book, What do YOU Care What Other People Think?, in his contemplation of a flower:
The beauty that is there for you is also available for me, too. But I see a deeper beauty that isn’t so readily available to others. I can see the complicated interactions of the flower. The color of the flower is red. Does the fact that the plant has color mean that it evolved to attract insects? This adds a further question. Can insects see color? Do they have an aesthetic sense? And so on. I don’t see how studying a flower ever detracts from its beauty. It only adds.
The sense I get from your work — and that of many others who harbor some reservations about science under the rubric of “scientism” — is that the reductionistic, mechanistic worldview somehow detracts from both the beauty and understanding of nature. It doesn’t, it only adds by giving us a deeper understanding of it.
You ask if matter is unconscious. The answer depends on the meaning of the word "conscious." If you mean something akin to what you and I are doing here — consciously thinking and experiencing and communicating — then what matter are we talking about? Is an apple (the fruit, not the computer) conscious? If you mean to ask if apples can think, experience, and communicate, then obviously not. But I wouldn’t even say that apples are unconscious because that implies that they have a temporary suspension of consciousness, like when we are put under anesthesia. Consciousness is not part of an apple’s essence, so it can’t even be unconscious, and neither can the molecules with which it is made.
You ask if I have free will. I do. I have an entire chapter in The Moral Arc explaining why, but in brief I present four ways around the paradox of retaining freedom and moral responsibility in a determined universe:
- modular mind — even though a brain consists of many neural networks in which one network may make a choice that another network finds out about later, they are all still operating in a single brain
- free won’t — vetoing competing impulses and choosing one thought or action over another
- degrees of moral freedom — a range of choice options varying by degrees of complexity and the number of intervening variables
- choice as part of the causal net — wherein our volitional acts are part of the determined universe but are still our choices
But the free will issue also turns on how we define these terms. I’m guessing that you too believe in free will, but probably for different reasons involving something akin to a conscious or spiritual or nonmaterial soul or entity or substance that represents “you” that is making choices. But this doesn’t give you free will. It just means something else is making the decision for “you,” unless you think that this other entity is you and the physical entity called Rupert Sheldrake is something else.
You ask about matter, energy, and the laws of nature. I’m not a physicist and am not qualified or even sufficiently read to offer a proper response. My friend and colleague Lawrence Krauss, a highly respected cosmologist and physicist, tells me (in an email dated May 1), “we know that over cosmic time the fine structure constant has been constant by at least 1 part in 100,000 or so, and the gravitational constant hasn’t changed by more than 40% at most since the universe was one second old. The latter comes from BBN limits, and the former from measuring the spectrum of light emitted by atoms in galaxies at high redshift.” Lawrence’s book, A Universe from Nothing, along with Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s book, The Grand Design, both present materialist/mechanistic models by which a universe can come into existence and sustain itself without the necessity of a higher intelligence or outside creative force of any kind.
As for “laws of nature,” again, linguistic precision is helpful here. “Laws” are the linguistic and mathematical descriptions we humans give to naturally occurring repeating phenomena. There are no laws of nature “out there.” Nature just is. Stars, for example, convert hydrogen into helium in a well-defined manner dependent on temperature and pressure. We can write out the mathematical equations that tell us how this happens, how fast, how much, and so on. But there are no “laws” inside stars; just material stuff doing what it must do under those conditions.
And this answers your next question, “Is nature purposeless?” What do you mean by purpose? If you mean that the purpose of stars is to convert hydrogen into helium under certain temperatures and pressures, then yes, nature has purpose. Stars are fulfilling their “destiny” in this sense. But if you mean by purpose some outside transcendent source that grants or directs purpose, or that acknowledges or rewards purpose fulfilled, then no such source exists. There is no Archimedean point from which we can lever into our lives some external purpose. We have to create our own purpose, and we do this by fulfilling our nature, by living according to our essence, by being true to ourselves.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
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I agree with you that science is not about the supernatural. If things can be investigated by the natural sciences, they are part of nature. I support the principle of methodological naturalism, and in my own research have always worked within it.
In relation to psychic phenomena, like you, I have long argued that if they occur (which I think they do), they are natural, not supernatural; normal not paranormal. I also consider morphic resonance — which I suggest underlies memory in nature — to be normal, not paranormal; natural, not supernatural.
Also, like you, I’m against the concept of intelligent design, but for different reasons. I think the word “design” has misleading mechanistic implications. The old version of intelligent design was that God was outside of nature, and designed the machinery of the world, like an engineer designing a machine, or a watchmaker designing a watch. To say that living organisms are “designed” implies that they are complex machines. New versions of intelligent design are subtler, but still imply that living organisms are machines, and that their complexity is designed by a supernatural mind or minds outside nature. I agree with advocates of intelligent design in thinking that evolutionary creativity goes beyond blind chance, but I see living organisms as organisms, not machines, and I think that creativity is inherent in nature, rather than being imposed upon it from outside.
I also agree with you in rejecting “God of the gaps” arguments for the existence of God. We will return to a discussion of God in our third dialogue. But, unlike you, I am skeptical of “materialism of the gaps” arguments. Instead of invoking God, many materialists try to solve problems by making scientific promises. For example:
- “We do not yet fully understand how genes program the development of animals and plants, but in the light of the spectacular advances of molecular biology and vastly improved computer modelling techniques, we soon will.”
- “We do not yet know the detailed mechanisms whereby the brain is programmed to produce consciousness, but with the spectacular advances in brain imaging techniques, rapid advances in our understanding are imminent.”
Empty phrases such as “genetic programs” and “brain mechanisms” are used to explain almost everything. They imply that the answers are known in principle, leaving only the details to be worked out, with the answers only a few years (or decades) away. Committed materialists are committed precisely because they believe that materialistic explanations will be found in the future. They put their trust in what they hope for — in what is not yet known. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this attitude “promissory materialism,” because it involves issuing undated promissory notes for future discoveries. Promissory materialism is a faith.
In the nineteenth century, materialism seemed quite straightforward. Old-style materialists thought that matter was made up of hard, enduring stuff, with atoms like little billiard balls, pushed around by known forms of energy. But the nature of physical reality — which materialists think of as the only reality — is much more problematic today. Quantum theory has dissolved matter into vibratory patterns of activity within fields. And most cosmologists and astronomers believe that about 96% of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, whose nature is literally obscure. These names may be placeholders, but what they mean is that 96% of what materialists or physicalists believe in is unknown. How can we be sure that dark matter and dark energy — the basis for the existence of galaxies and the evolution of the universe — are completely mindless and unconscious?
The most interesting contemporary debate within the materialist community is between conservative materialists — among whom I think you, Michael, are numbered — and animistic materialists, who propose that there are mind-like properties throughout the natural world, even in electrons. As you know, this position is usually called "panpsychism" (from the Greek words pan [“all" or "everything”] and psuchē [“soul”] — meaning "all or everything is soul"). For example, the philosopher Galen Strawson argues that materialism itself implies panpsychism. He is a panpsychist, but still thinks of himself as a materialist or physicalist. The neuroscientist Christof Koch has recently come to the conclusion that a version of panpsychism modified for the 21st century is “the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe.” The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book Mind and Cosmos, is another eminent proponent of the idea that there is psyche or mind throughout nature. None of these panpsychists proposes that psyches or minds are supernatural, but rather that they are aspects of nature. I agree with them.
I myself think that part of the mental aspect of nature is memory. My own particular hypothesis is that memory depends on the process I call morphic resonance, an influence of similar patterns of activity on subsequent similar patterns of activity, resonating through or across space and time. This resonance occurs in self-organizing systems, which include molecules, crystals, plants, animals, social groups, planets, solar systems, and galaxies. Similar self-organising patterns of activity resonate across time, from the past to the present. Each species has a kind of collective memory. Every individual both taps into this collective memory and contributes to it. By contrast, human-made objects like chairs, cars, computers, and other machines are not self-organizing. They are designed and made by people, or through computer programs designed by human computer programmers. They are not subject to morphic resonance from past chairs, cars, etc., although the molecules and crystals within them are.
Morphic resonance is a hypothesis, not an accepted scientific fact. But the progress of science depends on exploring hypotheses, and testing them empirically. The hypothesis of morphic resonance leads to many testable predictions. For example, if rats learn a new trick in New York, rats in London and Sydney should learn the same trick quicker, even in the absence of any conventional means of communication. There is already evidence that this effect occurs. There are many other lines of evidence that seem to support this hypothesis, as summarized in the third edition of my book A New Science of Life (London: Icon Books, 2009; re-titled Morphic Resonance in the USA). I have also suggested several new tests [PDF] in the realms of low temperature physics, crystallography, developmental biology, animal behavior, and human psychology. In biology, this hypothesis implies that the inheritance of form and behavior depends largely on morphic resonance, rather than on genes, which code for the sequence of amino acids in proteins. Genes are not “programs” for development or for instincts. Indeed, it turns out that about 70% of human heritability is not explicable in terms of genes. This is called the “missing heritability problem.”
One of the most striking implications of morphic resonance concerns memory. Morphic resonance depends on similarity. The greater the similarity, the stronger the resonance. Think about yourself. Which organism in the past was most similar to you? Surely you yourself! Self-resonance is the most powerful resonance working on any self-organising system. In living organisms, self-resonance helps maintain their form, even though the chemicals and cells within them are continually turned over and replaced.
In the realms of learning and mental activity, self-resonance underlies memory. In other words, memories may not be stored in brains. Brains may be more like TV receivers than video recorders. TV receivers tune in to invisible resonances across space, transmitted through invisible radio waves. Your memories may depend on a resonance with yourself in the past, transmitted across time by morphic resonance. The standard assumption is, of course, that memories are stored as material traces inside brains. But after 100 years of intensive research, these traces have proved extraordinarily elusive, perhaps because they are not there. If I came to your house and analysed the wires and transistors of your TV set to try and find out what you were watching last week, I would be disappointed; I would find no material traces.
But doesn’t the fact that brain damage can lead to loss of memory prove that memories are stored in brains? No. It only shows that properly functioning brains are necessary for the retrieval of memories. Damage to a TV set can lead to changes in the sounds or the pictures, but this does not prove that what you are seeing and hearing is stored inside the set.
I suppose in the end that most of our disagreements about science come down to our different agendas. I am a research scientist, and I like exploring new possibilities. You are a leader of the organized skeptic movement, many of whose members are conservative materialists, dedicated to maintaining materialist law and order, patrolling the frontiers of science, and ringing alarm bells. These differences divide us. But what may bring us closer is a belief in free inquiry. I was interested to read in your TBS interview about your libertarian sympathies, which presumably include a belief in the freedom of the sciences from authoritarianism and dogma.