Not a War But a Revolution: Materialism is Wrong

December 6, 2011 | 2 Comments

Categories: Failure of Scientific Materialism, Scientific Method, Scientific Revolution

            In War of the Worldviews, Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow (perhaps best known for co-authoring The Grand Design with Stephen Hawking) debate, through dueling essays, the question of whether a spiritual consciousness should play a part in our current scientific worldview.  Mr. Mlodinow adopts the staunch materialistic standpoint, constantly arguing that only what can tested, weighed and measured is real.   According to him, this invisible spiritual element, advanced by Mr. Chopra, is simply an illusion; a nice thought without scientific credibility.  Taking out his ruler and compass, Mr. Mlodinow finds he cannot measure “consciousness” and therefore concludes it does not exist. 

            One of Mr. Mlodinow’s often repeated attacks in his essays is that metaphysics and philosophy are worthless, too malleable, and of no use for science.  What is real is what we see, and what we see is a world independent of our brains.  Who needs metaphysics?

             He writes that “For while metaphysics is fixed and guided by personal belief and wish fulfillment, science progresses and is inspired by the excitement of discovery.  The scientist’s dream is to make new discoveries, especially when they mean that established theories must be revised.”

             But here’s the problem: materialism itself is a metaphysics.  And, indeed, this metaphysics is fixed for most modern scientists who are guided by their personal belief and wish fulfillment in adopting materialism as their guiding principle.  Scientists do not practice their craft in a rarefied place where no-one engages in metaphysics; instead modern scientists almost uniformly adopt the metaphysics of materialism, and proceed as if no other way of looking at the world, — or being rationale — has any credibility. 

            So let’s first define a few terms.  Metaphysics “is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.”           

            “Materialism” is the “theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena.” So the metaphysics of materialism holds that matter wins, mind loses; if mind exists it will some day be found to be an emergent property of matter.  Materialism follows from “naïve realism,” or as its proponents prefer, “realism.”  “Realism” is the position that what appears to exist really does exist in the same manner as its appearance, external to the mind.  Mr. Mlodinow writes that “scientists deal only with phenomena we can see, hear, smell, detect with instruments, or measure with numbers.”  Nobel prize-winning physicists Steven Weinberg speaks directly to this point in his book, Dreams of a Final Theory.  He writes that “Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy.  For most of us, it is rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories.”  (p. 167).           

            And the problem is two-fold: First, scientists, as typified by Leonard Mlodinow and Steven Weinberg, do in fact follow a metaphysics known as materialism or naive realism.  Second, this metaphysics is called naive realism for a reason. 

             The reason naive realism is naive is because, as thinkers have shown for several centuries, not only do our senses sometimes deceive, but we all have experiences, such as dreams and hallucinations, where we do not need our physical senses to experience an outside world: our mind itself is capable of conjuring a real-seeming world as if from nothing.  These experiences put into question not only whether some of the physical world is mind-created, but whether it all is.      

            Naïve realism ignores an entire series of important findings by philosophers in the 17th and 18th century.  In short order, it goes like this: John Locke (1632-1704)  concluded that some qualities of an external object, such as color, taste, and sound, or secondary qualities, are subjective and added to experience by the mind.   If this were not true, then everyone would like the taste of beer and enjoy the same music, and there would be no such thing a color-blindness.   But other qualities of object, such as number and shape, or primary qualities, Locke believed really did exist outside in the world apart from the mind.   This is similar to the view currently held, at least in theory, by modern science, which holds that certain physical qualities in external objects create the experience of reality in our brains. 

             George Berkeley (1685-1753) then took the next logical step.  He reasoned that since color, taste, and sound are inseparable from a physical object (such as an apple), it makes no logical sense to say that some parts of the object are in the mind and rest are actually outside of the mind.  This led Berkeley to conclude that all physical reality resides in the mind of an eternal spirit. 

             David Hume (1711-1776) adopted Berkeley standpoint in concluding that we have no logical or empirical reason to believe that a world existed independently of the mind; rather, he said, most people, including the “vulgar” and the philosopher, simply take a mind-independent world for granted.  He writes that even though an objective, studied inquiry into the subject shows that nothing is ever present to the mind but its own perceptions and ideas, the belief in a world outside of the mind “has taken such a deep root in the imagination, that ’tis impossible to ever eradicate it, nor will any strain’d metaphysical conviction of the dependence of our perceptions be sufficient for that purpose.” (Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. I, Pt. IV, Sec. II). 

             So why is this little detour into the thoughts of great philosophers important?  Because it shows that the existence of a mind-independent world is an assumption based neither on reason nor empiricism.  In other words, science, using the methods of empiricism, cannot prove a mind-independent world exists; rather this is an assumption that scientists take for granted in developing their theories.

             So what is wrong with this?  A few things. Modern scientists convey an air of invincibility when discussing their theories, as if no other approach to understanding the world will ever have credibility.  But when we look deeper, we find that scientists have based the scientific enterprise upon a metaphysical framework — materialism —that not only can never be proven true but, as scientists themselves know, does not accurately describe the physical world.  (See quantum theory.)   Thus, scientists practice the highest form of intellectual investigation within the most naive of frameworks. 

             Metaphysics is as important to science as a foundation is to a skyscraper.  And yes, our modern scientists do follow a metaphysics, as they have build the scientific enterprise upon the foundation of materialism. 

             It is this foundation that is in doubt, not the scientific method.




Tags: Chopra, consciousness, Deepak, materialism, metaphysics, Mlodinow, philosophy, revolution, spirituality, worldviews

Funerals, Thought Leaders, and the Need to Question Authority

November 28, 2010 | 1 Comment

Categories: Scientific Method, Scientific Revolution, The Power of Questioning

German physicist, Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, is credited with observing that “science advances one funeral at a time.”  What did he mean? 

What we call “modern science” is in fact a set of theories advanced by the day’s leading scientists, teachers, authors, and textbook writers.  (Included among this group would be Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krause, Stephen Weinberg, Leon Lederman,  John Gribben, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet).  These individuals ”control the airwaves” by defining the body of scientific knowledge that they hand down to their students, television commentators, readers, and the public at large.  Boosted by their association with Science, the most authoritative intellectual discipline, these thought leaders direct the course of our worldview and determine  the theories and ideas we are supposed to believe in.   These ideas and theories include the Big Bang (the world was created in a gigantic explosion of matter, space, and time), cosmic inflation (the matter present at the Big Bang expanded by 50 orders of magnitude in the space of a millisecond),  dark matter (most of the matter holding the universe together is actually invisible), dark energy (some mysterious invisible cosmic repulsive force is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate), the multiverse (our universe is actually one of trillions of other universes that sprang from the void), and the big one, Darwinian evolution (life arose from a swamp and evolves according to the mindless, directionless process known as natural selection.)   So these theories filter down to us over the years and we wind up accepting them without so much as a raised eyebrow.   Who are we to question these authoritative figures and who can ever hope to alter these inviolable ideas?  

Well, it’s a bit crude, but if the chief proponent of any leading theory dies, the “head is cut off” and there may be room for a new theory.  That is what I think Max Planck meant. 

But it does not have to be this way.  Another way to change a theory, according to the methods of science, is to come up with a better theory, rather than wait for the proponent of the old theory to die.  What makes such a theory “better” would be that it explains more, is more logically consistent,  operates with fewer assumptions, and is testable.  The late Harvard professor and evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, once wrote that what separates science from religion is science’s “openness to challenge.”   What distinguishes these two fields of thought, Mayr wrote, is science’s “willingness to abandon current accepted belief when a new, better one is proposed.” (E. Mayr, This is Biology: The Science of the Living World).   But science today is far removed from practicing any such openness.  Rather, the bookstore shelves are filled with volumes denigrating any belief or thought that departs from the current scientific worldview. Is every sentence written by a member of the intelligent design movement hogwash? Does the new age (or new spirituality) movement have absolutely no useful contribution to make in the development of an improved worldview? Are all religions outright false and all their followers, delusional?   Is today’s scientific worldview the only possible way to view the world rationally?

In logic, the “appeal to authority” is considered a fallacy to the extent the argument is accepted as true simply because someone — even an authority figure – said it.  Put differently, people become authorities because what they say is shown to be more plausible than competing theories, if not true; their beliefs are not accepted as  true simply because they said it.   Although the opinion of a prestigious scientific figure is entitled to a degree of deference, it is contrary to the spirit of science to give undue weight even to the opinions of experts.  As one philosophy professor put it, “It is in the spirit of science to reject views of the old masters when new evidence sheds doubt on established views.  A prominent example in [the past]  century is the rejection by the majority of physicists of Albert Einstein’s interpretation of certain aspects of quantum physics. Einstein never accepted the now prevalent interpretation of the intrinsic indeterminancy of certain characteristics of elementatry particles between measurements.” (H. Byerly, A Primer of Logic).

Science is supposed to be the open-source search for truth, not a fortress of  untouchable theories to be protected at all costs. 

What does this mean?  It means that to change our worldview on a faster timetable than the one Planck envisioned, we need to dispense with any inhibitions preventing us from questioning the thought leaders of science.  Where did all that matter come from in the Big Bang?  What evidence is there that the very early universe inflated trillions of times in the blink of an eye?  Must we really accept these notions of dark matter and dark energy or is there a better way to explain the positioning of galactic bodies?   If quantum theory actually tells us that there is no “real world” independent of consciousness (as many physicists believe), then why does science base its theories about such an illusory independent world? Doesn’t science’s inability to reconcile gravity with quantum theory  tell us something is wrong with the standard scientific model? Do we have to imagine trillions of other universes to account for the strange fit between the conditions of the cosmos and life?  Did God hand Darwin’s The Origin of Species down from the heavens or is there a small chance Richard Dawkins is in some way wrong?     

Perhaps all of these theories will withstand questioning. Perhaps some will fall by the wayside and be replaced by something better.  But we will not be carrying out science if we simply accept them as Truth without even raising our hands and asking a  question or two.  And, of course, there is always the alternative for those who are extremely patient: we can wait for the funeral processions, and then try again.

Comments, questions, great thoughts?

Tags: Questioning authroity; thought leaders;