Saturday, July 26, 2014

Is Matter All There Is?

Science writer George Johnson summarizes in a piece in the New York Times the perplexity many thinkers feel when they look at the cosmos through the eyes of materialism. The perplexity results from a sense that materialism is leaving something out. Johnson is evidently a naturalist, i.e. he believes that nature is all there is, there's nothing that transcends nature, but he wonders if nature might include mind as well as matter. Materialism, the naturalistic belief that everything that exists reduces to a single substance, matter (and energy), seems inadequate to account for what science is learning about the cosmos.

Here are some excerpts from Johnson's essay:
[I]t is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time.

Since it was published in 2012, “Mind and Cosmos,” by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, is the book that has caused the most consternation. With his taunting subtitle — “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” — Dr. Nagel was rejecting the idea that there was nothing more to the universe than matter and physical forces. He also doubted that the laws of evolution, as currently conceived, could have produced something as remarkable as sentient life. That idea borders on anathema, and the book quickly met with a blistering counterattack.

What makes “Mind and Cosmos” worth reading is that Dr. Nagel is an atheist, who rejects the creationist idea of an intelligent designer. The answers, he believes, may still be found through science, but only by expanding it further than it may be willing to go.

Dr. Nagel finds it astonishing that the human brain — this biological organ that evolved on the third rock from the sun — has developed a science and a mathematics so in tune with the cosmos that it can predict and explain so many things.

Neuroscientists assume that these mental powers somehow emerge from the electrical signaling of neurons — the circuitry of the brain. But no one has come close to explaining how that occurs.

That, Dr. Nagel proposes, might require another revolution: showing that mind, along with matter and energy, is “a fundamental principle of nature” — and that we live in a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” Rather than being a blind series of random mutations and adaptations, evolution would have a direction, maybe even a purpose.
Indeed. In their book Quantum Enigma physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner make a compelling case that so far from the materialist belief that mind, whatever it is, arises as an epiphenomenon from matter (much as light is an epiphenomenon of fire), it's coming to look as though matter arises as an epiphenomenon of mind. In other words, mind, not matter, is the fundamental substance which makes up reality.
“Above all,” Nagel wrote, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.”
Although Nagel's book made materialists apoplectic (Neuroscientist Steven Pinker dismissed it as the "shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker") he's certainly not alone in suspecting that materialism is an obsolete metaphysical hypothesis.
While rejecting anything mystical, the biologist Stuart Kauffman has suggested that Darwinian theory must somehow be expanded to explain the emergence of complex, intelligent creatures. And David J. Chalmers, a philosopher, has called on scientists to seriously consider “panpsychism” — the idea that some kind of consciousness, however rudimentary, pervades the stuff of the universe.

Heading off in another direction, a new book by the physicist Max Tegmark suggests that a different ingredient — mathematics — needs to be admitted into science as one of nature’s irreducible parts. In fact, he believes, it may be the most fundamental of all.

In a well-known 1960 essay, the physicist Eugene Wigner marveled at “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining the world. It is “something bordering on the mysterious,” he wrote, for which “there is no rational explanation.” The best he could offer was that mathematics is “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

Dr. Tegmark, in his new book, “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality,” turns the idea on its head: The reason mathematics serves as such a forceful tool is that the universe is a mathematical structure. Going beyond Pythagoras and Plato, he sets out to show how matter, energy, space and time might emerge from numbers. But is mathematics, for all its power, really the root of reality? Or is it a product of the human mind?
If numbers are the root of reality where do numbers come from? Do they exist in some Platonic realm transcending space and time or do they exist in some transcendent mind? And why, when so much that we are learning, points to the universe as the product of a mind, is this idea so viscerally opposed? What are the implications of this view that so many thinkers find so repugnant and unacceptable, and why are they so repulsed by those implications?