Wednesday, April 15, 2015

C. elegans

One of the most fascinating fields of study in biology is the field of embryology - the study of how a zygote develops into an adult organism. For most animals our knowledge of their ontogenetic development is still incomplete, but a team of scientists has worked out the complete developmental history of a nematode called C. elegans and has won a Nobel Prize for their achievement.

The ontogeny of this tiny worm, so small that you need a microscope to see it, is programmed to follow a specific pathway, but several mysteries surround attempts to determine what it is that controls that ontogeny as well as attempts to elucidate how undirected processes could ever have produced such a control system in living things. Philosopher of biology Paul Nelson discusses some of the problems in this 10 minute video.
Perhaps there's a materialist explanation for embryological development such as we see in C. elegans and even more astonishingly in higher organisms, but if there is it's not very widely publicized. What we see in this presentation seems to point to a teleology that many scientists insist on ruling out a priori, but I wonder if they're not missing something by refusing to admit the possibility of teleological explanations into their scientific work.

I've quoted before in this context a passage from William James that I think is particularly apt. James wrote that, "Any rule of thought that would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth, if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule." If the purpose of science is to discover truth why rule out ahead of time certain kinds of explanations just because they're incompatible with a particular metaphysical commitment?

The refusal to permit the hypothesis that a mind may be somehow responsible for what we see in C. elegans reminds me of another quote, this one from geneticist Richard Lewontin who once said that,
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Scientists used to declare that they were committed to following the evidence wherever it leads, but now that at least some evidence seems to lead away from materialism and toward mind as the fundamental substance underlying reality, that declaration is apparently no longer operative.