Friday, May 1, 2015

Scientists Debate Materialism

TheBestSchools.Org is hosting an interesting dialogue between two well-known scientists, Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. The dialogue will extend over the next three months, but this month the two men submitted their opening statements on the first of three topics to be discussed, "Materialism in Science."

Sheldrake, who is a non-materialist, challenges Shermer, who is an atheistic materialist, to respond to ten fascinating questions. Here are five that I found to be especially intriguing:

Is matter unconscious?
The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century gave birth to modern science by creating a radical dualism between unconscious matter and conscious, non-material minds possessed only by humans, angels, and God. This duality was mirrored in the more or less peaceful coexistence of religion, the arts, and the sciences from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Religion and the arts were concerned with conscious experience, while the realm of science was the physical universe.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many people reacted against the power of churches by becoming atheists, especially in countries like France and Russia, where the established churches were allied with reactionary, authoritarian governments. Materialism provided arguments in support of atheism, and gave it scientific credibility. By denying the existence of immaterial consciousness, atheistic materialists got rid of God and angels at one stroke. There were no longer two realms of reality, matter and consciousness; there was only one reality, matter.

Materialism became the predominant orthodoxy of science by the end of the nineteenth century. Materialists got rid of God, or at least confined him to the brains of believers, but they were left with the “hard problem” of explaining how unconscious matter becomes conscious within human brains. This problem continues to haunt the neurosciences and the philosophy of mind. If consciousness is an illusion, or nothing but a by-product of brain activity, it cannot actually do anything, and hence we cannot make free choices.

Do you believe that you have free will?

Are the laws of nature fixed?
The idea of fixed “laws of nature” is a hangover from pre-evolutionary cosmology, which prevailed until the Big Bang theory became orthodox in 1966. In an evolving universe the laws themselves may evolve, or they may be more like habits—as I think myself, as the American philosopher C.S. Peirce suggested in the early twentieth century, and as the contemporary cosmologist Lee Smolin also proposes.

If you believe that all the laws and constants of nature came into being fully formed at the moment of the Big Bang, how does the universe remember them? Where are they imprinted?

Is all biological inheritance material?
Genes have been greatly overrated. They do not code for” or “program” the form and behavior of organisms, like the shape of an orchid flower or the nest-building instincts of a weaverbird. They specify the sequence of amino acids in protein molecules, and some genes are involved in the control of the activity of other genes.

The Human Genome Project has been disappointing because it was based on a false conception of what genes do. The “missing heritability problem” is now provoking a crisis in modern biology, because it turns out that as much as 70% of inheritance does not appear to be explained by genes. Also, the recognition of the epigenetic inheritance at the beginning of this century means that the inheritance of acquired characteristics, once taboo, is now mainstream. For example, recent experiments have shown that mice can inherit the fears of their fathers. Male mice were made averse to the smell of a synthetic chemical, acetophenone, by being given electric shocks while they smelled it. Their sperm were used to fertilize female mice, and their children and grandchildren were terrified of the smell of acetophenone.

Findings of this kind mean we need to modify Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which was based on the primacy of genes and a denial of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Neo-Darwinism assigned creativity to random mutations of genes. But if organisms can learn and adapt to their environments, and pass on adaptations to their offspring, then evolution is affected by organisms’ own abilities to learn and adapt.

How have your views of evolution changed in the light of epigenetic inheritance?

Are memories stored as material traces?
The assumption that memories are stored as material traces in brains has dominated scientific research for more than a century, but the hypothetical memory traces have proved surprisingly elusive. There is plenty of evidence that particular parts of the brain become active when memories are being laid down and retrieved, but where they exist in between is mysterious. As I suggest in Science Set Free, memories may depend on a kind of resonance across time. Brains may be more like TV receivers, tuning into memories transmitted from their own past, than like video-recorders. Brain damage can affect the retrieval of memories, just as damage to a TV set can affect the sounds or pictures it produces, but this does not prove the damage has destroyed a storage system.

There is also a philosophical problem: the theory that memories are stored in material traces means there must be a retrieval system that recognizes the memories it is trying to retrieve. To recognize the memories, the retrieval system must itself have a memory. And if it has a material memory, then the retrieval system itself needs a retrieval system, and so on.

Doesn’t this standard explanation of memory either presuppose memory, or fall into an infinite regress?

Are minds confined to brains?
If minds are nothing but the activity of brains, then they must be confined to the inside of heads. But when I look at a tree, I do not experience the image of the tree inside my head; I experience it where the tree is. My image of the tree is in my mind, but it is not inside my head. Our minds may be extended beyond our brains every time we look at something.

Everyone agrees that vision involves light coming into eyes, causing activity in the retina, impulses up the optic nerves, and specific patterns of activity in brains. Most materialists assume that the nervous tissue then somehow generates a 3-D, full-color virtual reality display inside the skull. But since these virtual reality displays are invisible to objective observers, how do we know they are inside skulls? Instead, we may generate images that are projected out to where they seem to be. Our minds may reach out to touch what we are seeing—for example, a tree. We may affect what we are looking at. That may be why many people and animals often sense when they are being watched, even when looked at from behind. And, in my opinion, there is good evidence for the reality of the sense of being stared at, which we will probably discuss in our dialogue next month.

Meanwhile, Michael, how do you interpret your own experience of seeing? When you look at the sky, do you think that you are seeing the sky inside your skull?

You can find links to the rest of the dialogues between Sheldrake and Shermer, as well as the topics they'll discuss in June and July, at the link above. You can find Shermer's opening statement there as well.