Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Science, Consciousness, Argument and Materialism

Are you conscious? Do you have a consciousness? You instinctively want to answer "Yes" and maybe you think its rather dumb of me to even ask the question, so common-sensical does the answer "Yes" seem to you. But a number of scientists and philosophers, extremely materialist ones, would say that you aren't. And neither are they. They think your sense of consciousness is a very powerful illusion and that it is a function of your brain to generate this illusion. Of course, they think this partly, maybe even mostly, because they have a dogmatic view of reality as a whole. They think that everything is explainable in physical terms, in terms of physics and chemistry. So you can't really have a consciousness because that does not admit of a physical explanation. Therefore, they say, your sense of consciousness must be something the brain is doing. These people do not so much explain consciousness as explain it away.

It was with some enthusiasm that in a post-Christmas lull of activity I dived into texts and online video about varying views on human consciousness. Forty eight hours later that enthusiasm had been severely tempered if not completely extinguished. I had been following my thoughts where they led me, from this text to that, from one video to similar suggested ones. New thoughts and thinkers came up on my radar. I learnt that consciousness is very much a shibboleth for many, a stumbling block. Very soon I was into debates and forums and that is when things started to get too much. My head started to bulge and ache. Too much information, too much arguing, too much partisanship. I reflected on this. Why is so much modern debate cheap, adversarial and sarcastic with an undertone of nastiness on the side? Why are people so self-invested in their intellectual choices? Why is every thought laid down as a personal Waterloo?  

I'm mixing my discussions here in this blog. On the one hand, I'm wanting to research and discuss varying human views on consciousness but, on the other, I find myself discouraged by how my own species, human beings, seem to behave and go about that. In any debate these days, most carried out in the febrile melting pot / echo chamber / outrage arena that is the Internet, it will take very few steps indeed to go from discussing a subject to insulting the person raising the subject of the discussion to insulting many of the other participants in it as well. The next stage is getting your army of followers to descend from Valhalla and unleash hell on those holding views you cannot believe yourself. Battle lines are quickly drawn and thereafter all anyone does is defend the position they are entrenched in. More heat than light results and anyone who was there to try and learn from others and their points of view is quickly and thoroughly made cynical. Debate today, I conclude, is often conducted in the gutter and the aim of it is to score points, get hits on your opponent and employ as much ridicule as possible. Its UFC over points of view and beliefs. Am I naive for wanting to share and learn and thinking this might even be possible? Am I naive to want merely a lucid detachment, a humble enquiry?

I came across the work of a scientist called Rupert Sheldrake. He started out very mainstream and was educated in orthodoxy at the heart of all things thought right and good about science. As a biologist, he got a PhD from Cambridge, UK, had fellowships at the Royal Society and at Harvard and even made discoveries which were lauded in all the right journals, including Nature. But then he published a book in which he discussed "morphic fields" and spoke about "resonance" and "formative causation". As far as I can tell, Sheldrake was started down this path by asking himself why plants take the form they have. We might think this is to do with genes and DNA (in other words, a materialist answer) but this turns out not to be the case and this information supplies only a fraction of what is needed. (Sheldrake describes the Human Genome Project as a bit of a failure because the secrets people hoped to unlock by it have not come to pass.) We don't know how plants know to grow and look a certain way or why they look the same as the others like them. 

Sheldrake proposed what I understand as some kind of memory field. Basically, plants know how to grow because they know how other plants like them grew in the past. This holds true for animals too. For example, teach an animal to do something somewhere in the world and then other animals like it will learn the same thing much faster next time because they now somehow have the knowledge the other animal like them gained. The blurb for Sheldrake's book says

"the past forms and behaviors of organisms..... influence organisms in the present through direct connections across time and space".

Yes, I know it sounds a bit incredible but then if I'd told you the Earth went around the sun at some point in time you would have thought that silly too. (Also please note I'm not saying that this theory convinces me. To be honest, I haven't read the literature on it thoroughly enough to come to any conclusion at this point. I can say I have described it with far too little explanation here and maybe not too well so go read Sheldrake's books for a fuller and more adequate description of it. His experimental results that I read about, however, did make me think and sit up and take some notice.)

The book Sheldrake published, A New Science of Life, was denounced as heresy (yes, literally) against a materialist view of the world, the standard scientific view of the world that is put forward today and, thereafter, Sheldrake was viewed by the defenders of the mainstream and of this view of the world with a snigger and a sneer. The editor of Nature asked in an open review of the book if it should not, in fact, be burned. This is unfortunate because Sheldrake appears himself to be quite a reserved, quietly spoken and profoundly scientific man. Its important to note here that this is the case whether you happen to think there is something in his scientific hypotheses or not. To my mind Sheldrake is merely a very curious and scientific man who happens to want to investigate things other people don't. This is something to be praised, is it not? If you follow where evidence leads you should not stop if you start saying things that might threaten your career, your standing or your status within a professional field. Evidence leads where it must. But for many it doesn't. Some things are ruled kooky, off limits and things you don't talk about in polite society by those more concerned with careers than ideas.

Sheldrake thereafter started to follow his nose regarding his ideas and developed theories about consciousness (which is why he comes into my blog today) and things such as telepathy, things which a materialist would look upon as magic and impossible. He devised and carried out a number of methodologically scientific trials to test for things such as telepathy. For example, he ran trials in dogs to see if they knew when people might be coming home and on the sense people have of being stared at. He also ran trials to do with people thinking of someone who then, seemingly by coincidence, phones them. He was involved with trials on rats, teaching them tricks and then observing if other rats elsewhere could learn the same tricks faster as a result. In all these areas Sheldrake was trying to establish, on the basis of the scientific method, if there was more to things like this than blind luck or random chance. He determined that there was and laid out his results in the standard scientific fashion. He debated the results with skeptics (even challenging them to replicate his experiments) who seemed to disagree more with his conclusions and his implicit criticisms of their materialist boundaries than his methods and even though they themselves had no possible other solution to the issues he was raising and the results he presented. There was no substantial refutation of his experiments, their methodology or results. More so there was simply a refusal to accept or discuss them as there is to this day.

Today Sheldrake has moved on to a meta-discussion about science itself, a thing he sees as being held in the grip of a destructive materialism. The issue is that for those of a materialist persuasion non-materialist answers to questions are declared impossible from the off. Sheldrake finds this self-defeating and not very scientific in itself. His latest book, known as Science Set Free in the USA and as The Science Delusion in the UK, is an attempt to name 10 current "dogmas" of the scientific worldview (which Sheldrake would say has largely coalesced with the materialist position)  which are holding it back. He diagnoses that science itself has largely become a creed to be defended rather than that spirit of disinterested curiosity that maybe it should be. There are many prominent defenders of this scientific faith who are, moreover, extremely militant atheists (people like Richard Dawkins, P Z Myers and Daniel Dennett, to name but three) who actively look to police science and the public debate about it to the detriment, so Sheldrake would submit, of scientific endeavour as a whole. For sake of completeness I'll list Sheldrake's 10 "dogmas" of materialistic science below which he describes as "the 10 core beliefs that most scientists take for granted." (I have put some text in bold to highlight the main points.)

1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, “lumbering robots,” in Richard Dawkins' vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.

3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.

5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not “out there,” where it seems to be, but inside your brain.

8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory

10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

We can see here that Sheldrake's concern is to emphasize how much the materialistic creed is one which rules out certain areas of study or explanation as a matter of dogmatic concern. He himself wishes to refute them all. So materialism is essentially a faith that dare not speak its name. As I have said on my blog before, those like Richard Dawkins who hold this view are not the opposite of a religious believer: they are a religious believer and their religion is materialism. For example, to take the final of Sheldrake's points, materialists, so Sheldrake submits, would rule out any kind of healing or medicine that was not on the basis of the body being thought of mechanistically. So drugs are fine (since they treat the body as a big chemistry set that needs all the chemicals in balance) but holistic, alternative or other therapies are regarded as New Age and hokey folk magic. 

Sheldrake would also argue that the so-called "placebo effect" (where someone gets an inert pill thinking its actual medicine but gets better anyway) or the power of prayer or simply willing yourself to get better are also problematic for those of a mechanistic, materialist persuasion because such a point of view rules such things off limits as possibilities and, by definition, can have no explanation for them. If people could think themselves or be thought better that would present an insurmountable challenge to the materialist worldview which demands physical causes for physical things. Sheldrake is saying "Why not investigate this?" whilst others laugh and snigger at the very idea. Which seems more scientific to you?

So what to think of all this? Immediately one must admit that to accept Sheldrake's criticism of a science held in the grip of materialist dogma is not to accept his own positive contributions or theories regarding alternatives or additions to it. These are separate things and one is not committed to both by accepting one. Interestingly, in many of the forums and blogs I read about Sheldrake's criticisms of science the most common refutation was that "real scientists don't really think the way Sheldrake says they do". Sheldrake was accused of building a handy straw man it was easy to hack down. But I'm not so sure this is true. I see plenty of evidence at hand that science and scientific worldviews are held in the grip of a mechanistic materialism, one falling apart in the modern physical world of processes, energy and waves. I also take Sheldrake's point that all too many prominent scientists today are virulent atheists against anything that could be regarded as spiritual, mysterious or unexplainable from within a mechanistic materialist paradigm. Sheldrake correctly asserts that this position is held as a dogma. How else to explain those like Richard Dawkins who speaks of "wonder" on the one hand but "blind watchmakers" on the other? The watch image gives Dawkins away: the universe is like clockwork. Sheldrake is correct: there are those out to expunge beliefs in immaterial things or explanations and to make them, in a way quite Orwellian, unthinkable thoughts.

I am against this not because I believe in ghosts and ghouls, in gods and monsters, but because it is to artificially close off areas of enquiry for no other reason than that you personally don't believe in them. This seems a very dumb and thoroughly unscientific thing to do for me. You may regard Sheldrake's own theories as foolish and that is OK. It would be scientific to demonstrate that though if science is your game. The trouble is the most regular response to Sheldrake's own experiments is to ignore them. Some skeptics, he reports, have replicated his experiments and largely replicated his results too. But they are shy of doing this. In one debate Sheldrake reports that Richard Dawkins, another biologist, flat refused to debate his evidence preferring to criticize Sheldrake's refusal to take up the materialist position instead. Often this is done from a supposed position of power as the utility of science is lauded and, indeed, this cannot be denied. But it is surely relevant that those who endlessly chirp on and on about their passion for truth (as Dawkins does ad infinitum) should be criticized for their dogmatic assertion that truth will only be found in one place and not in others. Sheldrake is right to say that enquiry should go where it leads in a spirit of disinterested curiosity. Dawkins and his like are notable only for their remarkable lack of such curiosity where some things are concerned. This is a dogma, a boundary of faith.

And this is the point where the partisanship of modern day debate kicks in. By now you've made your choice and chosen a side I wouldn't be surprised to find out. But is it really about taking sides? My blog here is presented as the rambling thoughts of a man going through life just trying to understand the things that go on around him and sometimes impinge upon his own life and existence. That is what it is. I hope to do this in a spirit of somewhat lucid detachment. I don't need to defend my thoughts or my position because they are mine. I'm not saying everyone or even anyone else has to believe them. Its simply about me having a very naive honesty as much as I can. I'm well aware that my experience is narrow and that I know very, very little about anything. That is why the fact that you can read and communicate with others is a very good thing because you can take what they share and add it to your own data for analysis. But that doesn't happen as much as it should because confessional boundaries come into play and defensive walls get built by those more interested in defending what they think they've got than exploring together in a spirit of mutual curiosity. This is a source of great frustration. We live in a very public world where it is easy to belittle others and many can't resist the temptation for an easy "win" as they see it, often based merely on a numbers game.

Often in my thinking I find something interesting to read and, underneath, there is now the seemingly mandatory "comments" section. Often this is just hell. People of dubious qualifications (although this doesn't matter and is really an ad hominem approach) launch straight into personal attacks on those who think one thing or another. It doesn't really matter what they believe. What's important is that someone else doesn't believe it and that makes those who do stupid beyond belief. I find the whole exercise stupid beyond belief and I wish there were more places where debate could be to the point and not to the person (which is by far the biggest problem in any kind of discussion, that the subject switches from what is believed to who it is that believes it). Many times in comments sections about Sheldrake's books or work there are just insults tossed casually Sheldrake's way because he is that crazy guy who thinks dogs know telepathically when their masters are coming home. In a world of public forums you get a reputation and that reputation usurps the place that should have been reserved for consideration of the arguments. People get lazy and where formerly they needed to think now they just take "the word on the street" under advisement. There is a nihilistic schadenfreude at play that loves to tear down rather than build up.

There seems, not for the first time in one of my blogs, a lack of humility in many, if not most, people who debate these things. Sheldrake diagnoses this problem too when he says the problem is that some people these days think that science has resolved all the issues and now all we need to do is fill out the details. He gives examples from the ends of both the 19th and 20th centuries of people who have written that science will from now on discover less and less because we have already found out about most things. Its a matter of time not possibility. If we go on long enough we will answer all our questions and understand everything there is to understand. This belief strikes me as both arrogant and egotistical (as well as philosophically naive that there would be one answer to any question in the first place). Why, as Thomas Nagel writes in another recent book criticizing the materialist dogma, Mind and Cosmos, should any of the questions about the universe be within our power to answer? Doesn't that seem just a little bit egotistical to you, that human beings automatically must have the ability to understand? Why would all the answers of the universe be, as it were, human-shaped in their resolution, much less human-shaped and materialist? Is this a post-experimental conclusion or a pre-reflective condition? For the materialistic dogmatists this can only be because they have willed it so, forming a clockwork universe that can be measured and reproduced. But what happens when, finally, they are forced to accept that the clockwork was merely their illusion, a function of their indefatigable will to believe, another phase in human history?

It was the American philosopher and psychologist William James who said "We have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will" (italics mine). He said this in the context of explaining why he thought people had a right, if not a duty, to hold religious beliefs which they found themselves genuinely unable to escape the force of. He did it by expounding a general theory of human belief across the board and did not make any special exceptions for religious beliefs, something some would want to do today in these more polemical times. Of course, believing something does not make it a scientific belief nor one that attains the recommendation of that credit but this is another matter involving the tenets of scientific peer review and debate. Beliefs are things which, for most people most of the time, function as true, even where they are contradictory from one person to the next. It is, when you think about it, common-sensically true that this is the case and the world keeps on turning nevertheless. Indeed, our world of sense and sensibility is the one which allows this state of affairs. For some this will be irrationalism but is it really? I sense I may need further blogs on this and I hope to provide them but, for now, it is enough for me to say that one person's shibboleth is another's possibility. Where our world allows us to hold such a belief others should not be so dogmatic as to dismiss another's opportunity to explore it or so authoritarian as to disallow it. This is not to take sides in the debate or nail one's colors to the mast. There is a time and place for that. It is to say that for all genuine people holding their beliefs is not a choice but a necessity.

All this puts me in mind of something Nietzsche pointed to when he said that "Truth" was but the history of Man's "irrefutable errors". This thought puts in question if we ever really know anything in an absolute sense, the sense that a "law" of the universe would rightly have. I would argue that Nietzsche's insight tends to suggest that we may not. But the good news is that we may not need to in any case. We have happily got by on our habits of belief and our practical observations of the universe until now and there is no suggestion from anywhere that we will ever need anything else to do so. We don't need to make of the universe a mechanism nor say that everything that is must, as a dogma, be physical. Indeed, the vast majority of our species has got on with life just fine without ever concerning themselves with such specialized technicalities. We can be be sure that even the world's most dogmatic scientist would have to agree that we do not know everything, nor even how much there is to know and how much we know of it. But it doesn't matter. We get on fine anyway. I would humbly suggest that the best way forward is to let people explore where their beliefs take them in a spirit of disinterested curiosity and let us see where that takes us. 

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