Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Science Delusion

I have some sympathy for people who believe dumb things just because everyone else does, but I find it very tedious arguing with them on the internet. I am equally sympathetic toward people who believe sensible things just because everyone else does, but I am always a little nervous because I have seen in my own life just how quickly and completely they can turn into the first kind of people.  It is awkward when they join in to help me argue on the internet and I would rather they didn’t. Ideally I would like people to believe sensible things for good reasons; but a close second would be people who are willing to stand up, unsupported by a community of like-minded believers, and believe dumb things for bizarre idiosyncratic reasons.

Which brings me to Rupert Sheldrake and ‘The Science Delusion’. I haven’t read  the book, I just watched the TED Talk (Banned! ZOMG!).  Sheldrake starts by defining ‘The Science Delusion’ as ‘the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in.’ This is indeed a delusion; and a dangerous one. Making overblown claims for science, like making overblown claims for dialectical materialism or the healing power of turtle gall bladder extract, is going to make science look stupid when it turns out that reality is different from what we said it was. This will lead people to distrust science and more readily embrace the alternative, which is usually to believe all sorts of dumb things just because everyone else does. I was heartened by this first statement of Sheldrake’s and would have been very happy if he had gone on to explain what science is and how it works; and how science does not, and cannot, understand the nature of reality in principle. This would be a very valuable thing to do in a TED talk and might just be possible in 18 minutes.
But instead, ah, Sheldrake first accuses science of being a wholly owned subsidiary of the materialist worldview, which has never been true, but was much more true in the late 19th century than now; then lists ten ‘dogmas’ of science which he thinks would be better phrased as questions; and then explores - sort of - a few of these in detail by expounding his own bizarre idiosyncratic theory of ‘morphic resonance’ and talking about evidence for variations in fundamental physical constants.

The ten dogmas Sheldrake quotes are:

1.       Everything is like a machine.

2.       Matter is unconscious.

3.       The laws of Nature are fixed.

4.       The total amount of energy and matter in the universe is constant.

5.       Nature is purposeless.

6.       All heredity is material.

7.       Memories have a material existence in the brain.

8.       The mind is inside the head.

9.       Psychic woo is impossible.

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

I’ll take each of these in turn, rephrase it as a question, and see if I can find anything valuable in doing so.

1.       Is everything – the universe, animals, plants, us – like a machine?  Well yes, and no. This depends on what we mean by ‘machine’ and what we mean by ‘like’. The human mind operates on metaphor and analogy and imperfect simplified models for complicated things, so it is quite right to say that all of these things are ‘like a machine’ in the same way as it is right to say that the planet Earth is ‘like a grapefruit’ or an electron is ‘like the planet Earth orbiting the sun’; they are imperfect analogies that fit some properties of the object or phenomena, and it is important to remember that this is to some extent true of every model we use, no matter how complicated and beautiful . Every model will be shot through with metaphors and analogies that carry emotional baggage for good or evil, and every model will fail to correspond adequately to reality under some conditions. These conditions may be near and common, and we might stick with our model simply because it is the best rule of thumb we have; or they may be far and few, and we may be misled into thinking that our model is the true picture of reality. So yes, all these things are like machines, in that like machines, there are conditions where simple inputs give simple outputs where we can follow all the intermediate steps of cause and effect. We press the green button, it engages lever C, which turns cog B, and some flap opens and we get a can of Coke. Using the analogy of a machine for all sorts of things can be incredibly useful. Of course, we know that living systems often rely on complex systems with lots of inputs that surf the interface between chaos and order (to hand wave around a lot of things that have a solid mathematical basis) where we would be mad to design machines that work that way. And we know that as far as we can tell, when we drill down towards more fundamental building blocks of all the things we see, we get to the quantum world, where particles behave less like machines than anything we can imagine. 
       All in all, thinking of things in the universe as being like machines is usually going to be a fruitful way to think about them; but we must remember that this is an analogy, while at the same time not falling into the hippy-dippy trap of imparting quantum weirdness to the macroscale.

2.       Is matter unconscious?  I would answer not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘yes and no’ but ‘meh’.  My take on the (un)importance of consciousness is here. I think it is quite clear that we are part of a continuum of entities, and that a dog, for instance, has an inner life the same as we do; and that a moth probably does, and that in some sense so does any system that is taking in impressions from the outside and reacting to them.  It does not seem to me that the fact that we are conscious is of any great importance for our understanding of the universe. I feel quite strongly that setting up consciousness as something distinct from the material world would be a retrograde step that would impede, rather than improve, our understanding of reality; I am one of those materialists who believe it is exhilarating and wonderful that everything is made of matter, this fantastic and mysterious stuff.

As far as sentient galaxies and conscious electrons – well, matter is strange. I have no evidence one way or another. Why not? If these hypotheses can explain things otherwise unexplained, I see no reason not to entertain them.

3.       Are the laws of nature fixed? This is a question that is amenable to observation. Looking at rocks laid down billions of years ago, and out into space at places billions of light years away, show things that are consistent with the laws of nature being the same, or very, very, very similar, everywhere and everywhen that is observable, until we get to these messy ‘singularities’. So in practical terms, the laws of nature are fixed, with the exception of things that physicists are well aware of and worry about a lot. This of course has nothing to do with the nature of reality in principle. The laws of nature may not be fixed of necessity over the extent of time and space over which we see them fixed, any more than the endless streams of traffic we might watch from an overpass are necessarily going to stay in their right lanes. Maybe it is just electrons obediently following Schrödinger’s equation the way commuters are obediently following the road rules. We don’t know. But for any practical purpose, sure. The laws of nature are fixed.

4.       Is the total amount of energy and matter in the universe constant? This is a really a subset of 3. This is undoubtedly one of those key laws of nature that are fixed for all practical purposes. So far, every time we have thought this law wasn’t true, we have found another source of energy to balance it out. But ‘continuous creation’ was a viable cosmological hypothesis within living memory. And we know particles can ‘wink into existence’ in the vacuum.  But again, like 3, *for any practical purpose* the answer is ‘yes’. I would be very, very, very wary of postulating ‘maybe matter and energy aren’t conserved here’ as a hypothesis to explain any macroscopic phenomenon.  Experience has taught us that such a hypothesis is very, very, very likely to be wrong.

5.       Is Nature purposeless?  The only answer to this is ‘we don’t know’. We cannot know without information about whatever larger reality our universe is embedded in, information which we cannot obtain by any conceivable observation made within our universe. It may be as futile and purposeless as a Quentin Tarantino movie on the inside, and have been crafted  for some purpose that makes sense on the outside with the same meticulous care, like a Quentin Tarantino movie has the purpose of making oodles of money.

6.       Is all heredity material? Trivially, the answer is ‘no’, because culture is non-material heredity, and lots of social ‘higher’ vertebrates have culture. New cultural behaviours have been observed being developed and inherited in baboons, whales, probably magpies, and of course, us. Less trivially, all the inherited features of organisms can be explained perfectly well by material causes – recombination of genes, horizontal gene transfer, maternal effect genes, environmental effects on gametes and developing young, etc. There is *no need* to postulate an alternative explanation based on some kind of mysterious woo that has no plausible mechanism, to explain phenomena that are already well-explained in terms of well-understood mechanisms.  This mysterious woo in Sheldrake’s case is what he calls ‘morphic resonance’ and his explanation of the evidence for it is as unconvincing as twenty-seven unconvincing things found in a viral list of ‘The Twenty-Seven Least Convincing Arguments of 2015’.

7.       Are memories stored as material traces within the brain? Well, you can erase memories by destroying  bits of brain. Not feet, or eyeballs, or sections of colon, or paperclips in a desk drawer, or trees in Africa, or mountains on the dark side of the moon. This is good prima facie evidence that memories are indeed localised in the brain, and again there is *no need* to postulate an alternative mechanism based on mysterious woo.

8.       Is the mind inside the head? Well, yes, see #7.

9.       Is telepathy, etc., illusory? Probably. There is no evidence for it that is screaming out to be explained. Like this paper about gender bias in physics teachers in the German-speaking world, it is just humans seeing patterns in noise. IMHO. If evidence for telepathy or whatever emerges that screams out to be explained, my patient conservative biases would lead me not to discount it out of hand, but to seek explanation for it in terms of the physical science we already know, rather than embracing the mother of all paradigm shifts into a brave new world of woo. And I am confident that 'in terms of the physical science we already know' is where the explanation would be found.

10.   Is mechanistic medicine the only kind that really works? Here again it depends on our definitions. There is absolutely no compelling evidence that any treatment for anything is effective unless it affects the physicochemical status of the human body. Do we understand the mechanism of every treatment that is effective? We don’t. Modern medicine is still (scarily, to me) very much a matter of ‘take this cocktail of drugs that have been statistically shown to be effective’.  Does this mean treatments whose mechanisms are unknown will turn out to depend on crazy new principles unrelated to existing science? Experience suggests the answer to this is ‘no.’ Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works, even if we don’t understand the mechanisms yet.

So expressed with a bit of humility and nuance, there is something in most of Sheldrake’s questions. He probably is a crazy ideologue pushing a daft agenda (like Richard Dawkins); but a lot of what he is actually saying is worth thinking about (again, like Richard Dawkins).


Ron Rogers said...
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Chris Fellows said...

Well, FFS, the *only* people who comment on blogs anymore are moral pygmies spruiking their essay writing services. Good work demonstrating you are not a robot, 'Ron Rogers'! I would implore you to seek out a less reprehensible way to earn a crust.