Sunday, February 3, 2013

A new challenge to materialism?

Two reviews of a new book by Thomas Nagel, entitled Mind and Cosmos, caused me to revisit one of the fundamental questions about the philosophy of science: can everything be "reduced" to matter? Though I haven't read the book myself, I take it the reason Nagel's book is so provocative is that he is both an atheist and a skeptic of the standard materialist worldview that makes atheism most plausible. Arguing for teleology in a world without God seems to be reaching for the impossible, which is why one critic says Nagel is "Awaiting a New Darwin" to fill in the gaps. This critic concludes, in what I find to be a rather even-handed statement:
"The question, then, is not whether teleology is formally compatible with the practice of science. The question is whether the practice of science leads to taking teleology seriously. Nagel may find this question unfair. He is, he says, engaging in a “philosophical task,” not the “internal pursuit of science.” But it seems clear that he is doing more than this. He’s emphasizing purported “empirical reasons” for finding neo-Darwinism “almost certainly false” and he’s suggesting the existence of new scientific laws. These represent moves, however halting, into science proper. But science, finally, isn’t about defining the space of all formally possible explanations of nature. It’s about inference to the most likely hypothesis. And on these grounds there’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and natural teleology (for which there is none). While one might complain that it’s unfair to stack up the empirical successes of neo-Darwinism with those of a new theory, this, again, gets the history wrong. Teleology is the traditional view; neo-Darwinism is the new kid on the block."
Alvin Plantinga, not surprisingly, is in favor of the teleology proposed by Nagel but is waiting on Nagel to convert to theism:
"Nagel’s rejection of theism does not seem to be fundamentally philosophical. My guess is this antipathy to theism is rather widely shared. Theism severely limits human autonomy. According to theism, we human beings are also at best very junior partners in the world of mind. ... This discomfort with theism is to some extent understandable, even to a theist. Still, if Nagel followed his own methodological prescriptions and requirements for sound philosophy, if he followed his own arguments wherever they lead, if he ignored his emotional antipathy to belief in God, then (or so I think) he would wind up a theist. But wherever he winds up, he has already performed an important service with his withering critical examination of some of the most common and oppressive dogmas of our age."
I find both critics make good points, but both also make the same predictable move of getting down to what it's really all about, which amazingly enough is a restatement of one popular dogma or another. In the first case we get a restatement of modern scientific orthodoxy: science proceeds by testing hypotheses empirically, ruling out those that don't work, and accepting those that continue to be verified by experiments. In the second place we get a call to conversion: if we're looking for something to make sense out of this universe, we ought to find it in God.

Why are we at such an impasse when it comes to questions of reductionism, materialism, and teleology? One side goes on about "what science can do," while the other side insists there's more than just science. I suspect Nagel has found the place where it all converges into a tangled mess: the mind. It is here, more than anywhere else, where modern scientific materialism will inevitably clash with other worldviews.

Modern science seems to owe much of its existence to a philosophy move toward mind/matter dualism. Cartesian dualism is more than just a metaphysical statement about the mind and the body; it's a methodological decision, placing a priori questions in a different realm than empirical ones. Such a move allows empiricists to proceed with an unquestioning confidence in their enterprise. We know, a priori, that the world behaves according to logical rules. All that remains for us to conquer the world is to perform enough experiments until we discover all its secrets.

This story plays out pretty well until this relentless application of the scientific method starts to tear down the source of its boldness: the mind. If the mind is itself mere matter, subject to the same rules as anything else, and in particular the rules of evolution by natural selection, then no longer does the scientific method possess an eternal mandate from the realm of a priori truths. The method itself is an experiment, one in which we have confidence because it just seems to work (for now). But now we are trapped in a vicious circle (this is the famous problem of induction).

I understand the need to face this problem, and I find it intolerable the way some try to shrug it off for merely the sake of keeping science free from metaphysical questions. Indeed, the very notion that science (or what we now call "science" in the modern age) can be separated from any other discipline is in some ways a throwback to the worldview which most scientists now reject. Empirical questions are only independent from other questions if there really are two (or more) separate spheres of existence--for instance, mind and matter.

What I don't understand is teleology. The idea of "intrinsic bias" seems to already be present in the very notion of physical laws. In physics we posit many "intrisic biases," such as the tendency of particles in a closed system to settle in low entropy states, for matter to follow the influence of gravitational and electromagnetic fields, etc.

When we start talking about more complex things like the evolution of living organisms, it seems to me there is a double temptation. On the one hand, we marvel at the complexity and precision which present themselves in even the most basic organisms, and we are tempted to say it can't be the product of "merely random" changes, thereby rejecting Darwinian biology. On the other hand, we are tempted to interpret Darwinian biology as saying the array of organisms we see now is completely arbitrary. I would say this latter interpretation is highly misleading. The organisms which now exist have one extremely important feature in common: they survived the process of natural selection. It would not be entirely unfair to say that nature is "biased" toward producing, in certain environments, the kinds of creatures we do in fact see.

Naturally, I look at these issues from my own perspective, which is shaped by my study of dynamical systems from a mathematical point of view. From a mathematical perspective, the essence of a well-behaved dynamical system is that it tends toward some sort of "nice" behavior in the long run, even though it is governed not by a guiding hand but by a law which is applied mindlessly at each instant in time. Calculations demonstrate the intrinsic relationship between this law mindlessly applied on the long run behavior which is bound to result. On the one hand, this cannot be called "teleology." On the other hand, it cannot be called "chance." Indeed, it is a form of determinism unaided by any sort of mind.

On the other hand, how can we be so convinced that the universe evolves according to such laws? Without the guidance of a priori and immutable truths, why put our faith in the use of scientific laws to explain the world?

The reason theism seems an unattractive option to so many modern intellectuals is that they believe they understand it. By the same token, the reason so many theists make it so unattractive is that they, too, believe they understand it. There seems to be some sort of paralysis of the human mind, such that whenever theologians say something to show God higher, we interpret it as placing man lower. For instance, Plantinga says, "According to theism, we human beings are also at best very junior partners in the world of mind." I find my natural response is, wrongly, to assume this means that the amazing achievements and liberty of the human mind are not so grand after all, because we are really all little ants in God's ant farm. What a grotesque image, I say, as I search for philosophical reasons to reject it. I am not the sort who would find comfort in being an ant in an ant farm, as safe as that would be.

When I come to my senses, I realize theism should not be interpreted this way. God, I say, is not an explanation of anything. Explanations allow us to understand and manipulate the world. Belief in God does precisely the opposite: it affirms the unknowable and uncontrollable.

As such, I confess I don't find theism much help in explaining why the universe obeys certain laws, or whether or not Darwinism is true. It seems to me that teleology, in the sense of studying God's purposes for the world, cannot so much be a matter of study as a matter of patience. We honestly have no idea--certainly not a priori--where we are headed, but I am convinced we are headed somewhere.

Suppose that, unlike Descartes sitting in an armchair pondering a priori truths, we are more like children eating what is presented to us by a nurturing mother. At first we have absolutely no proof that such food is good for us, or that it is even edible. We merely have an instinct to eat, and we have no one else to trust. The proof comes later, when we are all grown up precisely because we trusted in something to begin with. Later we may find there are better things to eat by comparing to what we have already eaten.

As far as I can see, this is the true story of scientific discovery. We start with many things taken for granted. There is no way to even begin an inquiry into anything of scientific importance without being fed by someone else more experienced and learned. Once we are all grown up, we become more and more free and independent, capable of adding to the wealth of human knowledge by using what is known to face the unknown.

And it seems this is the story of all knowledge and even of living things. It is the story of evolution. I see very well why natural selection can seem like a cruel process with no discernible purpose. On the other hand, it is very much the story of growth, the story of inheritance being passed down and tested while new possibilities emerge from these trials. My intuition says that many of these philosophical arguments may just come down to how we interpret this story.

In this story there is no division between empirical and metaphysical. Mind is itself an inheritance, not an a priori metaphysical postulate. Perhaps there is something, higher and more wonderful and mysterious than mind, which permeates the universe, but I am rather sure we do not have that. What we do have is the opportunity to understand as much as we can, knowing there is never an end to what we can know.

The reason we accept materialism as a framework for modern science seems to be that it is a simple idea with far-reaching explanatory power. By assuming all things can be broken down into small, physical pieces with observably properties, we have been able to revolutionize the world. I think one can be forgiven if he sounds a bit overly excited about this. It truly is astounding how much has been accomplished by modern science. Modern science is itself the product of evolution, having been "selected" because of its unprecedented ability to yield new discoveries. If in the future we see changes emerge, so much the better. But in any case, I see the "reduction" to matter as a way to transmit a body of scientific knowledge in an effective way. It is the function of materialism as a philosophical inheritance that interests me, more than its final intrinsic truth.

All of this debate over materialism is part of that process of evolution, and I suppose the strongest challenges will survive. There probably will always be weaknesses in the materialist account of things, but I believe it futile to search for a replacement in immutable, a priori truths. (Ironically, it was perhaps just these immutable truths that gave us materialism in the first place, with all of its simplicity and orderliness.) All we can do is search for what is on the boundary of our current knowledge, and hope for growth.


  1. Very nice writing but I find the conclusion baffling. It seems like you're about to get down to a good critique of materialism and then you define it as involving an assumption that "all things can be broken down into small physical pieces with observable properties." But surely this idea of things can be broken down this way has been utterly disproven and is out of date by at a minimum a half century (more likely about 80 to 90 years).

    Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, a professor at Cal Tech and I think someone most would agree has a pretty good idea of what scientific research is about, says that there is not a single finding in all of science that requires a materialistic perspective. Yes, we can celebrate all that scientists have discovered while making use of what must be one of the strangest, most illogical and incoherent philosophies ever conceived (materialism), but well, now that it's the 21st century and this philosophy died in the early 20th century (and more and more are coming to realize it) isn't it time to let go? Do we have to wait, as Planck warned us, for funerals of the true believers before we move on to something more accurate? At this point, almost all of cognitive science and psychology is completely hamstrung by this tenacious belief in the old materialist dogma. I suspect that much of biology and at least some of the "natural" or physical sciences are hampered as well by materialist beliefs and dogmas.

    And even in politics.... well, we won't go there for now;>)))

    1. I suppose that what I was really trying to say is that not a single finding in science requires any perspective. We find things, then we come up with ways to understand them. Our perspective is going to change, and I find it miserable to go on arguing about the "ultimate" perspective that will help us make sense of the big picture, as if we needed that either to start out or to go further.

      About materialism in particular, I'm not sure I understand your point. What would you say is the perspective, then, of a physicist doing research in the lab? I suppose when I said "small" I didn't realize what I was saying. But I did want to make the point that scientists look at the world analytically, breaking things down into fundamental pieces rather than merely observing things together as a whole. If teleology is about finding how things serve a greater whole, it's probably going to be difficult to make that into a scientific theory. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing, of course.

  2. I really loved Don's reply to this interesting topic, especially his Max Planck reference.

    Plainly stated, materialism is a religion that opposes overwhelming scientific evidence. Teleology is a scientific certainty.

  3. The worst part of this article comes from an unattributed quote: "And on these grounds there’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and natural teleology (for which there is none)."

    This is the reverse of the truth.

    There has never been ANY evidence, nor any mathematical model, that supports Darwinism. It has always been just assumed by materialists. Darwin's Random change / natural selection model is disproven and has no place in modern day biology.

    Teleology, on the other hand, is shown in literally all aspects of all life. Teleology experimentation never fails to demonstrate teleological forces at work ubiquitously and uniformly in all life forms. Every time you move purposefully on your own free will by your own self-aware consciousness, you prove yet further that teleology is the most certain fact in any branch of science.

    No evidence? Its probably best you left that critic nameless.

    1. Just to be clear, that critic is H. Allen Orr, as it's his article I link to at the beginning of my post. (

    2. Jameson, I owe my apologies for neglecting to read the link provided. Thanks for clearing it up.

      My experience has been that we get more reliable answers when we steer away from either of the two extremes that Nagel is being critiqued by. Being attacked from both sides by extremists bodes well for accuracy. The answers to the materialism / teleology debate lie in the middle ground, where Nagel resides.

      While one can be a theist and yet accept Darwinism, or conversely one could be an atheist and yet reject Darwinism or accept teleology, we both know what the bias is for apologists of both theism and atheism.

      Platinga argues well for the existence of teleology (and I agree with him up to that point), yet he pushes people to equate natural intelligence to God and the Bible. That leap demonstrates his faith, but not anything scientific.

      Those such as Orr - in my experience anyone who denies ANY evidence of teleology - generally have an agenda to strengthen atheistic ideas. As Platinga says, they wrap themselves in scientific lip service as a politician wraps himself in the flag, but there is nothing scientific in materialism.

      Methodological naturalism uses no methodology to arbitrarily deem some things "natural" and others not natural. Then it falsely uses this phoney word game to twist and reject evidence to its liking.

      The only way to elucidate the truth through science is to follow the scientific method and wipe out all a priori conclusions that oppose the evidence. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that living organisms have an intelligent self-aware consciousness and that all movements of matter in life are purposive.

      Teleology is fact, whether it fits the materialist religion or not, because it is borne out in evidence.

  4. Materialism certainly is a simple idea, as you say. It arbitrarily asserts, without any reason or evidence, that nothing exists except matter. Most accept four immaterial laws of lhysics, but (again arbitrarily) not teleology, for no known reason.

    What should be the position of a physicist in a lab? Certainly not materialism. They need to simply follow the well established scientific method and explain the findings therein established, without prejudice. This must be done without any rejection of anything that doesn't fit their personal religious bias.

  5. Most people who understand both biology and mathematics are staunch anti-Darwinians, so your stance here supporting the illogical, outdated fallacy of Darwinism is puzzling.

    Selectionism is a farce. Depending on how "selection" is referenced, it is either a falsehood or a tautological uselessness. If one is simply saying that if any trait comes into existence that is likely to benefit survival, then it is more likely to survive, then that is true, but just a useless tautology. Nothing explanatory.

    Worse, if one is trying to claim selection as a cause of evolution, that is clearly false, since nothing can be selected until after it already exists in the first place. Selection can never cause anything, least of all evolution. It isn't even a part of evolution. Like all filters, it is subtractive, so it can only either eliminate or do nothing. It can not create anything...ever.

    So what is the creative force in Neo-Darwinism, that creates such complex functional beings? Luck. This is nothing but a ridiculous luck theory. It is well established in the year 2013 that genetic changes are NOT random and that genetic changes are a purposive stimulus-response to a changing environmental need.

    According to overwhelming evidence, nucleotide change is as teleological as all other aspects of life. Why would it have not turned out that way?


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