Friday, September 27, 2013

RUPERT SHELDRAKE: STILL HERETICAL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS



Alas, British biologist Rupert Sheldrake is being reviled again for his annoying habit of challenging scientific orthodoxy. This is despite the fact that he's anything but shabby in the scientific credentials department. A Cambridge Ph.D., he has also been Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard, Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society, and Steinback Scholar-in- Residence at the Woods Hole Oceanography Institute. He was named among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013 by the Duttweller Institute, Switzerland's leading think tank. He is the author of more than 80 peer-reviewed scientific papers and 10 books.

Yet his presentation at White Hall in London earlier this year, which addressed what he sees as the limitations and hubris of contemporary scientific thought, earned him almost universal opprobrium from scientific heavy hitters. (Esteemed physicist Sean Carroll was one.) And when the well-regarded non-profit organization TEDx, which offered him the platform, started getting blowback, it decided to wipe his talk off You Tube, causing an explosion of responses on the blogosphere and elsewhere, both pro and con.  


What is Sheldrake's sin? Admittedly, it's a pretty big one: He doesn't buy into the material nature of reality, the foundational tenet of modern science. No quibbling around the edges for him.

On his side is the fact that the history of science is full of mavericks, some of whom have actually come up with good ideas.  Copernicus was a maverick, overcoming (eventually) our geocentric bias. And then there's Francis Bacon, among others, whose new approaches to observing the natural world overturned Aristotle--giving us, in essence, modern science. And we mustn't forget Einstein, who superseded Newton--and Edwin Hubble, who, against formidable opposition, showed that the universe is not just the Milky Way and that "nebulae" are in fact different galaxies. 

Mavericks eschew the practice of "normal" science, as philosopher Thomas Kuhn called day-to-day science that doesn't question currently accepted theories. They are the folks who push the envelope, making everybody else uncomfortable because of their contrary ideas. It's what scientific progress is all about.


In light of this you would not be remiss in thinking that the scientific establishment, though disturbed about Sheldrake's apostasy, would at least refrain from scorning and vilifying him.  


It's not like materialists are standing on solid ground. Quantum mechanics, our best bet yet to describe underlying reality, must take into account the minds of observers that "collapse the wave function,” creating reality as we know it on the macro scale. How mind--and, more specifically, measurement--interact with matter still remains completely mysterious. It's reminiscent of the so-called "hard problem" in neuroscience, as nobody has a clue how the physical activities of the brain lead to the non-physical, non-material experiences and feelings and perceptions we all have as conscious beings. 

Despite these red flags, most scientists today hold fast to reality's materialist base and dismiss (or worse) those, like Sheldrake, who disagree with them. Materialism is the unquestioned assumption of all "normal" science in the twenty-first century. Protests about presentations of normal science in public forums just don't happen.  

It should be no surprise that well-known evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, a "normal" science proponent in the extreme, has singled out Sheldrake as a "woomeister" in his popular blog, Why Evolution is True (Whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com). And Coyne's view, while not universal, prevails.


Sheldrake is pretty accustomed to negative reactions to his work. When his first book, New Science of Life, was published in 1981, it was described by the editor of Nature, John Maddox, as "a book for burning." Maddox went on to say that Sheldrake "should be condemned in exactly the language that the pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy." 

It’s tough when you’ve been so accused in a premier scientific journal, and Sheldrake’s career has proceeded under a shadow.

Maybe that's the way it should be. Maybe future discoveries will prove Sheldrake dead wrong in every respect.  If so, Coyne's materialistic successors will no doubt write blog posts (if blogs have managed to survive), congratulating themselves on their own perspicacious views. Maybe even the late John Maddox, who also wrote a 1983 editorial entitled “No Need to Panic about AIDS,” will be completely vindicated--about Sheldrake, if not for his prognostications on the scourge of our times.

And maybe not. After all, look what happened in the case of Galileo and Pope Urban VIII: The heretic, quite famously, was proven right. 


Given the ever-evolving nature of human understanding, I think it's not always easy to tell heresy from scientific breakthrough.

























Saturday, October 20, 2012

RICHARD DAWKINS AND THE SECOND LAW


Physicist Steven Weinberg is not usually cited as one who teases out reasons for personal despair from the realm of science. But in my blog post entitled WHY CERTAINTY IN SCIENCE IS UNSCIENTIFIC (June 7, 2012), I showed him doing just that. And, as it turns out, he’s not alone. The second law of thermodynamics has evolutionary biologist and vehement neo-atheist Richard Dawkins feeling blue.`

Writing in 1996, in the online magazine, The Humanist, Dawkins declares: “(W)e know  from the second law of thermodynamics (which predicts that isolated systems will eventually wind down) that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow is hell-bent on leveling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. They—and we—can never be more than temporary, local, buckings of the great universal slide into the abyss of uniformity.”

In the same article, and over and over again in his books, Dawkins has expressed delight at what science has shown us. But the above statement, profoundly negative in tone, demonstrates, at the very least, that his is a complicated response to impermanence on a universal scale.

I have caught him out in a rare (but telling) instance in which he appears disappointed in reality as it is revealed by science.

He’s right, of course, that no one has yet shown the second law can be violated; fortunes are not being made on the stock market from investments in perpetual motion machines. The heat death of the universe (meaning, ironically, the cessation of movement in cold, empty space), predicted by the second law, may indeed transpire.

But to speak decisively, authoritatively, of an apocalyptic event that may—or may not—occur billions of years in the future seems an inappropriate scientific extrapolation.

Cyclic uncertainties

Yes, the second law does point to a universal winding down. But consider this: our familiar universe just might come into and out of existence over and over again.

Cyclic theories such as those proposed by Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok as well as by Lauris Baum and Paul Frampton circumvent conversion of everything into “cold nothingness in the end.” Eric Chaisson’s work, based on Ilya Prigogine’s far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, has also brought into question the heat death scenario.

As regards cosmology, we are in the middle of a fascinating wrangle. Various theories depict our possible fate. Uncertainty rules, and this is as it should be.

Even Dawkins has admitted to the mysteriousness of the universe, especially as it is revealed by quantum mechanics. He’s just forgotten that admission here.

He knows the science, of course. But he’s not consoled. Indeed, he seems distressed that our human experience has no obvious value or meaning. Like many other atheists who deny that God has reserved a unique place in the scheme of things for man, he’s still a bit upset that it’s not the case.

Dawkins, dissatisfied with science? 

There’s no getting around it. For a brief moment, the great science apologist, Richard Dawkins, was at odds with science. His words even hint that he would be happier with a kinder, gentler universe, one disposed toward the human race. (It’s hard not to think of conventional religious views, in this context.)

He’s missing the mark, of course. We should not feel estranged from our world because of physical laws, much less because of our theories about catastrophes those laws may bring to pass. This is just drawing out bitterness from abstraction.

Let us mourn, lament, and rejoice. Let us feel all the pleasure and pain it is our lot to feel, holding dear our extraordinary lives and our extraordinary world, which is at once so beautiful and so terrible. But let us refrain from making into something personal the notion of inescapable cosmological disaster.   

We just don’t know enough to take such speculation seriously. There are important, pertinent matters we don’t have a clue about. For example, the provenance of our physical laws—indeed their very nature—is unknown. We can’t ascertain if they are human impositions onto the majestic chaos of reality or if they possess transcendent reality, as the mathematics suggests. (We have the same predicament with mathematics itself.)
`
If we did, in fact, “discover” the so-called laws of nature, and they have an objective and primordial existence exactly as we have formulated them, who’s to say even then that we have arrived at the final, ultimate, algorithms?

And if they are primordial, what caused them to come into being in the first place? It’s impossible to explain how everything got started without positing a prior term. Infinite regress is unavoidable. Dawkins should remember how he himself refuted the existence of God as a final term by asking what brought God into existence.

No methodological errors, please

We are small creatures in the prodigious scheme of things. The known universe consists of a hundred billion galaxies and a hundred billion stars in each of them. From our vantage point on Earth, we work day and night to unravel the unknowns of this ever-expanding cosmos, and properly rejoice at our findings when they seem confirmed.

Over three hundred years of modern science have gone into our current understanding of the nature of things. It’s great!

Let’s just not forget the big picture, as we spin around our radiant star. We can—and must—try to figure out every jot and tittle of existence. But we need always to keep in mind that we are doing so from a point of view limited in space and time, and limited by the nature of our own human brains.

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking, probably the most well-known scientific figure of our time, would agree. In his 2010 book, The Grand Design, he maintains: “There is no picture-or theory-independent concept of reality.” 

This is because we undeniably filter everything through the categories of our own minds. We cannot apprehend reality except through the lens of our human consciousness. Our data are massaged from the git-go by the human factor.

We would do well to admit: All-that-is, is more than our minds can comprehend. A modicum of humility is in order, here on this “pale blue dot” of Earth.

And isn’t humility, in light of the hypothesized multiverse, the most scientifically respectful position to stake out, choosing to make as few assumptions as possible?

Here’s my point: Not to acknowledge the mystery that underlies our experience—and that underlies, as well, our great human enterprise of science—is a serious methodological error.

Nobody, not even Richard Dawkins, should waste one moment of life bemoaning the personal implications of scientific theorizing.

Future posts will expand on this point.

Want to know more about Richard Dawkins? See http://richarddawkins.net/.

Your comments on this blog are welcome.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

HOW TO ACHIEVE UNHAPPINESS, STEVEN WEINBERG STYLE



Physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg, believes that human life in all its complexity, is meaningless—in the final analysis no more than particles of matter impacting other particles of matter. He's said so over and over again, while describing the godless multiverse in elegiac terms.

Speaking categorically of the most estimable human expression of all, he told readers of the The New York Review of Books that “the emotions we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.” 1

Weinberg, reductionistic and materialistic in the extreme, doesn’t chance to catch the wondrousness of our love, with its correlates, causes, and conditions, rooted in the physical world. Rather, he downplays human love because he believes, without evidence, that mere physiology is its base.

He has stated that the worldview of science is “rather chilling.” His view of love is a case in point.

Now teaching history of science at the University of Texas, he is perfectly aware that what is assumed as scientific fact in one age is likely to be overthrown or superseded in the next. Nonetheless, he doesn't harbor any doubt that a gloomy interpretation of the nature of life is correct, or entertain the possibility that future scientific discoveries might reveal more going on in the emotional and mental makeup of human beings, and, for that matter, other animals, than neuroscience—currently in its infancy—has already revealed. He employs no qualifiers or conditionals to temper his bleak declarative statements.

Is such certainty called for? How can he be so sure he’s gotten this right, since he speaks as a truly miniscule part of the system? How can Weinberg, who conspicuously lacks an all-embracing God’s eye view, argue that emotions are only the result of brain chemicals acting in a particular way and no more?

After all, the so-called "hard problem" in contemporary neuroscience is exactly this: how physical processes like the electrochemistry of the brain translate into nonphysical consciousness in all its manifestations—namely, into our subjective experience of the world and of our lives. At present, there is no evidence that can explain this disconnect.

Philosopher John Searle, in a letter to the The New York Review of Books, has succinctly summarized the consensus view about the origin of consciousness. He said: “(A)t present, the way neurons produce consciousness remains mysterious.”2

Now that leaves a big loophole indeed. Searle, like most other experts in neurophysiology, also believes a materialistic connection will be made—although this is no more than an article of faith.

Given our current state of ignorance, Weinberg’s sadness seems rather premature. Why we don’t even know how to ascertain whether another being (human or otherwise) is conscious. What over reach it is, then, to dismiss a complex emotion like love as a well understood materialistic phenomenon. In doing so, Weinberg has chosen to overlook the greatest conundrum of neuroscience.



Weinberg, a pre-Copernican?

Surprisingly, Weinberg even speaks with contempt of evolution, as if it’s the fault of evolution that love is an epiphenomenon of our brains. Now this is an undeserved bad rap indeed. It’s as if Weinberg is really just pining after the religious idea that we are a special creation of God, in which case all our particulars (maybe even our love lives) would flow from this, not from natural selection—and brain chemistry.

In my view, Weinberg is possessed of a pre-Copernican mindset, characterized by a yearning for human beings to be at the center of everything.  Ironically, this puts him in league with those who believe that God is biased in favor of us—a unique dispensation. 
                                          
He's inadvertently caught up in the religious milieu he feels contempt for. Without this longing for human specialness, he could be grateful that evolution, magnificent in scope, has actually allowed for our development into occasionally loving creatures.

(Or, alternatively, he might find himself disturbed--as I am--by the fact that we can also be violent and cruel. It seems to me Weinberg has chosen the wrong side of our natures to deprecate.)

Here's what should be indisputable: Weinberg is insufficiently skeptical of prevailing scientific beliefs. Despite the fact he knows very well that science is an ongoing process, he seems to lose track of this understanding when it's not his focus.

He hasn’t taken to heart the changeable nature of scientific understanding over time. Stasis may seem the norm between scientific revolutions, but even then anomalies are building up. Future generations will always look back in wonder at the ignorance of their forbears.

Evolutionary theory itself is still evolving. Although there are undeniable lines of proof—not just in the much criticized (and occasionally spotty) fossil record but in genetic sequencing of organisms and biogeography, among others, we still have a long way to go in understanding all of evolution's mechanisms.

Research into evolutionary development (evo devo) is revealing more than Darwin could ever have imagined. And now we are beginning to understand how some complex systems can self-organize.

Perhaps decades or centuries from now, we will understand more clearly what life is it. (And perhaps not.)  Right now, we are completely in the dark. Evolutionary theory has never addressed the origin of life and Darwin eschewed the issue entirely.

It is even tempting to argue that the biological sciences are still fledglings, ruled as they are by the 19th-century mechanistic paradigm. Quantum applications lie ahead, a mind-boggling prospect indeed.      

What a shame Weinberg has such confidence in the durability of the status quo. He has not only ruled out any possibility of transcendence; he has concluded that the material side is dispiriting as well.  How could he not be demoralized! I want to tell him, the brilliant, much-lauded Nobelist:  Buck up!

We have a fascinating world out there—and inside us as well.

We should celebrate.





1 Steven Weinberg, “Without God,” The New York Review of Books, September 25, 2008.
2 John Searle, letter to The New York Review of Books, September 29, 2011.


Want to know more about Steven Weinberg's latest book, LAKE VIEWS? See http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674062306

Your comments on this blog are welcome!