Thursday, June 7, 2012


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of Texas, he is perfectly aware that what is assumed as scientific fact in one age is likely to be overthrown or superseded in the next.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

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