In the Name of Science


“Beliefs concerning the ultimate purposes and meaning of life and the accompanying worldview perspectives that mold beliefs of right and wrong are critically dependent . . . on concepts regarding the conscious self.” -Roger Sperry1

THE HALO

Humanity has never had it so good—a current of conviction that flows in the world at large. Technological sophistication has played its part in swelling this current. I cannot imagine living without my toaster.

For the good things that we have and the better things that are yet to come, we owe it all, of course, to the triumph of the human intellect. Shackled by centuries of superstition and dogma, human intellect led a pretty shoddy life. But all that changed when human intellect met modern science. The encounter left human intellect wondering how he had survived without it for so long. Many modern scientists themselves wondered the same. They amicably reached the conclusion that human intellect had suffered immeasurably because of the undue reverence he had paid religion. That mistake should be wiped out, once and for all.

“Science and religion cannot be reconciled,” wrote Oxford professor of chemistry Peter Atkins, “and humanity should begin to appreciate the power of its child, and to beat off all attempts at compromise. Religion has failed, and its failures should stand exposed. Science with its currently successful pursuit of universal competence through the identification of the minimal, the supreme delight of the intellect, should be acknowledged king.”2

As we ascend the steep stairway of science-inspired secularism, shrugging off the rituals and rigmaroles of religious traditions, which no one understands, or cares to understand, humanity radiates the halo of increased well-being and “universal competence.” For those who cannot see this halo, it can only mean one thing: nature has inflicted them with the cataract PROMOTING MATERIALISM of ingratitude.

THE SUPREME DELIGHT OF THE INTELLECT

Part of the appeal of modern science is its perceived explanatory power. Stephen Hawking, a physicist by vocation, is a modern master dedicated to conveying this appeal to the masses. Part of his appeal is convincing lesser intellects that science is a good thing. Not only is it a good thing, but it is the only thing that is good at all.

The Grand Design, Hawking’s 2010 offering, continues to spread the good cheer about science. Hawking writes: “The fact that we human beings—who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature—have come close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our Universe is a great triumph.”3 When Hawking writes about “we human beings” he is referring to the community of physicists. They, after all, have given themselves over to understanding in detail the laws that govern us and our Universe, and it is the brand of physics that Hawking assiduously promotes.

The light that science offers, the light that Hawking offers at least, has two aspects to it.

First, it closes the case on the question of self-identity.

Q: Who am I?

A: You are a mere collection of fundamental particles of nature.

Second, it offers explanations of how you and I, those “fundamental particles of nature” behave.

Q: Does science have elegant mathematical equations that can predict everything about you and me?

A: Certainly it does. If not “everything” about you and me, then, at least, close enough to everything.

The inquisitive teenager, afflicted with a severe case of existential anxiety, looking to science as the great torchbearer, can now rest appeased. His gnawing sense of unease calmed, he is assured that science can dissipate the clouds of ignorance that hover on his horizon.

THE LAWS THAT GOVERN US

A law in the physical sciences is as good as its predictive power. Science, as Hawking and his admirers repeatedly remind us, deals squarely with the “physical stuff.” But is life composed solely of “physical stuff?” If it is, then physicists should be able to accurately predict what we will do and when we will do it.

Is there a mathematical equation that will precisely predict when Percy the cat, impelled by a sudden attack of boredom, will abandon himself to the law of gravity and somersault to the ground from the roof of a three storey building?

Is there a mathematical equation that will precisely predict when Jane, peeved at her husband’s repeated inability to read her mind, will chuck a superbly aimed saucer at the guy’s head?

Is there a mathematical equation that will precisely predict when Robert, the millionaire banker, drowning in a fog of unidentified melancholy, will decide to take his life by jumping into the path of an onrushing subway train?

The questions can be easily multiplied. If there are mathematical equations dealing with these routine occurrences of life, then the community of physicists are extremely cruel not to share them with mere mortals. If there are no mathematical equations dealing with these routine occurrences of life, then life is more than what mathematical equations, or Hawking, for that matter, can conceive of.

CHAOS AMIDST THE FUNDAMENTAL PARTICLES

That thought you hold so dear, well, where does it come from? Scientists such as Hawking have suggested that all our convictions and actions are the consequence of physical operations, “the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve-cells,”4 which are ultimately “mere collections of fundamental particles of nature.”5

Those fundamental particles of nature can’t seem to make up their mind. They seem to revel in producing contradictory convictions. Deprived of the resources of mathematical physics, mullahs in Afghanistan for example, have quite different convictions about reality than those offered by scientific materialists. Are their brains composed of different fundamental particles of nature? If yes, then may we know what the difference is? If not, then why do the same fundamental particles of nature offer different convictions?

Psychologists will respond that the environment also has a role to play, their ode to the perpetual tension between nature versus nurture. But this response entirely misses the point. The environment may very well have a role to play. But the thought: I have low self-esteem and that is why no one loves me; where does that come from? What is the source of this thought? If it has its source in the environment, then which part of the environment are we talking about: The apple trees surrounding my residence or the metal pipes underneath my bathroom sink? The entire weight of human experience tells us: Thoughts come from persons. Scientific orthodoxy sheds more light: A thought process is “a series of brain states—a series of physical configurations of matter—each causing the next in accordance with the deterministic laws that govern the interactions of physical objects.”6

Thoughts emerge from our brains just as sweat emerges from our glands or as digestive juice emerges from our stomach.

When digestive juices emerge from our stomachs, are they reasonable or are they not?

Come on, silly, you say. They are neither. They are just biological facts.

By the same token, when thoughts emerge from our brains, are they reasonable or are they not?

Come on, silly, you say. They are neither. They are just biological facts.

Does this include the thought I am merely a collection of fundamental particles of nature? Of course, it does. And so we find, as with all secular theories, a theory that sets up a definition of truth that refutes itself.

The claim that the digestive juices emerging from our stomach have the ring of truth to them is absurd. It is just a biological fact, a consequence of physical objects and laws. If our thoughts are also biological facts, a consequence of physical objects and laws, then how can they be rational or irrational? They can’t. The very category of rationality dissolves into meaninglessness. Materialism, as reputed American philosopher Alvin Plantinga has pointed out in his book Warrant and Proper Function, undermines the very reason needed to construct, understand or be convinced about any kind of truth, including scientific ones.

“For, not only does it relegate our experiences of beauty, moral obligation, and religious encounter to the epiphenomenal scrap-heap,” physicist John Polkinghorne has reasonably observed, but “it also destroys rationality. Thought is replaced by electro-chemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen…The very assertions of the reductionist himself are nothing but blips in the neural network of his brain. The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly, that cannot be right and none of us believes it to be so.”7

The only way a worldview can explain the world of experience is by using reason. If the worldview happens to discredit reason it shoots itself in the foot. It self-destructs. This is exactly why the view of standard materialism, the view endorsed by Hawking, is as dogmatic as it is deniable.

THE DISCREET CHARMS OF NIHILISM

On occasions when the rest of humanity entertains notions of ultimate purpose and meaning, the scientific establishment can be seen to be shaking their heads in barely concealed amusement. Having transcended such naiveté, they have long since dispensed with such longings.

Biologist and historian of science, William B. Provine, witness to how and when the universe came into existence, confirms: “The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life.”8 Atheist John Gray, giddy with scientific enlightenment, reveals the obvious: “Human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould.”9 Animated by the purpose of proving himself purposeless, the physicist Steven Weinberg, claims that he was the “more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes,”10 and “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” These declarations resonate strongly with Hawking. When confronted by the question of the meaning of it all, he has offered similar pearls of wisdom.

At this point, lesser mortals are allowed to question: What exactly have scientific materialists been able to comprehend that allows such declarations?

Who am I? Why am I here? Why do I act the way I do? Where do I go from here?

To such questions that have long occupied the recesses of human hearts, Hawking and his brand of all-knowing physicalist science has nothing of interest to offer. As is often the case, someone is bold enough to say this out loud. In his 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, the prominent atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel, has done this admirable service:

“Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science. The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything. If we take this problem seriously, and follow out its implications, it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture.”11

Despite his commitment to atheism, Nagel is brave enough to state the obvious. The real question is: Come on guys, how can you get away with this?

What makes sentient beings sentient? What is the difference between a sentient being and a corpse? How does life emerge from fundamental particles of matter? And why? What are the physical forces, laws and constants that can accurately predict the occurrence of death, divorce and disagreement?

If physicalist science does offer stunning revelations to such questions, then what are we waiting for? Give us the answers, the evidence, the proof, the laboratory demonstration.

To which, Hawking simply looks away. Disappointing, you bet. Bold architects of universal physical “theories of everything” are fully aware that their theories cannot be experienced through experiment, prompting Harvard physicist Howard Georgi to depict modern theoretical physics as “recreational mathematical theology.”12

The pretensions of science-inspired omniscience, the pretensions repeatedly displayed by men and women of Hawking’s persuasion, the pretensions now sacrosanct in secondary school curriculums all over the world, have a crucial role to play in the contemporary economy of belief. They are, like caffeinated beverages, the indispensable mood-enhancer of secular culture. Life without them, like life without caffeine, is hardly imaginable.

Reducing the significance of human life to slime mould or reducing reason and truth to the absurd chatter of fundamental particles in the brain, is not the true liberation offered by the guardians of intellectual progress. Polish Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz offers genuine insight into the feast that is really on offer: “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.”13

“Real progress,” writes Krishna scholar and monk Devamrita Swami, “begins when we become conscious that we are accountable for our consciousness . . . If the movements of matter in the environment cause such precise reactions, what about the movements of the most crucial ingredient in the ecosystem—consciousness? . . . Who are the scholars who have catalogued the consequences of consciousness in its affairs with matter?”14 Human beings, Krishna reveals in his Bhagavad-gita, fall under the sway of the cosmic reality of karma; that means reaction to every action, not just the ones we casually choose to weigh and consider.

Fundamental particles of nature have yet to be observed losing sleep over worrying about the consequences of their actions. Human beings have. A cure for insomnia has been made long available. All you need to do is believe. If recreational mathematical theology works as well as opium in inducing the belief, then why quibble over the details? There is much to be gained in embracing the discreet charms of nihilism. Ask Hawking. He can tell you all about it.


Notes

  1. Roger Sperry, “Changing Priorities,” Annual Review of Neuroscience 4 (1981): 1-15.
  2. John Cornwell, ed., Nature’s Imagination—The Frontiers of Scientific Vision (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 132.
  3. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Press, 2010), 181.
  4. Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (London: Simon & Schuster, 1994).
  5. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Press, 2010), 181.
  6. Edward Slingerland, What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating the Body and Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 257.
  7. J.C. Polkinghorne, One World (London: SPCK, 1986), 92.
  8. William B. Provine, “Scientists, Face It! Science and Religion are Incompatible,” The Scientist, 5 September 1988.
  9. John Gray, Straw Dogs (London: Granta Books, 2002), 33.
  10. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (New York: Bantum Books, 1977), 144.
  11. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 35.
  12. Robert Crease and Charles Mann, The Second Creation (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 414.
  13. See the New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/ articles/archives/1998/nov/19/discreet-charm-of-nihilism/.
  14. Devamrita Swami, Searching for Vedic India (The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2007).

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