The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry (2012)
(U.S. edition: Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery)
August 15, 2012
The ‘scientific worldview’ is immensely influential because the sciences have been so successful. They touch all our lives through technologies and through modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed by an immense expansion of knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.
Yet in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when science and technology seem to be at the peak of their power, when their influence has spread all over the world and when their triumph seems indisputable, unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Most scientists take it for granted that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along
established lines, but some, including myself, think they are symptoms of a deeper malaise.
In this book, I argue that science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The sciences would be better off without them: freer, more interesting, and more fun.
The biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details still need working out but, in principle, the fundamental questions are settled.
Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.
These beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough; so are the techniques that scientists use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.
This book is pro-science. I want the sciences to be less dogmatic and more scientific. I believe that the sciences will be regenerated when they are liberated from the dogmas that constrict them.
The scientific creed
Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.
- Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
- All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.
- The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).
- The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.
- Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
- All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
- Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
- Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
- Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
- Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief-system became dominant within science in the late nineteenth century, and is now taken for granted. Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption: they simply think of it as science, or the
scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis.
In everyday usage, materialism refers to a way of life devoted entirely to material interests, a preoccupation with wealth, possessions and luxury. These attitudes are no doubt encouraged by the materialist philosophy, which denies the existence of any spiritual realities or non-material goals, but in this book I am concerned with materialism’s scientific claims, rather than its eff ects on lifestyles.
In the spirit of radical scepticism, I turn each of these ten doctrines into a question. Entirely new vistas open up when a widely accepted assumption is taken as the beginning of an enquiry, rather than as an unquestionable truth. For example, the assumption that nature is machine-like or mechanical becomes a question: ‘Is nature mechanical?’ The assumption that matter is unconscious becomes ‘Is matter unconscious?’ And so on.
In the Prologue I look at the interactions of science, religion and power, and then in Chapters 1 to 10, I examine each of the ten dogmas. At the end of each chapter, I discuss what difference this topic makes and how it affects the way we live our lives. I also pose several further questions, so that any readers
who want to discuss these subjects with friends or colleagues will have some useful starting points. Each chapter is followed by a summary.
The credibility crunch for the ‘scientific worldview’
For more than two hundred years, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, minds are nothing but brain activity and nature is purposeless. Believers are sustained by the faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science
Karl Popper called this stance ‘promissory materialism’ because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Despite all the achievements of science and technology, materialism is now facing a credibility crunch that was unimaginable in the twentieth century.
In 1963, when I was studying biochemistry at Cambridge University, I was invited to a series of private meetings with Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner in Brenner’s rooms in King’s College, along with a few of my classmates. Crick and Brenner had recently helped to ‘crack’ the genetic code. Both were ardent materialists and Crick was also a militant atheist. They explained there were
two major unsolved problems in biology: development and consciousness. They had not been solved because the people who worked on them were not molecular biologists – or very bright. Crick and Brenner were going to find the answers within ten years, or maybe twenty. Brenner would take developmental biology, and Crick consciousness. They invited us to join them.
Both tried their best. Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on the development of a tiny worm, Caenorhabdytis elegans. Crick corrected the manuscript of his final paper on the brain the day before he died in 2004. At his funeral, his son Michael said that what made him tick was not the desire to be famous, wealthy or popular, but ‘to knock the final nail into the coffin of vitalism’. (Vitalism is the theory that living organisms are truly alive, and not explicable in terms of physics and chemistry alone.)
Crick and Brenner failed. The problems of development and consciousness remain unsolved. Many details have been discovered, dozens of genomes have been sequenced, and brain scans are ever more precise. But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone (see Chapters 1, 4 and 8).
The fundamental proposition of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness is nothing but brain activity. It is either like a shadow, an ‘epiphenomenon’, that does nothing, or it is just another way of talking about brain activity. However, among contemporary researchers in neuroscience and consciousness studies there is no consensus about the nature of minds. Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the ‘hard problem’. It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.
In biology and psychology the credibility rating of materialism is falling. Can physics ride to the rescue? Some materialists prefer to call themselves physicalists, to emphasise that their hopes depend on modern physics, not nineteenth-century theories of matter. But physicalism’s own credibility rating has been reduced by physics itself, for four reasons.
First, some physicists insist that quantum mechanics cannot be formulated without taking into account the minds of observers. They argue that minds cannot be reduced to physics because physics presupposes the minds of physicists.
Second, the most ambitious unified theories of physical reality, string and M-theories, with ten and eleven dimensions respectively, take science into completely new territory. Strangely, as Stephen Hawking tells us in his book The Grand Design (2010), ‘No one seems to know what the “M” stands for, but it may be “master”, “miracle” or “mystery”.’ According to what Hawking calls ‘model-dependent realism’, different theories may have to be applied in different situations. ‘Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.’
String theories and M-theories are currently untestable so ‘model-dependent realism’ can only be judged by reference to other models, rather than by experiment. It also applies to countless other universes, none of which has ever been observed. As Hawking points out,
M-theory has solutions that allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled. M-theory has solutions that allow for many different internal spaces, perhaps as many as 10500, which means it allows for 10500 diff erent universes, each with its own laws … The original hope of physics to produce a single theory explaining the apparent laws of our universe as the unique possible consequence of a few simple assumptions may have to be abandoned.
Some physicists are deeply sceptical about this entire approach, as the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin shows in his book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next (2008). String theories, M-theories and ‘modeldependent realism’ are a shaky foundation for materialism or physicalism or any other belief system, as discussed in Chapter 1.
Third, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has become apparent that the known kinds of matter and energy make up only about four per cent of the universe. The rest consists of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. The nature of 96 per cent of physical reality is literally obscure (see Chapter 2).
Fourth, the Cosmological Anthropic Principle asserts that if the laws and constants of nature had been slightly different at the moment of the Big Bang, biological life could never have emerged, and hence we would not be here to think about it (see Chapter 3). So did a divine mind fine-tune the laws and constants in the beginning? To avoid a creator God emerging in a new guise, most leading cosmologists prefer to believe that our universe is one of a vast, and perhaps infinite, number of parallel universes, all with different laws and constants, as M-theory also suggests. We just happen to exist in the one that has the right conditions for us.
This multiverse theory is the ultimate violation of Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’, or in other words, that we should make as few assumptions as possible. It also has the major disadvantage of being untestable. And it does not even succeed in getting rid of God. An infinite God could be the God of an infinite number of universes.
Materialism provided a seemingly simple, straightforward worldview in the late nineteenth century, but twenty-first-century science has left it behind. Its promises have not been fulfilled, and its promissory notes have been devalued by hyperinflation.
I am convinced that the sciences are being held back by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos. These beliefs protect the citadel of established science, but act as barriers against open-minded thinking.