Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Materialists Are The Atheist Equivalent of Young Earth Creationists

Reader, rustypickup sent me a link to an interesting article by the University of Rochester astronomer, Adam Frank about the persistent problems for the materialist model of reality in face of the persisting problems of modern physics.   Much of what he said will be familiar to people who've read my blog posts on the relevant issues, as good a way of any to show what there problems which Frank says physicists don't like to talk about, especially with outsiders, is to give a few quotes.

When I was a young physics student I once asked a professor: ‘What’s an electron?’ His answer stunned me. ‘An electron,’ he said, ‘is that to which we attribute the properties of the electron.’ That vague, circular response was a long way from the dream that drove me into physics, a dream of theories that perfectly described reality. Like almost every student over the past 100 years, I was shocked by quantum mechanics, the physics of the micro-world. In place of a clear vision of little bits of matter that explain all the big things around us, quantum physics gives us a powerful yet seemly paradoxical calculus. With its emphasis on probability waves, essential uncertainties and experimenters disturbing the reality they seek to measure, quantum mechanics made imagining the stuff of the world as classical bits of matter (or miniature billiard balls) all but impossible.

Like most physicists, I learned how to ignore the weirdness of quantum physics. ‘Shut up and calculate!’ (the dictum of the American physicist David Mermin) works fine if you are trying to get 100 per cent on your Advanced Quantum Theory homework or building a laser. But behind quantum mechanics’ unequaled calculational precision lie profound, stubbornly persistent questions about what those quantum rules imply about the nature of reality – including our place in it.

Those questions are well-known in the physics community, but perhaps our habit of shutting up has been a little too successful. A century of agnosticism about the true nature of matter hasn’t found its way deeply enough into other fields, where materialism still appears to be the most sensible way of dealing with the world and, most of all, with the mind. Some neuroscientists think that they’re being precise and grounded by holding tightly to materialist credentials. Molecular biologists, geneticists, and many other types of researchers – as well as the nonscientist public – have been similarly drawn to materialism’s seeming finality. But this conviction is out of step with what we physicists know about the material world – or rather, what we don’t know.

Sorry, that's one of the problems with doing these topics.  The ideas involved don't lend themselves to being disposed of in a few aphoristic statements designed for easy consumption by even college-educated TV trained consumer of them.   And as Adam Frank notes, it's apparent that some of the biggest names in science, even the physicists whose own field can't escape the vicissitudes of these hard and inconvenient truths don't seem to be willing to really acknowledge that they are there, they are real and the insurmountable hurdle  they present for their materialist-religious ideology are there.  And for materialism, since its replacement for God is the physical universe and the laws constructed by science about those, those insurmountable problems are fatal to materialism in a way that they are not for non-materialist religion.

Take the very first problem in that, that the real and effective modern understanding of electrons doesn't actually define WHAT they are, they present them in terms of the properties that physicists have assigned to them.  When they are talking about electrons, they aren't talking about a thing they're talking about what they believe an electron does.  And that problem is only more exacerbated by the fact that modern physics doesn't talk about an actual thing doing things, it can't do anything but present those "things" as a series of probabilities, none of which can be definitely assigned to the "thing" they're talking about.

For physicists, the ambiguity over matter boils down to what we call the measurement problem, and its relationship to an entity known as the wave function. Back in the good old days of Newtonian physics, the behaviour of particles was determined by a straightforward mathematical law that reads F = ma. You applied a force F to a particle of mass m, and the particle moved with acceleration a. It was easy to picture this in your head. Particle? Check. Force? Check. Acceleration? Yup. Off you go.

The equation F = ma gave you two things that matter most to the Newtonian picture of the world: a particle’s location and its velocity. This is what physicists call a particle’s state. Newton’s laws gave you the particle’s state for any time and to any precision you need. If the state of every particle is described by such a simple equation, and if large systems are just big combinations of particles, then the whole world should behave in a fully predictable way. Many materialists still carry the baggage of that old classical picture. It’s why physics is still widely regarded as the ultimate source of answers to questions about the world, both outside and inside our heads.

In Isaac Newton’s physics, position and velocity were indeed clearly defined and clearly imagined properties of a particle. Measurements of the particle’s state changed nothing in principle. The equation F = ma was true whether you were looking at the particle or not. All of that fell apart as scientists began probing at the scale of atoms early last century. In a burst of creativity, physicists devised a new set of rules known as quantum mechanics. A critical piece of the new physics was embodied in Schrödinger’s equation. Like Newton’s F = ma, the Schrödinger equation represents mathematical machinery for doing physics; it describes how the state of a particle is changing. But to account for all the new phenomena physicists were finding (ones Newton knew nothing about), the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had to formulate a very different kind of equation.

When calculations are done with the Schrödinger equation, what’s left is not the Newtonian state of exact position and velocity. Instead, you get what is called the wave function (physicists refer to it as psi after the Greek symbol Ψ used to denote it). Unlike the Newtonian state, which can be clearly imagined in a commonsense way, the wave function is an epistemological and ontological mess. The wave function does not give you a specific measurement of location and velocity for a particle; it gives you only probabilities at the root level of reality. Psi appears to tell you that, at any moment, the particle has many positions and many velocities. In effect, the bits of matter from Newtonian physics are smeared out into sets of potentials or possibilities.

All of this led some of the most philosophically sophisticated physicists such as Eddington to state and even some of the most dedicated atheist-materialist philosophers such as Bertrand Russell to admit that modern physics had pretty much destroyed the old materialism which was fast becoming the standard religion of atheist-scientists.  It is the old-time religion that still holds sway among even physicists whose own field undermined the possibility of them believing in it professionally.

Materialist - ideologues among modern physicists would seem, to me, to be the equivalent of biologists or geologists who held with young-earth creationism.  

Frank goes into some of the truly bizarre stuff like even the most extreme versions of multi-verse theory which is found to be more acceptable to these materialists than just stating the obvious, that materialism is an inadequate model of the physical universe at even the level they can study with any kind of confidence.  Never mind the insistence that the efficacy of their religious cosmology can be extended from quantum physics concerning electrons into complex chemistry, biology and even reliably reducing the minds that can't really grasp what electrons are or where they are with absolute certainty into computers made of meat.

I have noted how, on reading Eddington's lectures that Bertrand Russell predicted that science was entering into a decadent phase.  That was nearly ninety years ago.  What has obviously reached a stage of decay is the fields of cosmology, some branches of physics, the elusive and absurd and blatantly announced attempts of scientists to define consciousness, mental activity, etc. into nothing but chemistry and physics, something that some of the big names in popular science such as Michio Kaku claim is inevitable - Frank has critiqued him on that count, as well.

Everywhere I've looked, when a scientist starts out with the clear intention, generally overtly stated, to support the materialist model of reality, the results have been utterly decadent, utterly dishonest and the science it produces has often crashed catestrophically.   In a lot of my blog writing I have dealt with the most deadly of those, eugenics, which the Darwin inner circle in Britain and Germany believed in as a part of the "material monist" view of life which they believed natural selection confirmed.  I have noted a number of times that in his book, The History of Creation, which had Darwin's full support, Haeckel credited him and that theory with the "final triumph" of "material monism" to Darwin.  The current crop of materialists in cosmology, in neuro-science and other fields which are trying to nail the final nails in the coffin of what they take as the main rival of their religious faith, a belief in God, are engaged in the same entirely extra-scientific effort.

Rustypickup sent me the link to the piece in my piece noting Stephen Jay Gould's willingness to forego his entire, decades long criticism of the Just-so story telling of sociobiology and evo-psy in the one instance where they disposed of the "vexing problem" of "altruism" on behalf of natural selection.  I can't claim that my longstanding affection for Gould didn't take a big hit with that article and, especially, that particular lapse in his scientific integrity.  And for the same reason, ultimately, that led the original generation of Darwinists to refuse to note the problems with their universal ambitions for the theory of natural selection.  That someone as humane as Gould was willing to do that in the 1970s, two years after he noted that sociobiology risked a revival of eugenics and all of the possibilities we in the post-war period know with such horrible certainty shows how dangerous materialism really is.

It's mighty tempting to go into all of the problems of materialism that Adam Frank sets down in his article but I'll give you his conclusion, which I can agree with, sort of:

Rather than sweeping away the mystery of mind by attributing it to the mechanisms of matter, we can begin to move forward by acknowledging where the multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics leave us. It’s been more than 20 years since the Australian philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Following work by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Chalmers pointed to the vividness – the intrinsic presence – of the perceiving subject’s experience as a problem no explanatory account of consciousness seems capable of embracing. Chalmers’s position struck a nerve with many philosophers, articulating the sense that there was fundamentally something more occurring in consciousness than just computing with meat. But what is that ‘more’?

Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overly project mind into matter. Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of. Regardless of the direction ‘more’ might take, the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.

While the materialists might continue to wish for the high ground of sobriety and hard-headedness, they should remember the American poet Richard Wilbur’s warning:

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones: 
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

Oh, well, I can't keep myself from noting that if the mind is not material then there is no way to apply any of the methods of physics or even biology to it because those can only have any reliability at all in so far as they reveal properties of matter.  If the mind is not material, it will certainly have qualities which the methods of science can't approach.  To anyone who objects to that idea, modern physics has certainly shown to a high degree of reliability that the methods of science can't even reach all of the qualities of the physical universe.  As I will brag, once again,  I once got the arch-materialist, arrogant physicist Sean Carroll to admit that there was not a single object in the entire physical universe that physics had defined comprehensively and exhaustively.  Something about even the most studied object in the universe, "simple" and observable as that might be, has eluded the most exigent methods of science.


  1. "But this conviction is out of step with what we physicists know about the material world – or rather, what we don’t know."

    Apophatic physics. What a concept!

    "It’s been more than 20 years since the Australian philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Following work by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Chalmers pointed to the vividness – the intrinsic presence – of the perceiving subject’s experience as a problem no explanatory account of consciousness seems capable of embracing. Chalmers’s position struck a nerve with many philosophers, articulating the sense that there was fundamentally something more occurring in consciousness than just computing with meat. But what is that ‘more’?"

    A review (at Vox, I think) of the original "Ghost in the Shell" movie, made much of the work of Daniel Dennett as an influence in the film's idea of AI, an idea that actually goes back to Clarke's "Dial 'F' for Frankenstein". Consciousness, says Dennett, is simply a matter of layers of electro-chemical function that "seems" to be self-aware. Or, in Clarke's version, hook up enough telephones and you get a critical mass that becomes conscious, because: materialism, right? Or, as I prefer, taking Hume's view, consciousness is just a bunch of TV's in a room reflecting sensory input which we take to be awareness.

    Except, of course, who's watching the TV to make sense of the sensory input? And if it's just a matter of enough connections, why hasn't the internet become aware yet? Which cell phone will be the one that trips it over to critical mass?

    There's a reason nobody has much use for Dennett's work.

    Interestingly, metaphysics is still alive as a valid concept in phenomenology, and the great creators of quantum mechanics were all well trained in European philosophy (including idealism, which is the ancestor of phenomenology). It's no wonder quantum mechanics makes American physicist twist into pretzels.....

    And still we struggle with the concept of mind, a metaphysical one if ever there was something true about metaphysics (and there is). Gee, how could physics fail to answer all our questions. Must be when it turned apophatic.....

    1. Daniel Dennett is a really, really bad philosopher. He is also an idiot, as H. Allen Orr's review of his magnum opus, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, demonstrates.

      But not being willing to leave it at that, Dennett wrote a screechy response to the review:

      Which only gave Orr more of a reason to elaborate:

      Anyone who thinks a computer thinks is a boob. Anyone who thinks a machine which was made as a metaphor for human minds and how they work (to a very, very small degree) is a good model for the thing it models is pretty stupid. And a lot of really, really stupid people get to make movies.

    2. Proves why nobody serious pays attention to Dennett. As Orr says in reply:

      "And, looking past the bluff and bluster, it's not hard to find what annoys Dennett: His real targets-Gould, Lewontin and Chomsky-have thoroughly ignored him. Alas, he is reduced to responding to obscure young upstarts-a fact that seems to trouble him to no end given that half his response is bizarrely directed not at me, but at Stephen Jay Gould. As Gould is a big boy and can handle his own fisticuffs, I'll restrict myself to Dennett's critique of my ideas, not Gould's."

      Why should Chomsky, et al., bother with Dennett? To explain how wrong he is would require explaining to Dennett how far from understanding the conversation he is. I think of it in terms of a metaphor from my family life: when I was young, my mother had a large family of siblings, all married, all with children. At family gatherings the kids played and ate separately from the adults, who sat and talked a lot, mostly about other family members. Not idle gossip, but truly keeping up with the extended family not present.

      I can remember being confused by this conversation, because I was a child. Had I tried to enter it, nothing I could add would be meaningful, and I'd be tolerated but ignored. Dennett is the child, and I'm sure it annoys him that Chomsky doesn't take him seriously, but why should Chomsky bother? Dennett has yet to prove himself worthy of talking to the adults.

    3. And I note that exchange is over 20 years old, and to this date no one thinks Dennett has "explained" consciousness, or acceded to his demand we all accept Darwin's "dangerous idea."

      He's the kid at the table flicking peas from his spoon, trying to get somebody to pay attention to him.