This is a précis of an argument that naturalism forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality. It is one that most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid its harshest conclusions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the significance of our consciousness self-awareness, and the limits of human self-understanding. This is a vast agenda and it’s presumptuous to address it even in a format 30 times longer than this one. My excuse is that I stand on the shoulders of giants: the many heroic naturalists who have tried vainly, I think, to find a more hopeful version of naturalism than this one.
1. Why Leave Life’s Persistent Questions to Guy Noir?
We all lie awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love. These worries are a luxury compared to the ones most people on Earth address. But they are persistent. And yet they all have simple answers, ones we can pretty well read off from science. Attempts to do so will be accused of “scientism”—the unwarranted and exaggerated respect for science. I plead guilty to the charge, while taking exception to the ‘unwarranted’ and ‘exaggerated’ part. In the book here summarized I take a page out of the PR of the gay and lesbian community and (mis)appropriate the word ‘scientistic’ the way they did to ‘gay’ and ‘queer.’ Scientism is my label for what any one who takes science seriously should believe, and scientistic is just an in-your face adjective for accepting science’s description of the nature of reality. You don’t have to be a scientist to be scientistic. In fact, most scientists aren’t. Why not?
Most scientists are reluctant to admit science’s answers to the persistent questions are obvious. There are more than enough reasons they are reluctant to do so. The best reason is that the answers to the persistent questions are not what people want to hear, and the bad news may lead them to kill the messenger—scientific research. It’s people who pay for science through their support of the NIH, the NSF, and the universities where most research happens. So, scientists have an incentive to cover up. They have a couple of other reasons too: science is fallible and scientists are taught never to be definitive even about their own conclusions; the persistent questions are so broad that no scientist’s research program addresses them directly, and few are prepared to stick their necks out beyond their specialty when they don’t have to. For scientists staying mum about science’s real answers to the persistent questions is overdetermined.
Even if scientists came clean however, most people wouldn’t accept the answers science gives to the persistent questions because they can’t understand the answers. The reason is that the answers don’t come in the form of stories with plots. What science has discovered about reality can’t be packaged into whodunit narratives about motives and actions. The human mind is the product of a long process of selection for being able to scope out other people’s motives. The way nature solved the problem of endowing us with that ability is by making us conspiracy theorists—we see motives everywhere in nature, and our curiosity is only satisfied when we learn the “meaning” of things—whose purposes they serve. The fundamental laws of nature are mostly timeless mathematical truths that work just as well backwards as forward, and in which purposes have no role. That’s why most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around physics or chemistry. It’s why science writers are always advised to get the science across to people by telling a story, and why it never really works. Science’s laws and theories just don’t come in stories with surprising starts, exciting middles and satisfying dénouements. That makes them hard to remember and hard to understand. Our demand for plotted narratives is the greatest obstacle to getting a grip on reality. It’s also what greases the skids down the slippery slope to religion’s “greatest story ever told.”
Scientism helps us see how mistaken the demand for stories instead of theories really is.
2. The Nature Of Reality? Just Ask Physics
What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if, as physics may end up showing, there are other ones. In effect, scientism’s metaphysics is, to more than a first approximation, given by what physics tell us about the universe. The reason we trust physics to be scientism’s metaphysics is its track record of fantastically powerful explanation, prediction and technological application. If what physics says about reality doesn’t go, that track record would be a totally inexplicable mystery or coincidence. Neither science nor scientism stands still for coincidence.
Physics is by no means finished, and it may hold out even more surprises for common sense than it already has provided. In addition it faces several problems—the nature of dark matter and dark energy, superstring theory v. quantum loop gravity or even some other way of unifying the standard model of particle physics and general relativity. Finally, there is the problem of attaching a coherent interpretation to quantum mechanics’ basic notion of a superposition. Scientism needs to grasp just enough about these problems to show that no matter how things turn out in physics, they won’t make any difference for science’s answers to the persistent questions. All scientism needs for that job is the 2d law of thermodynamics and the repudiation of future causes, current purposes, or past designs. And these were purged from science by the Newtonian revolution in the late 17th century.
3: The Purpose Of The Universe And Other Easy Questions
Ever since Newton physics has ruled out purposes in the physical realm. If the physical facts fix all the facts, however, then in doing so, it rules out purposes altogether, in biology, in human affairs, and in human thought-processes. Showing how it could do so was a tall order. Until Darwin came along things looked pretty good for Kant’s pithy observation that there never would be a Newton for the blade of grass—that physics could not explain living things, human or otherwise, because it couldn’t invoke purpose. But the process that Darwin discovered–random, or rather blind variation, and natural selection, or rather passive environmental filtration–does all the work of explaining the means/ends economy of biological nature that shouts out ‘purpose’ or ‘design’ at us. What Darwin showed was that all of the beautiful suitability of living things to their environment, every case of fit between organism and niche, and all of the intricate meshing of parts into wholes, is just the result of blind causal processes. It’s all just the foresightless play of fermions and bosons producing, in us conspiracy-theorists, the illusion of purpose. Of course, that is no surprise to scientism; if physics fixes all the facts, it could not have turned out any other way. In fact, the mechanism Darwin discovered for building adaptations is the only game in town. Any explanation of the very existence of even the slightest adaptation must be Darwinian. All you need to see this is the 2d law of thermodynamics.
4. Blind Variation And Natural Selection: What A Waste Of Energy!
It is not difficult to show that the process Darwin discovered—the appearance of adaptation through blind variation and environmental filtration—is the inevitable result of the operation of the 2d law of thermodynamics in a universe like ours, filled with numberless atoms and molecules bonding to each other or not in accordance with the laws of chemistry. What is more, it can also be shown that given the 2d law, the only possible source of adaptations in the universe that was originally bereft of them is the process Darwin discovered. When it comes to life, natural selection, it turns out, is the only game in town. There are several reasons for this.
Scientism, and for that matter science too, needs an explanation of adaptation in general that starts from the complete absence of any. Otherwise, we have not explained how even the simplest, most minimal sliver of adaptation could have emerged in a world with zero adaptation. Since the process of adaptational evolution is, unlike the basic processes in physics, a one-way past to future process, it can only be driven by the 2d law of thermodynamics, since that is the source of all irreversible processes in the universe. In a deterministic world, or one asymptotically close to it, ticking over in accordance with laws like Newton’s or their quantum successors, the only way the first, slightest sliver of an adaptation could have emerged is completely randomly—through the good offices of the 2d law (or much, much, much more improbably, some quantum event percolating up to the molecular level). Therefore, the process that produces adaptations had to be energetically expensive, wasteful, inefficient, full of imperfections and useless improvements. The initial adaptation had to be random, and subsequent adaptations built on it had to be wasteful, had to lock-in prior steps, and as they enhanced local order, had to pay for it by moving in directions that accelerated the waste of energy. Only the process of blind and mainly wasteful variation (on this planet mostly produced by wasteful sexual recombination), together with accelerating changes in the environment that does the filtering, could meet these demands. But that process is the one Darwin discovered. Ergo, it’s the only game in town.
5. Nice Nihilism: The Bad News About Morality and The Good News
If there is no purpose to life in general, biological or human for that matter, the question arises whether there is meaning in our individual lives, and if it is not there already, whether we can put it there. One source of meaning on which many have relied is the intrinsic value, in particular the moral value, of human life. People have also sought moral rules, codes, principles which are supposed to distinguish us from merely biological critters whose lives lack (as much) meaning or value (as ours). Besides morality as a source of meaning, value, or purpose, people have looked to consciousness, introspection, self-knowledge as a source of insight into what makes us more than the merely physical facts about us. Scientism must reject all of these straws that people have grasped, and it’s not hard to show why. Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.
There is no room in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts for a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon. So, if scientism is to ground the core morality that every one (save some psychopaths and sociopaths) endorses, as the right morality, it’s going to face a serious explanatory problem. The only way all or most normal humans could have come to share a core morality is through selection on alternative moral codes or systems, a process that resulted in just one winning the evolutionary struggle and becoming “fixed” in the population. If our universally shared moral core were both the one selected for and also the right moral core, then the correlation of being right and being selected for couldn’t be a coincidence. Scientism doesn’t tolerate cosmic coincidences. Either our core morality is an adaptation because it is the right core morality or it’s the right core morality because it’s an adaptation, or it’s not right, but only feels right to us. It’s easy to show that neither of the first two alternatives is right. Just because there is strong selection for a moral norm is no reason to think it right. Think of the adaptational benefits of racist, xenophobic or patriarchal norms. You can’t justify morality by showing its Darwinian pedigree. That way lies the moral disaster of Social Spencerism (better but wrongly known as Social Darwinism). The other alternative—that our moral core was selected for because it was true, correct or right–is an equally far fetched idea. And in part for the same reasons. The process of natural selection is not in general good at filtering for true beliefs, only for ones hitherto convenient for our lines of descent. Think of folk physics, folk biology, and most of all folk psychology. Since natural selection has no foresight, we have no idea whether the moral core we now endorse will hold up, be selected for, over the long-term future of our species, if any.
This nihilistic blow is cushioned by the realization that Darwinian processes operating on our forbearers in the main selected for niceness! The core morality of cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism that was selected for in the environment of hunter-gatherers and early agrarians, continues to dominate our lives and social institutions. We may hope the environment of modern humans has not become different enough eventually to select against niceness. But we can’t invest our moral core with more meaning than this: it was a convenience, not for us as individuals, but for our genes. There is no meaning to be found in that conclusion.
6. Descartes’ Cave
Understanding our own psychological make-up and our thought processes are among the most daunting of problems facing science. That’s why less progress has been made understanding the mind than understanding the rest of the universe. On the other hand, because we have immediate introspective access to our minds, most people think they really understand their minds better than anything else. Descartes got sucked into this delusion 500 years ago and made introspective certainty the foundation of knowledge instead of the most tempting distraction from it.
Neuroscience will eventually enable us to understand the mind by showing us how the brain works. But we already know enough about it to take nothing introspection tells us about the mind on trust. The phenomenon of blindsight—people who don’t have any conscious color experiences can tell the color of a thing—is enough to give us pause about the most apparently certain conclusion introspection insists on: that when you see a color you have a color experience. Then there is the fact, discovered by Libet, that actions are already determined by your brain before you consciously decide to do them! (As for determinism and the denial of real free will, that is a conclusion which, so to speak, goes without saying for scientism.) We have to add to these illusions of the will and sensory experience, robust experimental results which reveal that we actually navigate the world looking through the rear-view mirror! We don’t even see what is in front of our eyes, but continually make guesses about it based on what has worked out in our individual and evolutionary past. Discovering the illusion that we are looking through the windshield in stead of the rear view mirror, along with so much more that neuroscience is uncovering about the brain, reveals that the mind is no more a purpose-driven system than anything else in nature. This is just what scientism leads us to expect. There are no purposes in nature; physics has ruled them out, and Darwin has explained them away.
Perhaps the most profound illusion introspection foists on us is the notion that our thoughts are actually recorded anywhere in the brain at all in the form introspection reports. This has to be the profoundest illusion of all, because neuroscience has been able to show that networks of human brain cells are no more capable of representing facts about the world the way conscious introspection reports than are the neural ganglia of sea slugs! The real challenge for neuroscience is to explain how the brain stores information when it can’t do so in anything like the way introspection tells us it does—in sentences made up in a language of thought.
7. Never Let Your Conscious Be Your Guide
The interior monologue that introspection carries on is a sub-vocal version of the play (the tokening) of noise, ink-marks and pixels that passes for public communication. Like public speech and writing, our introspective stream of consciousness doesn’t record or report what the brain is actually doing, because the brain can’t store or manipulate information in words and sentences of any language, including mentalese. Conscious introspection is not just wrong about sensory experience, it’s no guide to cognition either. Whatever the brain does, it doesn’t operate on beliefs and wants, thoughts and hopes, fears and expectations, insofar as these are supposed to be states that “contain” sentences, and are “about” things, facts, events that are outside of the mind. That the brain no more has original intentionality than anything else does is the hardest illusion to give up, and we probably won’t be able completely to do so till neuroscience really understands the brain. Meanwhile, knowing what is not on the cards, is still enough to put in proper perspective the humanities’ endless absorption with meaning, and the persistent demands for interpretative understanding made in the human sciences.
If linguistic meaning is anything at all it has got to be something like what the philosopher of language Paul Grice discovered about it: at bottom it’s a nested set of beliefs and desires that speakers have about their listeners and themselves. Grice’s own set of conditions necessary and sufficient for linguistic meaning might need to be fine- tuned. But he showed at least to a first approximation what linguistic meaning consists in. Scientism must treat this conclusion as devastating to any attempt to take semantic meaning seriously as a fact about reality. If there literally are no beliefs and desires, because the brain can’t encode information in the form of sentences, then there literally is no such thing as linguistic meaning either. It’s just a useful heuristic device, one with only a highly imperfect grip on what is going on in thought. Consequently, there is no point asking for the real, the true, the actual meaning of a work of art, or the meaning of an agent’s act, still less the meaning of a historical event or epoch. The demand of the interpretive disciplines, that we account for ideas and artifacts, actions and events, in terms of their meanings, is part of the insatiable hunger for stories with plots, narratives, and whodunits that human kind have insisted on since natural selection made us into conspiracy-theorists a half a million years ago or so. That is a taste it will be too hard to shake in everyday life. The fiction best-seller list will always be with us. But we need to move most of the works now on the non-fiction list to their rightful places among the magic realist romances, the historical and biographical novels, and the literary confessions.
Nevertheless, if the mind is the brain (and scientism can’t allow that it is anything else), we have to stop taking consciousness seriously as a source of knowledge or understanding about the mind, or the behavior the brain produces. And we have to stop taking our selves seriously too. We have to realize that there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun, tracking its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us. This self cannot be the whole body, or its brain, and there is no part of either that qualifies for being the self by way of numerical-identity over time. There seems to be only oneway we make sense of the person whose identity endures over time and over bodily change. This way is by positing a concrete but non-spatial entity with a point of view somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears in the middle of our heads. Since physics has excluded the existence of anything concrete but nonspatial, and since physics fixes all the facts, we have to give up this last illusion consciousness foists on us. But of course Scientism can explain away the illusion of an enduring self as one that natural selection imposed on our introspections, along with an accompanying penchant for stories. After all it is pretty clear that they solve a couple of major design problems for anything that has to hang around long enough to leave copies of its genes and protect them while they are growing up.
8. History Is Bunk
Having come this far, scientism has the resources to explain the frustrations and the failure of the social sciences and history, and it provides a firm basis on which to establish reasonable expectations about the prospects for the human sciences, qua sciences.
The nature of meaning and its at-best merely instrumental grasp on real events in our brains and in the world gives scientism manifold reasons not to expect history and the historical versions of the social sciences to provide anything more than diverting stories, post hoc explanations and very short term expectations about the human future. But there is a much deeper reason to be pessimistic about the uses of history: reason enough to conclude that Santayana’s or Churchill’s reasons for taking history seriously—to know the future–will never be borne out.
The process that appears to give history its meanings by making almost everything in human affairs an adaptation for some thing or person or other, is the same as the one that gives so much of biology its appearance of purpose to us. Human history, like natural history is composed of a sequence of events, states, processes and individuals, all of which are adaptations of various sorts. In the human case a few have been contrived by human design (or so introspection misleadingly tells us). But most have arisen through the same process of blind variation and environmental filtration that produces adaptations in the biological realm. Of course the mechanism in the human case rarely involves genetic transmission; what it requires and in fact utilizes is cultural transmission. In human cultural evolution, the relevant selective environment is ever-increasingly other people, other families, other groups, other cultures, societies, their mores, norms, institutions, technologies, etc. Since the environment in which humans operate is largely one created by humans, it changes with accelerating rapidity over time, and almost from the beginning of social history it is driven by arms races.
It’s arms races between people, groups, their institutions and the social practices that parasitize them, that make history bunk as a guide to the future. It does so first of all by making the human target of cultural adaptation a moving one. It is also changing the target all the time, in ways to which the target-tracking adaptations are blind, and to which even the target-bearing subjects are blind. Human history is not the blind leading the blind. It’s the blind wrestling with the blind. It’s a fight in which neither side can see the other side’s current moves clearly, nor reliably predict their next move or its outcome. Human history is a nested series of arms races that never attain more than a temporary and unstable equilibrium.
The obstacle to useful knowledge from history that is posed by the arms race character of human affairs is not avoidable by social science, no matter how scientistic (in the old pejorative sense) it aims to be.
The easy way to see this is to recognize that in all the social sciences we face exactly the same explanatory problem that Darwin faced in biology. Since, as science can show, Darwin’s solution is the only one possible in biology, it must be the only one possible in social science. Almost everything in human affairs has a function—either for everybody, or for some favored class of people, or for a group, an institution that people participate in; or else it is something like religions, which survive by “creating” and adaptation to niches composed of people and their beliefs. If almost everything of interest that has come about in human history and human life has functions or components with functions, then it would be yet another coincidence if this feature–in which everything human shares–was not systematically related to the mechanisms that brought it about and/or keeps it in business. Once purposes are ruled out of nature—biological, social, psychological–there is only one way that something’s functions can bring it about or maintain it, or explain its changes over time: the process that Darwin discovered–blind variation and environmental filtration. And that is a process in which arms races, and the reflexive, nested instability they entrain, makes human sciences only a little less myopic than the history that has been familiar to us since Thucydides.
So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.
©Alex Rosenberg, 2009. No quotation without express permission, please.