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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Sunday, October 12, 2003

Living in the material world

Professor Keith Ward of Oxford, in his book "In Defence of the Soul" (Oneworld Publishers, Oxford, 1998, pp.118-122) discusses the relationship between science and materialism:

The beginning and necessary basis for scientific objectivism was given by Nietzsche’s momentous declaration of the death of God. The elimination of a spiritual basis from reality at a stroke eliminated purpose and value from objective reality... It left man free to create his own moral values, to take control of his own destiny, to achieve true self-mastery. However, the question that remains is whether this liberation from God and from morality, the bold acceptance that there is no purpose or value which we do not ourselves invent or impose on the world, will not lead to an eventual cynical helplessness in the face of the sub-personal drives of passion and impulse which are the only real causes of change in the world and in ourselves. Where there are no moral constraints or ideals, passion may drive us where it will, unguided and uncaring. So, in Nietzsche, we discern already a tension or ambiguity that permeates scientific objectivism, the tension between an apparently ineradicably wish for human freedom and rational morality, and the realization that human action is determined by sub-personal forces that we can do little or nothing to moderate or control.

This ‘realization’ is, of course, itself a theory that is not, in fact, securely based on the scientific evidence to which it usually appeals. Darwin’s epoch-making theory of natural selection has been broadened by some geneticists, molecular biologists and ethnologists into a general theory that homo sapiens is an accidental result of random mutation, without purpose or any unique significance in nature. Morality is only a mechanism that has been conducive to the survival of certain genetic codes — and incidentally, as it were, to the survival of our species. When we see this, morality, as anything like a set of absolute constraints, will disappear just as surely as religion will, when we see that it is a similar behaviour-controlling invention.

Nevertheless, the very people who propound this theory are constantly appealing to us to accept it precisely because it is reasonable and true, and to construct a ‘fairer’ and less irrational or infantile morality and world-view as a result of our knowledge of this truth. They thus appeal to man’s unique ability to apprehend truth, to exercise reason, and to act on rational and disinterested principles — the very things the theory reduces to nothing but mechanisms of biological imprinting.

To believe in the soul is to believe that man is not just an object, to be studied, experimented upon and scientifically defined and analysed, manipulated or controlled. It is to believe that man is essentially a subject, a centre of consciousness and reason, who transcends all objective analysis, who is always more than can be scientifically defined, predicted or controlled. In his essential subjectivity, man is a subject who has the capacity to be free and responsible — to be guided by moral claims, to determine his own nature by his response to these claims. he can either grow in sensitivity, wisdom and disinterestedness, or he can refuse to do so, and allow himself to be ruled by the drives for power and pleasure. Even that is his free choice, and the absoluteness of the moral claim lies in the fact that it requires commitment to truth, to reason, to justice, disinterestedness and creativity, simply for their own sakes, and not for any pleasure or benefit they may bring to ourselves or to others.

In the world-view of scientific objectivism, there is simply no place for souls, for such mysterious and indefinable things as ‘subjects’. All must be reduced to the status of an object, and all must be explained in terms of general laws and causal mechanisms alone.

In fact, such a programme cannot be consistently carried through. The deep inadequacy of materialist views is shown in the fact that they cannot even be seriously stated without compromising their own premises. They inevitably appeal to reason and truth, and to our ability to apprehend such things and adjust our beliefs accordingly. Thus they transcend their own theories, for the adjustment of belief as a result of conscious apprehension and rational reflection is something that cannot be explained in terms of purely causal mechanisms or general laws, which can only deal with repetitive regularities and measurable, publicly observable data.

Accordingly, the strongest criticism of scientific objectivism is that it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific activity. Science, properly speaking, does not attempt to provide the whole truth about everything. Particular sciences deal with abstract models for measurable and repeatable phenomena. In so far as events in the real world are concrete, non-measurable, new, not publicly observable, not precisely definable or truly intentional, they cannot be enshrined in scientific models, as they are understood at the present time. So, while science can help enormously in building up an accurate picture of the world, it never could provide a total or complete account of how the world is. And working scientists are perfectly aware of that when they leave their laboratories and go home for the evening, into the ‘real world’ again.

But not only is science unable to account completely for what the world is like. It is also not the impartial, value-free enquiry that scientific objectivists often make it out to be. Scientific enquiry is, on the contrary, a value-laden enterprise. Above all, it is committed very fundamentally to the values of impartiality, disinterested pursuit of truth, wherever it leads, rationality, as well as to such semi-aesthetic values as elegance, symmetry simplicity, consistency and coherence. To give people a good training in some scientific discipline is to train them in certain great moral goods. It is to train them in concern for truth, and thus in honesty. It is to train them in impartial investigation, and thus in elementary justice. It is to train them in co-operation and trust within the scientific community, and thus in integrity and understanding. It is totrain them in respect for the facts, in the love of intellectual beauty and in a certain sort of self-discipline and self-renunciation which all good scientific work requires. It is not surprising that scientific objectivists cannot get rid of morality, for they have been trained in disciplines that are deeply and ineradicably moral and founded upon the absolutes of truth, reason and understanding.

The paradox is that such a deeply moral understanding should have given rise to the apparent denial of the uniqueness of the human soul and of the moral absolutes in pursuit of which it finds its proper fulfilment. The real puzzle is to see why this should ever have been so. It seems that somehow, in their minds, morality has got disconnected from truth, and an over-enthusiasm for certain sorts of understanding, which science gives, has
rendered them blind to any other sorts of understanding, such as the understanding of the human self, its action and its responsibility. Perhaps the very simplicity, apparent elegance and potential explanatory power of
materialism, and the way in which the abandonment of purposive explanations has led to undoubted advances in the sciences, has had a dazzling effect, which has blinded them to some of the very features they deploy in their own theories.

I believe Ward's comments point to the real issue at the heart of the debate about origins, which is not ultimately about the value of scientific endeavour or the validity of evolutionary mechanisms, but about the existence of purpose and meaning (or the lack thereof) in our lives, in nature and in the universe... Whether life is merely a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing or whether there are more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in your philosophy?

That last question I particularly address to those scientific materialists who claim that their scientific materialism is not a philosophy...

12:31:00 am