Neuroscience & Mind Icon Neuroscience & Mind
Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Nature, as Defined Today, Cannot Be All There Is 

Denyse O'Leary

nature

Naturalists (who say nature is all there is) have recently sought to jimmy the rules around evidence to accommodate their strong belief that a multiverse really exists. Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel offers a glimpse of the future they propose, in a piece at Forbes titled “The multiverse is inevitable and we’re living in it”:

What is the Multiverse, then? It may go well beyond physics, and be the first physically motivated “metaphysics” we’ve ever encountered. For the first time, we’re understanding the limits of what our Universe can teach us. There is information we need, but that we’ll never obtain, in order to elevate this into the realm of testable science. Until then, we can predict, but neither verify nor refute, the fact that our Universe is just one small part of a far grander realm: the Multiverse.

If Siegel’s multiverse is not testable, it is not falsifiable either. Nonetheless, our acceptance is demanded (“inevitable”). And nature is, as always, silent.

Yes, science is on the move. It is slowly morphing from observing nature to embodying naturalism. Naturalism has become science’s narrative. A demand for evidence can be read as “anti-science,” as bias against the narrators.

Once the naturalist narrative in cosmology is accepted, it drifts downstream, seeping into every cultural pool. Values that created science, such as objectivity, are suspect. Consciousness begins to seem not only a pardonable illusion but possibly a negative quality, perhaps cultural discrimination. Something called science will surely survive post-modernism, just as something called art survives in many academies, but its relationship to classical literature is merely linear.

Is the triumph of post-modern naturalism inevitable? We are told that few philosophers today would wish to be considered non-naturalists. That’s true, but it is not the whole truth. For example, even though Darwinism is naturalism’s biology, growing numbers of biologists today can safely be known as non-Darwinists — a development that was not expected two decades ago. So if we think the direction is reversible in principle, we might begin by assembling reasons for doubt, perhaps starting with questions. Three come to mind:

1. Why should a system that results in absurdities be considered correct? Why should that fact not count against its likelihood?

Discussing a new theory that “suggests many worlds have existed, side-by-side, since the beginning of time,” an article in Cosmos announces that “our sense of absurdity evolved to help us scratch a living on the savannahs of Africa. ‘The Universe is not obliged to conform to it.’” Few even notice that our sense of absurdity has been tacitly decoupled in this passage from our ability to survive as humans. Most life forms survive without any higher intellect at all and humans who could not grasp absurdity or illogic (and still survived) have never been shown to exist — except in naturalist evolution theory.

Popular culture, taking the hint, accepts as outcomes of science such claims as that plankton could evolve minds (New Atlantis), rocks have minds, (New York Times Magazine), consciousness can emerge from a computer because “Miracles are always possible,” and, counterfactually, consciousness is no different from our ability to digest (BBC). As outer space merges with inner space, we don’t expect science to make sense of evidence so much as to present us with intriguing, absurd propositions based on chance encounters with it. Few would respond, as physicist Rob Sheldon does, that if biological mechanisms accounted for consciousness, we could breed talking mice. That’s too obvious to be science now.

The great physicists who considered consciousness to be immaterial did not usually doubt evolution in principle. But they saw science as a project to understand nature, not as the narrative of an identity group after understanding is no longer possible. If we doubt naturalism, we should follow their example. We need not accept naturalism’s absurdities on the ground that we did not evolve so as to understand them.

2. Why should we trust a system that demands that we give up reason?

Granted, the universe could be absurd. But only a rational mind can be trusted to consider it so. Thus, when we hear that evolution bred a sense of reality out of us (NPR), our perceptions of an independent reality must be illusions (Quanta), there is no “I” in “me,” (Sam Harris), our experiences of being and having a body are “‘controlled hallucinations’ of a very distinctive kind” (Aeon), and our minds evolved to thwart us (Idiot Brain, 2016), we should grasp the main point: This steady spill of absurdities and casuistries from highbrow science is not due to any major new science discovery. It celebrates the bankruptcy of a naturalism that is well protected by intellectual gatekeepers, irrespective of any achievements.

Naturalism destroyed the solvency of science, but many will continue to invest confidently as a free, blind choice. Bankruptcies are not usually felt immediately. A naturalist can trust his reason, considering that it proves useful time and again. He can still believe that it is not a guide to reality because there is no ultimate reality that it conforms to. But the intellectual ground for his utilitarianism is shaky. As science historian Michael Flannery notes, “Arguing for the ‘usefulness’ of something indicates pragmatism, but neither of the leading pragmatists I can think of (i.e., Charles Sanders Pierce and William James) would have supported the rank scientism espoused by Dawkins and his ilk.” Because they knew it wouldn’t work in the long run.

3. Naturalism is hitting a number of barriers. It is committed to propositions not supported by evidence.

The multiverse is accepted without evidence, untestable and unfalsifiable, as an act of sheer faith in naturalism. But so is a random origin of life and origin of consciousness.

In his new book, Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It, evolutionary biologist J. Scott Turner grasps the origin-of-life problem:

In a nutshell, this is where the crisis of biology looms, because our prevailing modes of thinking about life — the triumphant confluence of mechanism, materialism, and atomism that has made the twentieth century a golden age for biology — do not deal well with the concept of agency: that ineffable striving of living things to become something.

Yes, what caused the first chemical swishes to strive to live? And all their descendants to strive to go on living? As Turner shows, modern biology was deliberately structured to ignore the problem, which is now becoming an “impending crisis.” Every month a different theory is aired, but the theories do not add up to a body of knowledge. For now they needn’t add up, so long as every naturalist academic is granted 15 minutes of fame. But eventually, credibility will peter out.

The current state of consciousness studies suggests that the field at present is not best described as science. An illustration will suffice: In a New York Times article, “The Mind Messing with the Mind,” George Johnson describes a common outcome of one of the best attested effects in medicine, the placebo effect (people get better because they think they will): “A paper in the British Medical Journal in December reported that cognitive behavioral therapy — a means of coaxing people into changing the way they think — is as effective as Prozac or Zoloft in treating major depression.”

The explanation from naturalist neuroscience? “‘The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it,’ Dr. Graziano said. And it calls the magic consciousness.” So the “machine” “thinks” and thinks “mistakenly”? That, of course, isn’t science; it is storytelling in defense of a poorly thought out metaphysical point of view. But many scientists today have agreed to call it science, thereby undermining their own credibility among thoughtful people.

There are no dates on the promissory note of naturalism, which obviates evaluation of progress. However, something unexpected has happened in recent decades: Brain imaging, which should have offered a fully naturalist interpretation of human consciousness, has become a hostile witness:

  • Human self-awareness can exist without a cerebral cortex. “The disease [herpes simplex] destroyed most of Roger’s insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), all brain regions thought to be essential for self-awareness. About 10 percent of his insula remains and only one percent of his ACC.” Despite the brain damage, he still has a sense of self. And even some hydrancephalic children “give every appearance of genuine consciousness” (Scientific American, 2012).
  • The ability to split brains surgically (usually to treat otherwise intractable epilepsy) sheds little light on consciousness. A split brain does not lead to split consciousness after all. Are split-brain people really two half-persons? No, and that deepens the “mystery of consciousness,” says cognitive psychologist and physicist Yaïr Pinto at Aeon: “We’ve got to admit that split-brain patients feel and behave normally. If a split-brain patient walks into the room, you would not notice anything unusual. And they themselves claim to be completely unchanged, other than being rid of terrible epileptic seizures. If the person was really split, this wouldn’t be true.”
  • Consciousness has been detected after clinical death: “A growing body of research is charting the processes that occur after death, suggesting that human consciousness doesn’t immediately wink out after the heart stops, experts say” (LiveScience, 2017). Just what that means is unclear though it certainly implies a fuzzier relationship between mind and brain than naturalists would like. There are also odd stories from the literature, such as the patient whose brain persisted in firing off delta signals ten minutes after heart stoppage (2017).

So then where are we? Physicist Adam Frank tells us at Aeon that, regrettably, materialism can’t explain the mind. He admits, “The materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground.” But Michael Graziano tells us not to worry because “Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct.” Philosopher Alva Noë does worry: “For some time now, I’ve been skeptical about the neuroscience of consciousness. Not so much because I doubt that consciousness is affected by neural states and processes, but because of the persistent tendency on the part of some neuroscientists to think of consciousness itself as a neural phenomenon.” But they do that because it is the only acceptable approach to their job today. They are permitted to wring their hands politely over the distressing state of affairs that results as long as they address no serious alternatives, except to rule them offside.

What will follow? Several thousand more “breakthrough” papers in conflict with each other. Grants are got, careers are built, and academic politics can forestall any serious evaluation of the direction. From a naturalist perspective, that is actually a success.

So why should a metaphysic like naturalism rule if evidence slowly accumulates against it?

One reason is confidence in confidence. The naturalists expected to win, not to face questions or stubborn opposition among educated people while they deal with frustrating findings. That possibly accounts for authoritarianism. A Nature paper from 2012 and a PNAS paper from 2017 warn that education is not the answer because many well-educated people doubt establishment views. In fact, more education leads to more doubt. A recent British study found that significant numbers of atheists were not naturalists. One widely touted solution has been to discourage discussion of the issues in educational settings, which does not seem to have helped naturalists much.

Another reason is that naturalism accords well with nihilistic popular culture, if not with the evidence. Jim Carrey summed it up best in a recent interview: “There is no me, there’s just things happening” and “You’ve got to admit, this is completely meaningless.” The entertainment industry was mildly perturbed, but it needn’t be. That’s precisely what naturalists say from the lectern; Mr. Carrey simply listened. And the naturalists’ problem is, no matter what happens to science, they have nothing to move on to or back down to.

Photo credit: Free-Photos, via Pixabay.