Saturday, March 12, 2016

Materialist Science as a Model Obsolescence

I'm reading Richard Dawkins' 1976 classic The Selfish Gene. In that era, Darwin's theory of evolution was 117 years old. On The Origin of Species marked a revolution in our understanding of the fundamentals of biology, how life organized and developed over eons. Of course, a molecular description of genetics would require another century to fully mature (Watson and Crick's modeling of DNA), but between Greek and Roman notions of heritage, Gregor Mendel's experiments in plant inheritance, and Darwin's theory of selection, we got a lot worked out. There were competing theories of speciation and inheritance, but in the end one model explained things better than the others.

As I proceeded in my reading, I found myself reading related material, you know, looking things up and cross examining Dawkins' work. In his Wikipedia article I learned that Dawkins' is an ethologist--someone who studies animal behavior under natural conditions--and is an outgrowth of the scientific orientation of naturalists like Darwin. I won't go into Dawkins' thesis in detail here, since I'm mostly interested in this particular book in terms of its historical significance. Simply put, he argued for the primacy of the material of inheritance as the driver of evolutionary success. That is: Genes are (most of our) destiny. The "selfish" bit? He admits that he felt it made a punchy title that gets across his argument that genes are themselves the basic unit of evolutionary success and that such success is "self-ish", and he didn't mean this in a teleological way.

I actually don't find this notion in conflict with my own views of biology (mostly).

As I looked up one thing after another during my reading of Selfish and came across Rupert Sheldrake, who happens to be close in age to Dawkins', and a link to whose work you'll find in my webpage under "My Influences". 

This made for fun reading, since Sheldrake is considered by some (like the authors of his Wikipedia article) to specialize in "the paranormal" although Dr. Sheldrake seems content to consider himself a biologist. I say fun, because the authors of that article don't assign Sheldrake to "nonsense" and only a little bit to "pseudoscience" (unlike the Homeopathy entry, which is heartily given both labels). It was fun because one gets a glimpse of the controversy surrounding the work of Sheldrake, the back and forth between the Materialists and the New Vitalists.

Vitalism is a very old notion in biology and in medicine in particular. It's the notion that we are more than just material. Clerics and mystics called this The Soul. But others had various names for it, and the idea of vitalism doesn't depend on religion for its proposed existence. Vitalism is a key piece of homeopathy: without it, homeopathy doesn't exist. Vitalism also fits into a host of other medical systems and techniques such as acupuncture, faith healing, Ayurveda, healing touch and others. To keep it simple, think of vitalism as describing a kind if energy. In Chinese medicine, for example, it is called "qi"(chi). 

So vitalism kind of died out in the 20th century. Materialist explanations were just too successful as our methods and instrumentation became more and more powerful. Examples include advanced experimental methodologies, statistics, electron microscopes, functional MRI, and so on. 
However, all of this was still within the scope of Thomas Kuhn's "normal science", that realm of socially acceptable scientific investigation and natural philosophy that forms the box we're all supposed to remain within. It is a model that is essentially "materialist", meaning that phenomena can be explained through the agency of material acting on other material. Put another way, it means that the universe can be explained exclusively through a model that relies on atomic and chemical reactions, and known energies, such as electromagnetic energy, gravity, and radioactivity.

I mentioned functional MRI earlier. Today it's a technology that is used to explore brain function in neuroscience. Results from such study have been interpreted to mean that all consciousness arises from the brain, and that volition--origination of thought, free will--may be illusory. The late neuropsychologist Klaus Grawe wrote that a thought arises before we are aware we have thought it. More pointedly: we believe we think of things but in reality our brain generates thoughts and we believe we originated those thoughts. Having a thought precedes being able to will it.
If that's really the case, then there is no free will--all thought is kind of predestined. Alternatively, we're mostly pretty random beings, stuck in our behaviors, which seem to arise willy-nilly from our neurons. Admittedly, this model would explain a lot of things about people, but it does mean that our self-awareness is an illusion, our will is not our will at all. It's connected to something, but not to our intention.

And here's a bit: it's a materialist view of nature. It fits very well into normal science, although it seems rather bleak. To be fair, Grawe's book, Neuropsychotherapy: How the Neurosciences Inform Effective Psychotherapy, was certainly an effort to bring hope to people suffering from mental health problems! Still, it seems rather bleak that we have no essential will and that everything still devolves to the "substance".

So, back to Dawkins and Sheldrake. Dawkins and others subscribe to a logical positivist view of the world which argues that there is a single, objective reality, and that reality is materialistic (which includes the known, currently measurable energies I summarized above). Sheldrake and others--and I include myself here--argue that too many loose ends have accumulated. These loose ends are not described by the current model. Sheldrake's "morphogenic field" gives form to organisms, and subtly influences phenotype. Homeopathy, I argue, is a "weak" medicine, but one that gets at a subtle and as-yet-unmeasured field that helps to regulate living organisms. However, like judo, a small effort in just the right way can have large effects.

The late Martha Rogers was a nurse-theorist who proposed that humans are energy beings, that our material selves are temporary manifestations of our selves, and that death itself is a passage to a higher "vibrational" state. In graduate school, I reviewed the experimental evidence for her theory and found it wanting. To some this solidifies the materialist view. I would argue that it simply means that Rogers' theory is not accurate in its present form. Loose ends pile up in the box of normal science. Those loose ends call for alternative ways of explaining our world. The hypotheses that attempt to explain them are many: subtle energies, psi energy, morphogenic fields, and so on. Natural experiments abound: Reiki, homeopathy, acupuncture, and many people exploring "paranormal" phenomena like extrasensory perception, out of body travel, and so on.

Why this seems to make the Materialists angry is a matter I will attempt in my next installment. 

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