Sunday, February 26, 2012

James Le Fanu and materialism

Rupert Sheldrake is a man who believes in telepathic dogs. As one might expect from a man who believes in telepathic dogs, he finds reason to complain about the modern scientific method, and its materialistic presuppositions. In fact, he's written a book, called The Science Delusion, containing both a critique of modern science, and an exposition of his theory of 'morphic resonance'. Sheldrake proposes that we are surrounded by as-yet undetected fields, which store our memories, and provide guiding nudges to the formation of new biological organisms.

Such notions are perhaps best confined to the pages of a Terry Pratchett novel, but James Le Fanu provides further unintended amusement with an approbatory review in The Spectator.

Le Fanu states that the "law of the conservation of matter and a foundational principal of physics...However, pose it as a question 'Is the total amount of matter and energy always the same?' and the answer is clearly no in ways that transcend materialist assumptions. The compelling evidence for the creation of the universe ab initio at the moment of the Big Bang required there to be suddenly a lot more of both."

In other words, Le Fanu claims that the Big Bang violates materialism. So let's remind ourselves of what materialism, or 'physicalism' as it's now commonly dubbed, amounts to:

"Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on, or is necessitated by, the physical...Of course, physicalists don't deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don't seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical." (Physicalism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

So is the Big Bang, or the purported violation of the conservation of mass-energy, inconsistent with physicalism? Does either suggest that non-physical things exist? No, clearly not. Materialism is consistent with any cosmological scenario, and is not dependent upon the conservation of mass-energy, any more than it is dependent upon the conservation of angular momentum.

Big Bang cosmology proposes that the universe has existed for a finite time. Other cosmological theories propose that our universe is simply a finite bubble in a larger universe which has existed for an infinite time. There are two logical possibilities vis-a-vis materialism:

(1) Everything which exists is physical, and has existed for a finite time.

(2) Everything which exists is physical, and has existed for an infinite time.

Fred Hoyle and his colleagues proposed an alternative to Big Bang cosmology in 1948, in which our expanding universe has existed for an infinite time, but in which mass-energy is continuously created throughout space to maintain a constant energy density. Does Hoyle's scenario violate materialism any more than Big Bang cosmology? Again, clearly not.

Le Fanu, however, is capable of getting the wrong end of more than one stick, and proceeds to argue that the existence of dark matter in cosmology also undermines materialism:

"It has also emerged that the distribution of galaxies and continued expansion of the universe requires there to be vastly more of both matter and energy than can be observed...This might perhaps be relevant to similarly invisible but apparently real 'energetic' phenomena whose existence is denied by modern science — notably the 'spark of life' that so unambiguously distinguishes the animate from the inanimate."

Here, Le Fanu has misunderstood what dark matter is proposed to be. Hypothetical dark matter interacts very weakly with light, neither emitting nor absorbing it, and is therefore impossible to discern directly by means of telescopic observation. However, whilst it is, in this sense, invisible, it is not undetectable. In fact, it is the gravitational interaction of dark matter which is held to be responsible for the clumping of visible matter in the form of galaxies and galaxy clusters. Le Fanu has, quite cleverly, used an ambiguity in the term observable, to imply that invisible means undetectable, and therefore unphysical.

Le Fanu's claim that there is a 'spark of life', which "so unambiguously distinguishes the animate from the inanimate," returns us firmly to the philosophy of vitalism, and it is no surprise that he also has a problem with neuroscientific accounts of memory, asking "How do we reconcile the fixity of memory over decades with the constant turnover of the neurotransmitter chemicals in the neuronal synapses?"

Indeed, and Le Fanu might also ask how we can reconcile the fixity of the information in computer memory with the constant turnover of electrons in the semiconductor circuits. Presumably every laptop must interact with hidden magic fields to preserve the contents of its ROM-BIOS.

Sheldrake's book has also received positive reviews, on similar anti-materialistic grounds, from Mary Midgley, and Bryan Appleyard.

The fundamental problem these authors have with science is that they wish to form their beliefs first, on aesthetic or cultural grounds, and then selectively look for reasons or evidence afterwards. The scientific method rather works the other way round, and here I can only endorse the sentiments expressed by philosophers James Ladyman and Don Ross:

"What most impresses us about science is...the way in which its institutional organization selects for rationality and collective epistemic progress in the activities of a species that seems, in its more natural institutional settings, strongly disposed to superstition and fearful conservatism," (Everything Must Go, p61).

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