Thursday, July 25, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (13): The Human Mystery and The Limits of Scientific Materialism

At the MPS conference, we had spent most of the week talking about how science--particularly, evolutionary science--explains human social life.  But at the end of the week--the afternoon of June 27th--we heard lectures that raised questions about the limits of such scientific explanations.  We were invited to wonder whether human life in the cosmos is mysterious in ways that point beyond scientific materialism to some immaterial or spiritual reality.

This began with James Le Fanu talking about "The Problem with Science."  He is a medical doctor, a newspaper columnist, and a historian of science and medicine in England.  He is the author of Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (2009), which seemed to be the basis for his lecture.  He has summarized much of his argument in an article for Prospect magazine.

As suggested by the title of that book, his theme was "the mystery of ourselves" as transcending the materialist explanations of modern science.  I was reminded of similar thoughts expressed by people like Walker Percy, Leon Kass, and Wendell Berry.

Le Fanu argued that in recent years we have seen what John Horgan called "the end of science":  modern science has answered many of the "big questions," but the "big questions" that remain unanswered are beyond science.  For example, debates in cosmology raise questions about how the universe arose from nothing, or whether there are multiple universes.  The completion of the human genome project has not deciphered the "Book of Life," as was originally hoped, because the complexity of genes interacting with one another, with epigenetic factors, and with the physical and social environments of the organism has proven too complex to explain precisely.  Similarly, neuroscience shows us that everything is connected to everything else, even in the simplest tasks, and we cannot explain how or where all this information is brought together into a unified sense of consciousness.  Indeed, our introspective experience of self-consciousness is itself beyond neuroscience because it is not observable except as a private experience.

Many neuroscientists assume that brain = mind.  But there is no warrant for this assumption because the human mind is not fully explicable in purely material terms.  Our mental and moral experiences of free will, consciousness, and self-identity cannot be reductively explained as mechanistic products of neural activity.  Human thought and imagination are in principle immaterial and thus not explainable through the materialist naturalism of science.

Some people have wondered whether Le Fanu is a creationist who denies evolution.  He has written a blog post in which he explains that while he accepts Darwin's theory of evolution, he thinks it cannot fully explain those mental, moral, and spiritual capacities of human beings that make them unique.  He accepts much of the evidence for evolution by natural selection--such as the adaptive radiation of Darwin's finches in the Galapagos.  But he doubts that this can explain everything about living beings, especially human beings.

As I listened to Le Fanu, I was reminded of David Lack.  Le Fanu was lecturing at the Charles Darwin Conference Center in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on Wreck Bay in the island of San Cristobal.  In December 14, 1938, Lack landed on Wreck Bay to begin his famous study of "Darwin's finches," which would provide evidence for Darwin's theory, evidence that Le Fanu accepts.  But some years later, Lack wrote a book--Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief--in which he argued that although evolution was a scientific fact, it could not explain everything about human beings: "Science has not accounted for morality, truth, beauty, individual responsibility or self-awareness, and many people hold that, from its nature, it can never do so, in which case a valid and central part of human experience lies outside science" (114).

I am not sure, however, that Le Fanu really does accept the truth of evolution, as Lack did, because I have noticed that the speech Le Fanu gave at the MPS conference was also given in Seattle and broadcast as a podcast sponsored by the Discovery Institute, which is the leading promoter of "intelligent design theory."  If Le Fanu is advancing "intelligent design" as superior to evolutionary science, he should have indicated that at the MPS conference.  If he had done that, he would then have had to explain the content of his theory:  Exactly when, where, and how did the Intelligent Designer create all forms of life?  Like the advocates of intelligent design, Le Fanu employs a purely negative style of argumentation--criticizing scientific materialism as inadequate for explaining things but offering no alternative explanatory framework.

At the end of Why Us? Le Fanu calls for a "new paradigm" in science.  Although he is vague about what this would be, he is clear that it would be devoted to "restoring man to his pedestal" and to "a renewed interest in and sympathy for religion" (258-59).  From this would emerge a new respect for intelligent design reasoning, he suggests, and he cites Michael Behe as the best theorist of intelligent design.  He thinks the clearest evidence for intelligent design is the genetic code: "just as it requires human intelligence to produce anything with a high information content, whether books or dictionaries, music scores or compact discs, so by analogy it would be reasonable to infer that it would require a 'higher intelligence' to formulate the genetic code" (259).  (In my debates with Behe and other intelligent design theorists, I have pointed to the equivocation in this anthropomorphic analogy: although human intelligent design is known by ordinary experience, divine intelligent design is not.)  He then concludes the book by pointing to Marx, Freud, and Darwin as the three great proponents of scientific materialism, and then predicting that just as Marx and Freud have been proven wrong, so will Darwin.

This clearly identifies Le Fanu as a proponent of intelligent design theory.  But in his MPS lecture, he was silent about this.

Le Fanu's speech was engaging for many in the MPS audience, but some people became increasingly agitated as he spoke.  Peter Whybrow was particularly irritated.

In the question period, Whybrow assumed a mocking tone in praising Le Fanu for his rhetorical skills in moving his audience, and he said that in the future he would adopt some of Le Fanu's tricks for persuading an audience.  Le Fanu answered: "Thank you for those condescending remarks."

This testy exchange manifested the emotional depth of the debate over whether Darwinian science can fully explain human experience.  This pointed ahead to the final two lectures of the conference on the evolution of religion.

Some of my posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here., here., and here.

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