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Copyright © 1998 Neil Broom
All right reserved.
A New Shape of "Divinity"
The modern high-tech world is a towering monument standing as a tribute to the remarkable intellectual and creative potential of the human mind. But it is not just a monument; it is also an enormous power that is relentlessly reshaping and transforming almost every aspect of our daily lives. This power is derived from a mode of human thought and activity and from a way of investigating the natural world that had its birth some four centuries ago—the modern scientific method.
The philosophy of materialism, or naturalism, largely dominates the modern scientific interpretation of the natural world. Put simply, this conceptual model states that the cosmos is to be explained in terms of material processes alone and that lifeless matter and energy are all that make up ultimate reality. In this view humankind, instead of occupying a special place, is just one of many equally insignificant cogs within the vast, impersonal cosmic machine.
Philosophical materialism sees humanity as an unplanned artifact, a fluke biological byproduct of a wholly material sequence of events. The relentless grinding away of an unfeeling cosmos is the sole cause of our existence. Humans are merely one particulararrangement of molecules in a universe containing many other equally improbable arrangements. In this system of thought the play of entirely impersonal processes has ended up producing persons.
By contrast, the religious interpretation of the cosmos asserts that ultimate reality transcends the purely material, that the universe is expressive of a great mind—the mind of God. As the layers of complexity comprising the material world are progressively peeled away, we draw closer to a dimension that transcends the purely material.
Theism—one particular religious view—asserts even more than the existence of Something behind and beyond the material world; it also claims that the world is constantly sustained and nurtured by this transcendent dimension. (I am, of course, using the word material to include both nonliving and living things.) Logically it follows that if the material world really does depend for its existence on this higher influence, then any attempt by the materalist to construct a coherent science of the natural world while denying this nonmaterial dimension is doomed to failure.
In a nutshell this book is about the abject failure of scientific materialism to account for the phenomenon of life because of its unyielding belief that reality is, ultimately, lifeless matter.
Science Redefines Humanity
Scientific materialism represents a momentous shift in human thought. Herbert Simon, computer theorist, psychologist and Nobel prize winner, comments thus:
The definition of man's uniqueness has always formed the kernel of his cosmological and ethical systems. With Copernicus and Galileo, he ceased to be the species located at the centre of the universe, attended by sun and stars. With Darwin, he ceased to be the species created and specially endowed by God with soul and reason. With Freud, he ceased to be the species whose behaviour was—potentially—governable by rational mind. As we begin to produce mechanisms that think and learn, he has ceased to be the species uniquely capable of complex, intelligent manipulation of his environment. What the computer and the progress in artificial intelligence challenge is an ethic that rests on man's apartness from the rest of nature. An alternative ethic, of course, views man as a part of nature, governed by natural law, subject to the forces of gravity and the demands of his body. The debate about artificial intelligence and the simulation of man's thinking is, in considerable part, a confrontation of these two views of man's place in the universe.
What Simon seems to be saying is that modern science has fundamentally redefined human significance within the cosmos. We should therefore ask what it is about science that qualifies it to offer such a radically different interpretation of our humanness. To answer this question we must first seek to understand the ethos and culture within which the practitioners of science operate.
The Inner Sanctum of Science
The sheer scale of science's achievements seems to engender a strong humanistic optimism within its ranks. Science is spectacularly successful in the way it works. A problem is confronted; a solution is found; a new insight is revealed; gradually a more coherent and complete picture begins to emerge; and finally there comes (quite often, anyway) a big breakthrough. After months and sometimes years of painstaking experimentation and detective work in which many fragments of evidence are systematically collected and analyzed, a new and unifying scientific principle is established.
At the center of all this action is the human achiever—the scientist, the person whose very name may become synonymous with the truth as revealed by science. Philosopher John Passmore comments, "Participation in the scientific enterprise generates, of itself, a confidence in human potentialities, contrasting, very strikingly, with the emphasis on human limitations, human failure, so characteristic of the greatest literature, the comic as much as the tragic." Furthermore the scientist, when engaged in research, is able to set up a mini-universe and be a kind of master of ceremonies within it. The scientist can personally define the boundaries of a particular investigation, excluding those aspects that might be beyond his or her immediate capabilities as a scientist and thereby improving the chances of achieving a positive outcome.
The boundaries within which the scientist works often mean that the results obtained may have limited relevance to the real world we experience. Reality is often vastly more complex than anything the scientist can hope to simulate in an experiment or represent in a model. Despite these limitations, scientists are nearly always able to see some kind of fruit for their labors—they commonly are seen to be achievers, solvers of mysteries, revealers of truth.
Scientists are also real people driven by motives that may not always be consistent with the selfless pursuit of truth. There is the human ego, attracted by the fame and fortune that often go with a dramatic discovery. There is the chance to have a satisfying and stimulating career. And for a chosen few there is the prospect of a Nobel prize or the like (see figure 1.1). This we might call the inner sanctum of the scientist's world.
Aristocrats and High Priests
Passmore has coined the word aristoscience to describe the most prestigious scientific disciplines—scientific disciplines that might, for example, examine a particular set of phenomena separated from their wider and more meaningful context in the actual world. Scientists analyze these phenomena in great depth in terms of their fundamental makeup and then describe or model them in the language of complex mathematics.
This method of breaking down a highly complex system or structure into simpler, more manageable portions and then reconstructing it in a virtual, mathematical form has proved enormously valuable to science. In particular it has enabled scientists to make predictions concerning the behavior of complex systems that are not easily investigated by actual experimentation. Models that attempt to predict climatic change associated with rising global temperatures clearly fall into this category. It is very difficult to conduct controlled experiments on the weather!
A fascinating example of how a sophisticated model can be created using the reduction-reconstruction method is shown in figure 1.2. It is in fact a "mathematical eye." A group of research engineers at the University of Auckland has developed this virtual three-dimensional eye that can move—its pupil can dilate and contract, and the eyelids blink. Even the eyelashes and surrounding facial skin are generated mathematically. This computer-based graphical realism is achieved by varying the parameters in the complex mathematical relationships used to formulate the model.
However, we must always remember that even the most sophisticated model will only provide a partial glimpse of how the actual living organ functions. The many layers of complexity that comprise the biological world will always surpass the scientists' ability to express this reality in the relatively crude language of mathematics. In the next chapter I will explore further this issue of biological complexity using the familiar example of plant photosynthesis. Then in chapter five we will return to the topic of scientific models to examine not only their strengths but also their potential to mislead us into thinking that a rigorous understanding of biological reality is achievable with the tools of science.
While I do not claim membership in the elite club of aristoscientists, my own area of research—joint-tissue biomechanics and arthritis research—illustrates rather nicely another fundamental limitation of science. In reality it is a person's whole joint that malfunctions, becoming painful, diseased or arthritic. But whole joints are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to investigate in a rigorous scientific sense. However, by removing some part of the joint structure (in my own laboratory we are concerned with the disease-prone cartilage and underlying bone tissues), it is possible to carry out detailed studies of these tissues and thus gain some understanding of their individual properties.
So one approach, which might attempt to examine the whole joint, has its feet planted firmly in the real world but would yield results having limited scientific respectability. A second approach involves the scientist taking bits of tissue out of their meaningful place within the complete functioning joint and devising a rather artificial set of tests or experiments in the laboratory (a kind of mini-universe) so that scientifically respectable, quantitative results can be obtained. This second approach may have its head in the clouds but stands a much greater chance of gracing the pages of important scientific journals. And if it does, it will further enhance the scientist's reputation, add to his or her list of research publications and improve prospects of promotion and job security.
There is another, perhaps less obvious but more disturbing consequence of this kind of science. Although real-world problems may not always be solved, the scientist is perceived by society to be the solver of mysteries, the person with the power to unravel, manipulate and control the forces of nature. Theologian-philosopher Langdon Gilkey draws an interesting parallel between the religious priest (see figure 1.3) and the aristoscientist:
Greater knowledge always means greater power. Thus, whether this be their intention or not, the 'knowers' in any society bequeath to their culture ever-new powers to transform its life. It is for this reason that knowers, religious or scientific, are valued as well as revered by their society, the priest's robes and the scientist's white coat signifying much the same social role as the knower of significant secrets and so the doer of all-important deeds.
But Gilkey goes even further than this. He sees science, by its power to control the mysterious forces of nature, as usurping the traditional role of religion in society.
Whenever knowledge and control have such a sacral character—that is, whenever they promise salvation from what we take to be our most fundamental ills—they dominate the culture that forms itself around them. As religion had dominated the civilization of the medieval period, so science has dominated ours. It has determined or shaped education, molded our sense of human excellence, grounded our hopes for the future, and established itself as the queen of all the other disciplines of learning.
Science in our modern technological world has come to symbolize the power of the human mind to rise above all prior conditioning and arrive at objective truth. Edward Goldsmith sees the scientific community as a kind of secular priesthood with its "holy" writings expressed in an esoteric language often completely unintelligible to the layperson but creating an image of mystery and sanctity (see figure 1.4). He writes of those in the "sacred" community of aristoscientists:
They have defined truth in such a way that they alone have access to it, for it must be established by a set of scientific rituals which only they can perform: only they possess the necessary scientific skills; only they are equipped with the requisite scientific technology; only they have access to the holy places where, in order to be valid, these rituals must be performed.
Goldsmith's appraisal is provocative and perhaps somewhat extreme, but it does serve as a timely warning to science to tread carefully, to admit to its own fundamental limitations and not to yield to the temptation of pronouncing on matters that lie beyond its legitimate reach. The nature of science as a human activity means that it can never have the final say on the really big questions of life. We shall be returning to this important issue in due course.
Mechanistic Mongers of Gloom
In the secular industrialized world it is now widely held that the knowledge gained from science is pure, unembellished truth. This "truth" stands in contrast to the subjective view of truth derived, for example, from religion or from various forms of spiritual experience. Science alone, the materialist will argue, gives us the brute facts about the cosmos and about ourselves within the natural order of things. Science allows us to see things as they really are—or so we are told.
It is in this spirit of supposed scientific objectivity that Nobel laureate Jacques Monod insists we face up to the stark fact of human existence trapped within a cosmos that is ultimately meaningless and amoral: "Man must at last wake out of his millenary dream; and in doing so, wake to his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. Now does he at last realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world. A world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes." And then Monod declares, "The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance." These haunting words serve to illustrate a philosophy that is widely articulated, particularly in our affluent technocracies where the fruits of modern science are so powerfully evident. It assumes that science has shown that life in all its diversity has been produced by a mechanistic, chance-driven process that, by its very definition, destroys any ultimate basis for meaning and purpose within the universe. The implication is that science, by virtue of its supposedly unique ability to reveal the hard facts concerning our existence, can provide answers to those questions that religion was once asked to address.
Within this materialistic framework of thought there is no God, there is no moral reference point, there is no higher purpose to be searched for and to be expressed in our lives. Rather, we need to face the "truth." We need to discard the fairy-tale idea of a divinity who has given humanity a sense of moral and eternal purpose. Then, it is argued, we will find clearly revealed only the relentless throb of a vast, impersonal, law-bound cosmic machine that, having no mind itself, certainly did not have us in mind.
In much the same humanistic spirit, astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg illustrates this faith many scientists have in their supposed ability to convey to us the brute truth about human existence. In the epilogue to his book The First Three Minutes he writes:
It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable—fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country, from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy?
But we must ask, Is the science that Steven Weinberg practices equipped to pronounce on the supposed pointlessness of the universe? If the universe really is so "overwhelmingly hostile," why are we proliferating at the rate of some 90 million persons per year? Evidence clearly confronting us in at least one tiny corner of the cosmos—namely, planet Earth—indicates that conditions are incredibly encouraging of life.
So has Weinberg's picture of an ultimately pointless cosmos and an equally farcical human existence within that cosmos, or Monod's claim that we have emerged by chance out of the unfeeling immensity of the universe, actually been derived with any certainty from their own scientific investigations? I would argue, no. For to draw such far-reaching, pessimistic conclusions, one would need to have experienced the cosmos as a whole. It could never be derived, as Paul Roubiczek notes, "from the content of a particular experience."
For human beings confined within one tiny part of the cosmos to assert that the cosmos is futile, however clever their scientific observations might be, is surely the height of creaturely arrogance. It expresses more their unerring faith in an ideology of materialism than a true insight into the ultimate nature and purpose of our existence. Human finitude will always prevent us from knowing all the facts about the universe without some form of transcendent, or "outside," revelation. Therefore, dogmatic pronouncements by scientists concerning the supposed meaninglessness of life arise more from their own materialistic presuppositions than from a spirit of genuine, scientific open-mindedness.
In fact, I would venture to say that even from our scientific understanding of the living world it can be reasonably argued that we have not emerged by chance and that life is not merely the outcome of some cosmic lottery. The universe is not as unfeeling and impersonal as many modern materialists would have us believe. In the ensuing chapters we will look closely at evidence derived from science suggesting rather strongly that there is a profoundly personal dimension that undergirds and imparts meaning and purpose to the natural world.
Excerpted from How Blind is the Watchmaker? by Neil Broom Copyright © 1998 by Neil Broom. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of figures|
|1||Birth of an idea||1|
|2||A new shape of 'Divinity'||33|
|3||The business of science||43|
|4||What is life?||63|
|5||Birth of life: a popular view||93|
|6||Serious science and life's origin||103|
|7||'Trade secrets' of origin-of-life science||129|
|8||Games of chance and the evolution of life||139|
|9||The crown jewel of mechanistic science||147|
|10||Neo-Darwinism: its struggle for survival||159|
|11||How natural is natural selection?||177|
|12||Biology and destiny||185|