Some sketchy thoughts on the development of science, having been immersed in discussions on related things over the last couple of days and in doing the preparatory readings over the last few weeks. The last couple of days have been extraordinarily intellectually fruitful and personally helpful, and I’ve probably had more interesting conversations on things I am ‘professionally’ interested in than I normally would in a few months – on evolutionary mechanisms, scientific research programmes, materialism, theism vs naturalism, properly basic beliefs, moral intuitions, the problem of evil, Old Testament ethics, career possibilities, the history of science, cosmology, epigenetics, evo-devo, the interpretation of Genesis, whether the design argument is an argument from analogy, apologetics, etc etc – and that list was mostly just from one conversation.
The standard story in our (I’m assuming commonality between us, whoever you are, here, but let’s just run with it) culture regarding the development of science is one of the triumph of naturalism and materialism (good) over theism and superstition (bad). “Science succeeds and religion recedes: welcome to the 21st Century, loser.” [As with everything on this blog, that quote is my intellectual property, by the way]. I’m more and more convinced that the story is faced with too many counter-examples to work.
Firstly, materialism, the idea that the universe is fundamentally just matter in motion, is an old doctrine, popular with some ancient Greek thinkers (if ‘medieval’ is a derogatory term, ‘ancient Greek’ should be a swear-word, but things don’t work like that). It fell out of favour however, in light of the arguments of people such as Plato and Aristotle, who made space for a transcendent realm as a place which was not only in existence, but was necessary to explain the features of our world. Yay Plato – I don’t agree with him a lot, but I am a fan.
Materialism (in a highly modified way, heavily influenced by Christian theism) came back into favour with the rise of modern science, but it is unclear that it was purely for scientific reasons that this occurred.
The science-associated decline of superstition, or polytheistic, animistic or pantheistic-type divine interactions with the world (pantheism is perhaps different, but think it has some similarities in this context), or ‘a spirit under every rock’ thinking is actually entirely harmonious with Christian theism (yay Science), at least as much as it is harmonious with naturalism. Christianity is not a superstitious religion in this sense, and the death of superstition is by no means the death of God. Much of the Old Testament is a strongly-worded polemic against such thinking.
Modern science is I suspect less materialistic than science of a couple of centuries ago – modern physics is interested in energy and forces and waves and regular laws and mathematics (including, it seems, (arguably) aesthetic virtues such as elegance and simplicity as criteria of theory-choice), and large amounts of empty space and the anthropic principle and dark matter, maybe the multiverse, and perhaps at the bottom of it all we have strings – certainly not just matter in (chaotic) motion! To an old-school materialist wouldn’t this all sound like bizarre pseudo-spiritual hokum? “Where’d my nice tidy solid atoms crashing into each other go??” In case that wasn’t enough, quantum mechanics’ introduction of indeterminism and cosmology’s inclusion of the initial singularity should both be, let’s say, just a little disconcerting for a classical deterministic materialist.
I’ve heard it suggested that just as biology became more and more enchanted with reductionism and/or physicalism, physics was moving away from it. If the trend continued, we might end up with biologists convinced that the world is all reducible down to cold hard molecules, while physicists think it’s about dancing strings and beautiful mathematics with indeterministic quantum effects influenced by observers’ consciousness (I speak very loosely here of course).
Modern science has not removed irreducible sense-experience, consciousness or even free-will from reality – in fact, I suspect that as a human project it depends on these very things.
Despite what I mentioned before about biologists’ love of reductionism (I was thinking more of earlier decades, when molecular biology was a new thing and people assumed that molecules were what everything is really about in some fundamental way), modern biology is arguably (in fact almost certainly, in a technical sense) non-reductionistic, concerned (minimally) with ‘functions’, ‘systems biology’, ‘cellular machines’, ‘metabolic cycles’, ‘signalling networks’, and ‘information’/’codes’ in molecular biology, and in sub-fields dealing with the larger scale aspects of life and ecosystems it includes evolutionary explanations (again interested in functions) and systems-level approaches to ecological interactions. Not just ‘matter in motion’. Of course, non-reductionism or ’emergence’ or something of the sort might be fully compatible with naturalism/physicalism – or it may not, it’s an interesting question I’d like to do more work on. It’s certainly not what earlier materialists were talking about.
Now, to change tack a bit, another note that comes to mind, which I may develop later.
How does design-influenced scientific thinking differ from naturalistic science, one may ask? Perhaps it doesn’t differ much in some areas of biology, insofar as the Darwinian programme in biology has taken over earlier teleology-friendly science and ‘rechristened’ it (illegitimately I suspect, for various reasons, but you can wait for my eventually forthcoming little booklet for the details) as a child of naturalism. I’m a fan of adoption, but this is one counter-example – in this case “get your own kid!”, I’m inclined to say. Under naturalistic Darwinism, people expect the biological world to look like it was designed pretty well for the jobs that various sub-features of it do – Nature, after all, has weeded out the failures and left us with the good stuff, so no wonder organisms look pretty well suited to Nature. Under some design-influenced view (say a teleological account of evolution), we’d expect pretty much the same thing. This is no failure of a design-sympathetic account, but it does make it hard to sell such an account as beneficial for science – unless of course it turns out that the alternative account doesn’t have all of the goods that it claims it does – something I take to be a fascinating open question.
On that heresy, I leave you. Feel free to ask me any questions on what I’ve written – I can’t guarantee I’ll answer in much detail, but you’re most welcome to try me.