April 15, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Cannot Live with Materialism

What good is scholarship when a layman can see right through it? There’s an unsatisfying emptiness at the heart of modern secular science.

Some scientists just don’t get it. Ponder the scientist who says that everything evolves, and the only truth is that there are no truths. How can such a person not see that the statement is self-refuting? Consider a book review by Anil Ananthaswamy in Nature. Ananthaswamy is certainly a learned man. But in “A physicist probes the metaphysical,” where he “examines Alan Lightman’s reflections on the tensions between empiricism and experience,” he falls right into his own materialistic pit.

As a physicist, he knows there are no absolutes. The idea of a fixed and motionless Earth was disproved in 1851 by the “slow rotation of the plane of a swinging pendulum” — physicist Léon Foucault’s experiment — which could be explained only if the planet, not the pendulum, was rotating. Discoveries of the electron and radioactivity showed us that even atoms, once thought indestructible, were anything but. Next, Albert Einstein demolished Newtonian notions of absolute space and time. Then came quantum mechanics, with its claims of uncertainty and indeterminism.

For anyone looking to science for assurance, the bottom falls out. So, Lightman looks past it. “I am a scientist, but I am not a swinging bob on a string,” he writes.

After a brief account of Lightman’s imaginary dialogue with philosophers and religious figures, Ananthaswamy proceeds to argue that Lightman really is a bob on a string. But he doesn’t see that he is one, too. He speaks as if he has scientific authority to embrace truth with a capital T, when he just said there aren’t any absolutes. Who is he kidding but himself?

Therein lies the book’s Achilles heel: it makes little mention of the research on perception that calls into doubt the ‘truth’ of subjective experiences, no matter how real or exalted they feel. Modern neuroscience tells us that what we perceive is not a bottom-up reconstruction by the brain of what’s out there. Rather, it is the brain’s prediction about the probable causes of sensory inputs.

Someone should tap Anil on the shoulder and say, ‘Pssst… your book review is a subjective experience. It has no truth in it, no matter how exalted it makes you feel.’

Reviewers such as Ananthaswamy routinely employ logic and conscience as if these really are absolute and timeless, to the extent that humans can aspire to them. But as Lightman unsuccessfully tried to convince him, even scientists cannot live with the meaninglessness of materialism. Look at how he dismisses Christian certainty:

“Augustine’s certainties were absolute,” Lightman writes, contrasting these immutable religious ideas — such as the immortal soul — with science’s ever-evolving view. Yet, he argues, science, too, longs for an absolute in a final ‘theory of everything’, and has its article of faith: “that the physical world is a territory of order and logic”.

Lightman’s scope is sweeping, but he doesn’t dig deeply enough. For instance, he expresses disbelief in bardo — the Tibetan Buddhist term signifying the transitory state between death and rebirth. He writes: “I ask for some kind of evidence for all things I believe — even if it is evidence from a personal or transcendent experience. And I insist on evidence for any statements that concern the physical world.” Certainly, there is no ‘evidence’ for bardo, independent of the subjective experiences of Tibetan Buddhists. But Lightman stands by his own subjective experience of perceived ‘oneness’ with something larger than ourselves. A rigorous scientific approach would question the veracity of all subjective experiences, not just those that seem unreasonable at first blush.

Lightman’s failure to see his own preference for subjective experience is what Anil calls the book’s “Achilles heel.” Well, if it’s an Achilles heel for Lightman, it is just as much one for Ananthaswamy. Science collapses into the very subjectivist pit that Lightman desperately sought to avoid.

What makes someone believe or reject science? Quality of recordings (Science Daily). Here’s another case where some scientists just don’t get it. They worry about public doubt about some of their pompous claims. Some ‘researchers’ at Australian National University had an ‘Aha!’ moment. They hypothesized that the reason people reject science is a factor of recording quality. Improve the sound, and people will believe. They ran experiments that seemed to confirm their hypothesis. And yet much of the so-called science (including evolutionary materialism) that the public doubts is not recorded; it’s in print! This shows the shallow thinking behind some experimental science. It’s orthogonal to the real problem. It’s like focusing on the static in a TV program instead of the message. We would say the real problem behind “what makes someone believe or reject science” is the content, not the medium.

My path to contentment (Science Magazine). This is a poignant short autobiography by Edmond Sanganyado, a poor man from Zimbabwe who aspired to be a scientist. He made his family and his tribe proud, becoming the first in his village to get a PhD. But did it lead to a contented life? He found himself disillusioned with the processes in Big Science that led to a rat race to get ahead. Try as he did, he missed out on prestigious positions he longed for. He was haunted by a fear of failure, even though people back home respected him. His balloon deflated when an ideal position in Europe came and went; he didn’t get the job.

With that, my desire to be respected and valued by top researchers died. I was done trying to join the elite. After all, I couldn’t change the grad school I attended or the ranking of the journals in which I had published. And I remembered the words of my mental health counselor in grad school, when the stress of writing a dissertation, job hunting, and trying to be there for my young family had driven me into depression: “Edmond, you do not need documented validation for you to know your worth.” At that time, the advice didn’t make sense. After all, I needed good publications to graduate. I needed better publications to get a postdoc and ultimately a tenured position. But now, it finally sank in. The rat race had to stop. I resolved that what mattered most was my commitment and diligence rather than what others thought of my scientific contributions. I could do great science at a small, unknown university. So I decided to take the position in China.

I’ve been here a year now. Navigating the language and cultural barriers has been an enjoyable adventure. Focusing on what excites me rather than trying to fulfill the expectations of academia has been liberating. And whenever I find myself slipping back into old ways of thinking, I remember my wife’s question: “How many orphaned kids from an unknown farming town graduated from high school and have an undergrad degree or a Ph.D.?” With that, I am proud of what I have accomplished, and that is enough.

Did anyone think to ask Dr Sanganyado whether contentment can be found in a test tube? Did anyone ask him if contentment is a product of mindless evolution? Did anyone ask him if validation, longing, respect, liberation, and pride of accomplishment are mere subjective experiences with no connection to reality? Learning from Ananthaswamy might have sent the poor PhD from Zimbabwe back into depression, and despair.

Did anyone think to teach Dr Sanganyado the Christian secret of contentment? “But godliness with contentment is great gain,  for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (I Timothy 6:6-7). The pursuit of godliness must come prior to the pursuit of the other things. The Apostle Paul’s circumstances swayed between respect and great need. But with godliness as his priority, he was able to say, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).

Leave a Reply