The fourth in the series on the Case Against Physicalism, this explores the primary motive behind the strong defense of this belief system. As the evolutionary biologist who discussed the motivation, it also explains why those committed to physicalism are willing to turn a blind eye to its rather obvious problems.
The harsh language of many defenders of physicalism and the disrespect they show to anyone who challenges their position is, we suggested earlier, a sign of insecurity in their position and an understandable growing concern about the loss of cultural dominance. Their approach I’ve suggested is similar to religious fundamentalists that draws their greatest ire. Fellow Medium writer Graham Pemberton provided this quotation by Carl Jung that captures the idea:
“Fanaticism is always a sign of repressed doubt.”
As Karen Armstrong explained, when observing a loss of a once dominant position their favored beliefs held in their culture the most conservative among any group of believers will react with increasing stridence leading in some cases to violence. This human response is the source of what Armstrong defines as fundamentalism.
It is a reaction of fear. It’s relatively easy to understand the fears of religious fundamentalists like today’s radical Islamists and extreme right wing Christians. Finding the loss of belief around them unbearable, they seek out and find those they consider responsible and focus their anger, fear and frustration on them. From this fear and anger it is easy then to slip into dehumanizing these opponents or enemies. Once dehumanized, not only does disrespect come easily, but thoughts about what one might be willing to do to stop them emerge. For the most radical, those thoughts take the form of violence whether it is bombing abortion clinics or crashing airliners into buildings.
Certainly no physicalist advocates have come close to taking such extreme measures. The purchase of billboards advocating atheism by Richard Dawkins does demonstrate the desire to take strong action beyond writing books and articles filled with animus.
The fear of loss of dominance of physicalism in our culture seems to drive some of this overreaction. But there is a much greater fear that serves as the primary driver of not only their positive scientific achievements but also their response to challenges aimed at their beliefs.
Most physicalist scientists and philosophers who have defended physicalism in the public arena have made comments expressing this fear. Perhaps the most famous and widely quoted is the statement by Richard Lewontin. Lewontin is a well-known Harvard evolutionary biologist who has made major contributions to molecular biology and population genetics. He has been a controversial critic of some aspects of neo-Darwinism and argued against chance in evolutionary theory. His self-avowed Marxist views have been criticized by some for influencing his science and certainly contributed to his public opposition to aspects of agriculture he felt favored corporations.
In his famous statement Lewontin clearly reveals both the limits of science and why those limits must be ignored to prevent the horror of religious belief to gain the slightest purchase:
“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Speaking of “just-so” stories, Lewontin criticized the neo-Darwinist explanation for the long necks of giraffes as an example of explanations from science that lack substance. But, in his criticism of neo-Darwinism he was not revealing the slightest sympathy toward the supernatural, external causation or transcendence. Just the opposite. He says we must accept the unbelievable, the unjustifiable, the unexplainable all with a straight face based on the a priori adherence to materialist causes. This commitment is and must be absolute. Why? To keep the Divine Foot outside the door.
This is one of the most bald-faced statements of the necessity for adherence to the dogma of physicalism. Don’t bother me with the facts, my mind is made up.
This identifies the commitment that drives physicalists to make what seem to non-physicalists as some rather far-fetched and unverifiable claims — the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics comes to mind. More than that, it explains the excessively emotional response of the extreme defenders of physicalism against those who challenge it. It explains the offensive disrespect and dehumanization demonstrated against both atheists who veer from the accepted line and religious believers who challenge the validity of the science claims made by these defenders.
There is no point in repeating examples here. But comments about evolutionary biologists Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe, the late Phillip Johnson and others involved with the Discovery Institute certainly come to mind. The physicalist animosity toward the Intelligent Design idea presented by those affiliated with this Institute makes it clear that the fear of external causation (creation) as an alternative to random evolution-only is their primary concern.
The justification for this, included in Lewontin’s statement, is that allowing consideration of any form of external causation is the destruction of science. On one hand, it seems somewhat intuitive. How can we figure out how the machine works if the “ghost” in it keeps popping up? If we revert to explaining what mystifies us by continually referring to the “ghost”? Science is the search for what things are and how they work and if you revert to magic, miracle or God to explain natural phenomena, then you are no longer doing science. But, theists and other believers in transcendence have more than adequately demonstrated that their beliefs need not and do not interfere with their ability to search for the natural causes of what can be observed. In fact, believers have contributed some of the greatest discoveries not just in past days but down to the current day.
The example of Newton is well known. Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, Newton believed in a creator God who was responsible for all that could be observed and known in nature:
“Newton saw God as the masterful creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation.”
Similarly, the co-developer of the idea of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, differed from Darwin in his strong conviction of external causality in the evolutionary process. This did not hinder him from contributing many of the most important ideas and discoveries of evolution and earn him recognition as the father of biogeography.
Many theistic scientists and philosophers have noted that the vast majority of the major scientific advances in the first century and beyond of the Enlightenment were by Christian scientists. What may surprise many is the very high percentage of Nobel prizes in science won by believers of various religions. In fact, only 10.5% of Nobel prizes were awarded to atheists, agnostics and freethinkers from 1901–2000. Christian believers have been awarded 72.5% of Nobel prizes in Chemistry, 63.5% in physics, and 62% in Medicine.
Francis Crick is one of the most famous names in science for his discovery of the double helix model of DNA along with James Watson. Starting his science career in physics, Crick found his real interest to be in biology and was motivated to try to understand the transition from non-living molecules to life. This interest certainly motivated his research in DNA.
Crick was well known for his atheistic beliefs and his strong animosity toward Christianity. But, he ended up his investigations into the natural emergence of life from non-life by appealing to directed panspermia. While he with British origin-of-life theorist Leslie Orgel speculated that the emergence of life from molecules could occur naturally as an exceedingly rare event somewhere in the universe, its spread to viable environments like earth could have been accomplished through the intentions of intelligent agents from some other location.
Is this not an appeal to external causality? Physicalists might argue that an unknown intelligence could be completely within the physicalist worldview as such an intelligence could have evolved through natural processes as Darwinism claims for human existence and all of life. But, it is hard to see how this is much of an improvement over an appeal to a higher intelligence operating with intent and the capability of creating life and matter. In other words, what makes Crick’s “god” better? The ghost just comes from some other planet or universe.
Crick and Orgel’s speculation seems to fall into the category of “something more” or some still mysterious external cause. But Crick has not been subjected to the abuse leveled at the Discovery Institute scientists. One reasonable explanation for this is that the directed panspermia idea is fully compatible with Crick’s outspoken animosity toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. If Crick had posed somewhere along the line that this unknown agent might have come from a place called heaven and might have other vast intelligence and a benevolent spirit evidenced by him/it/she sharing the gift of life chances are he would have been declared a crackpot. As long as he expressed his hatred to religion and kept his speculations within a physical universe, however far out those sources of life might be, he was safely within the physicalists’ acceptance. And of course, by suggesting this, Crick was also kicking the can of the origin of life a long way down the road.
But even those opposing religion or beliefs in God run into the ire of physicalists if they question the basic tenets of physicalism. Steven Pinker’s comment about Thomas Nagel when the atheist philosopher dared to question physicalist dogma in Mind and Cosmos provides an example: ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”
It’s part of the uniqueness of our current culture and the role of science in it that physicalist advocates can take strong philosophical positions, even while denying philosophers their right to comment. Certainly scientists have the right to stake out philosophical positions based on their physicalist commitment, but they need to welcome the exchange of ideas and understand that in the open exchange of views truth can be approached if not found. Certainly many if not most inclined toward physicalism without the level of commitment exhibited by the “true believers” we’ve been referring to are more open to philosophical speculations.
Scientific fact is not wholly objective. It is influenced by the beliefs, values, presuppositions and philosophies of scientists. This is true to a much greater extent than most scientists would admit. One of the best books explaining our current views of physics and how we got here is by Adam Becker called What is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics. The strident and sometimes extreme physicalist defenders have religious-like and philosophical beliefs that motivate both their science and their philosophical statements on what they believe science tells us. Becker establishes that fact firmly.
Animosity toward theistic beliefs and Christianity in particular is a primary motivator for the aggressive defense of physicalism. It is a powerful stimulant for the efforts of some scientists to “prove’’ that no external cause, let alone the Abrahamic creator God, is needed to explain what we observe. The progress made in science is invaluable, but it’s doubtful this commitment is needed for science to advance.
The physicalist commitment or dogma, as Lewontin honestly expressed, requires its defenders too often to defend the indefensible. And as we will see, it also blinds them to possible lines of scientific inquiry that scientists on whose shoulders they stand did not shy away from. Adopting a physicalist pre-supposition can contribute to advancements. Dogmas — either physicalist or anti-physicalst — hinder such advances.