Mar 31 2012

Flexible Thought Vs. the Big Mouth in the Sky: The Science Delusion By Rupert Sheldrake

“God is a word, and the argument ends there” – Bill Callahan

I’m up to the tits with this whole God vs. Science thing. It should have been done when Reed Richards stuck the ultimate nullifier in Galactus’s face, but noooo. The transcendental God, who was never more than a beard for the Holy Roman Empire, is still hanging round playgrounds like a seedy vagrant, whispering into the kiddies’ ears about creationism and original sin, just to make sure they know their place.

The problem is, science has fallen for the ruse, and is still attacking religion as if it were a belief system, when it’s no more than the use of myth and ritual to express the ethos of the community –  which community is supposed  not to do that, exactly? — and by doing so, it’s just given Nobodaddy the credibility he wanted.

Time for a new theology of science then.

Into the breach strides Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist best-beloved of the British public for his defense of telepathic dogs, though  also for crowdsourcing evidence for his pet theory of morphic resonance. His new book, The Science Delusion, is one part summary upgrade on his previous works, one part survey of the philsophy of science, and the whole of it a challenge to materialist thinking.

Sheldrake’s key idea, morphic resonance, is best understood as an inverted Platonism that operates on Darwinistic principles. In order for it to work, it has to posit some kind of infranatural layer of reality that logs information and in which patterns tend to establish themselves in the same way that habits do for peoople. In short, the universe learns how to be who it is just like we do, through trial and error and laziness. As above, so below!

Because we’ve grown up with a Platonic vision of an orderly universe (which then transformed under Deism into a mechanistic order), we continue to unconsciously think of this as “laws” of physics as if they were handed down by somebody who knew what they were doing, and with cellular automata ticking along robotically to assemble the great machine that is the world. This is one of the great assumptions Sheldrake wants us to question:

“Most scientists are unconscious of the myths, allegories and assumptions that shape their social roles and political power. These beliefs are implicit rather than explicit. But they are more powerful because they are so habitual. If they are unconscious, they cannot be questioned; and in so far as they are collective, shared by the scientific community, there is no incentive to question them.”

This system of unconscious assumptions he calls materialism, and he has no qualms about conflating the two meanings of the word to create an ethical view of our dominant paradigm as something as soulless, reactive and impersonal as an AK-47 – or as a financial instrument. Gordon Gecko and Isaac Newton merge to become a phildickian demiurge that constrains our view of the world (and ourselves in the world), and preventing us from seeing the whole as an organic living system.

So this is essentially an Integral Studies Guide to the Sciences (where Integral Studies is the reintroduction of Eastern philosophy into Western practice with an eye to holistic synthesis rather than analytic disection); intended to challenge scientific orthodoxy to take personality and interconnectedness wholly on board instead of excluding it.

In an elegant and beguiling prose, Sheldrake touches lightly on the philosophy of science since the Enlightenment, detailing what he takes to be overlooked lacunae: Purpose, the fixity of nature in mechanics and law, the morphogenetic field as final cause, the panpsychism of nature, and the possibility of the non-locality of memory and mind.

And as anyone familiar with Sheldrake’s prior work might expect, there are concerns with treating the universe itself as a singular personal and conscious supraorganism evolving into itself; with various strange consciousness effects (such as telepathy and out of body experiences), and various seemingly strange results (such as unconnected crystals learning the trick of a new formation simultaneously), all of which are supposed to demonstrate morphic resonance at work.

Each of these issues is raised as a confrontation with the metaphor of mechanism, and the heartlessness presumed to keep it company; and an encouragement to imaginative involvement in his own crowdsourcing experiments; so in that spirit, I thought I’d engage wth a couple three of them head on myself.

Is Matter Unconscious? (And Does Consciousness Matter?)

I think Sheldrake tends to do materialism a disservice with the presumption that materialism necessarily denies purpose, consciousness, etc.; whereas it simply excludes them from consideration in order to clarify the model (though this very well may amount to the same thing in the scientist’s habits of mind).

I take his point that this exclusion in itself may lead us into false consciousness, but Sheldrake seems unaware that the strategy of deferring, as it were, the existential science until we have the tools to do the job  –  well, that’s beginning to pay off in, say, Antonio Damasio’s work on neurobiology, which doesn’t shy away from humanistic questions of meeaning.

In Looking for Spinoza, Damasio produces a convincing narrative about consciousness without having to make the mistake of thinking it a noun, and thereby multiply entities. Once we remember Sartre’s thought that we cannot be conscious without being conscious of something, the issue of consciousness pretty much resolves itself.

What we call consciousness is being conscious of being conscious. To put it another way, non-conscious organisms produce elementary models of reality. The maggot only knows light, and to move away from it, the cat knows complex stimuli and complex responses, but sentient beings not only create a virtual reality in their head, they populate that virtual reality with a self-representation, which is attached to various feelings and emotions.

We have no difficulty understanding that self pity is the same as the simple pity (a basic emotional stimulus-response) raised to the level of representation and reflexively redirected. Why do we make any more of a deal about self-consciousness? (Well, because we want to be God’s special snowflake, obviously, but let the rhetorical question stand.)

Sheldrake wants us to take the extra leap of saying that panpsychism is the actual third way between materialism and dualism; but I think rather that having understood the processes of emergence, we can more easily recognize panpsychism as a consequence of emergence; that is, sure, the entire universe is made of the same stuff, and so are we, and at different levels of complexity, that stuff finds new ways to express its nature.

We don’t have to resort to the pathetic fallacy so much as recognize that agency and experience happen at all the levels, and sentient beings just do agency and experience at this level. But at the same time, Schopenhauer’s idea that everything is driven by will, and Dawkin’s anthropomorphic metaphor of the selfish gene can perhaps be combined into the simpler idea that everything wants something. We are all always falling into the void of desire, and subatomic particles are also looking for their missing piece. Everything’s gotta eat!

In the last analysis, Sheldrake points out that either everything’s conscious, or everything’s an automaton. And while this is true, if we remember that there are degrees of consciousness, and that the brain generates consciousness from matter, the simple point is that we either treat the world personally or we don’t. Usually both, in my experience.

Is Nature Purposeless?

To cut to the chase, Sheldrake recasts Aristotle’s teleology in terms of strange attractors; it’s somewhat appealing, although the claim that attractors are ideal rather than material is a bit dodgy. What seems obvious to me is that the attractor is an output of material forces, a model whereby we can see how a combination of least-effort behaviours in nonlinear relationships add up. That is, at the endpoint, we can see the self of self-organization (can you see what it is yet?), but before that, we only see the separate microprocesses doing their thing.

It’s fair to say that the process whereby complex systems find the conformation of minimum energy, but I’m not sure we have to posit an existent morphogenetic field to describe it. Many-worlds theory would suggest that there’s an intrinsic quantum computation across all possible universes taking place, which collapses into the least-effort pattern  — which we then perceive in hindsight as an attractor shape calling the processes into being, when it’s just (!) the multiverse running the numbers.

And here is somewhere that I think Sheldrake’s own imagination falls short, and he falls into dogmatism himself. Many of the issues of considering the universe as a living system fall away when we think of the multiverse as a quantum computer delivering least-effort results. What if lifelike properties are simply an emergent output of an infinite improbability drive? Do we need to project purpose onto an eventuality system at play?

Sheldrake does, because he wants to preserve the idea of a pot of form at the end of the sacred rainbow, drawing us on into its self-becoming. But in this I find the old Victorian “revolt of the soul against the intellect” (as Yeats said about Blake). That’s a fair position as poetry, as we strive to find our place – and indeed ourselves – in the midst of this mess. But I don’t know that it amounts to an alternative vision of how to do science.

Are Minds Confined to Brains?

Sheldrake says:“We see things outside our bodies; we do not experience images inside our heads.”

Well, yes, but no. What we actually experience is the representation of ourself within the representation of the world that we keep inside our heads. This much is obvious to anyone who ever had a dream… well, maybe once it’s been pointed out to them. This is the real miracle of the world, that it contains seven billion worlds inside seven billion heads, and each man’s death kills a whole world.

There’s a simple mistake Sheldrake makes here: what we project with our extended mind is projected within our virtual reality. What’s more interesting here, to me, is what telepathy actually might be: a kind of game in which two or more minds somehow synch to create a shared virtual reality. Stoners and acid heads learn this trick, as did the witnesses of the Miracle of Fatima (which certainly had no objective correlate, but by God everyone saw the sun move!).

Sheldrake notes this as perceptual guided activity, and cites Arva Noë: ‘We are out of our heads. We are in the world and of it. We are patterns of active engagement with fluid boundaries and changing components. We are distributed.”

And well, yes; but we don’t need to posit a neoplatonic essence to achieve distributed mind or accept that our minds are in and out of each other’s pocket universes all the time. That is, after all, how poetry works.

And of course our minds extend in time and space; that’s what the forebrain is there for, to generate predicted outcomes. If we’re good at the rhythms of life — or, like William Blake, have especially vivid visual imaginations — we’ll get more hits than most people. And the point isn’t just that we only remember the times we’re right; it’s that the universe itself is in the business of probabilistically generating outcomes.

All Shall Be Well, And All Shall Be Well…

So in the death, Sheldrake doesn’t quite pull off being the Jesus of a new theosophy so much as look like its Moses, cutting himself down a couple steps short of the promised land. The vision of a universal consciousness, whatever that might be, remains unrealized. Then again, that’s as it should be – he’s only asking us to take it into consideration as a possibility that might spur our imaginations on to a more holistic framework for, if not science per se, then how we engage with what we learn from science.

On the other hand, I find it peculiar that he rails against Dawkins, calling him “a vitalist in molecular clothing” for using “anthropocentric metaphors”. The way I see it, what Sheldrake needs in order to cross into Israel is to take that language at its word, to honour as the metaphor as hidden intention and recognize panpsychism in the unconscious urgency and will of all life (and that we’re personally part of it no more and no less than the selfish genes themselves).

“From a materialist point of view, nonmaterial inheritance is impossible, except for cultural inheritance”, Sheldrake says, urging us to think outside the box. “Everyone agrees that cultural inheritance – say, through language – involves a transfer of information that is not genetic. But all other forms of inheritance must be material: there is no other possibility.”

But why would we not recognize language and culture as material? And is it actually the case that it’s the mathematical mechanists who are Platonic? Or are they, as I see it, the heir to Aristotle, while it’s the idea of morphogenetic fields carries the burden of Ideal form made manifest?

Yearning for an invisible substrate that guarantees morphic resonance strikes me as a kind of reflexively-blind Platonism-in-all-but-name that prevents the emergence of a true postmaterialist theology. What we could hope to grasp is that we might be local negentropic agents of co-creation precisely through our unwitting involvement-through-desire in the multiverse’s constant screen refresh. Well, it makes as much sense as anything these days.

I’m inclined to think the same thing of morphogenetic fields as I do about “God”. If an entity we might recognize as God should prove to exist, it would have to be identical to the universe itself (that is, be the universe considered as a supraorganism we might reasonably treat as personal).

As below, so above. The morphogenetic field is the organism itself in its development, bootstrapping itself into self-organized existence from the genetic base, like the Escher sketch of the hand drawing the hand drawing the hand.

If we want to think of the universe as a personal supraorganism, whether as Dr. Strange’s best bud Eternity or the Qaballah’s Adam Qadmon, best to remember the inner meaning of the incarnation (as we pass the time between the Spring equinox and Easter): that the inner principle of the man is of one substance with the man himself, and requiring of no external hand to guide it. And all manner of things shall be well-formed, according to the principles of their self-organization.

Morphogenesis, from organism to supraorganism, is a word; and the argument ends there.

Dec 20 2011

Positively Eschatology

In the 1850’s Auguste Comte (famous now as the father of sociology) worked out an elaborate system of religious observance based on humanism, positivism, and rational scientific progress.

If it was just a phase, it would be Comte’s last.  He died in 1857 — but his influential ideas about the application of reason to cultural and religious matters would soon lead to “Temples of Humanity” built in France and Brazil.

It was all founded on Science and Progress and Liberty — but to manage our humanism, this new religion did indeed install priests, prayers, saints (including Isaac Newton), and even a manner of “crossing” oneself that stimulated the phrenological points for Good Works (see John Gray’s Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, Faber & Faber, 2003, for much more — and details on how the very many flavors of fundamentalism issue directly from idealistic moderns).

The Church of Virus (apparently still active at least as late as May, 2011) dresses up similar notions in religious trappings – but does so in blatantly and unapologetically transhuman style.  How many cults (we could name a few: Raelism, Scientology, Heaven’s Gate) take it as their mandate to re-educate people in the name of some sloppy imagining of “scientific progress”?  The trend has worked down deep into many mainstream religious groups as well.  The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, in “reaching the world for Christ,” is still pushing a modernist agenda to convert the pagan and prepare the world for unity under their own “rational theology” and systematic doctrines of salvation. 

But the “social physics” of Comte’s Positivist religion sits somehow simultaneously in two opposing camps.  On the one hand, it is clearly a religion (rites, churches, an eye toward “progress” through the spread of values).  But on the other, it is anti-religious, or at least atheistic.  The principles were that Humanity itself, not gods, would develop and push rational moral systems across the earth to all peoples — and all of it would be based on science, order, and reason rather than inherited beliefs, myths, or superstitions.

In a different time and place, and under different economic pressures, Positivism could have become something a lot more like Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The New Atheists are fond of citing religion (crusades, jihad) as a cause for blood and terror; their critics are fond of citing the terrors atheists brought down on millions under Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.  Both sides miss the point.  The point is that violent ideology causes blood and terror, and that violent ideology can be religious, anti-religious, or psuedo-religious.

The eschatology of transhumanism, past militant statements, by transhumanists, and the overly simplistic dismissal of history (dull, dirty, dumb) in favor of a cartoonishly idealized future (fun, sexy, smart — hey, no war & no worries!) should give us all pause. It sounds familiar.

It sounds like crows calling.

More Links

Positivist Church of Brazil

John Gray

Oct 07 2011

Against “Consensus”

Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions that differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.
Albert Einstein

You hear the word Consensus a lot these days. It’s used over and over all over the web as a means to try and end discussion on any number of topics, and to give the person using the word a sense of “superiority” for “defending consensus.” It’s been used to justify Wikipedia editing wars, with “Defenders of Consensus” preventing “Crackpot Loons” from modifying articles with information on nearly any topic that “Consensus” says is “wrong.” It’s justified over and over with such defenses as: “Well, a majority can’t be wrong!” or “Most scientists agree” or “Consensus is a vital tool of science!”….

The problem is that history shows repeatedly that Consensus is meaningless in science. Ptolemaic “epicycles” were “consensus” for centuries, but two scientists, both labeled “Crackpot” by their peers, proved “consensus” wrong. Copernicus had a play written about him called “Morosophus” or the “Foolish Sage.” Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and forced to “recant” as a heretic. Both were brilliant men, but they dared to “go against Consensus” and were mocked and ridiculed for it. But despite this, they still proved “Consensus” wrong.  Louis Pasteur also faced such mockery, with his “germ theory” when “Consensus” believed in “spontaneous generation”, yet every child today is taught the germ theory of disease, and not that rancid meat turns into maggots. Antonj Van Leeunhoek faced it for his “little beasties” until his microscope proved their existence beyond a doubt. Even Albert Einstein faced such opposition in his early years before his theories became “accepted fact” (despite still being a “theory”)

I could probably make a book listing the examples in history of the “giants” of modern science and how each of them had to “go against consensus” in order to get their theories examined, and the battles that were fought before the evidence was accepted, but that’s not really my point. It’s that historically, “Consensus” has never been a “help” to science, but is instead a “hindrance.”

Why? Because science is about asking questions, while consensus is about demanding that you not question. It’s a blind appeal to “authority” in order to silence questions, a blunt force demand that you cease thinking and accept the status quo. It has nothing to do with “science” and everything to do with enforcing the “will of the herd.” It is a demand that you “BELIEVE!!!!!!!” instead of an appeal to logic and evidence.

Yet everywhere you go online, regardless of the branch of science under discussion, you will be exhorted to “accept Consensus” as incontrovertible fact, regardless of evidence for or against. If you just so happen to be in possession of evidence of any sort that disagrees with “consensus,” it’s not even possible to have a rational conversation and discuss said evidence. It is automatically dismissed as “crackpottery” or “craziness” or “idiocy,” and for having dared to examine it you might find yourself called a “denier,” “insane,” or “superstitious.” In almost every case, you will find staunch refusal to examine said evidence or even worse, a statement like “Well I checked Google and consensus says such and such, so you are (insert insult here).”

I’ve often asked people why they have such a hard time discussing differing opinions without resorting to juvenile name calling; why two rational people can’t rationally discuss differing conclusions based on examination of differing evidence without there usually being one who will question the sanity of the other for daring to have a different opinion. I’ve yet to get a good answer.

Why is this? Well, recent research has revealed that people don’t actually act rationally as a general rule. No matter what they might like to think, when faced with a “challenge” to a deeply held belief, the normal instinct is rejection. What that belief is tends to be pretty meaningless, but when faced with evidence that their beliefs are not as “true” as they believe they are, sticking your hands over your ears and going “lalalalalalala” is an automatic first response. It’s instinctive to reject the possibility that you might be wrong, and it makes no difference if you are discussing a religious belief, a political one, or a scientific one. The “appeal to consensus” is thus “I agree with these people, and so do a lot of others, so that must mean I am right and this evidence being presented is thus wrong.”

You might have heard of a recent story about neutrinos traveling faster than light? The OPERA project is one of the most precise experiments of its kind, with numerous scientists checking and double checking all the data and equipment for accuracy. We’re talking as close to fementometers as they can get levels of precision. And before releasing the report, they exhausted every single other possible cause before asking the world community “prove us wrong!” They want to be proven wrong because their experiment “goes against Consensus” that states that nothing can travel faster than light. They don’t want their evidence to be right because it means that consensus is wrong. They released their findings with a plea to the science community to find “where they went wrong;” rather than saying “this evidence indicates the possibility that the reigning theory may not be complete” despite the fact that even Einstein himself was unsatisfied with his theories and considered them incomplete.

And what was the immediate result? Well on “Next Big Future” where I read the article first, the replies were filled with “they must have been stupid” responses… you know, the kind where the competence of the scientists in question is challenged rather than the results. These are CERN researchers. I have every confidence in their competency, and doubt that such basic errors as “they measured wrong” or “they didn’t take into account the curve of the earth”, or “they didn’t account for vibration” were responsible for their readings. Even Fermilab stated that it would take a “year or two” to upgrade their instruments to the sensitivity of the CERN ones and re-run the experiment, which indicates that the OPERA team had the best, most precise, most accurate instruments available. But rather than examine this data, it was nearly universally dismissed as “wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong!!” because “Consensus” said it had to be wrong. (one exception I’ve found is here.

This is not science. It is, indeed, the furthest thing from science imaginable.

It is however, a pattern seen commonly in another universal human institution —Religion. “Consensus says” is no different than “God says” in its basic semantics. It’s an appeal to “higher authority” to make an argument seem to not just have a weight of evidence on one’s side, but “moral force” — in essence making anyone who “questions the faith” a heretic who deserves nothing but ridicule and derision and hatred lest he “poison the minds” of the faithful with things like evidence and lead them “astray” from the “one true path.” Indeed, in a recent “discussion” I was told this flat out: “Because you are a blogger/writer and your words have impact, You can potentially skew the opinions of thousands of people (millions if you somehow became a famous figure) and make life very difficult for those of us who are actually trying to be constructive about climate change.”

The “variation” of my views on climate change from consensus is probably less than a few percent. The chief difference is that after nearly 20 years of reading evidence from all sides in the “debate,” I have failed to reach the conclusion that “man” is the single *sole* cause of climate change as there is sufficient evidence that said changes were occurring prior to the “Industrial Revolution” to conclude it is a natural event made significantly worse by mankind and initially caused by mechanisms other than “carbon pollution”. But because “consensus” says that man alone is responsible, I was branded a heretic. I had to be “corrected” lest I spread a dissenting opinion to consensus, however slight.

It’s not my job to “make life easy” by not asking questions or doing my own research and reaching my own conclusions. As a rational human being, it’s my duty to ask questions, find answers, and if those answers later prove incorrect, or flawed, it’s my duty to reject them and find new answers. I have always gone where the evidence leads, not where consensus demands I follow. As a believer in “Science” I cannot “accept things on faith” because a “higher authority” tells me too. And that includes even “Consensus.” I freely admit that I might reach a wrong conclusion, but if I do so based on evidence, and if I have to change my conclusions when different evidence is discovered, such is life in a universe we are still learning to understand.

But please, don’t simply take my word for it. Because as a rational human being, it’s up to you to do your own research and seek your own conclusions. If you simply accept my opinion, then you are simply joining another “consensus.” If you refuse to simply blindly accept “consensus says” as a reason, but demand evidence, study said  evidence, and draw your own conclusions from said evidence, then like Isaac Newton, you can say “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Even Albert agrees:
He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.
Albert Einstein