More Than Machines

I recommend The New Story of Science by Robert Augros and George Stanciu. It was first published in 1984, and that makes it prescient, given the more recent debates between theism and atheism.


The central premise is that there is an Old Story of science, and a New Story. The Old Story is tied to Newtonian physics, and is captured in the philosophy of materialism: that all of reality is that which is physical. Thus, matter precedes mind; there is no God or any other supernatural reality; and all of existence is reducible to particles of matter in motion. This view further implies determinism: that if enough variables could be known, everything would be predictable; we therefore live in a mechanistic universe, and we are essentially biological machines.


The New Story is tied to more recent scientific discoveries, including relativity, the Big Bang, and quantum mechanics. It turns out that matter in motion does not explain everything; indeed the universe is in some sense participatory. What we do and don’t do matters. Human consciousness cannot be explained by biology only; the mind is not merely the brain; and Mind necessarily precedes matter.


The authors start with a chapter on Matter, the basis for the Old Story. The Old Story commenced in the late Renaissance. The universe came to be seen more and more as a mechanistic outworking of contingent causes, and human consciousness was deemphasized as merely a medium for deliberating matter. More recently, however, with the advent of discoveries revealing quantum philosophical realities,


“The observer is elevated form ‘observer’ to ‘participator.’ What philosophy suggested in times past, the central feature of quantum mechanics tells us today with impressive force. In some strange sense this is a participatory universe.”


(Quoting physicist John Wheeler).


If matter and the forces acting on it are no longer thought to be the exclusive understanding of reality – the Old Story – what is the New? It is a return to recognition of consciousness as an ultimate reality and not merely derivative from matter. In short, “the world of sensation depends on the world of physics and chemistry but is not reducible to it.” Among philosophers not trapped in the mechanistic worldview, there has been a renewed interest in the curious features of consciousness which bespeak a mind distinct from the brain: its continuity, its unity, its outward-directed exercise of will (sometimes referred to as “intentionality”), and its unceasing questioning of why and what and how. “Although the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neuronal activity, awareness itself does not.”


I was especially gratified to see the space given to beauty, as substantive evidence of a universe more complex and interesting than that presented by mechanistic materialism. In the New Story, beauty is not an accidental artifact of matter, it in fact leads to truth. Beauty is independently significant, not just derivative of matter, nor wholly with the subjective purview of man. An important proposition of the New Story is that beauty is something inherent in things; it does not exist merely in our subjective reckoning.


So for physicists, for example, a theory has inherently more appeal if it seems mathematically harmonious with other known variables of physical existence. Another example (not one used by the authors) might be the “elegance” of a computer algorithm admired by computer programmers not just because it gets the job done, but because does so with a minimum of sub-routines and circumlocution. Beauty derives from simplicity, harmony, and brilliance. “Brilliance,” the authors suggest, consists of a theory with the quality of great clarity – something distinct from simplicity – in particular how it sheds light on many other questions with which science is engaged.


The central indictment of the matter-over-mind paradigm of the Old Story is that the logic of materialism necessarily excludes the possibility of purpose. “[M]atter cannot intend anything; it cannot plan; it acts only by internal, mechanical necessity.” Repugnance for a meaningless universe is not the sole reason for rejecting the matter-centric paradigm, however. The New Story arises also on the 20th-century scientific revelations including the widespread acceptance of the Big Bang theory. That the cosmos had a point of beginning in space and time not only fits Biblical understanding, it is scientifically suggestive of a First Cause outside the system of the universe. Not only that, but alternative theories for explaining the universe — the steady-state hypothesis; the oscillating universe; eternal existence; multiverses – fail scientifically. We’re left with the insoluble something-from-nothing conundrum of materialism. The origin of the universe is explainable only if God is.


The authors further point us to uncanny features of the4 universe more recently dubbed “fine-tuning.” The fundamental mathematical parameters on which the universe depends must be such as to result in sentient observers of it. Indeed the anthropic principle, far from being short-hand for human life being merely coincidental, instead means that the universe is, in a way we are only beginning to understand, participatory with us. Quoting physicist John Wheeler,


“Quantum mechanics has led us to take seriously and explore the directly opposite view [to life being accidental] that the observer is as essential to the creation of the universe as the universe is to the creation of the observer.”  The authors conclude, in the chapter titled “God,” that in the New Story, the origin, structure, and beauty of the universe prove the reality of God.


How would we expect a materialist society to regard man? If he is a biological machine only, then it would make sense to analogize him to man-made machines with which we are familiar. So for example psychology would be about the mental working of this machine: either it is operating like the manual says it ought, or it is “broken” and in need of fixing. And so we end up with diagnoses of psychological malady, instead of regarding the brokenness as sin, a spiritual deficiency with which we are all afflicted.


Thus the Old Story, made explicit by Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, who famously wrote that without good government the lives of ordinary people would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” He wrote in the 1600’s so it is only with the hindsight of history, especially that of the 20th century, that we recognize the incipient totalitarianism necessarily implied by this mechanistic view. In more recent times, the various schema for explaining the human, such as behaviorism, sociobiology, and the like, are dabbled in by people innocent of their origins in the Old Story of meaningless matter manifested in the machines we call human beings.


The New Story of science reveals that there is more to us. Many psychologists recognize that “we cannot really help man in his predicament if we insist that our concept of man be patterned after the ‘machine model,’ . . . .” in the words of Viktor Frankl. Many neuroscientists have come around to the view that ethical and moral values are a legitimate part of brain science because they are not reducible to mere brain physiology. There is an element of choice – moral agency – that is not confined to material causes. “Spiritual goods” of character have to be actively chosen, and not “chosen” in the sense of inevitable natural unfolding of material causes. This New Story explanation of man in relation to science is borne out not only in the lack of naturalistic explanation for human choices, but also by innumerable examples of good (and bad) moral choices in extreme circumstances, as in the gulags and death camps of mid-20th century. The mind and will “push” our actions, they are not “pulled” along by inevitable biology. Mind and consciousness are put in the driver’s seat, so to speak, in the New Story science currently supports.


The authors’ treatment of man in relation to his society suggests an inevitable dichotomy between Old Story and New. In the Old Story, Hobbesian brutish existence, slavery, fascism, and matter-over-Mind atheist materialism; and in the New Story, classical liberalism, freedom, moral agency, and theism.


The anthropic principle is reintroduced as a philosophical precept reinforced by scientific observation. Cicero wrote “Man himself . . . came into existence for the purpose of contemplating . . . the world.” Epictetus: “God introduced man to e a spectator of God and of His works; and not only a spectator of them, but an interpreter.” Augustine: “Material things . . . help to make the pattern of this visible world so beautiful. It is as though, in compensation for their own incapacity to know, they wanted to become known by us.” And now, the New Story completes the explanation for these instincts:


“With the Anthropic principle, modern scientists show how assuming man to be the goal of nature accounts for certain properties of matter.”


The New story rejects promissory materialism, the idea that whatever is not so far explained by mechanistic naturalism, will be in due course. Instead,


“the primacy of mind connects relativity with quantum mechanics, brain research with the Big Bang, the strength of nuclear forces with the size of the universe. Besides unifying the sciences, the New Story also re-unites the sciences with the arts since each studies and pursues beauty by different paths.”

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