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Science's Sacred Cows (Part 8): Materialism

03/29/2013 07:39 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2013

"If 'dead' matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering [humans], it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he [or she] speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful, powers." -- Loren Eiseley in The Immense Journey

In opposing the Vietnam War, Senator J. William Fulbright wisely understood: "In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste, but in its effects." Similarly for science. The efficacy of science rests not primarily in its assumptions but in its powerful methodology. Despite the demise of most of science's once-sacred assumptions (Science's Sacred Cows--Part I), science remains alive and well. How remarkable!

It's been said, "In science, truth always wins." Evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and plate tectonics, each ridiculed when first proposed, are now solidly mainstream. I had not fully appreciated until recently -- thanks to the observations of a psychologist friend -- what may be the hallmark of scientific methodology: consensus. Scientific protocol institutes enough formalized give and take to forge a high degree of consensus. Consider, for example, the issue of climate change. Despite the complexity of the issue, recent studies (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2010) reveal that 97 to 98 percent of climate scientists concur with the findings of the International Panel on Climate Change regarding the anthropomorphic origins of current climate instability. That's a stunning degree of consensus.

By highlighting that science is more robust than its assumptions, I do not mean to levy implicit criticism that science should not have imposed the assumptions that it later cast aside. Most were necessary at the time. The universe is too complex a subject without the imposition of simplifications. But periodically science must jettison its blinders. Two historic moments of profound paradigm shift were the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. The former dislodged the geocentric and static cosmology of Ptolemy and Aristotle, ultimately replacing it with the heliocentric and dynamic cosmology of today. Similarly, the latter undermined the assumed "stability of species" by demonstrating that biology is also dynamic.

To come clean, my purpose in this series of posts is simple, namely to offer a cautionary tale: Science, be careful what you assume, for in addition to limiting your vision, assumptions carry unintended consequences, some of which are deleterious.

To date, previous posts have discussed the abandonment of four of science's once-cherished notions: absolute space and time, determinism, dualism, and locality. Two additional posts addressed other assumptions that may be on their last legs: realism and reductionism. This brings us to the last -- and most intransigent -- of science's sacred cows: materialism. Materialism is the presumption that all attributes of the cosmos, including human consciousness, derive from the properties of matter. To put it bluntly: matter -- or its alter ego, energy -- is all there is.

Materialism, I believe, harbors a multitude of sins. Today I'll argue that the materialistic paradigm is detrimental both to science and to the human condition. And in the final post of the series, we'll examine some evidence that the paradigm, at long last, is collapsing.

In fairness, materialism is a tacit rather than a formal assumption of modern science. Nevertheless, it remains the prevailing paradigm, especially among many prominent scientists, as the following example illustrates.

On page 14 of Ever Since Darwin (1977), a collection of beautifully written essays by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the writer drops a bombshell: "Evolution is purposeless, nonprogressive, and materialistic." When a scientist of Gould's gravitas makes such claims, it is tantamount to engraving them in stone.

One wonders why Gould felt the need to interject the sentence. Such assertions, which ultimately lie beyond the ken of science, are more akin to religious dogma than scientific fact. Scientists are often quick to challenge incursions of religion into the domain of science, and rightly so. But those same scientists may be blind to their own infractions. Why should science be wary of overreaching?

Polls show that 46 percent of Americans self-identify as "young-earth creationists" by responding affirmatively to the following statement: "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." (See http://ncse.com.) Surprisingly, the percentage of affirmative responses has hardly varied in the 30 years since Gallup began conducting the survey. Why do nearly half of Americans reject evolution despite 150 years of substantiating evidence? And why is America, which has produced 270 Nobel laureates -- far more than any other country -- so anti-science?

I suspect it is because of the cognitive dissonance between science's intimations of our "purposeless" origins in a "materialistic" cosmos and our own instincts to the contrary. Faced with the choice between "an antiscientific philosophy and an alienating science," many Americans opt for the former. "Do we really have to make this tragic choice?" pleaded the late Nobel laureate in chemistry, Ilya Prigogine.

In the current era, the choice is indeed "tragic." There is strong correlation between those who deny evolution and those who deny climate science. Climatologists pull out their hair in frustration at the difficulty of awakening Americans to the seriousness of the crisis. The wake-up call goes unheeded because nearly half the American public is tone-deaf to science. Could science's "alienating" overreach be partly at fault?

*****

I grew up on the edge of Appalachia, where mining interests have removed 500 mountaintops to extract the "black gold" therein. Only a nation that has been lulled into the belief that mountains 300 million years in the making are simply resources for our plucking would permit such desecration of the earth. Our Native American forebears, for whom even rocks were sacred, could never understand the peculiar insanity of the white man, who treats the earth as a commodity. That insanity is the natural legacy of a worldview that proclaims the cosmos an "It" rather than a "Thou."