Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Science Wars: Dualism vs. Materialism

The prestige of science is such that everyone wants it on their side. Science is a trusted arbiter of facts for most of us, at least when it comes to empirical questions on which evidence can be brought to bear. So it’s little wonder that even those with patently faith-based convictions about the nature of things should try to conscript it to their advantage. The obvious examples are creationists and advocates of intelligent design who argue that were it properly conducted, science would provide support for their supernatural hypotheses (see here). The argument thus becomes about the nature of science itself: does it have canonical methods and assumptions? What are these, and are certain scientists guilty of letting their worldview warp good scientific practice? If science as it’s commonly conducted doesn’t support your metaphysics, then the temptation might be to claim that mainstream scientists are guilty of malfeasance.

The intelligent design controversy is perhaps the biggest front on the science wars, followed by disputes over the paranormal, but a new front is opening up around the issue of materialism or physicalism. Is science biased in favor of the materialist-physicalist assumption, the idea that nature fundamentally contains only material things? A small but vocal group of self-styled anti-materialist and dualist neuroscientists held a mind-body symposium at the UN last year, arguing that science has indeed been hijacked by dogmatic materialists, who wrongly discount evidence for categorically non-physical phenomena. New Scientist ran a good article about it, quoting some well-respected mainstream scientists and philosophers who, unsurprisingly, see the anti-materialists as the dogmatists, intent on warping science to serve their agenda.

These opposed positions are mirrored in two responses to the 2009 Edge question, What will change everything?. One is by biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who says materialism’s days are numbered: certain questions, for instance about the nature of consciousness, will never be answered unless science is liberated from its assumption that the physical world is all there is. He says “Confidence in materialism is draining away. Its leaders, like central bankers, keep printing promissory notes, but it has lost its credibility as the central dogma of science.” The other is by biologist P. Z. Myers, who says that materialism rules, and that eventually people will adjust to the idea they don’t have souls, widely believed to be the precious immaterial essence of our being: “Mind is clearly a product of the brain, and the old notions of souls and spirits are looking increasingly ludicrous…yet these are nearly universal ideas, all tangled up in people's rationalizations for an afterlife, for ultimate reward and punishment, and their concept of self.” Science writers John Horgan and George Johnson discuss Sheldrake, Myers and the materialism/anti-materialism conflict at Bloggingheads, and there’s been a protracted debate between materialist Steven Novella and dualist Michael Egnor, both neuroscientists, at their respective blogs here and here.

So who’s right and how do we decide? Sheldrake and Myers are both credentialed, published biologists, so they must share considerable common ground in how they practice science on a day-to-day basis. But obviously that isn’t enough to keep them on the same page when it comes to the prospects for materialism.

One way to moderate the argument, if not completely resolve it, is to see that science is primarily a method of inquiry, not a repository of metaphysical truths. Science has no particular commitment to materialism as a final conclusion about the world, it’s just that so far it hasn’t found evidence for, or explanatory justification for, categorically immaterial phenomena such as souls, spirits or disembodied minds and wills (whether agreement could be reached on the defining characteristics of such phenomena is an interesting and open question). If such evidence were to accrue, and were our best explanatory theories to incorporate non-physical entities, no good scientist would complain about it. It’s just the way things turned out. What scientists are after, qua scientists (and not worldview advocates), is explanatory transparency and reliable, maximally predictive models of reality (see here). No one can say in advance where these cognitive desiderata will take us. If Sheldrake and Myers could agree on this point, then their opposing opinions on materialism are not fundamentally about science, but bets on where science is likely to take us.

Sheldrake seems to think science might be limited in its current menu of options when he says “But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone.” Fair enough - no honest scientist supposes that we can know in advance what the final scientific explanations for life and mind must involve. Perhaps totally new fields of inquiry will develop (but I’m not holding my breath). However, what is very unlikely to change is the basic methodological constraints of science and its criteria of explanatory adequacy, which require high levels of evidential support, explanatory transparency, and descriptive specificity for phenomena to be certified as real. It’s these requirements that have thus far ruled out creationism and intelligent design as tenable hypotheses, and they will apply equally to any hypothesis about categorically non-physical phenomena.

Sheldrake says “science will be freer - and more fun” once divested of its materialist bias. But science, properly conducted, has no such bias, and its judgments on anti-materialist hypotheses will be determined by the same rather demanding rules of evidence and explanation it applies to any hypothesis, materialist or otherwise.

No Problem With Determinism

Psychology Today hosts a wide variety of blogs written by psychologists, therapists, philosophers and other assorted professionals concerned with mind, body and behavior. New on the block is One Among Many by Brown University social psychologist Joachim I. Krueger, who posted recently on "Troubles with determinism." As the title suggests, he worries that a consistently determinist view of ourselves might undercut our sense of agency and self-efficacy. As he puts it,
The problem of determinism is a deep one, and I think that neither scientific nor folk psychology have come to grips with it. In scientific psychology, there is constant friction between deterministic theories, such as behaviorism (or any other theory describing "mechanisms") and theories stressing human agency. What academic psychology seems to be telling us is that human behavior follows scientifically detectable laws and that at the same time we have the power to choose and change apart from these laws.
It's crucial to see that determinism doesn't conflict with genuine human agency, including the power to change ourselves. Human beings, though caused in each and every respect, are just as real as the causes that shaped them, and they still have real causal powers to pursue their goals, including those set by psychotherapy. We can't logically attribute causal power to the factors that create human agents and yet deny it for the agents themselves (see Avoiding demoralization by determinism).

Were there some part of a human being independent of determining influences, it would have no reason to choose one way or another, since it wouldn't be affected by, and thus responsive to, its own motives and reasons. Any exemption from determinism wouldn't give us a freedom (or responsibility) worth wanting, as philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it, only a random factor introduced into behavior. So we don't need, and indeed shouldn't want, a power to choose that's independent of "scientifically detectable laws."

As it turns out, there are now psychiatrists and therapists who are coming to grips with a deterministic, and more broadly, naturalistic understanding of behavior. Dr. Ron Pies, clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston, is one - see his papers on what he calls "psychiatric naturalism" in Psychiatric Times: Hume's Fork and Psychiatry's Explanations: Determinism and the Dimensions of Freedom and Psychiatric Naturalism and the Dimensions of Freedom: Implications for Psychiatry and the Law. (Pies responds to Krueger at the blog.)
In a therapeutic setting, seeing that one's behavior and that of others is fully caused works to reduce shame, blame (of self and others), anger and other responses predicated on the idea that we could have done otherwise in a situation. Indeed, Krueger recognizes a thorough-going determinism might make us more compassionate and self-compassionate, since, as he puts it, "We acted the way we did because we did our best and really couldn't have acted differently."

The cause-and-effect understanding of ourselves not only generates compassion, but gives us control, since we won't suppose that any part of us escapes being shaped by our circumstances, internal and external. Instead, we'll look at the actual causes of behavior, and thus be in a much better position to design and target effective interventions. So the insight that we don’t have contra-causal free will can be a key tool in achieving therapeutic objectives. Far from causing trouble, determinism - the reliable patterning of events and actions - can serve us well in navigating the world.

Further reading: Worldview Cognitive Therapy