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Has science refuted materialism?

The Guardian, a top British left-wing daily, became an unlikely place that launched a war against materialism in science. In his article

It's time for science to move on from materialism,
Mark Vernon promotes a new book by Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion. In synergy with some quotes from this book, the Grauniad article argues that most contemporary scientists are confined in the 19th century materialist ideology when it comes to topics such as matter and soul.

Of course that most readers of the Guardian went instinctively ballistic (see the comment section) but we should ask: Are these comments true?

I first encountered the name of Rupert Sheldrake when I was about 10 years or so. My favorite science journal, VTM ("Science and Technology for Youth"), which I used to devour quite religiously (and my communication with the editors was really intense and they knew me extremely well), published an article about Sheldrake's theory of morphogenetic field. What is it?

The Guardian article links to this Wikipedia article on the morphogenetic field. This article contains some boring comments about shapes in biology – comments which otherwise sound plausible and are probably a part of serious science although it is clearly not the most well-defined or quantitative part of biology. However, the subtitle of the Wikipedia page also informs us that the Guardian folks have made a mistake – a typo of the kind that has changed the unofficial newspapers' name to the Grauniad – because they should have linked to this article about the morphic or morphogenetic field.

(When I mention the Grauniad typos, the article also says that "1,026 years [including the comma] is longer than the age of the Universe". The Grauniad managed to "improve" and "legalize" the incorrect typesetting of \(10^{26}\) years by adding the comma. This missing superscript isn't the main error of the sentence, however. The sentence promotes a creationist idea that protein folding takes obscene periods of time; however, as the folding funnel hypothesis suggests, protein folding is rather simple because of natural attractions between different parts of the chain.)

A few decades ago, I decided that Sheldrake's theory was a crackpot's misconception and so far, after more than a quarter of a century, I still haven't changed my mind. The VTM article had explained that Sheldrake believed (and yes, still believes) that Nature had a tendency to develop the same structures if similar structures – similar shapes and internal organization – were previously tried anywhere in the Universe.

Such a method to propagate shapes of course violates locality or causality. If shapes and structures have the desire to multiply themselves, they must find a proper material mechanism – such as a DNA which is able to split into two almost identical DNA molecules. Without a mechanism, shapes just can't reproduce. Quantum mechanics forbids an exact xeroxing completely (because that would yield a quadratic operation on the Hilbert space but evolution operators have to be linear); but even in classical physics where such a thing could be possible, one still needs some "engine" that makes the job of reproduction done.

So I surely believe that all "novel details" of Sheldrake's science are preposterous. However, the article in the Guardian says many general statements that I consider correct. In particular, I do agree that most scientists are still stuck in the 19th century materialist ideology and they believe that everything is just fine with that viewpoint.

Quantum physics and ghosts

Of course, the main arena where this obsolete viewpoint manifests itself is quantum mechanics. A huge percentage of scientists, especially those who are not working with quantum mechanics on a daily basis and in "practical proportions", still think that the world is ultimately classical in the sense that everything we have ever observed is a reflection of an objective reality that in principle contains some totally accurate information that we could learn (and all of us could agree about) if we only overcame various obstacles all of which are surely just technical in character. That's why I agree with Sheldrake's sentence
The belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology.
even though Sheldrake could try to "extend" this sentence to conclusions and theories that I disagree with.

The Guardian article also quotes Werner Heisenberg who wrote:
"[This] frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concept of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world."
You may want to read the whole text by Heisenberg (it's five chapters from his book Physics and Philosophy). He believes that in two stages, namely relativity and quanta, modern physics has deconstructed the 19th century materialist viewpoint that had previously transformed religions into a major foe of science. Most of the things he says are very similar to what I've been writing; still, he is arguably too spiritual and I would disagree with various (not too many) specific comments by Heisenberg, e.g. with his expectation that reductionism may easily break down in biology.

So in the materialist viewpoint, souls and perceptions have to be nothing more than reflections of an objective material world, too. It's a totally paramount, universal, and exact principle in this material world view: the objective matter has to be primary and everything else is at most its reflection. At the same time, this principle is completely unnecessary to understand the natural phenomena and as we have known since the mid 1920s, it is actually untrue.

I would say that this obsolete understanding of the relationship between matter, perceptions, souls, information, and other things was matching the physiology of classical physics. And it just no longer works quantum mechanically.

On the other hand, there are lots of crazy people who are convinced that quantum physics is destined to prove their particular religious or spiritual speculations about the usual topics that religious and superstitious people love to care about – afterlife, soul flying away from your body, direct communication with the Creator, methods to make outcomes of quantum experiments more favorable to subjects who have prayed, telepathy, other paranormal phenomena, and so on.

Don't get me wrong: if these beliefs are needed for someone to be classified as a non-materialist, I am an unequivocal materialist, too.

One may recall an important point that was recently highlighted by Tom Banks and his text about anti-quantum zealots. In physics, it's rather common that the foundations of our physical theories are completely rebuilt. They're replaced by something that looks qualitatively and totally different. We use totally different words to talk about it. The new picture often leads us to completely different ideas about our place in the scheme of things, about the relationship between the reality and subjective perceptions, about the objective and absolute or subjective and relative nature of various characteristics and quantities, about the very existence of the reality.

However, at the same moment, the new and more accurate theory often leads to predictions that are pretty much indistinguishable from the predictions of the old theory, at least when we only talk about a class of limiting situations that may be "special" from a theorist's viewpoint but that can still be de facto covering all of our life i.e. that can be "universal" from a practical person's viewpoint.

The relationship between quantum mechanics and classical physics was Tom's example and it's the best example. Quantum mechanics is based on foundations that require us to use completely different words and rules than those of classical physics. However, when we make predictions for sufficiently macroscopic or classical systems, the predictions will be basically identical to those in classical physics.

Mathematics is essential to quantify the "actual distance" between a quantum mechanical theory and its classical limit. And in particular situations, the "actual distance" (the differences between various quantitative predictions of both theories, assuming that we formulate the questions in such a way that the theories become commensurable) may be very tiny (proportional to \(\hbar\) or its powers) even though the qualitative languages behind both theories seem to be light years apart.

And indeed, the qualitative languages and schemes of thinking behind classical physics and quantum mechanics are at least light years apart. That's why it's so important to use mathematics in physics; to talk about things quantitatively. At the level of words and qualitative thoughts – i.e. from a philosopher's perspective – two theories may be parties in the bloodiest war imaginable. However, in physics, we compare theories against observations and as long as two theories give the same or almost the same predictions for a class of experiments, they must be treated as siblings or friends! This principle became even more important during the Duality Revolution of the mid 1990s when pairs of seemingly totally different dynamical laws were identified as physically equivalent (exactly) although this equivalence seems implausible from a "perturbative" point of view.

When I return to the ghosts, well, I surely have more tolerance for various spiritually sounding interpretations of quantum mechanics than others. For example, I consider the explanation of the double slit experiment in "What the Bleep" to be pretty much accurate for a beginner. (I mainly have the problem with the sentence "The observer collapsed the wave function simply by observing" at the end; however, even non-spiritual people say similar things.) However Lisa Randall, who has also met the main mastermind behind this movie, was just driven up the wall. And she's very proud that she has forced the poor man to apologize for his filmmaking sins of the past. ;-) There's so much rubbish in it! And her opinions are shared by pretty much all physicists, including those who are doing quantum physics professionally. Well, I would say that this reaction of theirs is correlated with their being (mostly) semi-organized leftists.

I haven't seen the whole movie, I guess, so it's plausible that it would make me upset, too. Still, I am used to such things and I view the spiritual deformations of quantum mechanics to be just another side of the distortions – while the more common distortion that I constantly experience are the attempts to deny quantum mechanics and say that the world is fundamentally classical, after all. The fact that the anti-quantum zeal makes me angry much more frequently than bizarre spiritual interpretations of quantum mechanics really boils down to the fact that I am meeting a minimal amount of people who would love to spiritually misinterpret quantum mechanics. Why is it so?

Well, the main reason is that the people who love to believe in various superstitious and supernatural things don't really know what quantum mechanics is. Most of them have really never pronounced the term so they couldn't have made me angry by their opinions about quantum mechanics. ;-) Of course, this list contains lots of people in the very vicinity of your humble correspondent and I have simply gotten used to the general stupidity of most people on Earth who believe that various supernatural and superstitious agents play the roles that we, the other side, attribute to the laws of physics.

When I look at the actual abilities of quantum physics to confirm various beliefs held by the superstitious and supernatural people, I don't find too many. What quantum mechanics is actually able to do is to overcome various results of classical reasoning such as Bell's inequalities or the predicted results for spins in the GHZM experiment, Hardy's paradox, and other quantum games. However, the "truly spiritual and superstitious people" wouldn't be able to calculate the predictions in these situations even classically so I don't think that quantum mechanics should be able to legitimately move physics closer to their hearts.

Instead, the religious and superstitious people would love to see things like a soul that survives your physical death and gets concentrated in a special concentration camp somewhere in the Heaven or Hell. Even if we talk about people who aren't really attached to any particular well-known religion or sect, these folks always have "something similar" in mind. Correct me if I am wrong but I feel that quantum physics can't really help them.

At the end, I think that the materialists are still much closer to the understanding of the natural phenomena than the superstitious, supernatural, and religious people. The superstitions were only an acceptable description of the natural phenomena tens of thousands of years ago when the people really didn't have any clue and hadn't collected any sensible datasets that may be currently be seen to be enough to falsify the superstitions. On the other hand, the materialist viewpoint was defensible as recently as 100 years ago.

Still, it's true and important that the rigid materialist viewpoint has been proved insufficient by science, too. However, one must appreciate that this statement doesn't imply that a random spiritual theory should be accepted. Most of them remain as indefensible as they were in the 19th century. On the other hand, I don't like the title in the Guardian – "move away etc." – because its apparent goal is to dictate the direction in which science should be moving in the future. But science cannot be planned in this way. Whether science will paint a more "materialist" or less "materialist" picture of the world in 30 years remains to be seen.

We should "only" adapt our philosophical attitudes according to the insights that science has already accumulated such as the discoveries in quantum mechanics. They're enough to show that many people's philosophical world view has been rendered obsolete; however, these changes can't be extrapolated to the future.

And that's the memo.

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reader Alan Aversa said...

Regarding the Guardian article "It's time for science to move on from materialism" that Luboš Motl mentions on The Reference Frame:

The real problem is that modern science unfortunately presupposes a Cartesian philosophy, which not only opposes Aristotelian hylemorphic theory of matter (potency) and form (act) but also introduces the false dichotomy of the res cogitans (thinking thing) that is completely divorced from the res extensa (extended thing, i.e., things with length, breadth, and width); this is Cartesian dualism.

Regarding hylemorphism, the Oxford English Dictionary says:

This use of form (Aristotle's μορφή or εἶδος) and matter (ὕλη) is a metaphorical extension of their popular use. In ordinary speech, a portion of matter, stuff, or material, becomes a 'thing' by virtue of having a particular 'form' or shape; by altering the form, the matter remaining unchanged, we make a new 'thing'. This language, primarily applied only to objects of sense, was in philosophical use extended to objects of thought: every 'thing' or entity was viewed as consisting of two elements, its form by virtue of which it was different from, and its matter which it had in common with, others. Thus the soul is the form of a living body.

Regarding res cogitans versus res extensa, the Oxford English Dictionary defines res cogitans as "Substance which has or is regarded as having the power of thought; spec. (in Cartesian metaphysics) the human mind viewed as a substance distinct from the material world." Descartes coined the term in his 1641 Meditationes ii. 23:

Sed quid igitur sum? res cogitans: quid est hoc? nempe dubitans, intelligens, affirmans, negans, volens, nolens, imaginans quoque, & sentiens.

[But what therefore am I? A thinking thing: what is this? Certainly a doubting, intelligent, affirming, denying, willing, unwilling, imagining, & sentient thing.]
The Oxford English Dictionary defines res extensa as "Matter, material substance; a material body."

Werner Heisenberg recognized these two problems of Cartesian dualism in his Physics and Philosophy when he wrote that the probability wave concept in quantum mechanics

was a quantitative version of the concept of 'potentia' [potency] in Aristotelian philosophy (p. 41) and that the

concept of the soul for instance in the philosophy of [Saint] Thomas Aquinas was more natural and less forced than the Cartesian concept of 'res cogitans,' even if we are convinced that the laws of physics and chemistry are strictly valid in living organisms. (p. 80)