The Neo-Fredwinian Synthesis
Trouble at the Mind-Matter Interface
June 12, 2011
This will bore most people to the point of throwing themselves from a high bridge. I can't help it. The Devil made me do it..
The theory of evolution does not stand alone. It is part of a vast synthesis which fits all of existence into a coherent whole:The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the chance appearance of life in primeval seas, the evolution of that life, the Pyramids, Space Shuttle, and Renoir. It is an imposing intellectual edifice, mechanistic, easily comprehended, self-assured, with only the details to be worked out. Or so we are told.
This agglomeration of everything under one theoretical roof appeals powerfully to minds that need an overarching explanation of everything. The great intellectual divide perhaps is not between those who believe one thing and those who believe another, but between those who need to believe something—I am tempted to say believe almost anything—and those who are comfortable with uncertainty and even the unknowable. Adherents of Christianity, atheism, scientism (as distinct from science) and classical evolutionism fall into the first category; the agnosticof every sort, into the second. Unshakable belief seems to alleviate unease with the unfathomed, the anxiety that naturally comes of not knowing where we came from, or why, or whither.
In the following, unfairly but conveniently, I use “scientist” to mean the sort who needs to think that all of existence is understandable, if perhaps not yet understood. The distinction between “understandable” and “understood” is crucial. The scientist (again, of the sort I speak of) regards existence as one might regard a difficult and unfinished crossword puzzle. The puzzle may be challenging. The solver may have struggled for days to find a seven-letter word meaning “ancient Sumerian perfume bottle.” But he knows that the puzzle can be solved, that there is an answer, and he understands the rules of crossword puzzles. The scientist sees the universe as he would see the puzzle. It is only a matter of time, he thinks, until everything is understood.
This is very different from seeing the world as profoundly mysterious, as in many ways being beyond our understanding, as containing questions that have no answers.
And so he sees everything as mechanical, as physics. The Big Bang, if any, was a monumental eruption following the laws—“fitting the descriptions of” might be a better phrase—of physics. Chemistry, a subset of physics dealing with the interactions of atoms, next came into play and then, with the advent of life, biochemistry, a subset of chemistry dealing with reactions in living things. Evolution, the study of the interactions over genertions of those physical systems we call life with each other and their physical environment, is thus itself a subset of physics. According to this view, nothing happens, or can happen, that does not accord with physics.
This approach, mechanistic and deterministic, works well as long as the observer is not taken into account. Astrophysics predicts with near exactitude the motions of planets. Solid-state physics describes accurately the behavior of electrons in microcircuits. In textbooks of biochemistry one reads of stereochemistry and charged groups and catalysis and so on that in fact describe what happens. It all works.
Grave problems arise when you take the observer—the scientist, you, me—into consideration. The obvious first problem is that of consciousness. Your brain is a complex structure undergoing complex reactions, but all of these reactions follow the laws of physics. Yet nonetheless you are conscious. Is this something outside of physics? If so, then we have the sciences on one hand, and Something Else on the other, and the question becomes how they interact. Or is consciousness a physical variable, like gravitation? If I give you a large injection of Demerol, you will lose consciousness, and the biochemical mechanism can be given—but that doesn't explain what consciousness is.
Then there is the vexed question of volition. The end points of physical systems are determined by the starting conditions: The final positions of balls on a pool table depend entirely on the initial velocity of the cue ball, elasticity, coefficient of friction, and so on. The same determinism applies to chemistry: mix identical quantities of identical chemicals under identical conditions, and you get statistically identical results. If this weren't true, chemical engineers would be in a helluva fix.
So how can you choose to do one thing instead of another? Why is your “decision” not completely determined by the starting configuration of your brain? This is certainly true of computers which, given the same program and the same inputs, will always produce the same results.
Evolutionists espouse the mechanistic and deterministic view, though more as metaphysics than science. Selective pressures, plausible though not measurable, defined, or confirmed, push evolution in certain directions. Much of it is wonderfully questionable, but we will pass over this. The evolutionist, again meaning the sort for whom evolution must explain all human behavior, falls into difficulties when he considers humanity.
Consider morality. For the evolutionist, everything must be explained in terms of maximizing the production of offspring so that, for example, honesty serves to promote cohesion in hunting bands, making them more efficient and therefore having more children. Right and wrong do not exist, nor Good and Evil, as these have no meaning within evolutionism unless they can be tied to fecundity.
Which leads the evolutionist into logical swamps. I have asked such people why I should not make a hobby of torturing to death the genetically feeble-minded. In evolutionary terms, killing them is a good idea, as it reduces the diversion of resources in maintaining them and raises the average intelligence of the group.
How they are killed has no evolutionary importance, and in any event executing them with a blowtorch would consist merely in substituting certain chemical reactions for others: Pain has no existence in physics.
Of course if I actually did such a thing, the evangelists of scientism would be horrified. They are not immoral. They just can't explain why they are not.
The other place where evolutionism breaks down is in human reproduction. All through evolutionism runs the idea of maximizing reproduction. Women have big breasts to attract men so that they can make more babies. Men are big and strong so that they can get the women and make more or better babies. People cooperate in bands so they can stay alive and make more babies. On and on.
Yet now we have whole societies which by choice are not having babies. Japan, Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany and so on are breeding at below replacement. In Mexico the birth rate falls like a rock, even though nutrition has improved and health is better. The drop is easily explained in human terms. Why do you, the reader, not want fifteen children? The same answers apply in Mexico. Interestingly, the drop in procreation is steepest among the most intelligent , educated,and wealthy—that is, among those most able to support large families. There is no evolutionary explanation. When I ask, I encounter silence or vague mumblings about how there must be some mutation or, well, something.
True believers are true believers. You cannot re-program a door knob.