In the previous post on Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, I noted that the overall argument is based on a number of misrepresentations and stereotypes of what “science” is up to. The reader gets the impression of a monolithic structure, big-S-”Science”, now dominated by Ten Dogmas, like commandments cut in stone tablets. The history of science has, of course, been rather more complicated. Several of the dogmas do not even correspond well with the actual theories that are pursued today: at best they represent a pointed caricature, at worst, they build on stereotypes crafted about a century or longer ago, that hardly have any relevance for contemporary scientific practice. Even to the extent that some of the “dogmas” refer to presently widespread theoretical or methodological conventions, holding these to be fixed dogmas obscures the fact that they are the outcome of long and sometimes complicated historical developments, both internal and external to science. In short: that x is a widely held belief does not make x a “dogma”; that y is a commonly recommended way of pursuing a task does not make y a dogmatic procedure.
As promised in the previous post, I will go through the ten dogmas one by one to demonstrate some of these points. In the present one we shall focus on the first two, which have to do with questions about mechanism, vitalism, scientific method, materialism, and the problems of defining “consciousness”. We will visit some historical backgrounds and parallels to Sheldrake’s criticism of science, and test his claim that science has closed certain questions “dogmatically”, by holding them up against the actual historical developments of some of the special sciences. Without further ado, here goes dogma #1:
1. “Everything is mechanical”.
The first scientific commandment appropriately holds that “Thou shalt have no other theoretical framework than the mechanical”. According to Sheldrake, “modern science” = “mechanical theories”. That science “reduces everything to mechanical processes”, essentially to “matter in motion”, is one of the older and most fundamental accusations on the list. It can be traced all the way back to the birth and spread of the so-called mechanical philosophy of nature itself in the early modern period. According to the charges,”the mechanistic dogma” holds that all phenomena are straight-jacketed into “mechanistic” and “materialist” frameworks.
Complaints about this are often made with reference to the phenomena of life and minds. As Sheldrake writes in the introduction to his book: “Dogs are complex machines [according to science], rather than organisms with goals of their own” (p. 7). Maybe so, but statements such as these rest on a false dichotomy: isn’t the marvel of the modern life sciences precisely that they have been so surprisingly successful in accounting for complex organisms in mechanistic terms? No mysterious vital powers needed? Castigating biological science for not having produced anything else than mechanistic explanations, when those in fact have been staggeringly successful, amounts to little but a case of petitio principii.
The portrayal of “mechanism” in such criticisms (and I’m not only thinking of Sheldrake here) is really not very sharp, especially from a philosophical point of view. First of all, it might be a good idea to differentiate between philosophical (or metaphysical) mechanism and explanatory mechanism. One claims the world really is a giant mechanical machine, and therefore ultimately allowing to be explained that way; the other is more modest, emphasising that, as an explanatory practice, one ought to look for concrete mechanisms and physical interactions. At any rate it would be more accurate to describe “mechanism” (both philosophical and explanatory) as holding that all phenomena of nature can in principle be explained in terms of mechanistic interactions. The term “in principle” is absolutely crucial: pointing to the lack of a mechanistic explanation of phenomenon x is not enough to dispel mechanism as such. Instead, mechanism is a powerful heuristic for seeking robust explanations of new phenomena.
In other words, the first dogma is not very well stated. But even more importantly: if we read Sheldrake charitably, and presuppose 1) that he really means to charge science with being “mechanistic” in a more complex and nuanced way (let’s call it “sophisticated mechanism”, and 2) that science, by and large, actually does cling to such a sophisticated mechanism, is it really correct to call the stance a dogmatic one?
Historically speaking, the mechanism/non-mechanism debate is very much a science-internal dispute, and it has been an open and lively one. To the extent that it now is now a settled debate, in which there exists a general consensus, it has been settled by science-internal procedures (what are the best arguments? how can we best account for the totality of what we know? what research practice seems to yield the best results?) rather than by decree.
The anti-mechanical stance is thus by no means new in the history of science, and Sheldrake joins a long tradition of other biologists when he raises the issue based on a conceived problem to account for living organisms. Traditionally, the conflict has been between mechanism and teleology in various forms, and in more recent history, between mechanism and various positions going under terms such as organicism, holism, or emergentism.
One historical example is the neo-vitalism controversy arising from scientific concerns in late 19th and early 20th century embryology. The problem of giving satisfactory mechanical explanations of central features of organic life, such as heredity and embryonic development, was the source of this dispute, which concerned not only the philosophical “superstructure” of the life sciences, but practical methodological issues as well. In the 1890s, the German embryologist Hans Driesch’s experiments with sea urchin eggs seemed to suggest that each individual cell after the first cleavage could potentially develop into a whole organism. This contradicted the best mechanistic theory available at the time, namely August Weismann and Wilhelm Roux’ theory that all the hereditary material was present in the fertilized egg and then distributed through cell division. After trying in vain to make his findings square with a mechanistic conception, Driesch proposed a radically different theory. In his 1899 monograph Die Lokalisation morphogenetischer Vorgänge; ein Beweis Vitalistischen Geschehens Driesch proposed that organisms were “harmonious equipotential systems”. The neo-vitalistic concept of entelechy was born: a non-material directing principle that already contained the plan of the whole organism within it, directing the production of biological forms by way of a mysterious non-material, teleological agency .
It was a concept not unlike Sheldrake’s own “morphic resonance”. While Die Lokalisation morphogenetischer Vorgänge was a rather less sexy title than Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life, the biographical similarities of the authors are rather similar as well. Both were young biologists with impressive early achievements, whose first major publication would be on a vitalistic theory at odds with most of their peers.
Another similarity concerns the two scientists’ attitude to criticism. Driesch frankly did not spend much time listening to his critics – even when better mechanistic theories were developed in his field, solving the problems he had been struggling with and achieving great successes, he continued talking about entelechy. While embryologists were busy discovering the role of chromosomes in heredity and laying the groundwork of the modern synthesis of Mendelism, Darwinism, and population statistics, Driesch in fact expanded the principle of entelechy, to deal with contexts quite different from the original embryological one. Again, not unlike Sheldrake, Driesch took his biological concept to bear on subjects such as parapsychology, the soul, and the philosophy of life. Both Sheldrake and Driesch are good examples of what I call “discovery enthusiasm”: scientists who think they have made a revolutionary break-through, follow up by expanding the application of their discovery to increasingly more lofty fields, and typically meet resistance and counter-theories by increasing their zeal and looking for support in popular, philosophical, or religious communities rather than in their original scientific community.
While the vitalistic controversy started by Driesch was, from a scientific point of view, settled within few years, the door to vitalism and other non-mechanistic theories of life remained temporarily open in the scientific discourse of the early 1900s. On the more philosophical and speculative side, we have the crazed popularity of Henri Bergson’s vitalistic philosophy, the creation of various philosophies of emergence (notably by philosopher Samuel Alexander, the biologist/psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan, and philosopher C. D. Broad), and the “process philosophy” of Alfred North Whitehead. In addition to these, a significant number of celebrated biologists adopted broadly “organicist” rather than “mechanistic” research methods in the period between 1900 and 1940. Hans Spemann was even awarded a Nobel prize of physiology in 1934 for his work in the 1920s (with the PhD student Hilde Proescholdt – a poor victim of the “Matthew effect”, but that’s another story) on his essentially organicist concept of “the organizer”. When the scales tipped again, it was not so much a result of a repressive scientific establishment forcing its way, as the heavy weight of successful mechanistic explanations across a wide spectrum of biological and biochemical research that had been technically impossible in the 1920s.
Finally, we should note that being an organicist and hence limiting the scope of “mechanism”, does not necessarily mean a hostility towards metaphysical views such as “materialism” or physicalism. This can be illustrated by other famous biologists with organicist leanings in the early 20th century, such as Joseph Needham. Needham was drawn to non-mechanistic theories of life from Friedrich Engels’ decidedly materialist philosophy of science. In fact, one way to distinguish “vitalism” from “organicism” is that vitalists are committed to non-materialism, while organicists can easily remain materialists. Under this definition, Sheldrake in fact appears more like a full-blown vitalist than an organicist.
This becomes clear in that he considers the second dogma of science to be:
2. Matter is unconscious.
I will not spend too much time on this particular “dogma”, but rather treat it in continuation with the above. “Consciousness” is a common preoccupation of vitalists, who typically connect the conscious to the mysterious life force, and need both of which to be somehow irreducible and essential forces in the world. This means a break away from materialism and physicalism: whatever consciousness is, it is something other than a mechanical effect of material substances. Thus one might be drawn to various “animistic” theories, where” souls”, “spirits”, or other forms of conscious agents, are separable from material bodies and only inhabit them. That would be a rather common (and some would say intuitive) form of dualism. Alternatively one might want to save a monistic worldview, and hence avoid problems with mind/body dualism by postulating a form of panpsychism. Perhaps everything is inherently conscious, inherently “alive”?
There have been many proponents of various versions of this view throughout the history of western philosophy, but Sheldrake is probably quite right in stating that it is never considered seriously by science today. To cite his description of the “second dogma”:
“All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of the brain.”
These are extremely tough questions, and it simply will not do to castigate science for not considering that “matter” might be “conscious”. (What is that even supposed to mean?) Even within the science that deals most closely with the field from which we happen to know about such a thing as “consciousness” (or think we do, anyway – let’s not be dogmatic about this!) – psychology – the concept has always been notoriously vague, imprecise, and void of explanatory power. When psychology was getting properly professionalised around the beginning of the 20th century, the concept was about to be ditched completely. Not only by the behaviourists – the movement pioneered by John B. Watson in 1913, but by functionalists as well. Anyone who has bothered to read Watson’s paper, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” (which I believe has gotten unnecessary bad reputation following Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of Skinner’s behaviourism and the foundation of cognitive science), will have found that the main objection there is not to a metaphysical theory, but to problems of precision in terminology, methods of measurement, experimental conduct, and theory building. Getting away from a focus on introspective analysis of the “contents of one’s mind” or “the structure of consciousness”, was necessary in order to build a psychological science that could say anything meaningful at all about the workings of minds.
Since then, of course, psychology has gotten much more sophisticated. Cognitive science has put mental content and internal processes on the map again, enhanced by an advancing neuroscience. But the point still remains: if determining conscious activity in animal and even human subjects has proved so incredibly difficult, how much sense does it make for a scientist to ask whether or not a grain of sand is “conscious”? What would be the criteria by which one could determine such a question? And more importantly, what would be the sufficient criteria to conclude that the speck is, indeed, unconscious?
A science that would treat random objects as conscious without considering questions such as these would be a truly dogmatic science. But the epistemological problem runs even deeper: To insist on keeping the question open even when there are scientific criteria around (in this case those of psychology and the philosophy of mind) that, if they were employed, would yield pretty clear answers, amounts to a form of special pleading. Or else a serious case of the (incredibly common) fallacy known as equivocation: if a pebble on the beach is conscious, it is not conscious in the same sense, or by the same definitions, as we intend when talking about human subjects as being conscious. The science of consciousness has descended into a game of words.
So much for mechanism, vitalism, panpsychism and consciousness. Next up we look at questions such as: Are the laws of nature fixed? Does nature have a purpose? And more importantly: is science dogmatic about these issues?
This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.