Bottom-Up Physicalism’s Impact and Rising Questions
Jean-Paul Sartre mused through a fictional character in his novel “The Wall” that life loses its meaning “when you have lost the illusion of being eternal.”
Educators, journalists, politicians, entertainers believe and enforce the position of scientists who hold firmly to the presupposition of physicalism, or the bottom-up view of the world. Counter views are seldom heard and if they arise they are quickly and vigorously attacked as we shall see.
The issue of the mind-brain connection is at the heart of this, with top-down thinkers proposing that there is something beyond what we typically call physical and only by including this something more can we understand all the data related to human experience and consciousness. Bottom-up thinkers are certain that while a physicalist concept of how the mind or consciousness emerges from the “wet computer” or the random accumulation of particles known as our brains is yet to be found, they are certain this will happen. Some refer to this as “promissory materialism.” A major purpose of this work is to provide an overview of this upheaval and offer suggestions as to what is behind it.
Jean-Paul Sartre observed that life loses its meaning when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. That illusion is lost in the common understanding of physicalist bottom-up thinking. The impacts are profound. But, does today’s science support this view or presupposition?
This is the third article in a series called Top-Down versus Bottom-Up on Medium.
Article 1: Introduction
Article 2: Pauli-Jung Collaboration
Jean-Paul Sartre mused through a fictional character in his novel “The Wall” that life loses its meaning “when you have lost the illusion of being eternal.” The sense that we are eternal and should be eternal is a near universal human experience transcending vast differences in time and culture. Today, scientists have become the primary authorities on what is real and what is true. Standing on the authoritative pedestal of remarkably successful science, some go beyond science to make pronouncements on concerns that lay outside of the bounds of science including whether there is meaning to it all. They teach that the universe is an inexplicable wonder that popped into existence with no apparent purpose or cause. That the laws that make our universe work have combined into an inexplicably fortunate series of connected coincidences that made the inexplicable emergence of life from bits of exploded stars possible. And that life had the inexplicable innate capability to transform itself into intelligent beings with the inexplicable idea that they actually exist, are actually aware of their existence and should exist for eternity. But the mind or brain of the being that holds a belief in eternity is in reality only a purposeless pack of neurons. This belief and all other perceptions, ideas and concepts held by this brain are fully and completely determined and constrained by the laws of physics pertaining to matter and forces only. All animate matter dies. So the belief in eternity dies with the creature. There is no soul, no spirit, no mind outside of the physical brain and any such belief is not consistent with well established science.
Educators, journalists, politicians, and entertainers believe and enforce the position of scientists who hold firmly to the presupposition of physicalism, or the bottom-up view of the world. Counter views are seldom heard and if they arise they are quickly and vigorously attacked as we shall see. Physicalism is the idea that all things that happen have physical causes and only what is physical is real. It is a dogma of science today. Probably the dogma. Many believe to lose that foundation is to lose the ability to do real science and to adopt any idea of reality outside of physical laws and material stuff is to entertain an illusion or, worse, be delusional. But, physicalism is not an essential foundation for science as can be seen from its history and practice today. Most scientists throughout the history of science have accepted the idea of transcendence, the immaterial, of something more. Only 10% of Nobel prize winners have been atheists. Most scientists today believe in the idea of God, a Higher Power or some form of spiritual reality. Younger scientists more than older ones.
More important is the reality that scientists today of various kinds have pushed beyond the limits of physicalism in physics, biology and psychology. Many may deny that, but the hand wringing of many prominent scientists about where current ideas about the nature of the universe suggests that something profound is going on. The rapidly emerging science of consciousness exhibited in the varieties of human experience are also leading farther and farther away from the physicalist belief that the mind emerges from the brain. The vehemence with which some scientists attempt to protect what they see as the fundamental value of physicalism is evident in the books, papers and interviews with the so-called “new atheists.” Even as their language gets more extreme and strident their protests against those who question the dogma of physicalism appear to be falling more and more on deaf ears — even those of their fellow scientists.
There is a great upheaval underway in the sciences and the questions being posed about the idea of physicalism and where science today. For this series I am posing this upheaval or fundamental scientific controversy as “top-down” versus “bottom-up.” The issue of the mind-brain connection is at the heart of this, with top-down thinkers proposing that there is something beyond what we typically call physical and only by including this something more can we understand all the data related to human experience and consciousness. Bottom-up thinkers are certain that while a physicalist concept of how the mind or consciousness emerges from the “wet computer” or the random accumulation of particles known as our brains is yet to be found, they are certain this will happen. Some refer to this as “promissory materialism.” A major purpose of this work is to provide an overview of this upheaval and offer suggestions as to what is behind it.
This great sea change seems to escape most in the non-science community. There are reasons for that. Profound change is not always evident when it is part of the water we swim in. And those who are in a position to educate and inform students and the general public remain fully aligned with those who continue to defend the bottom-up physicalist presupposition. But, as more lay observers of science come to understand the growing disconnect, the current dominant ideas of what science really teaches will be put on the table. And with that, the supreme authority of science in all matters of reality and truth may also be put on the table. Part of our challenge here will be to think through some of the possible implications of the reduction of domination of the bottom-up perspective.
The very profound change documented and explored here has long term implications for culture and society. For 250 years or more Western culture and now global culture has largely been driven by science. Science replaced the Church, Christendom and Islamic teaching as the source of ultimate truth and authority. The extraordinary success of science in explaining the laws and processes that make the world we live in and the technologies these explanations have created a nearly universal consensus about the value and role of science. When the Church and the Christian religion held sway over Western culture, what individuals and groups living in that culture valued was generated by what the religion taught. Cultural values arise from the source of authority. As physicist Henry Stapp explains in Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer:
“It is often claimed that science stands mute on questions of values: that science can help us to achieve what we value once our priorities are fixed, but can play no role in fixing these weightings. That claim is certainly incorrect. Science plays a key role in these matters. For what we value depends on what we believe, and what we believe is strongly influenced by science.”
Science, or the scientists who inform the rest of us, tell us about our world, how it was made, how it works and whether or not there is any meaning in it. They create our beliefs, as Stapp says, and from these beliefs we derive our values as individuals and as a society. But, what if they are wrong? The situation is this: the vast majority of people in our society hold beliefs contrary to what our cultural leaders teach. But, the cultural drivers have a profound impact on how we think, and act and interact as a society. What if what they are teaching is fundamentally wrong and the stubbornly held beliefs about spiritual reality, an afterlife — and even God — are right? If current science is actually saying something quite different from what most in our society believe it is saying, how will this change us? What will we believe? Who will we trust? Who will hold authority?
An example of this false teaching, according to Stapp, is free will. Physicalism and determinism are two sides of the same coin. Determinism says there is no free will: everything that happens is determined by a sort of clockwork universe. The sense that we make independent choices and those choices matter is an illusion. This has been a basis for scientific thinking going back to Newton and Bacon, but firmly established in 1814 by French scholar Pierre-Simon de Laplace. He was the same French scientist who famously told Napoleon that he had no need for the hypothesis of God. In his book A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities Laplace said:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
Wanting to avoid connecting the Laplace reference to an “intellect” to any idea he might be referring to God, scientists and philosophers have long referred to this being as “Laplace’s demon.” This idea of a single formula — of determinism — is tied to the classical physics of Newton. The force of gravity determines movement of the stars and atoms. But, does it hold in the much less intuitive world of quantum physics? Physicalists say yes. Brian Greene, a strong defender of physicalism is categorical. His 2020 book Until the End of Time is a philosophical defense of physicalism. He explains the laws of physics make free will only an illusion, a “sensation” he calls it. Even the probabilistic realities of quantum mechanics require a rigid, mathematical determinism. But Greene struggles to address fundamental issues such as creativity and responsibility. Creativity, he concludes, requires no free will explaining how a programmed Roomba demonstrates rudimentary creativity. And, he is ambiguous on responsibility:
“Responsibility has a role, too. Even though my particles, and hence my behaviors, are under the full jurisdiction of physical law, ‘I’ am in a very literal if unfamiliar way responsible for my actions…as my particle arrangement learns and thinks and synthesizes and interacts and responds, it imprints my individuality and stamps my responsibility on every action I take.”
Free will is strictly required by physicalism, yet provides a great difficulty as Greene’s somewhat desperate attempt to reconcile determinism and responsibility demonstrates. Somehow, we know we are free to act. It goes beyond intuition. It is basic. Yet, the physicalists say it is an illusion. Greene also is aware, it appears, that the implications of this on society are immense. If we are not responsible for our actions, what is justice? Why would anyone reasonably be accountable for their actions if what they did was set in stone by the laws of physics that mysteriously came into play at the time of the Big Bang?
Stapp points to Niels Bohr’s positivistic Copenhagen Interpretation, the “shut up and calculate” response to the measurement problem as a source of this disconnect between what we know to be true and what scientists tell us we should know to be true:
Due undoubtedly, at least in part, to the impact of Bohr’s advice, most quantum physicists have been reluctant even to try to construct an ontology compatible with the validity of the massively validated pragmatic quantum rules involving our causally efficacious conscious thoughts. However, due to this reticence on the part of quantum physicists we are faced today with the spectacle of our society being built increasingly upon a conception of reality erected upon a mechanistic conception of nature now known to be fundamentally false. Specifically, the quintessential role of our conscious choices in contemporary physical theory and practice is being systematically ignored and even denied. Influential philosophers, pretending to speak for science, claim, on the basis of a grotesquely inadequate old scientific theory, that the (empirically manifest) influence of our conscious efforts upon our bodily actions, which constitutes both the rational and the intuitive basis of our functioning in this world, is an illusion. As a consequence of this widely disseminated misinformation the `well informed’ officials, administrators, legislators, judges, and educators who actually guide the development of our society tend to direct the structure of our lives in ways predicated on false premises about `nature and nature’s laws’.
Let’s make physicist Stapp’s position very clear. He says that while classical physics led to an understanding of determinism and the loss of free will, the emergence of quantum mechanics completely changed this understanding. Free will is baked into the most fundamental fabric of physical reality. Yet, many current physicists cling to a classical understanding and physicalist pre-supposition and in the process mislead those people who form our beliefs and values in our culture.
Defenders of the physicalist/deterministic/bottom-up position are ardently defending this presupposition and fighting hard against what they see as an incursion of non-scientific or even anti-scientific ideas that don’t require that presupposition. Much of the defense comes from prominent and highly regarded scientists and communicators of science like Steven Pinker, Leonard Susskind, Brian Greene, and Sean Carroll. But, there are also the polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens who not only defend physicalism but attack in strong terms those who have the temerity to question the dogma. Karen Armstrong insightfully pointed out that when a dominant culture begins to lose its hegemony, those ardent believers in it turn ever more insistent, strident and even violent. She calls this reaction against the fear of loss of dominance fundamentalism. She traces its roots in the emergence of Christian fundamentalism following the Scopes monkey trial, in Jewish fundamentalism confronting secularization and in Islamic fundamentalism. In Islam the emergence of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia was traced to the gradual Westernization of Muslim culture. We see in the rants of Dawkins and company every evidence of this atheistic fundamentalism wedded completely to the physicalist doctrine. In a more elegant and sophisticated way we see it in recent works like Sean Carroll’s Something Deeply Hidden and Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time. It’s hard to see how Ms. Armstrong would not see this as atheistic fundamentalism deriving from an understandable fear of loss of cultural hegemony.
While the ire of Dawkins and company is focused on religious believers and particularly traditional Christian believers, the truth is the undermining of the physicalist hegemony is being accomplished much by respected scientists than those advocating for general or specific religious beliefs. There is a rising chorus of voices expressing dismay over the direction physics in particular is taking and many of those voices are coming from within the physics community, as we shall see. But added to those voices, are the ones from the psychology community, and even biology, that are proclaiming with increasing clarity a non-physicalist view of reality. It is the combination of the concerns of scientists from very diverse fields of study that makes this top-down bottom-up controversy so consequential.