George Johnson is a prolific science writer—the author of nine books and hundreds of articles. (He has written 14 articles for the New York Times in 2014 alone.) He is also, by all accounts, a fine man. Last week in the New York Times he wrote “Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space.” Here is a brief summary of that piece.
Human may have been demoted from their central place in the heavens by modern science, writes Johnson, but we still believe that we will eventually figure out the how the universe works. It is generally believed we will do this by utilizing four basic concepts: matter and energy interacting in space and time. But there are some skeptics who think we might need a few more concepts, notes Johnson.
The first is the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He thinks there is more to the universe than physical forces, and that evolutionary laws need to be expanded to explain sentient life. Needless to say Nagel’s views have caused consternation. The psychologist Steven Pinker, denounced Nagel’s latest book as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Nagel, for his part, is an atheist who is not promoting non-scientific ideas like intelligent design. Instead he argues that science must continue to expand to find more complete answers. Nagel writes: “Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning … but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that the tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.” (Any thoughtful scientist would agree.)
The discovery or invention of a mathematics so in tune with reality also amazes Nagel. (Many evolutionary epistemologists are not surprised that brains, which evolve from nature, are thus in tune with nature.) Even neuroscientists cannot yet explain how mind emerges from the electronic circuitry of the brain. (That “they can’t explain that” posits some as yet unknown explanation. It is one thing to say this explanation is supernatural and by definition such explanations are outside the purview of science. It is another to say that further explanation is needed, and no scientist would disagree with that.)
To fully explain mind, Nagel argues, requires another scientific revolution. Such a revolution posits mind as fundamental and a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” This would require directional, possibly even purposeful evolution, and would expand on the model random mutations and environmental selection. “Above all,” Nagel writes, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” (Again few scientists would disagree. Thus Nagel’s views are not as revolutionary as they appear.)
In addition, notes Johnson, the biologist Stuart Kauffman also suggests that Darwinian theory must be expanded to explain the emergence of intelligent creatures like ourselves. (There is nothing surprising about this. My article on “Piaget’s Biology” in The Cambridge Companion to Piaget (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy)notes multiple biologists who argue similarly.) And David Chalmers, an important philosopher of mind, has seriously considered panpsychism–the idea that rudimentary consciousness pervades everything in the universe. (However Chalmers does not say that panpsychism and the physicalism underlying contemporary biology conflict, although he does say, in this interview, that panpsychism “is a radical form of physicalism precisely because it introduces mental properties as fundamental.” So Chalmer’s views are not as revolutionary as they appear. It seems to me that panpsychism might even be expected given the evolution of higher intelligences from lower one. It also seems, on briefest reflection, that this does not mean mind more fundamental than matter, but rather that it is an emergent property in evolution. My basic point is that the reference to panpsychism doesn’t clearly challenge scientific orthodoxy.)
Johnson also notes that the renowned physicist Max Tegmark argues that mathematics is an irreducible part of nature–perhaps the most fundamental part. Johnson marvels at mathematics’ effectiveness in describing reality. (Piaget wrote extensively about how children’s reflective abstractions largely explain how the mind evolves, as well as the correspondence of mathematics and reality. And there are Platonic, evolutionary and other explanations of this correspondence.) Tegmark argues the universe is a mathematical structure from which matter, energy, space and time emerge. Other mathematicians note that most mathematics doesn’t describe reality at all. But for Johnson, Tegmark provides another example of a challenge to scientific orthodoxy.
Johnson conclusion from all this is mixed. On the one hand we’ve come a long way in understanding our universe in the 5,000 years or so of civilization. On the other hand, from the vantage point of 5,000 years hence, our science today will be primitive. So Johnson is not sure of the extent to which challenges to the orthodoxy are substantive.
My conclusion is that Johnson is correct about the former claim—we have come a long way since the dawn of civilization, but I’m not sure about his latter claim—that today’s science will be primitive in retrospect. In some ways this is true, but in others it may not be. There is a good chance that evolutionary, quantum, relativity, gravitational and atomic theories will survive almost intact. Why? Because while revolutionary disruptions occasionally happen in science, as Kuhn suggested, more often change is slow. Change is mostly gradual, evolutionary change, not radical, revolutionary change. Newton’s theory of gravity is not wrong—it works fine at speeds much slower than light—although Einstein’s theory of gravity is more complete. The ancient atomists were correct that atoms are small indeed even though they didn’t have a modern atomic theory. And Euclidean geometry is not invalid because of non-Euclidean geometry–parallel lines still don’t meet in Euclidean space! In the far future we may find out we knew a lot more than we thought we knew.
As for new ideas that challenge scientific orthodoxy I think Carl Sagan said it best: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”