By Wayne Allensworth
Read Part I here.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul—Genesis 2:7
The late John Polkinghorne was a noted physicist who contributed to the discovery of the quark, a fundamental sub-atomic particle. He was also an Anglican priest who wrote numerous books on the relationship between science and religion. Polkinghorne believed, and he was not alone in his belief in either the world of science or that of philosophy, that the mechanistic, deterministic description of the universe that is the basis of scientific materialist reductionism fails to fully explain either human will or the evident drive to increasing complexity in the universe that was present from the beginning.
In his writings, Polkinghorne frequently took issue with reductionism, the dominant scientific methodology based on describing the behavior of a system by breaking it down into its constituent parts, an approach that favors “bottom up causality.” Polkinghorne’s view was that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and his book Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity entertained the merits of a holistic alternative to reductionism. A holistic approach entails describing the behavior of a system in its entirety, as the constituent parts are tightly interconnected, and are explicable only with reference to the whole. Polkinghorne applied holism (“top down causality”) to the mind/body problem, suggesting that a holistic approach offered “a glimmer of understanding of how it might be that we are able to execute our mental intentions through the physical actions of our bodies.”
Regarding the mind/body question, Polkinghorne argued that there is a foundational “me” that is responsible for making decisions, whether they be ethical choices or decisions to perform (or not) physical actions. Polkinghorne insisted that we have always known that “we are not automata,” for “the experience of real choice, and hence, of real responsibility, is basic to being human.” Of course, as Polkinghorne noted, the relationship between brain function and cognition is indisputable, but “thought is different from the firing of complicated patterns of neurons; the mind is not just ‘what the brain does’ in simplistic physical terms.” Thinking, therefore, “exceeds computation,” and is not “identical to neural activity,” though many atheists claim that we are nothing more than “computers made of meat.” Mind is immaterial.
So where was Polkinghorne going with this? In explaining chaos theory, he noted that natural systems—weather systems, for example—can display “exquisite sensitivity,” and that “their detailed behavior is absolutely unpredictable without literally universal knowledge.” The world is not, after all, simply a gigantic clockwork, fully mechanistic in its operations. He also cautiously (for we do not truly understand how the micro world connects to our world of “large entities”) pointed to the strange realm of quantum physics, where at the subatomic level, deterministic “classical” mechanics are not applicable. It’s a world of probabilities and potentialities, where the entities that are part and parcel of that world, and are at the foundation our own, can behave in a particle-like manner or with wave-like patterns. It’s the world of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. As Polkinghorne saw it, “mere mechanism is dead,” making for “a more subtle and supple universe,” one that is “accessible to the providential interaction of the Creator.” Prayer, wrote Polkinghorne, can be “genuinely instrumental.”
Philosopher Thomas Nagel has also argued for a more subtle and supple universe in his book Mind and Cosmos. The book’s subtitle (Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong) directly challenges the prevalent scientific conventional wisdom. Nagel raises questions brought up by contemporary research in molecular biology, especially related to DNA “coding” and the mysteries of its origins, as well as the mystery of the origin of organic life arising from inorganic matter, in voicing “legitimate doubts about a fully mechanistic account of the origin and evolution of life, dependent only on the laws of chemistry and physics.” The appearance of the genetic code, which Nagel describes as “an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids together with mechanisms that can read the code and carry out its instructions,” seems especially improbable “given physical law alone.” Nagel argues that it’s highly unlikely that life arose as a “chemical accident.” That improbability, combined with “the failure of psychophysical reductionism” in explaining consciousness and the human capacity for reason, convinces Nagel that the materialist, reductionist view is open to challenge. If our perceptions, thoughts, and reasoning are merely the products of a mechanistic and wholly material process determined by physical laws, how can we trust them?
Nagel therefore suggests that “principles of a different kind are also at work in the history of nature.” He hypothesizes that the “principles of the growth of order” that might be an alternative to materialist reductionism are teleological rather than mechanistic. He also posits a monism that would include immaterial mind inextricably linked together with matter, proposing that such an approach might someday offer a fuller explanation of the wondrous appearance of intelligent life. His holism suggests that consciousness and the capacity “to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances” were perhaps emergent properties in a long and still only partly understood process, as reductionism left mind out of the discussion not long after the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. “Mind,” as proposed by Nagel, was present from the beginning, already residing in the character of the elements from which conscious organisms arose.
Nagel is no theist, but he believes that the criticisms of neo-Darwinism offered by advocates of “intelligent design” (he cites the work of Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer) should be taken seriously. Nagel insists that “they do not deserve the scorn” usually heaped upon them, which he calls “manifestly unfair.” Nagel notes that to those who accept conventional thinking, his proposals seem “outrageous” only because “our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct on the ground that anything else would not be science.”
He further argues that his views do not necessarily contradict those of theists not committed to dualism in the philosophy of mind and who believe that the appearance of conscious life is part of a natural order created by God. Regarding the necessity of “mind” inextricably combined with matter in the manifestation of the human personality, his views are not, for instance, entirely at odds with those of John Polkinghorne, who commented (see the numerous Polkinghorne speeches and interviews available on the internet) that he did not believe humans are ultimately “apprentice angels” whose afterlife will be one of spirit, reminding Christians that they believe in the resurrection of the body. He argued that mind and body are bound together in the human person, and trusted that God would recall the “blueprint” that encompasses soul and body for each of us on the day of resurrection.
Part III to follow.
Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.