wp-1473003361589.jpegThe cover story of the New Scientist this week is Metaphysics, which they sub-title “How science answers philosophy’s deepest questions”. I think that the New Scientist is a very interesting magazine, and I’m pleased that they tackle these sorts of topics, although I do find how they approach them somewhat frustrating sometimes!

I’ve blogged before about the New Scientist’s issues on ‘The God issue‘ and ‘World without God?‘, both of which I thought were helpful introductions to the subject, and both of which I think were limited by their lack of engagement with scientist-theologians. Instead, there was a focus on agnostic and atheistic approaches. This is again the case with their discussion of Metaphysics (subscription required). Again, this means that it is interesting and thought-provoking but limited and partial.

However, this doesn’t mean that what this issue does talk about isn’t worth considering. They offer a variety of short articles on some of the most mind-stretching metaphysical problems:

How do I know I exist? “The short answer is you don’t” (p30) writes Ananthaswamy (an answer that will be familiar to fans of the film The Matrix!), before considering computer simulations and neuropsychological issues. In short, we have to take the fact of our existence on faith…

What is consciousness? Ananthaswamy explores two answers to this question. One, that this is a real question, with consciousness being a fundamental component of the universe, which isn’t yet scientifically explicable. Swinburne in his book The Existence of God (2004) uses a version of this argument to argue that consciousness is a strong pointer towards the existence of God.

The other answer, is that consciousness is just a trick of the physical mind. However, there are a range of other arguments, which reach different conclusions. For example, Ward in Pascal’s Fire (2006) argues strongly against this second answer and instead argues that consciousness (as the soul) “exists in continuity with nature, but emerges as a new level of reality that has unique value and dignity” (p151). In short, the answer is, we don’t (yet) know!

Why is there something rather than nothing? Webb notes that the existence of the laws of physics is the real question, and argues that any multiverse argument doesn’t really answer this question satisfactorily. This is one question, he argues, that will remain forever out of the reach of science. Unfortunately, he doesn’t then go on to explore the philosophical or theological answers to this question.

What is the meaning of life? Is there one? asks Lawton. Possibly, if some interpretations of quantum mechanics are correct; if “the universe only comes into being when we observe it” (p33), which Swinburne in The Existence of God discusses at greater length. But, as Lawton notes, most of these answers are currently based more on faith than any evidence. When people are asked, Lawton reports, most people say that they do have a sense of meaning and purpose, whilst also searching for more meaning. He quotes the psychologist Laura King (p33):

You can think of meaning like oxygen. Do I have plenty now? Yes. Am I going to keep on wanting plenty of it? Yes. You’re not going to stop wanting it because you already have it.

A more interesting question therefore might be why we search for meaning; a question which a theological understanding that we are made in the image of God is perhaps a more convincing answer than the others on offer.

Where do good and evil come from? Hooper explores evolutionary answers to both good and evil acts, which she argues are explained by the understanding of “inclusive fitness”, where these acts benefit individuals with shared genes. Even if this concept has explanatory value (and it is very reductionist in nature), her conclusion that “Good and evil don’t exist in any real sense” (p34) doesn’t follow. Just because something (in this case, sometimes acting in a moral way) has an evolutionary benefit doesn’t mean that it isn’t a real, independent standard. This is shown in Hooper’s final sentence: “Our sense of morality can eliminate – or at least minimise – evil in society” (p34). But, if good and evil don’t really exist, why would we even desire this? What does it mean that we have a ‘sense of morality’? What about acts that can’t be explained by ‘inclusive fitness’, such as the work (again in the news) of Mother Theresa?

Do we have free will? Brooks looks at neuroscience and quantum physics to challenge easy assumptions about how free we are. He doesn’t include the constraints to freedom imposed by a range of social factors, which add further constraints. Brooks does discusses ‘t Hooft’s argument that something outside the universe determines everything that happens, which moves way beyond anything that science is capable of resolving.

Polkinghorne (Science and Christian belief 1994:12f) rejects these arguments by arguing that our capacity to reason is a sufficient demonstration of our free will. Many theologians are more interested in discussing how free will can be consistent with a powerful God, in ways which perhaps overlap with ‘t Hooft’s arguments. Perhaps there is scope here for more fruitful dialogue?

What is reality made of? As Clark implicitly notes, this is a metaphysical question as there are ongoing problems with how to define reality. Does this include consciousness? Nonetheless, he concludes this question should (eventually!) be more-or-less resolvable by physics (depending on the definition), but that we are currently a long way from a comprehensive answer.

Is time an illusion? Possibly, concludes Webb, although it is difficult to be sure, not least as relativity, quantum mechanics and our own experience all give different, conflicting and equally problematic answers! This is probably a question where science needs to feed in to theological arguments; in this case over whether God is outside time or not: theologians might first of all need to define what they mean by ‘time’!

Can we ever know if God exists? Lawton concludes that this is probably unknowable by science, but spends most of the article arguing for the merits of evidential atheism. This is the argument that the evidence points towards atheism, and away from God. One of his main supports are the arguments of the physicist Stegner. I’ve blogged about Stegner’s article for New Scientist which seems to be going over the same ground, which didn’t convince me then either!

Lawton also doesn’t discuss the counter arguments either. He dismisses evidential theism (the argument that the evidence points towards there being a God) with the tired old argument over evolution, which I’ve already talked about. Modern evidential theism, as shown by Swinburne, Ward, Polkinghorne McGrath (Dawkins’ God), and so on is far more robust and can’t be dismissed so easily. I’ve spoken at greater length about this, in response to similar arguments made by Dawkins.

In short, this is a series of introductory discussions on some of the most interesting (and hardest!) scientific-philosophical-theological questions there are. It shows that there are some where science can make a real contribution and some where science can delimit the parameters of the question, but can’t realistically seek to answer it. It also shows a few where scientists have a tendency to over-reach themselves!

My challenge to New Scientist to commission articles from scientists of different faith perspectives; I think that it would broaden the debate and show the range of views that scientists can hold without compromising their scientific approach.


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