Friday, June 12, 2009

Bury Bernie Already - He's Starting To Stink Up The Joint!

A month and a day since my last post - it's about time for another one. The title calls to mind the 1989 movie Weekend At Bernie's. Bernie is a metaphor for a philosophy known as ontological Materialism, which I identify loosely with Physicalism and metaphysical Naturalism. It is the dominant intellectual paradigm in Western science, academia, and much of the mainstream media, especially the more heady portion thereof, e.g., PBS, NPR, and the New York Times Book Review. For those who know how to spot it, it is detectable behind every article in TIME and Newsweek that comes out around Easter that attempts to discredit miraculous events recorded in scripture. It is the driving force behind every new Scientific American article or National Geographic feature on the latest de jure Missing Link and Final Proof of Darwinian evolution. It is openly asserted in the typical piece that screams from the title page on the magazine at the supermarket rack that Now Science Has Shown That There Is No Room for the Soul. It is the default assumption of the talking heads that make up the elite intelligentsia.

It was 1820 when the astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace , known as the "French Newton" (and known for being more strictly Newtonian than Isaac Newton ever was), gave us this little gem:

We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. (Essai Philosophique sur les Probabilités forming the introduction to his Théorie Analytique des Probabilités, Paris: V Courcier; repr.)

That requires a translation from Vulcan into Ordinary Human, and such a translation needs a story.

We all probably remember that when we were in grade school we were taught about molecules and atoms and all that stuff - the little bits of things, so small you can't see 'em. I remember I had to memorize a definition for a seventh grade science quiz, and I drilled it into myself so hard I never forgot it: "a molecule is the smallest part of a substance that is still that substance." I was taught that water is a substance, and it is made of molecules that we call H2O. We call them that because they are made of atoms: two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. But those atoms are not themselves water. I remember I was also told that the oxygen I breathe is a gas whose molecules are O2 (two atoms of oxygen). I remember wondering why a molecule of oxygen was "that substance" (oxygen), but an atom of oxygen wasn't. But that's besides the point. (Ok, if it's going to bother you for the rest of this post and distract you from the point, I'll tell you - atomic oxygen is not the O2 oxygen gas we breathe - if you were in a room full of free floating atomic oxygen but no O2, you'd asphyxiate).

That was what I learned when I first was taught about molecules and atoms. I was shown models of molecules, which looked like little colored balls or spheres fastened to each end of a thin dowel rod or stick. The little spheres were atoms. The atoms, I was told, were not really like little balls, but rather like little solar systems. There was an even tinier ballbearing or bunch of them, in the center, and very tiny dot-like spheres whirling about it very fast, like miniature planets around a sun. These, I was assured, are what everything is made of. If I knocked on the wood of my school desk or whatever table I was sitting at, the atoms of my hand were knocking against the atoms of the wood. The solidity of the table was the solidity of its atoms - they were the ultimately real, and very hard, literally uncuttable things that everything we see is made of. Atoms were so hard, so there, so real, so impenetrable, that if you split the atom, you have an atomic bomb - that's how much energy is released when the bonds holding an atom together are broken - that's one violent Balloon-Pop!

Fine. But then I was told that most of what we know as atoms is empty space - and thus everything I see, including myself, is mostly empty space. That was puzzling - why don't the atoms in my knuckles slip right through the empty space of the atoms of the table? Why don't I fall through the floor, through the earth, and just join my empty atomic space with the rest of empty space in outer space? Well, because there are force fields between these particles that are like the fields around the poles of magnets. They can attract, and they can repel. The protons in the nucleus of the atom attract the electrons, and the electrons of my atoms repel the electrons of the table's atoms. If you have ever seen two magnets push each other away without touching, you can get the picture. The solidity of the table against my rapping knuckles was the result of all those fields between the force-field-embedded particles of my knuckles and the force-field-embedded particles in the table repelling each other. Ah hah! Gotcha.

Now comes the interesting part. It seems, or so I was taught, that Everything That IS, that all of existence, is just a large, complicated story of a staggeringly huge quantity of particles inside their respective force fields bouncing up against all the other particles inside their force fields. The world was like a very large game of pool - a vast billiard hall with only one table. The particles (in fields of force), are all doing their thing, moving around, bouncing blindly and meaninglessly off each other, floating around in space. That, ultimately, is the story of the universe, reduced to one sentence. The universe, in summary, is a bunch of tiny little particles, the smallest of which, of course, are the ultimately real, solid, present things, banging against each other. The pattern of their interaction, the sum total result of all those collisions, is the whole story of the universe from start to finish, from its beginning until the end. The level of the smallest particles is the bottom level, the foundation, the existential substrate, that from which everything that is real derives its reality, its substance. From rocks to trees to plants to animals to people to planets to stars and galaxies, ultimately, it is all a bunch of atoms in the void. Everything larger than atom is just a collection of atoms. Nothing more. What's more, if we knew where all the particles were, down to the smallest ones, and where they were going - their positions and momentum, we could apply Newton's laws of motion and theoretically we could calculate the whole history of the universe, all the way back to the beginning, and all the way forward to the end. We could know everything that had ever happened and everything that ever will happen. That is what Laplace was saying.

Naturally, if everything we do, every move we make, every action we perform, can be reduced to the inevitable consequence of the smallest parts of the matter in our bodies blindly and necessarily obeying the laws of physics, that is the end of freedom. No traditional notion of free will or responsible moral agency can be maintained if this worldview is affirmed, nor can any coherent, meaningful idea of God, of soul or spirit and life after death, be believed, if that truly is the whole story of us and the world, of everything that exists. However comforting such beliefs may be, however useful they are in constructing a law-based society and maintaining a coherent, orderly civilization, at best these are convenient fictions, civilly and sociologically necessary "white lies".

This is how one of the contemporary giants of English philosophy, John Searle, expresses this view from his famous 1984 Reith lectures:

On the one hand we are inclined to say that since nature consists of particles and their relations with each other, and since everything can be accounted for in terms of those particles and their relations, there is simply no room for freedom of the will...The strongest image for conveying this conception of determinism is still that formulated by Laplace: If an ideal observer knew the positions of all the particles at a given instant and knew all the laws governing their movements, he could predict and retrodict the entire history of the universe. (Minds, Brains and Science, 86-87)

So as recently as 1984, a very well-respected philosopher who is a very strong proponent of what he calls "the Scientific Worldview" (which is his question-begging term for materialism as I have described it), said that Laplace's "image" is STILL the "strongest" one. It is clear from the context that he does not consider Laplacian determinism to be, in any meaningful way, outdated, let alone overturned, by the fundamental and revolutionary changes to physics that have taken place since the 19th century. Even in the light of the great advances we have achieved in our knowledge of the physical world in the 189 years since 1820, Laplace's illustration and the intuition it expresses is still, in all its significant aspects, up-to-date, according to Searle. And Searle is not alone or out on a limb in holding this position. The web-based, online Stanford Encyclopedia article on "Casual Determinism" used the Laplace quote I gave above as the standard expression of physicalism causal determinism (an integral and necessary part of metaphysical materialism, the dominant academic, scientific, and intellectual paradigm). In fact, I copied it from there and pasted it here. You can find it at this url:

It remains for a follow-up to this already-overlong blog article to explain this, but for now, let me blow the gaff loud and proud:

Laplace was dead wrong, and all those soul-denying materialist bastards know it!

Laplacian determinism, and the naturalist, physicalist materialism it entails, is totally out of date and, in fact, completely refuted, by post-Newtonian physics. Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, by rendering scientifically meaningless a universal present moment, knocked the Laplacian version of Newtonian classical mechanics to the ground, and then Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, Max Planck, and Werner Heisenberg, performed the coup de grace.

Materialism is Dead On Arrival.

But it is such a useful fiction (which, ironically, is how materialists characterize the notion that human beings are free agents, morally responsible for their behavior) that its exponents could not bring themselves to declare it deceased. The worked valiantly to revive the corpse, but the long, monotonous flat-line beep did not waver. They should have admitted defeat in the face of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and said "Ok, Stop CPR and Call It: Time of Death, 1927." But they could not do it.

So they have been propping the carcass up like Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman propped up Terry Kiser in Weekend At Bernie's. They put on a bold, brave face and act as if nothing is wrong. All is well. Materialism is fine. Strong as an ox. Healthier than ever.

Don't you believe it!

It took over a hundred years for Relativity and quantum physics to kill Laplace's determinist materialistic version of Newtonian physics. It has been eighty-two years since it took its last breath on its own. That is one long-ass weekend! When are they going to get tired of hauling Bernie's dead ass around and waving his arm to passing onlookers? It's time to pull the plug! Materialism isn't in a coma. It's dead. Bury the body already. Give it to the worms - they're hungry.

In the next post, which I will publish very soon, I will present the autopsy report in detail. I will show exactly how materialism died. It will be like an episode of Philosophical CSI.

To Be Continued in "Weekend At Bernie's 2: Electron Boogaloo".... so STAY TUNED, TRUE BELIEVERS! SAME BLOG TIME! SAME BLOG CHANNEL!

Link to first installment of series of sequel posts: