How to cope with scientific myths
? – Science does not always provide lay people with helpful orientation. Sometimes we read “sensational” science news that appear to be inconsistent and conflicting with what has to be regarded as serious scientific knowledge.
Yes, it is scandalous the way some scientists accept uncritically some of the most ridiculous speculations, such as the plurality of worlds, the opinion that spacetime has more than 4 dimensions, that particles can move faster than light, or that human life can be prolonged indefinitely.
Anyone with a scienific Weltananschauung will temper enthusiasm with caution.
?- What is the background of these speculations? Are there “scientific myths” at work? How can philosophy expose them and help to distinguish solid scientific knowledge from unrealistic legends?
This is an interesting question that deserves to be pursued at great lengths in an interdisciplinary manner. However, one can discern a few very general myths that facilitate the birth of further myths: that everything is possible; that whatever we have failed to explain in normal and earthly terms must have paranormal or supernatural explanations; and that science, being rational, cannot explain the irrational, such as taste and love.
?- Sometimes even highly merited scientists turn into esotericists …
A distinguished cognitive neuroscientist confessed to me that, because of his religious upbringing, he could not get rid of psychoneural dualism. The idea that one ceases to be after death was too painful to him.
? – What lies behind such „scientific superstition“?
One of the causes is the separation of science from philosophy: the belief that science Is self-sufficient. Another is the argument from authority. A third is the lack of historical perspective.
Fighting for the unity of body and mind
? – 35 years ago you got involved in a controversy caused by such a myth:
In the World Congress of Philosophy held in Düsseldorf in 1978 you held a public debate with Sir John Eccles, the famous neuroscientist, a Nobel laureate, and collaborator of your friend, the philosopher Sir Karl Popper. Eccles held the idealist and parapsychological view that the immaterial mind keeps the neurons moving, much as the pianist plays piano. On the basis of neuroscientific knowledge you held the opposite: that minding is the specific function of the human brain. Congress participants were amazed by the toughness of your dispute.
Sir John Eccles was a remarkable technician, the first to record the activity of single nerve cells thanks to the microelectrode he invented. Since he did not find the soul in the individual neuron, he jumped to the conclusion that the mind is immaterial. Many years earlier, in the prestigious weekly „Nature“, Eccles published a paper where he held that the neuron behaves the way it does because of the soul’s telekinetic action. Why was that paper accepted for publication? Because the editors did not have a filtering mechanism. And why did the famous philosopher Karl Popper support Eccles instead of criticizing him? Because he had no coherent worldview, and because his criterion of scientificity was purely empirical: he was satisfied with refutability, whereas most scientists demand also what I call external consistency, i.e., compatibility with the bulk of knowledge – in this Physics, since telekinesis involves the creation of energy out of nothing.
? – What response did you receive from your colleagues then? What did your friend Sir Karl Popper say, who favored dualism?
Popper was not pleased: he told me he was pained every time two friends of his fought one another. Actually it was much more: his dualism was inconsistent with his own scientificity criterion, since it is irrefutable. And it does not enjoy the support of neuroscience. Several years earlier he had scolded me for writing that the steady-state theory of the universe, according to which there is creation of matter out of nothing to maintain a constant energy density despite the expansion of the universe, was magical.
I do not know how other philosophers reacted, except in the case of Marxists. At the same congress, the editor of the Soviet philosophical Journal „Filosofskie Nauki“, a Professor Gott (sic) asked me for a contribution. I mailed him „The bankrupcy of psycho-neural dualism“, which he published along with a paper by a certain D. Dubrovsky, twice as long, that defended dualism. Why? Because Lenin had criticized Eugen Dietzgen’s thesis that the mind is material, alleging that, if this were true, materialism would be consistent with idealism. Shortly thereafter, something similar happened with the Hungarian Marxist philosophical review. But this time they asked Professor Szenghagothai, an eminent Catholic neuroscientist, to refute me. This was not an isolated incident: Marxists have not kept in touch with science, and they prefer to repeat their classics. It is easier and safer.
? – In the years following your participation in the World Congress of Philosophy you have worked out your monistic perspective on human consciousness in detail.
Yes, in three books: „The mind-body problem“ (1980), which was translated into German; „Philosophy of Psychology (1987)“, and „Matter and Mind“ (2010). In each case I incorporated some new findings in neuroscience (e.g, about neural plasticity) and biological psychology (e.g., about the neural tracks left by learning).
? – What have you found out there? Is it possible to explain to laymen in a few words how human freedom is possible despite – or even because of – material processes in our brain and the absence of a nonmaterial mind?
I believe that modern science supports free will, in showing that the brain can act spontaneously, not only in response to external stimuli. Of course you cannot free yourself from the laws of nature; but the laws of nervous systems are not the same as the physical laws. If we know that we have free will, then we will believe in our power to alter the status quo, though not arbitrarily, because society imposes restrictions on individual freedom: I will let you do as you wish as long as you don’t hurt me.
Realistic morality and ethics
? – Obviously we now reach fundamental ethical questions. For example: Is it possible that sciences, which emphasize the crucial importance of empirical-scientific knowledge, find standards for morality and ways for their implementation in social life?
Science is morally neutral, but social science shows us that some moral codes are better than others. For example, the societies that abide by the rule “No rights without duties, and no duties without rights“, is likely to do better than those that tolerate selfishness or that impose obedience.
? – What role do values play? Do they strengthen morality? How do they work in social life?
We deem valuable whatever is likely to meet our needs or wishes (individual values) and whatever is likely to help protect or attain social goals (social values). However, this is not a dichotomy, for some individual values, such as truth, are needed to secure some social values, such as mutual trust, and some social values, such as peace, are required to pursue some individual values, such as good health.
? – Who are legitimate moral authorities – who can intervene when people fight over interests and values?
Under theocracies and other authoritarian regimes, the rulers are the moral authorities. Under genuine democracy some basic values are entrenched in the legal system, which is expected to be under democratic vigilance, and others are left to the person or the group, which ideally debate moral problems in a rational, free and cooperative manner. For example, doctor-assisted suicide should be a right, but each case should be discussed by all the interested parties: patient, his/her dependents, and health workers.
The old controversy: religion versus philosophy
? – Thousands of years religions represented themselves as moral authorities and seem still to be recognized as legitimate opinion leaders. What is your assessment:
Have religions gained even new power? Has their influence in societies of the West, East, Middle East etc been increased? And in the meantime – what has happend to the influence and status of philosophy?
In some regions, such as North America and Japan, religion is on the wane: the temples are empty and the priesthood is discredited. But in others religion is stronger than ever, because it is used as a tool for the emancipation from the so-called West. This has been happening with Islam since the times of Mossadegh and Colonel Nasser.
? – Often it is argued – even by philosophers -, that religion and philosophical thought are compatible with each other. Some consider it reasonable that philosophy should respect the „higher“ knowledge claims of religions.
Dogmatic philosophy is certainly compatible with religion, and in some cases its surrogate. But since Greek and Roman antiquity, enlightened philosophy has been the bane of religion. No wonder, because genuine philosophers do not admit supernatural beings, after-life, revealed wisdom, absolution, or the absolute authority of religious professionals. The thesis oft the double truth, held by Averroes and resurrected by Stephen Jay Gould, is false from the viewpoint of scientism, according to which science can study everything, whereas faith blinds us. The same thesis also discourages us to hold groundless beliefs. However, we should defend religious freedom as long as organized religion does not attempt to usurp the right of the state, to secure universal, compulsory and free secular education.
? – How do you see the relationship of philosophy and religion? Is there a „higher sphere of faith“, which philosophy has to leave to religion? In the end – have we to believe in a world creating divine power, which reconciles us with our existence on earth, lending us the ability to understand the world?
From a historical viewpoint, religion is just a kind of superstition, and from a political viewpoint it is a tool of social control. Authentic philosophy is secular: it accepts Kant’s dictum in his 1st Kritik: „Gott ist eine bloße Idee“. But a democratic state will protect the freedom to hold any beliefs other than those that harm others, such as racism. In particular, it will see to it that no one is harmed just because of her beliefs.
? – Clashes between the Arab world and the Western world (including Israel) nowadays have aspects of a religious fight of three monotheistic religions – Christian and Jewish against Islamic monotheism:
How should we assess this „religious warfare“ from a philosophical point of view? Is there a philosophical „peace plan“? How could it be used successfully?
History and the sociology of religion suggest that all religious wars are political wars in disguise.
Mohammedans live peacefully with Christians and Jews in Spain, Turkey and Northern Africa for centuries, until oil was discovered in Arabia, and British and American companies started to exploit it. Remember Mussadegh, the Iranian president who was toppled by British Petroleum Co, with the help of the American „intelligence“ agency, when he announced his intention to nationalize Iranian oil. Whom did the Americans put in power to replace him? The murderous Sha Reza Pahlavi. And Israel would not be just as hated as the US, had it not become America’s most loyal and effective ally. Neither the US nor Israel has ever supported any national liberation movement. In particular, Israel sent arms and military advisors to the Apartheid regime and to the worst Central American dictatorships. Oil, not religion, is behind the so-called “culture clash”. Likewise, Catholic France paid Lutheran Landsknechte to fight the Spanish-Austrian alliance. Ask Cardinal Richelieu whether he celebrated any masses for the souls of the Catholics robbed and massacred by the Lutheran soldiers in his payroll.
Can philosophy do anything to solve this problem? No, because it is an economic and political issue, not a conceptual one. All philosophers can do is to abstain from helping the aggressors and to enjoin social scientists to tell the truth instead of joining the choir of liars and hypocrites.
Source of Mario Bunge’s portrait photos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zX3qSq1FkEc
(youtube video by www.intramed.net)