When I saw that New Scientist had done an issue addressing philosophical questions, I was obviously interested, both as an individual, and as a teacher of philosophy of religion. I’m a big fan of science in general, and personally I believe that the more you learn about the universe, the more you are in effect learning about God (because to understand a creation can sometimes give you insights into its creator). I also strongly believe that people should generally learn to be critical and skeptical, in order to avoid the dangers of things like the ‘anti-vaccine’ movement; also, science is just intrinsically interesting, and obviously immensely useful.
As I read each of the nine articles though, I found myself rather irritated at points. Although they of course contain some very interesting facts and I learnt a few things, overall I was left feeling pretty disappointed with the feature. Fundamentally, scientific findings can rule out certain beliefs (e.g. the theory of evolution disproving Creationism) and it can have an influence on others (e.g. cosmology informing people’s views about the anthropic principle), but science simply can’t answer some philosophical questions – yet some of these articles appear to claim that it can. It’s very similar to how science can teach us how to build nuclear bombs, and it might also be able to predict the physical effects of them, but it simply can’t give us the answer to the ethical question of when, if ever, one should be used.
To be clear, my beliefs about God and faith are all-but-irrelevant here. My issue with some of the New Scientist articles isn’t that in some cases they come to conclusions with which I disagree; it’s that they come to philosophical conclusions without justifying them philosophically at all (or with the weakest of attempts). I thought I’d just run through the articles and give my reactions, both positive and negative.
How do I know I exist?
I was pretty happy to see that this article didn’t claim to have a scientific answer to this philosophical question, opening with the sentence, “The short answer is you don’t.” It discussed some really interesting ideas to do with psychology and Cotard’s syndrome, and concluded that actually, even if we’re all in a simulation (which we would never be sure of), a big question would still remain: what would be running the simulation? So far, so good, in my opinion. This article acknowledged that science can give us useful insights when asking philosophical questions, but also that ultimately it can’t give us an actual answer.
What is consciousness?
This article, by the same author as the previous one (Anil Ananthaswamy), gives a useful overview of the “hard problem” of consciousness. It’s fairly balanced, and acknowledges both sides of the argument: that some people say consciousness objectively exists, while others argue it’s just an illusion and therefore requires no explanation. He doesn’t really come to a conclusion, and leaves the question open, which I think is really fair enough, given that the debate is very much on-going in the philosophical world. Again, so far, so good!
Why is there something rather than nothing?
This was, looking at it in terms of philosophical merit (rather than simply what I found most interesting personally), my favourite article of the nine. It briefly explains the concepts of nothingness, a vacuum, and a multiverse, but acknowledges that ultimately, “physicists are going to have to accept they can only ever shift the goalposts on this one.” Yes: science can tell us a lot, but it can’t answer some philosophical questions.
The feature unfortunately went somewhat downhill after this point though.
What is the meaning of life?
With this article, the unjustified assertions begin! Your life, the article claims, is “actually a random blip of matter and energy in an uncaring and impersonal universe.” A belief in God is a “comfort blanket.” Neither of these assertions are philosophically justified by the author in any way; this is so frustrating. Readers who aren’t philosophically-minded or trained aren’t likely to spot this, and may instead just think that since New Scientist is generally a reliable source, then what they’re writing about science must be true – in other words, they may think that scientists have shown that life has no meaning, and belief in God is utterly ridiculous. Argh! While it is undoubtedly the case that philosophically, it is arguable that life has no meaning and that God doesn’t exist, this conclusion cannot be reached through scientific study alone! When people transfer authority like this, it really riles me. Scientists and skeptics would rightly and understandably get annoyed if a religious believer or adherent of a particular philosophy started making unjustified ‘scientific’ claims, and yet here New Scientist seems all too happy to do the equivalent.
This article also suggests that it’s reasonable to believe in the many worlds hypothesis, where each time you make a decision, an entirely new universe comes into existence. Given that this is an hypothesis and not a theory, and given that it sounds fairly incredible, why does the author think that belief in this is more reasonable than a belief in God? Belief in God giving your life meaning is a “comfort blanket” but belief in the many worlds hypothesis giving your life meaning is just cool? (“If true, your universe is created by the choices you make. How’s that for meaningful?”) I really expected more from this publication.
Where do good and evil come from?
Alas, more of the same can be found in this article. I’ll try to be brief because I’ve already written far more than I’d planned, but it’s hard when there are many holes still to pick. Essentially, this article argues as follows:
- Questions about good and evil seem too abstract for science to answer, at first, but we’ll give it a go.
- Science can answer some relevant questions, such as why animals are sometimes altruistic and why other times they’re violent.
- The answer science provides is that animals act out of self-interest, whether this seems altruistic or selfish from the outside.
- Even extreme behaviour can be explained in these terms.
- Therefore, “Good and evil don’t exist in any real sense.”
What?! This conclusion does not follow from the content of the article. Yes, animal (including human) behaviour can often be explained in terms of self-interest, but that doesn’t prove that “good and evil don’t exist in any real sense!” You can’t ask, “Do good and evil exist objectively?” (or to put it another way, “Is there actually such a thing as goodness and badness?”) and answer, “No, because animals act out of self-interest.” That simply doesn’t follow. It may be the case that the author believes good and evil to be entirely subjective, which is in itself a valid philosophical view (though one with which I personally disagree); but he hasn’t justified this view at all. If morality is objective, then animals still act out of self-interest; the acting out of self-interest can’t indicate whether morality is objective or subjective, and therefore in this sense, it’s useless in helping us to answer the question. As with the previous article, untrained readers might read this article and think, “Ah-ha! Science has proven that good and evil don’t exist!” – so frustrating!
Do we have free will?
By the time I was reading this article, I was really rather annoyed, and unfortunately it did nothing to calm me down. Firstly, quite early on it re-states a previous unsubstantiated claim, namely that the brain “generates your consciousness.” (Although on an individual level this may be undisputed, there are philosophers who would disagree with this claim on a more fundamental level, saying that fundamentally, consciousness precedes matter, such as Prof. Keith Ward. I’m not saying he’s necessarily right, only that New Scientist shouldn’t make these statements as if they were absolutely undisputed facts.) Secondly, the article appears at first to be discussing whether or not we have free will, but actually, it does not consider a single argument for the existence of free will. Here are the views it discusses (with my comments in italics):
- Haggard’s view: the brain causes us to act before we’ve actually decided to act. Therefore actions are determined and we do not have free will.
- Humphrey’s view: brain processes cause actions, but “I” am my brain processes, and therefore I am causing my actions, and therefore in that sense, we have free will; but this isn’t free will in the sense that (for example) religious believers mean it. (If you’re interested in this, look up discussions about liberty of indifference and liberty of spontaneity.)
- Vedral’s view (a reductionist view): eventually we’ll understand everything in terms of physics, and we’ll understand what determines our actions.
- Quantum physics suggests that there is uncertainty and randomness, so perhaps everything isn’t determined. It seems like this section is conceding that perhaps everything is not determined, but that’s not the same as saying that we have free will. All this is actually saying is that some events are determined, and all others are random or causeless – but even this leaves no room for actions being caused by free will.
- The many-worlds hypothesis, where everything that can happen, does happen: this is still really asserting that we have no free will, because if we take every possible course of action, we are bound (determined) to take the action we have taken in this universe. (Also, see my comments above on this hypothesis.)
- There is something outside of the universe, beyond physics, whether a god or something else, which determines everything.
As you can see, none of these views entertains the possibility that we actually have genuine free will, i.e. that there is a self who makes informed but not determined decisions about our actions. Not a very balanced argument! I feel it’s a great shame that readers are mistakenly left with the impression that science has answered this philosophical question, when in this article, it hasn’t even addressed arguments on both sides, let alone provided a justified conclusion.
Is time an illusion?
For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that I found this article very interesting!
What is reality made of?
This article acknowledges that you need to ask what counts as reality, saying, “Do only physical objects like earth or atoms count towards reality, or things like minds and consciousness too?” This seems sort of reasonable, but at the same time, it’s really just re-stating the question. I don’t think it is very reasonable to say (as the article does), however, that whatever the answer to that question, “physics should still supply the solution.” If, for example, goodness and evil are objective, or if consciousness precedes matter, then surely physics would not be able to supply the answer, by definition (because those things are non-physical). If you can ignore this problem, the rest of the article is really very interesting in my opinion, discussing dark matter, quantum theory, and the idea that the only thing that objectively exists in the physical universe is maths. I was also relieved to see that the author does concede at the end that until we can fully understand consciousness, we may be like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, believing mere shadows to be reality itself.
Can we ever know if God exists?
Ah, the biggest question! This article is fair at the beginning, philosophically; it notes rightly that “gallons of ink and blood have been spilled over this question but have largely got us nowhere.” While I personally believe that it’s more reasonable than not to believe in God (and so I don’t think we’ve got nowhere), I think the author writes in a fairly balanced way here. He says, “the only coherent and rational position is agnosticism.” Again, while I disagree with that personally, I can see why (given the history of philosophy of religion, to which he refers) he has reached that conclusion.
I do take issue, however, with Scott Aikin’s view. He is quoted as saying, “The evidence points to the fact that God doesn’t exist…I’m of the view that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” There are three problems with this:
- The evidence does not point to the fact that God doesn’t exist. There is no empirical evidence to show that he doesn’t exist, unless you count the existence of evil and suffering – but as the existence of numerous theodicies show, evil and suffering are not conclusive evidence against God’s existence.
- He contradicts himself! He firstly says that there’s evidence that God doesn’t exist, and then says there’s an absence of evidence! This is incoherent.
- Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Although it’s true that if something doesn’t exist, there will be no evidence for it, it does not follow that if something does exist, there will necessarily be (empirical) evidence for it. Take the examples of goodness, consciousness, beauty, or love – you can’t empirically prove that any of them exist, but that does not prove that they don’t. On a more basic level, you’ve got the problem of induction here anyway: if someone says, “All the swans I’ve ever seen are white; therefore, all swans are white; therefore, no black swans exist,” then they have not made a strong philosophical argument.
In addition to this, the author makes what I think is a slightly snide comment at the end of the article, suggesting that religious believers are just like conspiracy theorists, and sarcastically (I think?) insinuating that any beliefs to do with God are best kept far away from science. I could be misinterpreting his tone, and apologise if I am, but it seems unfairly derisory to me.
Overall, my view is that science and philosophy are both incredibly interesting, intrinsically good, extremely useful, and beneficial to those who study them. As such, I think it’s a shame that not all of the New Scientist authors managed to write strong enough articles combining the two disciplines. I’ll be using them with my GCSE and A Level students for sure, but I’ll be asking them to pick out the unjustified assumptions and weak arguments, as well as the new and interesting scientific ideas.