Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hylopathism and pantheism overlooks emergent properties

There are numerous Jewish/Christian/Muslim scientists, or at least theistic scientists. I prefer to cite atheist scientists because their arguments are better. Today, I will quote and criticize the metaphysics of physicist Freeman Dyson, who calls himself a non-denominational Christian but whose liberal theology sounds similar to traditional universalist unitarianism.  He appears to meld unitarianism with a type of animism that is known as hylopathism and also with pantheism.  This perspective appears to not be uncommon among liberal academic theologians.  Deepak Chopra, a physician and author who has turned himself into a wealthy man by presenting himself as a holistic health/New Age guru, and by promoting alternative medicine, sometimes cites Freeman Dyson's beliefs as supporting his "quantum healing" concept, which mixes ideas associated with quantum mechanics, applied outside their proper context, with ayurvedic "medicine". Chopra's popular reception in America is symptomatic of many Americans' historical inability, as Susan Jacoby puts it, "to distinguish between real scientists and those who peddled theories in the guise of science."

In his book "Infinite in All Directions" Dyson Freeman asserts that there are three levels of mind: "The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is the level of elementary physical processes in quantum mechanics. Matter in quantum mechanics is [...] constantly making choices between alternative possibilities according to probabilistic laws. [...] The second level at which we detect the operations of mind is the level of direct human experience. [...] [I]t is reasonable to believe in the existence of a third level of mind, a mental component of the universe. If we believe in this mental component and call it God, then we can say that we are small pieces of God's mental apparatus" (p. 297).

Either we get sentient life from non-sentient matter or we get non-sentient rocks from sentient matter.  After all, both life and rocks are made with quantum mechanical matter.  Some people with a religious orientation have a tendency to think the latter scenario is more plausible.  But we have lots of evidence that properties that are not found in the constituent parts  emerge from interactions that occur within large ensembles of those smaller parts. Thus, the available evidence strongly favors the conclusion that the sentience difference between rocks and brains is rooted in the differences of the molecules and their chemistry and interactions that result in an active metabolism in sentient life that is lacking in non-sentient rocks.

The fact of emergent properties is not controversial.  These are phenomena that only occur, or can only be defined, when there are a gazillion interactions occuring.  Emergent properties, which appear only within the confines of a particular context, are pervasive.  Examples of these in physics are superconductivity, fractional quantum hall effect, and magnetism.  Weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals, as driven by the random motion of water molecules within a conducive natural environment, is another example of an emergent process. The laws of classical mechanics can be said to emerge as a limiting case from the rules of quantum mechanics applied to large enough masses.   Friction, viscosity, elasticity, and tensile strength are emergent properties.  Chemistry is an emergent property of the laws of physics and biology is an emergent property of chemistry.

What is controversial here is the reductionist versus anti-reductionist interpretations of the emergent properties phenomena.  The reductionists say that all emergent properties are ultimately explainable in terms of the basic physics.  The anti-reductionists deny that this is possible.  But we do not have to take a position in that debate to recognize that sentience, and mind, are nothing more than two more instances of the ubiquitous phenomena of emergent properties.  It is a mistake to take emergent properties and assign those same properties to the constituent parts or to universe as a whole, as Dyson Freeman is selectively doing in both directions when he assigns sentience and mind to matter and to the entire universe.

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