Thursday, 9 August 2012

More things in heaven and earth...

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
Hamlet. Act 1, Scene 5

As someone who was educated in a materialist worldview, one of the first challenges to that worldview that I experienced came in the form of the British-Australian physicist Paul Davies' book God and the New Physics (1984), the reading of which I found to be a breathtaking experience. Not that Davies claims that modern science proves the existence of God, but he certainly led me to conclude that modern physics has demonstrated that materialism - the belief that all the phenomena of reality have material causes only - is an untenable philosophical position because it simply cannot account for all the data of which science is now aware. Now, I have always been oriented towards the humanities rather than the sciences, so Davies' book and the personal revolution in thought it set in motion resulted in a journey of discovery through the reading of philosophy and eventually theology, which finally led me to orthodox Christian belief. That's a journey on which I might comment in future posts. In the meantime, here's a recent article on the challenges quantum mechanics presents to materialism as an explanation for the phenomena of human consciousness :
"Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities --- if any there be. Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”  
 Quantum mechanics, however, throws a monkey wrench into this simple mechanical view of things.  No less a figure than Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claimed that materialism --- at least with regard to the human mind --- is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.” And on the basis of quantum mechanics, Sir Rudolf Peierls, another great 20th-century physicist, said, “the premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being ... including [his] knowledge, and [his] consciousness, is untenable. There is still something missing.” "
What is missing in the materialist explanation of human consciousness, I contend, is the soul.

Read it all here.
HT Gene Veith


Damo said...

yes even Darwin was distressed when he saw the peacock,and wondered how it survived / evolved with a huge target its feathers were,and like science evolution can't provide us humans "the created" with a sense of belonging or meaning, only the Creator can do that,and alas fill the god shaped hole is us,

Chris said...

The article by Gene Veith given by the OP[1] is only a thin repackaging of an article by Stephen M. Barr[2], where Mr. Barr gives a partial quote by Wigner:

"No less a figure than Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claimed that materialism --- at least with regard to the human mind --- is not 'logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.' "

Now, to establish the actual context of the quote, first one must find it. It is, in its entirety:

"Solipsism may be logically consistent with present quantum mechanics, monism is the sense of materialism is not'[3]

Now for the important bit: note that this quote is used to illustrate why later Wigner "repudiates his earlier views on measurement in quantum mechanics." [4]

"[150] The philosophical reason for his change of position is that Wigner considers
solipsism to be an implication of his earlier views on physical reality and the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Solipsism is already hinted at in some earlier papers as a possible
consequence of quantum mechanics. In the paper ‘Remarks on the Mind–Body Question’,
Wigner says that ‘Solipsism may be logically consistent with present quantum mechanics,
monism in the sense of materialism is not’ (p. 252; see also pp. 34, 68). But it is only in later papers that Wigner takes the issue of solipsism to be a serious embarrassment. At the end of a paper published in 1977, he expresses the hope ‘that quantum mechanics will also turn out to be a limiting case, limiting in more than one regard, and that the philosophy which an even
deeper theory of physics will support will give a more concrete meaning to the word “reality”,
will not embrace solipsism, much truth as this may contain, and will let us admit that the
world really exists’ (p. 593). In a lecture of 1982, he then regards the issue of solipsism as a
sufficient reason to repudiate his earlier views on measurement in quantum mechanics (pp.
73–74, and also p. 230).
In order to avoid solipsism, Wigner considers it to be necessary to admit state reductions
independently of an observer’s consciousness. And his conclusion, based on Zeh’s argument,
that quantum mechanics is not valid for macroscopic systems opens up the way for him to
conceive state reductions when it comes to macroscopic systems." [4]

So, what we have here is a single (edited) quote taken out of context that appears to support the author's position, but in reality, it does no such thing - it reflects the shortcoming of an abandoned position!

[3] The Collected Works of Eugene Paul Wigner. Part B. Historial, Philosophical, and Socio-Political Papers. Volume 6: Philosophical Reflections and Syntheses. (p. 252)
[4] Essay Review: Wigner's View of Physical Reality. Michael Esfeld. Studies in History and Philosopy of Modern Physics. pp. 145-154. Retrieved online from:

Mark Henderson said...

So, Chris, have you read Davies's book?

Chris said...

I have not read Davies' book. I just put in a reservation for it at the library.

Have you read Wigner's book?

Mark Henderson said...

His essays or his memoirs?
Love to if only I had more time. Might have to put them on my reading list for retirement.
Intriguing that he became interested in Vedantic philosphy towards the end of his life as a possible way to explain consciousness. I've been down that road but found it a dead end.

Lvka said...

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Does this little Shakespearian maxim hold true for those Horatios who oppose gay marriage and darwinian evolution based on Judeo-Christian philosophical grounds as well ? Or is it just some random thing to throw in the face of your opponents at one's good leisure ?

Mark Henderson said...

Context, Lucian, context is all! In the context of the play the words from Hamlet's mouth speak of the limitations of human knowledge based upon materialist philosophy.

Chris said...

What is the alternative to materialism? If we don't root knowledge in what's observable then we can make up anything and claim it's truth.

I do like this quote from a Tim Minchin song where he is replying to someone with the horatio quote:

If you're so into Shakespeare
Lend me your ear:
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet… is just really silly”
Or something like that.
Or what about Satchmo?!
I see trees of Green,
Red roses too,
And fine, if you wish to
Glorify Krishna and Vishnu
In a post-colonial, condescending
Bottled-up and labeled kind of way
Then whatever, that's ok.
But here's what gives me a ****-**:
I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant lump of carbon.
I have one life, and it is short
And unimportant…
But thanks to recent scientific advances
I get to live twice as long
As my great great great great uncleses and auntses.
Twice as long to live this life of mine
Twice as long to love this wife of mine

Mark Henderson said...

"What is the alternative to materialism? If we don't root knowledge in what's observable then we can make up anything and claim it's truth."
That's a big jump there, Chris, from scepticism to relativism. I think you've missed out a few steps along the way, like working through epistemology, plausability and probability arguments for God, the veridicality of religious beliefs and comparative religion. But then, it's only a combox ;0)

Lvka said...

Well, here's my favorite quote from Hamlet.

Chris said...

How do you validate truth if not using evidence from the material world?

Mark Henderson said...

By studying the empirical evidence, Chris. A good place to start is one of the pioneering studies in this area, 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' by William James (a medical doctor, psychologist and philosopher and brother of the novelist Henry James), who was himself an agnostic, if I recall correctly (or not a confessing Christian, at any rate), and also one of the first theorists of psychology. Despite his agnosticism and his lack of sympathy with doctrinal Christianity, James was open enough to the empirical evidence that he studied to accept "the reality of the unseen", to quote the title of one the chapters in the book, which was originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion at Edinburgh University c.1900. The weakness in James's conclusions is that his philosophy of pragmatism tends to leave him in a solipsistic dead end in his appraisal of religious experience. This weakness, however, doesn't invalidate his many insights and other psychologists and philosophers have progressed his insights in more fruitful directions. James would have been better off to give more credence to doctrine as the intellectual framework for the religious experiences that he found so absorbing.

I wouldn't rest the "proof" of religion entirely on experience, btw.

Chris said...

That book is available for free from here:

I will download it and try to read the chapter you mentioned.

Chris said...

It's also available as a free audio book:

Mark Henderson said...

Librivox is a great free resource.

Anyway, worth reading the whole book, Chris. It's a classic!

Mark Henderson said...

The Penguin Classics edition is available for c. AUS$10. It comes with an intro by Lutheran theologian Martin Marty. The book has been in print continually since its first publication.