Science and materialism

Science is supposed to be free from prejudice, but in practice the majority of scientists harbour some taken for granted beliefs[6]. This is what links science to a particular ideological view, with the consequence that it can sometimes become dogmatic and impede rather than further the evolution of human knowledge. Not surprisingly, materialism is the usual choice.

Pioneering scientists, however, did not set out to promote materialism[7]. It became the prevailing ideology associated with science only in the second half of the 19th century (materialist beliefs, of course, had existed before and in other parts of the world, one example being the Carvaka doctrine in India). Most misconceptions about science arise because of this link. Reducing reality to the physical world is not the result of science, but the ideology that appropriates science. Materialism (which, significantly, fits well with the dominant socio-economic system in the West) has usurped science and technology which can and have coexisted with other perspectives. This makes some scientists behave unscientifically: they adapt observations and facts to their views and method, rather than the other way around. What does not fit such a lifeless world is chased out and declared illusionary. The following example may help clarify the difference between science and its ideological baggage:

De Duve states, a scientific approach ‘demands that every step in the origin and development of life on Earth be explained in terms of its antecedent and immediate physical-chemical causes.' (Hazen 1997, p.157)

This statement may look scientific but, in fact, it is an ideological statement that contradicts good science. An honest scientist should approach the subject of his research with an open mind, and try to find the most probable explanation for a phenomenon observed. A proper scientific approach cannot demand that phenomena fit into the pre-assumptions of the researcher. The quote shows that the author is more interested in confirming his own views than providing the best possible explanation. Such a demand is not based on any evidence or reasoning, but it presupposes where to look for answers and where not, and rejects a priori any other possibility. This attitude relies on faith as much as any religious attitude. There is nothing more scientific in believing that life is only a complex chemical reaction than in believing that life is more than that. Not surprisingly, materialistic ideology seems to inherit the framework of thinking established by its antecedents. The agency of God is replaced by the deity of chance, but neither of them have a significant explanatory power, they are just an easy way out of difficulties. A religious person may claim that a complex and intricate thing, such as a flower, was engineered by God, a materialist may claim that it is a result of chance mutations. Neither, in fact, explains much[8].

The above does not imply that proper scientific findings should not be taken seriously, far from it. However, it is important to realise that much of what is said in the name of science is not facts, but interpretations that fit a particular ideological view. Geneticist Richard Lewontin summarises this position:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. (1997, p.31

The likely reason why so many scientists are prepared to accept materialistic ideology without much reflection is because it is convenient. Reducing all the phenomena to ‘solid' matter makes their lives much easier. Otherwise, scientists would be forced to concede that their method is not always adequate or sufficient, and they are understandably reluctant to do so.[9] However, as with other rigid frameworks, materialism is not only restraining, but becomes restrictive, which limits science itself. The guardian (against superstition and prejudice) becomes a jailer.

 

  • [6]. As Brian Silver, a scientist himself (and an atheist), puts it: ‘There is more faith involved in science than many scientists would be prepared to admit' (1998, p. xvi).
  • [7]. In The Ascent of Science the above writer comments: ‘Many of the heroes of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific revolution were deeply interested in the occult, in the so-called Hermetic writings, and in magic in general; one only has to look at the lives of John Dee, Boyle, Bruno, Paracelsus, Kepler, and many others... Newton, the herald of the Age of Reason himself, believed firmly in the mystic aspects of alchemy and of Pythagorean thought' (Silver, 1998, p.495).
  • [8]. This may be contrasted, for example, with indeterminacy in quantum physics. Although the idea is not without controversy, it does have an explanatory power.
  • [9]. This is reflected in the persistency of the mechanistic view of the world: ‘With the Einsteinian revolution at the turn of the century physicists had moved irrevocably beyond the mechanistic paradigm. Then, some two decades later, with the advent of quantum theory, they abandoned the last vestiges of classical mechanistic thinking. Yet many scientists, especially in the human, social and engineering fields, remained fascinated by the simplicity and power of the Newtonian formulas' (Laszlo, 1993, p.35).