Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Scientism and the Limits of Science

Artificial Intelligence - 1950's Style

Mind and Machine

Scientism (not science itself as some people seem to believe)  is the major enemy of spirituality.  Scientism is a bleak and barren materialism that tries to reduce all aspects of the human mind to the workings of a biological machine, with no room for any spiritual or aesthetic dimension to life.

While Buddhism is quite happy with science in general, and especially with evolution, it doesn't agree with the materialistic dogma of scientism, and disputes claims that the mind can be explained or understood in physical terms. Most Buddhists  believe that the mind's ultimate nature is non-physical: 'when the body dies the 'mechanism' of the body, holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later, perhaps immediately.'  - Alan Turing (Code Breaker, Mathematician and Buddhist Philosopher)


Scientism is a misuse of scientific methodology beyond the limits of its applicability, including attempts to reduce all knowledge to only that which can be understood by mechanistic models. Scientism attempts to reduce all qualitative experience, and indeed all mental phenomena, to physical causes, effects and mechanisms. 

To understand why scientism is overreaching and erroneous, we need first to understand the limits of science.

The Limits of Science

The physics-based sciences construct their models, predictions and explanations by abstracting and reducing the numerous natural instances of processes operating on structures, into a few generic procedures operating on data.

Hence physical explanations will be impossible to construct, will fail, or will be inapplicable as 'category errors' for any phenomena where...

(i) Processes cannot be reduced to procedures
(ii) Structures cannot be reduced to data

I suspect that one of the intractable features of The Hard Problem is that some of the processes of consciousness are not even in principle reducible to procedures (they are 'non-algorithmic'). Similarly, qualia cannot be reduced to data. Consequently, attempts at physical explanations of the mind may be  such category errors.

The domain of science concerns those aspects of the world that can be modelled effectively and efficiently in terms of algorithms and data-structures.

'Effectively' means that the models have predictive power (and hence are falsifiable).

'Efficiently' means that the models are simpler and more general than the phenomena that they model (they embody 'algorithmic compression')

All non-algorithmic phenomena, by their very nature, are outside the scope of the physical sciences.

A materialist explanation for the mind?

Consequently, the the 'materialists',  'physicalists' 'reductionists'  and other practitioners of scientism are committed to trying to represent the three-dimensional world of causality, composition and mind, in terms of the two dimensions of algorithms and datastructures

This representation ultimately requires them to insert various square pegs (qualia, semantics, intentionality, freewill etc) into the round hole of computationalism.  But computation can only deal with quantitative and Boolean-logical values. It cannot manipulate any qualitative phenomena.

The lack of progress with The Hard Problem of Consciousness is one of the best illustrations of the failure of the materialist's project.

Scientism has failed to bridge the gap between brain and mind

The Abject Failure of Scientism

The Hard Problem, the realisation that the mind is not explainable mechanistically, and is thus beyond the scope of science, was first formulated by the eminent Victorian physicist John Tyndall over 140 years ago:

"... the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why.

Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.

Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before."

Everything we have learned about the structure and physiology of the brain in the century and a half since Tyndall's statement has taught us a lot about the structure and physiology of the brain.  It has not progressed one inch towards closure of the explanatory gap of the Hard Problem.

For a detailed discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanical Mind.

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