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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Damned Materialistic Scientists

One thing I have never really understood is how the term "materialism" came to have such a negative connotation in society nowadays, both in the East and the West.

Considering how much of the high quality of life in affluent countries is made possible by market economies.

Oddly enough, it seems that people who are the most driven by material wealth are also the ones most likely to disavow or downplay the importance of this powerful motivating force.

"It's not about the money, it's about passion in investment."

Man, there's widespread denial going on.

What is especially annoying is how some people lump the words "materialist" and "scientist" together as some kind of insult.

"Damned materialistic scientists refuse to accept the possibility of supernatural explanations!"

Superb rhetoric, by the way - in one blunt blow, it denigrates the scientific endeavour by insinuating that scientists are dogmatic and small-minded money-worshippers.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we examine this dubious statement and arrive at a few surprising insights.

Prepare to bend your mind around it ...

1. Science is not restricted to "natural" phenomena or explanations

This is an easy one.

There is simply no hard (or permanent) boundary between natural and supernatural phenomena.

A long time ago, many observations had supernatural explanations.

The Sun was supposedly pulled across the sky behind the chariot of a sun god. Diseases were caused by evil spirits. Bizarre behaviours were the result of demonic possession.

They were supernatural phenomena.

Gradually, as the scientific process was employed to investigate them, naturalistic theories were developed which replaced the old explanations. Eventually, these phenomena became redefined as natural.

You are thinking: "What's so great about natural explanations? Why not just keep the old supernatural explanations if people love them so much?"

Dude, natural explanations are far superior to supernatural versions.

Not convinced?

Consider this - if a deity was personally responsible for hauling the Sun across the sky, then you would have a lot of things to worry about:

What if he wakes up late one day? What if the chariot breaks and the Sun falls out of the sky? What if the horses stop running and the Sun gets stuck in the middle of the sky? What if he is angry at the mortals for some reason? Do we need to build a statue to appease him? How many times must we worship him a week? What kind of animal sacrifice would please him?...

... and so on.

Supernatural explanations cannot generate testable predictions, which means that you will always be at the mercy of some unknowable power.

In contrast, a natural explanation such as the heliocentric theory is not only simpler and more elegant, but also fits the observations much better, generates reliable predictions and serves as the basis for future knowledge.

No need to build a statue or sacrifice a goat.

Even so, that doesn't mean that naturalistic explanations must be any less exotic than supernatural ones.

I mean, the Solar System is governed by invisible gravitational forces that travel at the speed of light? That almost sounds more "supernatural" than a sun god!

Nevertheless the theory predicts the exact second that sunrise and sunset occurs, as well as other accurate forecasts for solar eclipses, lunar eclipses and the movement of the planets.

This incredible achievement had an immense impact on how people live and view their own place in the Universe, replacing a cloud of fear and superstition with clarity, understanding and confidence.

Notice that the heliocentric theory cannot DISPROVE the possibility that a supernatural deity is personally dragging the Sun around the Earth while simultaneously planting fake evidence that the Earth orbits the sun.

It just renders such a belief unnecessary and irrelevant.

2. Material explanations do not preclude emergent properties

Here's an often asked question: "If human beings evolved from monkeys, then why shouldn't we act like monkeys? Why do we need to care about morals?"

Indeed, if we evolved from "lightning striking a mud puddle", why don't we act like mud puddles?

To illustrate just how ridiculous such a question is, let me bring up a simple example:

This is a pyramid.

A pyramid has a square base, triangular faces and an apex on top.

Due to the fact that the pyramid has a wide base and narrow top, it is a stable 3D shape.

Of course, no "indivisible" pyramid exists in reality, so here are some example of physical pyramids.

This is a pyramid made of beer cans.

It has a square base, four triangular faces and an apex on top.

But none of the components have a square base or an apex! Beer cans have a cylindrical shape.

So how can a pyramid be made from beer cans?

This is a pyramid (more accurately a tetrahedron) made of marbles.

Marbles don't have any base or apex. They are completely round.

How can a pyramid be made from marbles?

This is a pyramid made of seashells.

Seashells have an irregular, complex shape. Not quite sure which part of the shape can be considered a base or apex.

How can a pyramid be made from seashells?

Although all these pyramids are made from different components with different properties, the emergent properties of each complete structure are the same.

This is mainly due to the organization and interaction of the components, and not so much on their individual characteristics.

Thus, just because living systems are made from tiny molecules, doesn't mean that life is a simple additive result of molecular properties. Complex systems have emergent properties at each successive organizational level.

Similarly, just because human beings evolved from other species of animal in the past, doesn't mean that we are compelled to follow their social rules. Our own morals are socio-emergent properties that arise from interactions between human beings at the societal level.

There is no need to posit a supernatural origin for our social behaviour.

In addition, being made of molecules doesn't reduce our status down to a mere bag of molecules nor does being evolved from bacteria eons ago somehow reduce our dignity to that of bacteria.

In the past, it may be excusable to confuse materialism with greedy reductionism, but today with increasing emphasis in organizational principles in science (eg. computational neuroscience) it is difficult to comprehend why there are still so many people who insist that a material explanation is insufficient to account for life.

Maybe I should invent a new word, called "process-ism" or "functionism" instead of "materialism" to emphasize the importance of the organization and interaction of the components, rather than the materials themselves.

After all, once you understand how the system works, you can swap the components around like nobody's business and it will still function properly.

The system "transcends" its material make-up, but cannot exist without it.

3. Money is virtual, not "material"

The problem with using the term "materialism" is that it has two distinct meanings:

a) The philosophical theory that matter is the only reality.
b) A desire for wealth and material possessions with little interest in ethical or spiritual matters.

So far the focus of the discussion has been on the first definition.

Now, just for fun, let's examine the second definition of materialism.

Money has always been used as the poster child for materialism.

However, when you think about it - unless you collect coins and banknotes as a hobby, money is not in fact a type of material, but a virtual concept!

I recall watching a documentary where the CEO of Linden Labs (creator of Second Life) said that "money is the first form of virtual reality in human society".

And that is quite true.

Unlike "real" material possessions like computers or luxury watches or sports cars, the value of money is not in its intrinsic function.

It is only a placeholder - a piece of paper or metal given value by governmental authority and social consensus.

Today, money is evolving towards a form of pure information due to the popularity of computer-based banking and finance. Increasingly, it has become bits stored on a hard disk, magically transforming into goods and services upon demand.

So, does this mean that only the people who buy lots of actual material merchandise are "materialists" whereas misers who hoard gobs of money in virtual form are not?

What about people who treat money as a tool for safeguarding their freedom, rather than as a means of buying stuff? Are they "materialists"?

Hmm ...

Maybe money is a kind of "real virtuality" like computer games or human consciousness, which is why people are naturally attracted to it.

You are thinking: "Yeah whatever. Money might be virtual but it isn't abstract. Just stand in front of a vending machine with an empty stomach and an empty pocket and you'll immediately know how concrete it is."

Dude, that was brilliant.