Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rationality and Naturalism

Are the laws of physics and biology alone enough to account for human rationality – logic, reason, and literature? For Stephen Hawking, the entire world is just about biology and chemistry and their laws:

• It is hard to see how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion. (“The Grand Design,” 32)

Of course, if we are no more that “biological machines,” then Hawking is right. And if this world is merely matter and energy, then he is also right in trying to figure out how these building blocks arose by themselves, from nothing, into increasing complexity. However, in order to make his system work, Hawking has to close his eyes to many howling realities. For one thing, free will – something that seems very real to us – has to be eliminated, because it just doesn’t fit into his system.

However, if Hawking eliminates free will because it doesn’t accord with his materialistic theory, perhaps he should also do away with rationality. After all, if the laws of physics and biology fail to allow for free will, why should they allow for rationality, which seems to require the freedom (free will) to pursue certain lines of thinking or evidence?

Laws always work in the same predictable, hard-wired and formulaic way. Gravity attracts, it doesn’t sing songs or write poetry. Laws can be elegant, immutable and uniform in their operation, but their very essence rules out variation and creativity. Let me try to illustrate this by looking at one of our most incredible organs, one which does work according to law, exclusively so! Richard Kleiss describes the wonder of the human eye:

• In order for our brain to see an image, a chemical…sensitive to light must respond as soon as a photon of light strikes it…Photochemical reactions are the basis of how photographic paper works, but the reactions that result in a printed picture are extremely slow compared to the photochemical reactions in our eye. The fastest photographic film requires the camera lens to remain open for about 1/10,000 of a second. Biologists have found that the eye’s photochemistry is so fast that the first reaction in the sequence takes place in approximately 1/5,000,000,000 of a second. This is 500,000 times faster than our best film capabilities. (“A Closer Look at the Evidence”)

In addition to this, the eye not only processes 1.5 million bits of information simultaneously, it also has the chemical apparatus to cancel out the last signals so that new signals are always freshly transported to the reintegration center. Therefore, we can have an instantaneous and seamless series of snapshots of the external world.

This gives us a grand picture of electro-chemical deterministic laws at their finest. Thankfully, this process occurs without any creativity or the interference of free will, and I’m truly glad of that. I wouldn’t want to drive a car, while my vision was being impacted by the things that I wanted to see rather than the things that were really there. I’d also get a lot of tickets for going through red lights and even worse.

Laws lock us in to the reality of predictable and repeatable phenomena. But what if the laws of the brain locked “rationality” into the same channels that our sight requires? Would rationality then be possible? Hawking claims that these laws lock us in so completely that there is no room for free will. Would this also be the case for rationality? I can’t see how!

The laws that control sight lock us all into seeing things with fine-tuned exactitude. However, it seems that rationality requires the freedom (and perhaps free will) for the mind to wander where it will, to seek out the most logical and direct connections between phenomena, rather than the fixity associated with the function of the eye.

Besides, when it comes to rationality and its closely associated sidekick – morality – we humans tend to see things very differently. In fact, we deem some people “irrational.” Clearly, some people have good judgment and some have poor judgment. Not so with vision! How can this be if the laws of the mind control us in the same manner that the laws of vision lock us in?

Free will also seems to be relative from one person to another. The heroin addict and the psychotic have less freedom of choice than do other people. Likewise, some are more rational than others. How can this be if we are all equally controlled by the same bio-chemical laws? Of course, if I sustain an eye injury, my sight might differ considerably from that of another. The same is true for a brain injury in regards to limiting free will and rationality. However, we differ significantly mentally even when there is no physical reason for it. It therefore seems that the reasons for this must transcend the physical.

We also seem to have a capacity to reprogram our thinking. This suggests that there is some aspect of our thinking that takes precedence over (or is above) another part. Sometimes, a new realization might undermine everything else that I had accepted as fact. I therefore find that I have the capacity to reexamine my old thinking and refigure it according to the new revelation. What laws could possibly give me such flexibility to amend thinking that had been completely governed by invariable bio-chemical laws? Instead, it seems that we have some capacity that transcends deterministic laws.

Hawking’s thinking carries many additional problems. How could such unchanging and elegant laws have come about it the first place? Hawking feels compelled to assert that the law of gravity preceded and gave birth to the universe:

• Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing…Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing. (Quoted from John C. Lennox, “God and Stephen Hawking,” 16)

However, what created gravity? In addition to this little perplexity, Lennox points out that laws don’t create anything; they just describe the behavior of things that already exist. Besides, how could we have evolved such complex systems, like the eye? Kleiss claims,

• Neither living nor fossil animals show any evidence for the gradual development of an eye.

As one unnamed physicist has stated, “Evolution is the fairy tale for adults.” And it’s a popular tale, the ultimate God-substitute, but as a substitute, it can never approach the original. Although Hawking is clearly desperate to find an alternative to the God-hypothesis, he merely invokes his own creator god-hypothesis and calls it the “law of gravity.”

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