The Magic Of Materialism

21st century will turn out to be an important landmark in the history of mankind. We live at the threshold of a great scientific breakthrough. Science has uncovered several important facts about the nature of reality in last two centuries, but the greatest of all discoveries has evaded us so far.  What is Life? What is consciousness? Does life have any meaning?

Life is a puzzle. Man has sought answers to this puzzle through religion and poetry for thousands of years. Thoughtful individuals in every generation, every culture, struggled to understand life by linking the material and spiritual aspects of reality. Unfortunately, no one could find answers that were universally acceptable. Some modern thinkers have even proposed that these are wrong type of questions and no answer could ever be found. But such questions continue to fascinate man.

I believe these are very important questions. Previous generations could not find convincing answers because they lacked the conceptual tools to deal with these questions. Scientific study of Life began only about 200 years ago. Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution provided a new framework to look at the phenomena of life. There was no such understanding at the time of Buddha or Christ.

Science has produced dazzling new insights into the nature of Life, but the puzzle remains largely unsolved. There is a huge gap between Life as understood by science and LIFE as lived by living things. Present day Science of Life, Neo-Darwinism, though far more satisfying than God-based explanations, is still inconsistent with Reality. Let me explain why I think so.

  1. Are human beings special?

First of all, Neo-Darwinism involves a tacit assumption that human beings are special, unlike the rest of life. I don’t believe human beings have any divine rights. We can’t have a theory of life applicable to all living things except man. Well, Neo-Darwinism is exactly such a theory.

According to Neo-Darwinism evolution is driven by random genetic variations and natural selection. The recipe to build an organism is contained in its genetic code. It is copied from parents to offspring during the re-productive process. This copying process is extremely complex and tightly controlled but sometimes errors creep in by chance. Members of a species exhibit variation due to such copying errors. Vast majority of variations will be harmful to the individual organism, but some might turn out to be beneficial in the struggle for survival. Lucky individuals with ‘favourable variations’ survive longer and leave more descendents. Unlucky ones lose out in the number game. Gradual accumulation favourable variations lead to evolution over millions of years. Life can be viewed as a battle played out by genes struggling to outwit each other. Individual organisms are nothing more than vehicles built by genes for their own propagation.

Primary interest of any living organism is the survival of its genes. Richard Dawkins, former professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, thinks that genes are actually selfish. ‘We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness1’.

Now, this, in a nutshell, is present day Science of Life. Let us see if this will help to understand Life better. All our actions should be directly or indirectly helping our genes to survive. We should be working hard to produce as many children as possible and ensure they survive to reproductive age so that our genes continue to flourish.

But there is a problem. Even staunch Neo-Darwinists agree this is not true for human beings. We behave in thoroughly un-Darwinian ways. We evolved through natural selection but something changed once we became full humans! All other living things blindly follow the commands of their genes. They struggle to survive, procreate and die exactly as Darwinism predicts.  We are different. We even have the ability to go against the commands of genes!

Developed countries generally suffer from low birth rates. Many well-to-do couple choose not to have children. Not only the rich evade their genetic responsibility of creating as many children as they can afford, some even tend to adopt other’s children! The practice of adoption is suicidal from the gene’s point of view because it leads to the propagation of someone else’s genes at your expense. There are several other human practices that defy science of Life. Altruism, Care for the old and invalid, Celibacy, Contraception, Suicide etc. are completely un-Darwinian.

Neo-Darwinists resolve this difficulty by arguing ‘humans have the capability to rise above the dictates of our gene masters.’ Humans need not blindly follow the instructions of our genes. Our own evolution is largely decided by our culture. Somehow we have moved beyond naive Darwinism!

This argument is completely baffling: How did we end up with this un-Darwinian ability if we evolved through brute Darwinian mechanism? We are, after all, only a collection of molecules constantly battling for resources to survive and reproduce. Then how on earth could this tendency ‘not to survive’ evolve?

Steven Pinker, one of the most outspoken modern advocates of selfish gene model has the following to say about his own lack of interest to have children, despite being a successful academic and author. ‘By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser…. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don’t like it, they can go jump in the lake2.’

What exactly is the ‘I’ that can go against the commands of my own genes? It simply is inconceivable because there is no ‘I’ left when the organism is understood as a survival machine. The sense of myself, ‘I-ness’ has to be an illusion. I have no problem with that, but it leaves another insurmountable problem for Neo-Darwinists: How can this illusion go against the dictates of genes, which are real, material stuff?

There cannot be any place for free will if Neo-Darwinism is true. The idea of free will and genetic determinism cannot co-exist. We are all machines, merely following instructions coded in our genes. Neo-Darwinists themselves are not prepared to face the consequences of this line of argument. They resolve the difficulty by bringing in the mysterious ‘I’ through the back door!

2) The art of eating your cake and having it too!

Secondly, Neo-Darwinism as purely materialistic explanation has no place for beauty, awe and wonder. Such qualities should be unreal, mere hallucinations. But no life scientist will openly acknowledge this. Some of them actually claim that life gets more exciting and magical when understood through Neo-Darwinism. Richard Dawkins claims: ‘facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science – are magical in…the poetic sens3’. I believe this position is wrong and misleading.

Real world can indeed be experienced as magical. Anyone who has looked at the starlit sky and said ‘Aha!’ would know that. But such experiences cannot be called ‘real’ in a materialistic worldview. Any magical experience, poetic or otherwise, must be a hallucination if we go by the rules of materialism. Dawkins is misleading his readers by suggesting that materialistic understanding of nature can lead to poetic ecstasy.

Materialism is based on the belief that measurability is the acid test for reality. ‘Real’ has to be measurable (objectively describable as a physical quantity or a mathematical model). ‘Reality’ so defined has nothing magical about it. There is no place for beauty or awe in a world of sterilized objective descriptions.

This may sound puzzling because all of us must have experienced beauty while contemplating some objective fact. Look at such an experience closely. What exactly is happening when we look at the starlit sky and see it is beautiful? Twinkling little stars are nothing but massive, luminous balls of plasma held together by gravity, light years away from earth. This is an objective fact. If we insist and remain constantly aware of this fact as we look at the sky we will never experience beauty. A fact is a fact is a fact. Nothing more and nothing less. Where does” beauty” come in?

Appreciation of beauty always involves a shifting of perspective. We stop being a ‘fact gatherer’ the moment we see something as ‘beautiful’. We leave behind the objective view point and become one with the object of perception for a brief moment. That is why a robot can never say ‘Aha!’ while looking at the starlit sky in the sense a human observer does. A robot has only one perspective. It cannot ‘leave behind’ objectivity and still remain functional. But human observers routinely do that. We did not evolve to be robots. It is natural for human beings to shift perspectives and see the ‘factness’ as well as ‘beauty and awe’.

A materialist describing something as ‘beautiful’ is contradicting his own position. He cannot shift perspectives because he acknowledges only one. Experience of poetic beauty has to be an illusion if we agree with the materialist that ‘Real=Objectively Knowable’. Richard Dawkins is eating his cake and having it too!

I am pretty sure a purely materialistic explanation for Life, such as Neo-Darwinism, is wrong. Of course Neo-Darwinists are aware of the lack of correlation between science of Life and LIFE as lived by real organisms. This difficulty is resolved by assuming mysterious factors such as ‘Free Will’ and ‘Magic of Reality’.

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  1. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Selfish Gene’.
  2. Steven Pinker, ‘How the Mind Works’.
  3. Richard Dawkins,‘The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True’.
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