This seminar series has given us a feast of ideas. Rather than attempting to summarise these insights I want to focus on a theme running through the presentations – the wholeness of things, and to relate this idea to Christianity.
In many respects we live in a reductionist materialist culture where not only are individuals and nature treated as “factors of production”, but where economic theory treats individuals as “rational economic” men, ruthlessly engaging in utilitarian calculations of efficiency and satisfaction maximisation. This same reductionist thread runs through biology where the “selfish gene” – Oxford biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins’ phrase – controls organisms to maximise genetic fitness.
We are familiar with this levelling of value from the pronouncements in this country of our own captains of capitalism. For example, mining magnate Gina Rinehart, the nation’s richest woman, has lamented about Australia’s high labour costs. The nation must “lower its costs and compete for investment,” so that ideally wages go as low as say Guinea in Africa for Australia to be competitive. But to this, one needs to ask: why, why, why? What purpose will this serve and why is the world economic system that she embraces, one which the world should continue to follow?
Here I want to briefly lay some philosophical ground work to undermine that worldview.
The Nature of Holism
The term ‘holism’ was coined by South African statesman Jan Smuts in his book “Holism and Evolution” (1926) and defined as the “Tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution”. Disciplines such as orthodox economics have an entirely different focus, embracing individualism or social atomism, that “society does not exist” as Margaret Thatcher famously put it.
But the greatest thinkers have disagreed. Nobel Laureate P.W. Anderson in his 1972 paper in Science, “More is Different” said: “At each stage, entirely new laws, concepts and generalisations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry”. Entities are more than just the sum of their parts and thus have “emergent properties”, non-reducible to the property of the parts.
One of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians and philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) outlined a scientifically grounded metaphysics to challenge reductionism. Bear in mind that Whitehead was one of the founding fathers of mathematical logic (author of “Principia Mathematica” with Bertrand Russell) and someone who worked out a theory of gravitation to challenge Albert Einstein – but don’t ask me what this theory actually is today, maybe next week!
Whitehead in his philosophy of organicism or process philosophy rejected scientific materialism because it was based upon a defective metaphysics – a “fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.” That he wrote in his book “Process and Reality”.
Challenge reductionist scientific materialism he did, at the most basic level. The world, that is reality, is constructed of events or happenings, not substances. Events cannot be defined without recourse to their relations with other events; that is, events are intrinsically relational, and reality is a web of interrelated processes. Basic reality also has experiential features, and that includes sub-atomic particles such as electrons, for reasons we will soon see.
However, entities are not merely the sum of their relations to other entities, but each has a valuational quality and some degree of freedom. Even electrons have this, as will see when we briefly look at quantum mechanics, the science of subatomic particles.
Interestingly enough the vision of God Whitehead arrived at was the “brief Galilean vision of humility” which he depicted in “Process and Reality” as follows: “It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operates by love; and its finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved… It does not look to the future, for it finds its own reward in the immediate present”.
Quantum Mechanics and God
Leading scientists Robert Lanza and Bob Berman in their book “Biocentrism : How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe” (2009) tell us that scientific materialism really doesn’t understand the universe. It is presumably composed, or at least 96 percent of it, of dark matter and dark energy but this is speculation as nobody knows what dark matter and dark energy actually are. However it is the science of subatomic particles, quantum mechanics, which leads us to seeing the irreplaceable role of mind in the world. As Lanza and Berman put it, “particles seem to behave as if they respond to a conscious observer”. Thus in the famous two slit experiment of De Young a beam of light behaves like a particle when observed (passing through one slit only), but like a wave when unobserved. Observation is part of the framework of quantum mechanics and cannot be eliminated.
So is holism – “separate” particles influence each other simultaneously over arbitrarily long distances. This was something Einstein said could not happen and yet today it is experimentally verified. All of this is called “quantum weirdness”.
Yet there is a very simple conclusion to draw from all of this. Not only is scientific materialism wrong, but all of these facts cry out for God to explain them. If quantum mechanics requires an observer, then who did the observing before humans and organic life? Surely there must be a universal observer to hold reality together, and that being we may call God. Science itself yields a proof of the existence of God.
Missing from the scientific materialism which runs through disciplines such as orthodox economics is the conception of the divine which bestows a higher point and meaning to life. It is this higher point, and sense of the transcendent, that unites the speakers in the wonderful speeches which we have heard today.