10 things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science: Part 1 — Science says life is “just” chemical reactionsApril 8, 2013
Welcome to this series of ten posts on the most common misunderstandings about science, which form a surprisingly large part of the foundation for New Age teachings.
Just for the record, many of the views dealt with in this series are ones which I myself have previously advocated, (though never online, and never on any public platform).
This first post is about the extraordinarily popular idea that Science says we are “just” chemicals and molecules, and that love is “just” a chemical reaction.
I remember about 25 years ago asking a woman I knew who was studying psychology if she felt her love for her children was just a bunch of chemical reactions. She spluttered a bit, but said yes. I countered that the love must come from somewhere, and that it wasn’t on earth before she felt it, was it? I concluded and believed that love is being poured into us from the “outside”, from the spirit world. Subjectively it felt like that to me at the time.
Something within us (or at least within many of us) rebels at the idea that we are “just” matter.
I invite those who think and feel this way to do this: take up a marking pen and draw a neat line through the word “just”.
Science says that life is chemical reactions.
That is in fact exactly what science says. Some idiot scientists may have put the “just” in there, as the behaviorist B.F. Skinner did, but the correct representation of science’s findings so far is that chemical reactions are the basis of life. You don’t even need to give up any beliefs in the soul, or divine love at this point. Science is good at distinguishing between what can be termed knowledge (i.e. things that seem to be reliably true enough that retesting them for each experiment or equation would be a waste of time) and speculation.
That we have a soul is, from a scientific viewpoint, a speculation. Even if it seemed to a scientist to be subjectively undeniable that we have a soul, it would be more prudent to acknowledge that scientifically we have neither evidence, nor any purpose for such a speculation. We can go a long way using only that which we can justify with a foundation of scientific knowledge, without needing to fill in too many gaps with speculations. And we certainly don’t need to create gaps in established knowledge to force a place for the soul to be crammed into!
To say that van Gogh’s Starry Night is “just dabs of paint on a canvas” would rather miss the point, wouldn’t it? But it is entirely factual — and entirely non-threatening — to say that it consists of dabs of paint on a canvas.
Love is a bunch of chemical reactions. We might speculate that it could be more, but science says that love certainly involves some clearly identifiable neuro-chemicals and electro-chemical reactions. That means, incidentally, that science says that love is real.
And yes, it’s a bunch of chemical reactions, but they take place within an organic structure which science tells us is by far the most complex thing we know of in the entire universe. And even more wonderfully, you can enjoy it without even knowing the first thing about what’s going on with it.
Closely related to all this is the fear that humans and indeed life itself are debased and devalued when seen as mere chemicals. And this fear is not unfounded – behaviorism and the eugenics movement last century have much blood on their hands — both literally and metaphorically. Science must submit itself to the value of universal human rights.
Here is an interesting debate (on YouTube) between Christopher Hitchens and a Christian apologist, Frank Turek. Turek spends most of the debate repeatedly interjecting “We are not just chemicals”, and demanding “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Hitchens eventually answers the latter with “I don’t know, and neither do you!” It’s not especially relevant to this post, but a link to a Hitchens debate is always a good thing in my opinion.
I should also note that I only thought of the line about love being real after reading it from someone else. The biologist and blogger PZ Myers — who for various reasons I would have preferred not to mention on this blog — pointed it out a while ago, so I should acknowledge it.
I will also acknowledge the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig for noticing the trouble with the word “just”. It’s a great book, well worth the effort of struggling through it until one “gets” it. It’s the more or less true story of a victim of electro-convulsive therapy in the 50s (Pirsig himself). In large part the book deals with the question of whether “quality” is subjective or objective. If it’s objective, then it must be somehow embedded in an object — clearly absurd unless you’re a fanatical authoritarian school master type. If it’s subjective then it must also unavoidably be entirely relative — also distinctly unsatisfactory as an answer, even in aesthetics, to say nothing of ethics. Pirsig was troubled by the idea that “Quality is just what you like”. He noticed that if you cross out the “just”, you end up with “Quality is what you like”. Which led him to the idea of seeing Quality (the capital is his) as being an event between subject and object. And then he went mad…. Ummm, but it’s a good book anyway, and even Richard Dawkins references it in The God Delusion!
On the topic of eugenics, here is an in depth lecture about its origins and practice in the 20th century.
Posted by Yakaru