A phrase you might often hear people say is, ‘I only believe what I see.’ What they mean by this is that if they cannot experience something, either by sight, touch, smell, hearing or taste, then for them it does not exist. This thought is not new; it was Marx who famously promoted his ‘dialectical materialism’, where he sought to sweep away centuries of superstition and especially what he saw as the stranglehold of the church on intellectual and moral affairs. Materialism, which says that every phenomenon can be reduced to a materialist and mechanistic cause, has triumphed over the old values of ignorance. It has reduced our understanding of the universe to a series of observable interactions.
The philosophy of materialism, which underpins scientific inquiry, is indeed very useful. It is extremely good at measuring and predicting those aspects of nature that have a materialistic or mechanistic explanation. From nanosurgery to neuroscience, from Ipads to infrared, science has undoubtedly benefited our lives. But for me, materialism has two fairly serious problems.
First, it does not describe a world that we recognise. In my novel, ‘Bunker’ the hero Mark is haunted by the ghost of a small child, a phenomenon that has no place in a purely materialistic world. Such things does not happen to the majority of us though, yet on a more prosaic level the Neo-Darwinist world can only describe a world without free will, without good or evil, consciousness, altruism or indeed selfishness. We, as humans, every day experience things that cannot be reduced to materialist or mechanistic causes. Can you measure your love for someone? Can you reduce your love for them to a series of observable interactions?
All of us have thoughts. True, some are more profound than others, but it is very difficult to quantify these. Is one thought bigger than another? Is one more valid? Our abstract thoughts can also influence our brain waves and thought patterns, which can be measured. Counsellors of people with alcohol and drug addictions have found that by asking these people to think their problems, it can change the way the neurons in their brain work. Abstract thoughts that cannot be quantified, can change measurable, objective brain activity.
James Le Fanu in his thought provoking book, ‘Why Us’, also makes the point that materialism cannot adequately describe, let alone explain the human experience of the objective, concrete world. We all know that two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen make water, but does that explain how we experience water as wet? How would you measure the wetness of water? The fact that the bonds have been broken and are more fluid would never be able to convey to someone who has never experienced water the sensation of wetness.
Neither does materialism account for what the philosopher Nagel describes as the ‘brute facts’ of existence; how the world and for that matter the universe has come to exist at all. All that we know (or think we know) is that at one point there was a Big Bang; what caused the Big Bang or came before it is anyone’s guess. Neither does it explain how life came about. Nagel says “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.” As St Augustine said, almost eight centuries ago, ‘The natural laws cannot of themselves account for their own existence.’ And before this is discounted as another observation from the bad old days, remember that Democritus came up with the idea of atoms in Ancient Greece, about the same time the idea of evolution was being debated. ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Ecclesiastes 1:9.
And Nagel is in no way an advocate of intelligent design, a fundamentalist or creationist. He wrote not long ago in an essay called “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God.”
The second problem is our developing understanding of science itself. Quantum is the science of the very small. It describes what happens at the sub atomic level; what is happening in your eyeballs as you read this, on the computer screen before you, in the table the computer sits on. It underpins all science. But quantum cannot be measured. It is impossible, according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, to know both the momentum and position of even a single particle. All we can know is probabilities about these qualities. Therefore the world as we know cannot, in principle, be reduced to mechanistic and materialistic explanations because matter itself does not obey those principles. Indeed, quantum clearly states that what we regard as reality only exists because we observe it. Instead of the materialistic, mechanistic process we get a very subjective view of the world. Instead of being observers of a clockwork universe, we are participants in the creation of the reality we see around us. By seeing something, we make it real.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us without any comfortable illusions that we understand the world or that we are somehow in control of it. It leaves us with those brute facts again; that life and the world are unpredictable and unknowable. The world is far more complex and stranger than we can ever know. As Shakespeare says in Hamlet said, ‘There is more in heaven and on earth than your philosophy can even guess at.’ Instead of being able to navigate through life using carefully plotted maps we are adrift on a sea of possibilities. This could be seen as frightening or depending on your standpoint, liberating. It means the world of ghosts and ghouls, of angels and demons, of the world that we explore in our fiction may be more real than we can ever even dream.