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Understanding Humans in a Scientific Age: Fundamentalism in Science

09/05/2013 16:53 BST | Updated 09/07/2013 10:12 BST
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Ever since machines were invented, it has been speculated that we too are machines. The rise of molecular biologyand molecular genetics,with its spectacular success in explaining the mechanisms underlying cell biology, and then the rise of neuroscience, showing how brain function is based in electrical spikes travelling in networks of interconnected neurons, have strongly reinforced this view. It has been strongly expressed by Francis Crick in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis:

"You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

The key thing here is the carefully intended "no more than": that's all you are, everything that you thought made you valuable as a human being is an illusion. Science has reduced you to an automaton, with consciousness an epiphenomenon.All issues at the core of being human, such as ethics, can be explained by evolutionary theory and neuroscience.The humanities are to be subsumed into science, with scientists the sole bearers of truth.

As explained so carefully by Merlin Donald in his book A Mind So Rare, this view undermines our humanity in a fundamental way. And if we are no more than machines, why should societywaste time and energy looking after the sick and the elderly? We discard our old computers when they fail: why do we use up valuable resources on the weak andinfirm in society?This is an obvious consequence of this dehumanising view of humanity, and if that view is truly taken seriously, people will inevitably eventually be treated that way.

The assumption made by some that biological theory must bethe basis for developing an ethics and policies for human procreationis a denial of the possibility of a true morality.If the origin of ethics is solely to do with kin or group survival ---if that is the foundation of its meaning, as claimed by evolutionarypsychologists ---then the clear logic is that it's fine to massacre the enemy, war is justified. There is no place for deep ethics - the ethics of self-sacrifice -- in such a world view.

Taking science seriously does not necessarily lead to these views. This scientific fundamentalism depends on a series of fallacies that a broader view can disavow:

1. The fallacy of excluded evidence,

2. The fallacy of a restricted domain of enquiry,

3. The fallacy of unjustified extrapolation,

4. The fallacy of one way causation,

5. The fallacy of evolutionary explanation of social sciences,

6. The fallacy of neuroscientific explanation of social sciences,

7. The fallacy of a rational life.

They can all be avoided. The essential nature of fundamentalism is when a partial truth proclaimed as the whole truth. Only one viewpoint is allowed on any issue, all others are false, and of course we ourselves just happen to be the people with sole access to the truth. The scientific fundamentalists are just one more example of this kind of view.

But science need not dehumanise us, or deny deep aspects of meaning. More human views are tenable that fully take science seriously, but that do not accept that it is the only route to truth and meaning. The humanities and philosophy do not have to be dictated to by science: one can explore each of them in the rigorous way appropriate to that domain of enquiry, acknowledging the strengths and limits of each of these avenues towards understanding the universe in which we live.In that context, science can crucially inform philosophy and the humanities, but not supplant them.

George F.R. Ellis will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org