Myths and materials

Arguments against Secular Culture
September 15, 1995

Robert Miller is a neurobiologist, an Englishman conscious of living in the somewhat small and isolated community of New Zealand, and content to be so. He believes that "the most influential belief system in the developed world is scientific materialism" but he finds himself far from happy with its basis in "an almost incredibly narrow range of experience".

Yet he rejects, for reasons which he never states in any detail, the Christian heritage in which he was brought up. Consequently, Miller finds himself taking "a position in no man's land" and he has written this book to explain how he thinks it is possible for him to stand where he does and to defend a view of reality which values equally the objective account of science and the subjective account of truly humane experience.

That both accounts are necessary is made clear to Miller by the way in which primary personal experiences, such as those of perceiving redness or suffering pain, are irreducible to any description in terms of patterns of neurons or molecules. The activity of neural networks and seeing red are "categorically quite separate".

Of course, both events occur in us and Miller acknowledges the existence of a psychophysical parallelism, which he completely despairs of understanding. All we can do, in his opinion, is note that it is the case. "That relationship (of mind and brain) is, to me, an unfathomable metaphysical mystery, the most fundamental of all miracles."

Miller espouses an epistemological dualism, in which we gain knowledge by both inspection and introspection, but he refrains from investigating what might be its ontological counterpart, other than occasional remarks flirting with the panpsychic idea of a duality of objective/subjective, present to some degree in all entities.

A key idea for Miller's thought is that of myth. Fortunately he spells out clearly what he means by this many-valued word. A myth is "an assumed answer to a question which in principle has no answer" and which in addition helps humanity to live more comfortably with itself. The author believes that no one can live without myths and, in consequence, scientific materialism is as myth-laden in its way as were the ancient religious traditions.

Among the contemporary myths that Miller identifies and rejects are physical determinism and the neo-Darwinian account that sees evolution as completely random and without any hint of purpose or significance.

These kinds of broad views go beyond what can be established by particular scientific investigations and so Miller believes that they are embraced through choice and not through intellectual necessity.

The myth in which Miller places his own reliance is that of a universe full of "little miracles", tiny but significant deviations from rigid determinism made possible, in his view, by the intrinsic uncertainties of quantum events.

Within his chosen metaphysical scheme it is possible to find room for an attenuated notion of God, considered as the world soul and the repository of value but with very little power to affect the processes of the universe. Miller's criterion for the choice of a myth to live by is basically pragmatic: "If it works, use it."

While this is an interesting message from "no man's land", the presentation has its defects. Much of the writing is rather laboured and painstaking, with a degree of repetitiveness. More seriously, one must question Miller's systematic agnosticism about the answers to fundamental questions and his consequent reliance on fideistic assertion, grounded simply in the claim "this works for me".

Of course, no metaphysical scheme can just be read out in a deductive way from the limited human encounter with reality. Acts of creative intellectual daring are called for in the construction of such all-embracing accounts, but that does not mean that there are not motivations for the positions taken up which go beyond the pragmatic.

The problem of the relationship of mind and brain is one which, despite the grandiose claims of artificial intelligence enthusiasts, seems to me to be, at the least, centuries away from a solution, but this does not mean that we should simply decline any engagement with it.

Miller's epistemological dualism is rather like the "two different languages" account of the (non-)relationship between science and religion, and about as equally unsatisfactory. The problems are difficult but the struggle with them must continue.

John Polkinghorne is president, Queens' College, Cambridge.

Arguments against Secular Culture

Author - Robert Miller
ISBN - 0 334 02604 0
Publisher - SCM
Price - £14.95
Pages - 241

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