Separating philosophy from science

** Written by “Surak” **

An article appeared several months ago in the Daily Telegraph with the headline, “Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‘I’m just a machine.’” It describes how a British neuroscientist, Professor Patrick Haggard, found that magnetic fields can be used to affect a person’s brain and exert some small degree of control of his body without touching it in any way. The magnetic field is created by a device held close to a person’s head; a technique he calls “transcranial magnetic stimulation.” Although the amount of ‘control’ he was able to demonstrate was only the waggling of his index finger and the twitching of a hand, it was a wonderfully original experiment that sparks the imagination with intriguing visions of further research and possible cures.

Unfortunately the article wasn’t about the scientific possibilities. The researcher chose instead to make wildly speculative philosophical statements in the guise of science:

“…there’s no ghost in the machine.”

“We certainly don’t have free will.”

This is not science; it is the abuse of science. Haggard’s comments go far outside the bounds of what science can legitimately hope or claim to do. Science as the empirical study of our material universe can never be used to disprove the existence of a non-material God or human soul. Even the infamous atheist apologist Richard Dawkins accepts this limitation on science.

Haggard’s behavior is almost certainly the result of the well-known bias of a significant proportion of biologists in favor of atheism and against the monotheistic religions. In other words, Professor Haggard used his important and legitimate scientific work to take cheap shots at basic Christian beliefs. It tells us a lot about his priorities that he used his results to give scientific weight to his anti-religious bias rather than to promote the science.

As Christians and scientists we believe in and care deeply about science, and his behavior has harmed science in at least three ways:

  • It weakens the scientific process by corrupting the search for truth.
  • It further alienates from science the huge number of people around the world who do believe in the soul and free will.
  • Most troubling, it is evidence of the continuing corrosive influence of philosophy on science.

It is a historical fact that philosophical biases have, from the time of Aristarchus, always been the major factor preventing or crippling science. Dominant philosophies are the conceptual boxes we humans keep struggling to think outside of. Philosophy and religion must never be allowed to dictate the ‘official’ results of experiments or the direction that science can take. Science in the 21st century is just as susceptible to the corrupting influence of philosophy and religion, as well as politics and money, as it was at any other point in history. Constant vigilance in the defense of science will always be necessary.

Here is what should have happened with Haggard’s interview. This ground-breaking work by an eminent scientist should certainly have been widely reported. But, Professor Haggard should have described his research in strictly material terms. This could have been followed by an animated discussion of all the exciting directions the research could take. Such an article would have been interesting enough without any deviation from legitimate science.

The professor would even have been justified in comparing the human body to a machine. But, as a scientist he should have been professionally responsible and cautious enough to refrain from hyperbole, such as, “I’m just a machine…” Instead, he could have reasonably pointed out that the human body in many ways appears machine-like in function and structure. In truth, he made a fool of himself and the field of biology no less than if he had instructed his assistant to tie him up with ropes attached to his arms and legs, had her move him around like a puppet, and then declared the end of the soul and free will.

Does the scientist ever have the right to comment on philosophy and religion? Of course, as long as it is made clear to everyone the discussion has exited the realm of science and entered the arena of metaphysics. The honest scientist should also always be aware of his personal biases and make them clear to others – beware the wolf who wraps himself in the scientist’s white lab coat. He can even use the findings of science to make a philosophical argument as long as he is scrupulously careful never to invoke the authority of science to win his point.

It is not an unreasonable hope that scientists would generally be high intellectual examples to the rest of humankind. For example, scientists should lead by being intellectually honest and open enough to entertain counter philosophical arguments. In the case of Prof. Haggard, this would mean a willingness to consider arguments that his research could actually give support to the basic Christian belief in dualism. From Plato to Descartes, the primary difficulty with dualism has always been to explain how something non-material could affect something material.

It is highly ironic that Haggard may have come up with the beginnings of a possible explanation for this since his experiment involved something non-material, the magnetic field, capable of affecting the material brain and moving the body without touching it. It would be interesting to find out if he would he be able and willing to concede that his research could just as easily be used to justify a belief in dualism as to reject the notion of the soul.

Update: I have written a response to Dr. Robb Wilson’s excellent comment below. See “When philosophy dominates science.”

5 thoughts on “Separating philosophy from science

  1. “It would be interesting to find out if he would he be able and willing to concede that his research could just as easily be used to justify a belief in dualism as to reject the notion of the soul.”

    That’s what I thought, too.

    “We certainly don’t have free will.”

    So did he choose to say that? If not, what caused him to say that?

  2. So did he choose to say that? If not, what caused him to say that?

    Get with the now, Russ: cause-and-effect is so passé.

    Seriously, though, I’m guessing a lack of free will in this context means we are operating on some kind of chemical/instinctual algorithm with a bit of quantum indeterminacy thrown in for variety. Not terribly inspiring, is it?

  3. “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.
    I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
    My brain awash in chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin and controlled by magnetic fields.”

    Yeah, definitely insipid. Er, inspiring.

    And if that’s all we are, then what’s his beef with the machines running around thinking they have free will? They can’t help it anyway.

  4. Sarah-

    Thanks! I hadn’t heard about this. I have several thoughts.
    1) Just as computers have HID’s (human interface devices, like keyboards, mice and monitors), it seems logical that God would have given us GID’s hardwired into our brains, so finding them doesn’t disprove God, nor does it prove it, but rather shows a possible mechanism for spiritual activity in our brains.

    2) I’m not sure I’d consider a magnetic field a non-material object, as it is a form of energy, which is definitely in the realm of scientific study. The effect of a moving magnetic field makes sense that it would affect an electrical device like the brain–right-hand rule and all that.

    3)Finally, and most important, we need to be clear that good science is NOT aphilosophical. There is a distinct philosophy to science, embodied in the scientific method and assumptions we make to allow us to do proper science. The problem arises when we:
    a) do not acknowledge that we have a personal worldview
    b) it has the likelihood of influencing our science, and we do not account for it in our experiment design
    c) do not (as you mention) acknowledge a departure from pure science when we comment on implications on extra-scientific worldviews. (I will not say non-scientific, but those outside of a purely scientific worldview, as I do not believe in non-overlapping magisteria, but that worldviews can overlap with scientific philosophy, and that is all the more reason to be clear which worldview is driving one’s comments.)

    The last point is important because a blanket statement that philosophy corrupts science is misleading, though generally correct. There is a difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, but there is a philosophy at the root of methodological naturalism as well. It is just that it limits itself to the practice of science and not human life in toto.

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