Materialism, vitalism and interdisciplinarity: from Thomas Nagel to 1913

I ended the last post with some vague references to materialism, a threat/promise of primary sources, and a rather abrupt ‘TO BE CONTINUED’. So, let us continue. Here, I use the recent controversy surrounding philosopher Thomas Nagel as an excuse to talk about early-twentieth-century debates on the subjects of materialism and vitalism. Warning – it’s long and it gets pretty historical.

Before I was rudely interrupted by my own self-imposed word count, I’d started talking about the idea of physics as containing foundational theories that underlie all of science (and, some might say, human knowledge). If you extend this to full-blown materialism, then everything in the universe is composed of sub-atomic particles. This doesn’t just include the obvious stuff, like tables and rice krispies, but also thoughts. It has been summed up by Francis Crick, one half of the team that uncovered the double helix structure of DNA:

‘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 behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.

More recently, the biologist Jerry Coyne has stated that all sciences are in principle (but not yet in practice) reducible to the law of physics, and this must be true unless you’re religious. This is quite a statement, not least because it fundamentally separates religious scientists (who do exist) from atheist scientists. It seems to suggest that religious scientists can never be truly objective, because their religious commitments won’t allow them to be. This is true. But what is also true is that scientists with immovable commitments to materialism can also never be truly objective. (Nobody can.) They might argue superiority on the grounds of materialism’s basis in evidence but it’s quite a leap from the ‘evidence’ to such an over-arching theory.

And why should opposition to materialism be instantly tied up with religion? This is a problem the philosopher and atheist Thomas Nagel has faced, after publishing a book last year titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Unsurprisingly, a lot of scientists and philosophers really didn’t like it very much (although you can’t feel too sorry for Nagel – with a title like that, he was clearly courting controversy). The backlash is very nicely detailed here, with an account of a meeting of a group of staunch materialists (long read, but a good one, from which I have liberated many ideas and examples, in case anybody thinks I’m being original in my research here).

One of Nagel’s main problems with materialism is quite a simple one – it goes against common sense. This is a relatively recent problem for science, which for quite a while was promoted on the basis that its rational common-sense view of nature could be understood by anybody. In the early twentieth-century, relativity theory messed this all up by making absolutely no sense to more than about 6 people in the world. Its incomprehensibility was used as a marketing tool, and the public were now advised to just trust the experts. A little under a century later, at the aforementioned materialism meeting, there was a debate about how much this ‘public’ should be aware of. Should we, the scientists and philosophers wondered, explain the consequences of materialism – that colours and sounds don’t exist, that there’s no such thing as free will when our thoughts and actions are determined by the movement of atoms? Would this lead to the abandonment of personal responsibility, and descent into chaos? Maybe best to leave the truth to minds that can handle it.

The materialist approach is very successful – it works by seeking out things that can be detected and measured, and then it detects and measures them. If something can’t be understood using the laws of physics, then it must not exist. Levelling charges of non-existence against all empirical anomalies is a bold scientific method. And it reminds me of attitudes towards the aether in the early twentieth century. As physicists became more and more focused on quantifying everything, they had no need for such a weird theoretical mechanism. If the numbers worked without it, then it might as well not exist. Some physicists denounced it, most just ignored it, and eventually the theory went away.

This was a time when the notion of materialism was being hotly debated. The philosophy had come into its own in the mid nineteenth century, during defences of Darwin’s theory of evolution. T. H. Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) ensured that the theory would forever be remembered as an antagonist to religion by engaging in heated debate with the Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Huxley believed in scientific naturalism, a less extreme form of materialism in that it accepted that events in the mind were real. However, as these mental events could exert no control over the natural world, the actions of nature and man were still determined solely by material laws. A number of scientists responded to scientific naturalism by arguing for the compatibility of science and religion, and the nineteenth century ended with a push by many towards natural theology, a concept of evolution as divinely planned.

Natural theology fit in quite well with the ideas of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. In 1907, he published Creative Evolution, a book in which he argued that evolution was governed by a creative force, which he named the élan vital. Just like divine plans, the élan vital was situated outside of a purely materialist concept of nature. For those who identified instead as vitalists, it was very appealing. Perhaps for this reason, Bergson became incredibly popular in Britain, with more than 200 articles about him appearing in English publications between 1909 and 1911. By the time he visited the country in 1911, society types were clamouring to see him. You were nobody if you hadn’t been to a Bergson lecture.

At the same time, a fair few (but still a minority of) scientists were studying the ‘supernatural’. The Alchemical Society, founded in London in 1912, saw alchemists in conversation with mainstream chemists, discussing the spiritual implications of new developments in atomic science. Similarly, the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, boasted a number of prestigious physicists in senior positions, including J. J. Thomson, William Crookes, Lord Rayleigh and Oliver Lodge. These psychical researchers were using scientific methods to study telepathy and life after death. Oliver Lodge believed the aether could be used to connect the physical and psychical worlds, but other scientists were using newer developments in physics to study the occult. It’s not really that surprising. At the end of the nineteenth century, physicists had discovered a new kind of ray that allowed them to see through flesh. As the twentieth century progressed, theories of atomic structure started to suggest that solid objects were actually mostly empty space. And radioactivity was pretty weird. Why shouldn’t ghosts exist as well?

Understandably, the materialists weren’t too happy about the rise of Bergson fans and spiritualists, and between 1912 and 1914 their grievances were aired in the pages of Bedrock, a short-lived journal that promoted rationality. While situated firmly in the anti-Bergson camp, the editors encouraged lively debate, publishing heated discussions on the topics of vitalism and materialism, telepathy, and Bergson’s evolution. A recurring question asked whether science was progressing in a materialist or vitalist direction. Hugh Elliott, author of Modern Science and the Illusions of Professor Bergson (a book whose highly critical take on the French philosopher received a glowing review in Bedrock), took the former view. It is, he declared, ‘common knowledge that for some centuries past the sphere of mechanical interpretations has been increasing, while the sphere of spiritual interpretations has been decreasing.’

However, there were also arguments that materialism was coming to an end, and this was countered by Elliott’s materialist peers. Bryan Donkin was an editor of Bedrock and physician who would later in life criticise psycho-analysis for not being sufficiently ‘scientific’. In an article on ‘Science and Spiritualism’ he referred to an oft declared view ‘in newspapers as well as from the pulpit and the platform that the “materialistic science” of the nineteenth century has receded before the “scientific philosophy” of such teachers as Professor Bergson in the twentieth’. Donkin countered that, for those ‘who recognise no scientific revolution, nor any victory over the accepted methods of scientific research by any philosophies whatever’, such attempts at reconciliation between science and spiritualism are regarded as ‘mere logomachy’. (← excellent word)

Donkin’s article was published not long before the 1913 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Here, Oliver Lodge delivered a Presidential Address that attacked many aspects of modern physics, including a growing tendency to ignore that which could not be readily measured (an obvious reference to the aether). While he managed to refrain from mentioning ghosts for most of his speech, Lodge couldn’t contain himself and ended with a defence of spiritualist research, noting that there was much evidence in favour of the idea of life after death. The media response that followed this address suggests that Lodge’s spiritualist ideas were extremely popular to the wider public (if frowned upon by many of his colleagues) and there was a lot of support for his unorthodox attempts to marry science and religion. What was ‘logomachy’ for some, for others was a new kind of science, more inclusive and less at odds with spiritual beliefs.

It seemed completely impossible (as it does today) for either side to convince the other of their beliefs. A lot of the problems came from viewing disciplines too rigidly, and dismissing anybody who tried to cross over from one to another. Elliott argued that ‘vital laws’ were simply mechanical laws under a new name. He accused vitalist physicists of being unable to find such laws in their own discipline, and thus turning to biology to find them. When it came to the subject of telepathy, which was being seriously considered by some physicist-members of the Society for Psychical Research, the biologist Ray Lankester declared that no modern biologists believed in this phenomenon, it instead being the preserve of ‘physicists who have strayed into biological fields’.

Such physicists were dismissed as having no training in experimental psychology, resulting in their acceptance of faulty evidence. However a psychical researcher, J. Arthur Hill, levelled the same criticism at mainstream biologists, arguing that they may have read books on psychical research, but had no experimental experience. Hill remarked how curious it was ‘to find how apparently unscientific an educated man can be, even in our modern times, when he goes outside his own particular province’. Conversely, the anti-materialist psychologist, William McDougall, suggested that the materialists actually had too much practical experience, to the detriment of their powers of thinking. He accused them of sloppy reasoning, using statements such as ‘we are compelled to believe’, unaccompanied by ‘any train of reasoning from established premises’. He argued that the `biological materialist is commonly a laboratory specialist’, and subsequently had not developed a truly scientific or philosophical attitude. The message on all sides was clear – stick to your own subject.

This, of course, is Nagel’s great downfall. He’s a philosopher straying into scientific areas, which would be fine if only he agreed with the scientists. (Although there are apparently many scientists on his side – Nagel just didn’t mention any of them in his book.) Materialist scientists seem happy to collaborate with philosophers when they’re in agreement, but any divergence and they’re accused of being ‘armchair’ thinkers. There’s an imbalance in the relationship – science can falsify a philosophy, but philosophy can’t falsify a scientific theory. But, as I think I was trying to say in the previous post, everybody probably has a lot to learn from other disciplines – it should go both ways. I’m aware that I’m not really following this advice – I keep talking about how scientists should listen to people outside of their field, but I haven’t suggested anything that historians (me) can learn from the sciences. Hope to find out more about that tomorrow.

EDIT: An oddly relevant article just appeared on my Twitter feed – why science needs help from metaphysics


6 thoughts on “Materialism, vitalism and interdisciplinarity: from Thomas Nagel to 1913

  1. Thanks so much for writing this. This is great stuff. In the past year I’ve read Nagel’s book (which I think had a bad title that didn’t match the book’s thesis very well) and Irrational Mind, which tries to resurrect the Psychical Research project. Both books got me thinking more critically about the philosophy of science.

    In the field of AI and computers, it is basically agreed that everything that exists in the world can ultimately be reduced to computation (much like in physics, if not identical to it). But if everything can be reduced to computation then that means that Number or Math exists, right? But I don’t see how you can be a materialist–holding that only physical things exist–and “computationalist.” If the fundamental nature of the universe is mathematics, and mathematics aren’t physical, then most scientists believe that there are abstractions/ideas that exist just as much as physical objects do (or even more fundamentally–the language gets dicey here, of course).

    That’s what REALLY bugged me about Lawrence Krauss’ book “A Universe from Nothing” (almost the mirror opposite of Nagel: a scientist trying to walk over into philosopherland and getting his hand slapped). Krauss basically uses all of this theoretical physics to defend what he describes at times as a purely empirical position.

    Anyway, your post got my juices flowing. I definitely need to do some more reading into the history of science.

    By the way, are you familiar with the book The Dappled World by Nancy Cartwright? I was thinking of reading that next.

    • Hi Ryan. Thanks for your comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! (Incidentally, I like your recent summary of the problems with science journalism)

      I think I’d long assumed that the failures of AI to live up to expectations had led to an abandonment of reductionism, but I imagine there’s people in both camps. (I was sort of under the impression that we had resigned ourselves to the impossibility of truly convincing AI.) I suppose the disappointment of the Human Genome Project didn’t have that effect in biology (as far as I know – maybe it did). I’d never thought of mathematical realism (if that’s the right term) as contradictory with materialism, but it does seem that way, doesn’t it? Interesting point – one for the philosophers (certainly not me) to tackle . . .

      I hadn’t heard of The Dappled World – I wonder if it’s as distasteful to many scientists as Nagel’s anti-materialist viewpoint?

      • Tell me about the disappointment of the Human Genome Project. What was disappointing about it?

      • My understanding (which is rather superficial!) is that it didn’t produce all of the medical successes initially hoped for – because the relationship between genes and disease is quite complex, and there are so many other factors (e.g. environmental). Of course this isn’t necessarily a problem for materialism, but maybe reductionism to some extent.

        (A quick google gives me this – )

  2. The difference between science and philosophy is a philosophical difference. And many scientists, not being particularly philosophical, are prone not to see that.

  3. Pingback: Arkham Insiders Folge 29 – Lovecrafts Philosophie Teil 2 – Arkham Insiders

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