David: One of the guiding things that runs through the series is saying, well, what does it mean? And it’s this question, whether things mean things, whether there’s meaning at all in the universe. Because there are people who we’re talking to in the series who say, ‘Well, look, there are facts, but they don’t have any meaning. There are facts and rules, that’s it.’
SCM: If I may adopt a very Don-ish hue, my dear boy, facts are not neutral.
David: Do you feel that the insistence that science says there is no meaning to anything… Do you agree with that view of science, or those who say that is the only view you can have if you’re a scientist?
SCM: Some scientists say that. I don’t think science says that for a moment at all. In a way, it’s a sort of version of Pascal’s wager. If one is saying, right, everything is meaningless, then that’s still a metaphysical statement. It may not be one which is designed to give comfort to the great majority of people. It may also be true, of course, we don’t know.
But, on the other hand, the more I understand about the way we understand things, and the way in which we explore, and the sense of delight, and the sense of beauty, and I’m no expert on art, but there are some areas of art that I’m quite interested in, including 20th century art as well as 19th century: Samuel Palmer might be one example. I just sort of look at these things and think, how on earth did he do that? Turner’s another obvious example. It’s easy to get carried away with these classic examples of painter or musicians like Mozart, or Wagner, or Bach and so forth. But every one of those people hints at a transcendence, and you can just say, ‘Right, that’s a misfiring neuron… a little too much dopamine. Up the serotonin a bit more, old boy.’ Or you can say, ‘Right, this means something.’
Ard: And so, do you think that science will one day explain all of these things as it progresses? Will it also explain things like all sorts of values? Or do you think that science is somehow limited in what it can answer?
SCM: Well, many people claim that it will, but, with respect, I don’t like the formulation that science will explain everything. I’m not first of all sure there is a total explanation available. I think we are actually dealing with unlimited knowledge, as it happens. I don’t really understand why, but that seems to be my intuition.
But to put it slightly differently, if and when we begin to understand consciousness, which in my view is the problem of problems at the moment, there will be a science of consciousness, absolutely, but it will be completely unrecognisable from our perspective. So the trick is, of course, to be one step ahead of the curve and think, right, how are we going to define that new science?
In that sense the Germans have an advantage on us in referring to wissenschaften. You know, it’s knowledge and science as human experience, rather than science will explain morality. And, of course, you can point to many such examples whereby morals are employed for local advantage. Undoubtedly, it would be mad if they weren’t. But are you persuaded that the absurd examples of moral values are just a Darwinian expression? Most of us would be suspicious of that. They seem to be resonating with something much deeper.
Ard: So you’ve written that you’re suspicious whether a naturalistic program would be sufficient to encompass all of human reality. By naturalistic, I think you mean one assumes that there’s only atoms and molecules and nothing else. Do you want to elaborate on that? What does that mean? Are you saying basically we need God to explain this?
SCM: We don’t need God to explain this. It might be useful to have God, I don’t doubt, but I think the program runs into the buffer – the naturalistic program – in my opinion, with the question of consciousness.
SCM: It seems to be that once again the mind goes full circle. It goes what is the nature of mind? What are our brains actually doing? As we’ve discussed in other contexts, you can either say, all mind is a product of the brain, but everything I know about the discovery, even in scientific contexts, persuades me that there is an intuition of adventure. There is an intuition that one is moving always into new territory.
There’s a very famous essay, of course, by Eugene Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics. And as I recall, but please don’t quote me, he even uses words like ‘miracle’. Not in a theistic sense, but the uncanny effectiveness of mathematics. How is it that completely abstract concepts, which so far as we know should only exist in our brains, and by implication our minds, have such extraordinary traction? So they are not just formula on a page: you apply them, and things happen in the real world.
SCM: Other people say, no, no, mathematics is merely a human invention, and there’s no decision here, but it’s more or less what program do you want to start to subscribe to? What do you think is going to be the most fruitful? It’s not that that view is right and this view is wrong – certainly not. It’s more, where are we going to get the most exciting advances? And my suspicion is that the naturalist program takes you a very long way, but it doesn’t take you far enough.
In terms of science, one could hardly blame people for being so enthusiastic about it, because it opens completely new doors into the way the universe is organised. And my only complaint with some of my colleagues is to say, ‘Oh well, is that sufficient?’ It’s all very well saying the world is beautifully organised in a very sophisticated way and we can think about it. But everything else I know about the world, including many areas of science, is it’s always unfinished business. And I’m just always nervous to apply, and this would apply with equal force to any religious faith, as it would to science, to say, ‘Everything’s been sorted out. I don’t have to worry about things.’ I think, in fact, in that way, the mystics, perhaps, in certain aspects of religious experience, and the greater scientists – and Einstein I think is a sort of example of this – always have the sort of feeling of sort of, ‘Oh my goodness me. I never knew that.’
David: So is it less a division between the religious and the scientists and more a division between those who proclaim that they already have all the certainties they need, and those who say, ‘Hmm, maybe not, maybe there are still things we don’t know.’?
SCM: I’m a little nervous about the word division. And I’m also very nervous to deny people security. It’s not a thing where one simply storms in and says, ‘You, feeble, feeble-minded individuals. Surely you realise it’s nothing like that at all.’ But I think really all the time one has to keep asking one’s self, how is the world organised as it is? Why is it like this?
The cliché is, why is there something rather than nothing?
But what strikes me so forcibly, especially in the last 50 years, is that in many ways the rate of progress in biology has been unbelievably staggering. But I get the impression these days that many of my colleagues are almost drowning in data.
SCM: They have so much data, they hardly know what to do with it.
Ard: They hardly know how to think about it.
SCM: Exactly. And so the problem is, again, one just needs to step back and say, ‘Right, you know, can we remember what we’re trying to ask?’ Is it actually sufficient merely to get some fantastically clever machine, which will provide gigabytes of data, if in the end we don’t actually know the question is we wish to ask?