The Science Delusion

Talk originally presented on 28 February 2014.



Part 1: Dogma and Habit

1. An Introduction by Rupert Sheldrake
2. The Dogmas of Science
3. Science as a Habit

Part 2: Physicalism

4. Physicalism: Not Dualism
5. Physicalism: Not Naturalism
6. Layers of Explanation
7. The Brain: Physically and Pragmatically
8. Slowly Shifting Worldviews
9. A Suitable Home

Part 3: Methodological Science

10. Methodological Physicalism
11. Dennett the Dualist
12. Dogmas, Pragmas and Morals
13. The Metaphysical and the Methodological
14. Realism and Anti-Realism
15. A Confutation of Convergent Realism
16. Instrumentalism, or Alternatively, Modelism
17. Instrumentalism and Constructivism

Part 4: Science, Religion and Philosophy

18. Ante-Conclusion
19. Physicalism ≠ Dualism – Mind
20. The Compatibility of Science and Religion
21. Anti-Conclusion




“The science delusion is the delusion that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in.” So begins Rupert Sheldrake’s January 2013 controversial TEDx talk based on his book ‘The Science Delusion’, which stands in sharp contrast to Richard Dawkins’s (‘The God Delusion’) view of science. He continues: “There is a conflict at the heart of science”; Dawkins’s widely-held view “has come to inhibit and restrict the free enquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour.”

How does science work? What does it actually tell us? Is science compatible with religion or not? Perhaps that conflict “at the heart of science” is key?

1. An Introduction by Rupert Sheldrake

I’m going to let Rupert Sheldrake do the introduction for this talk here for me. He is perhaps a surprising person for me to call upon for support, but he is very eloquent, what he says is very apposite and he says it succinctly. Furthermore, I’ve borrowed his title – from his 2012 book ‘The Science Delusion’ and also his rather notorious TEDx talk at TEDx Whitechapel (London) in January 2013. He started that talk:

The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in. This is a very widespread belief in our society. It’s the kind of belief system of people who say ‘I don’t believe in God; I believe in science’. It’s a belief system which has now been spread to the entire world. But there’s a conflict at the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry, based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system, or a worldview, and unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free enquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour.

Since the late nineteenth Century, science has been conducted under the aspect of a belief system or a worldview which is essentially that of materialism (philosophical materialism) and the sciences are now a wholly-owned subsidiaries of the materialist worldview. I think that, as we break out of it, the sciences will be regenerated.

This talk is very much about philosophical materialism, which has been referred to as (a particular flavour of) ‘realism’ in the past. But both ‘realistic’ and ‘materialistic’ have everyday connotations that ‘physicalistic’ is too cumbersome to suffer from so I will refer only to ‘physicalism’ henceforth.

Sheldrake identifies a conflict within science between the method of science and the scientific worldview and this conflict is very much the topic here. I think it is key to understanding the often-heated wider conflict between science and religion which isn’t considered directly here but is often touched upon briefly and is a background theme.

Sheldrake talks of the regeneration of science through ‘breaking out’ of the physicalist worldview, but I see the solution being in a reformation of that physicalist worldview.

2. The Dogmas of Science

Sheldrake continues in his talk (between 1:35 and 2:15):

What I do in my book ‘The Science Delusion’, which is called ‘Science Set Free’ in the United States, is take the ten dogmas, or assumptions, of science and turn them into questions, seeing how well they stand up if you look at them scientifically. None of them stand up very well. What I’m going to do is first run through what these ten dogmas are, and then I’ll only have time to discuss one or two of them in a bit more detail. But essentially the ten dogmas … are the default worldview of most educated people all over the world.

To summarize, those ten dogmas of science are:

  1. Nature is mechanical / machine-like.
  2. Matter is unconscious.
  3. The laws of nature are fixed.
  4. Conservation of matter/energy.
  5. Nature/Evolution is purposeless.
  6. Everything inherited is material.
  7. Everything you know is stored (somehow) in the brain.
  8. Your mind is inside your head.
  9. Psychic phenomena (e.g. telepathy) are impossible.
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works.

(You can watch the video of course for his fuller descriptions.)

Two things to note here:

  1. ‘Dogmas’ is obviously a pejorative term, and
  2. It is a rather personal list for Sheldrake.

To understand this, we only need watch the rest of the TEDx talk. Sheldrake is well known for his investigations into telepathy and other parapsychology (through his books such as ‘The Sense of Being Stared At’ and ‘Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home’) and his theory of ‘morphic resonance’, by which “memory is inherent in nature” such that, for example, it allows rats learning how to navigate a maze somewhere in the world to benefit from the prior experiences of other rats, maybe on the other side of the world. This is all far from scientific orthodoxy.

Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry’

The TEDx Whitechapel event in London had the overall theme ‘Challenging existing paradigms and redefining values (for a more beautiful world)’. Sheldrake certainly rose to that challenge. His critics objected to the TED organization (see for example Jerry Coyne’s dismissal on his ‘Evolution is True’ blog) who then banned the talk, along with that by Graham Hancock. Sheldrake responded to his (anonymous) critics, and the talk was reinstated, but only onto the TEDx discussion pages.

But this is not a talk about Sheldrake’s ideas and whether they are science or pseudo-science. It is about the ‘dogmas’/’assumptions’ of science. Sheldrake refers to them as dogmas because he sees that they are immovable points for those that hold them, around which other facts and opinions can be formed but they themselves do not move. And these dogmas stand in the way of an acceptance of his personal theories.

Sheldrake’s list of dogmas is not the first, of course, to try to characterize science into its essential characteristics. Many philosophers of science have created their own lists – and rather more dispassionate than Sheldrake’s. As an example, in ‘Place of Science in a World of Values and Facts’ (2001), Loucas G. Christophorou presents nine principles:

‘Place of Science in a World of Values and Facts’ (2001), Loucas G. Christophorou

  1. The principle of Explanation
  2. The principle of Scientific parsimony
  3. The principle of Universality of the physical law
  4. The principle of Relatedness
  5. The principle of Embeddedness
  6. The Coordinating principle
  7. The principle of Correspondence
  8. The principle of Complementarity
  9. The principle of Continuity

Whenever lists like this are presented, four values crop up time and time again: explanation, parsimony, universality and correspondence. Basically, science is about providing explanations of how the world behave that corresponds to how the world is, and these ‘laws’ apply regardless of specific locations in space and time are as described as simply as possible.

3. Science as a Habit

Having introduced the ten dogmas of science, Sheldrake examines some in more detail, starting with the third, that the laws of nature are fixed. Having introduced the idea of change with the shift from Steady State to Big Bang theories of the universe, he continues (from 7:00):

In an evolutionary universe, why shouldn’t the laws themselves evolve? After all, human laws do, and the ideas of laws of nature is based on a metaphor with human laws so it’s a very anthropocentric metaphor. Only humans have laws. In fact, only civilised societies have laws. As C. S. Lewis once said, “to say that a stone falls to Earth because it’s obeying a law makes it a man and even a citizen”. It’s a metaphor we’ve got so used to we forget it’s a metaphor. In an evolving universe, I think a much better idea is the idea of ‘habits’. I think the habits of nature evolve, the regularities of nature are essentially habitual. This was an idea put together at the beginning of the twentieth Century by the American philosopher C. S. Pierce and it’s an idea that various other philosophers have entertained and it’s one which I myself have developed into a scientific hypothesis – the hypothesis of ‘morphic resonance’.

Again, I am not interested in morphic resonance here; I am interested in the idea that scientific theories are seen as potentially changeable habits rather than immutable laws.

I cannot verify Sheldrake’s quote of C.S. Lewis precisely. The closest I can find is in ‘Mere Christianity’ (1952), in which he says:

When you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this much the same as saying that the law only means “what stones always do”? You do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that it is under orders to fall to the ground.

Whereas C.S. Pierce talked of ‘habits’, C. S. Lewis talked of ‘patterns’: science detects patterns in the universe – regularities. As a Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis was interested in rationalizing how Christian miracles could be accommodated within a scientific understanding of the world. Deism is the idea of a God revealed only by reason and observation, who created the universe but then leaves events in it to unfurl without intervention – and bereft of any supernatural events. But C.S. Lewis was a theist rather than a deist: he believed that God can (and does) intervene in the world. In simple terms: God can break his own laws. Miracles aren’t amenable to science because they are one-offs that cannot then be verified. Science will not find (intervened) irregularities and so cannot explain them; it only explains the repeating patterns of ‘normal’ regularity.

The notion is a bit like ‘simulated reality’: A physics simulation can be run on a computer. But at any point, I can decide to stop that simulation, twiddle with the state of the simulation at that instant and then continue with the simulation. To anything within the simulation, that intervention is a miracle. (For another comparative example, consider the file ‘The Matrix’.)

4. Physicalism: Not Dualism

A central topic of this talk is physicalism. But what is physicalism? To answer that, I will offer a crude comparison with dualism that is simplistic but sufficient to illustrate the idea.

Dualism (by which I mean Cartesian dualism) is the belief that there are essentially two types of ‘stuff’ – mind and matter (C.S. Lewis called them ‘Reason’ and ‘Nature’, respectively but they are essentially the same two types of ‘stuff’). Moral agency can be placed on all minds, equally – minds being the seat of free will. However, the great problem with dualism is how to rationalize how the separate domains of mind and matter interact with one another (Descartes notoriously located the point of contact at the pineal gland within the brain).

By contrast, physicalism is the belief that there is only matter. Unlike Christian doctrines that states that ‘we are in the world but not of the world’, physicalism leaves us wholly in the world and of the world. Dualism offers the prospect of mind surviving the destruction of the matter whereas physicalism seems to close the door to that possibility. The dualist’s problem of how mind and matter interact does not arise; the problem of mind is then shifted to the question of how consciousness arises out of the purely physical. And there seems to be a problem of fitting ‘free will’ into a purely physical world.


Physicalism (Realism / Materialism / Naturalism?)

Religion: Traditional Christian

Science: Atheist

Separate Mind and Matter (‘Reason’ and ‘Nature’)

Just physical stuff (matter/energy)

“In the world but not of the world”

(wholly in the world and of the world)

Joins at ?!


Free will & responsibility

determinism; none?!

Mind is conscious

Matter is conscious?!

Mind can outlive Matter

No life after death

Note that physicalism has previously been called ‘materialism’ (Sheldrake used that term), and before that, ‘realism’. There are everyday connotations associated with ‘materialistic’ and ‘realistic’ so I prefer to use the term physicalism.

5. Physicalism: Not Naturalism

For some, the term ‘naturalism’ is also synonymous with physicalism. But here I want to make a distinction – not because I think this is how these terms should be used, but in order to emphasize a particular point about physicalism.

And to do this, I will provide another simplistic dichotomy – that between two disciplines within Cognitive Science – Psychology and Neuroscience.

Psychology Neuroscience
Naturalistic but not necessarily physicalist Naturalistic and physicalist
Can be compatible with dualism Incompatible with dualism
Black box:behaviourist Looking insidehow physically constituted?
mechanistic,empirical,… ‘the properties of larger objects are determined by those of their physical parts’
top-down bottom up

Psychology has been around for well over 100 years. Neuroscience has only become a distinct academic discipline in the last 25 years or thereabouts. Psychology has had to fit in with our knowledge of the mind – given that we knew so little about it – and taken a ‘black box’ approach to the brain: since it was premature to speculate about how the brain works, we don’t look inside it but make scientific observations of the behaviour of the whole as observed from outside.

Naturalism is contrast with the supernatural; naturalism denies the supernatural. Now, it seems strange to think there is anything supernatural about a single person or a group of people. ‘Supernatural’ seems to refer to spirits that could be located in space, or God, outside of it, but not to ourselves, even if we see ourselves as distinct Mind plus Matter. I want to claim that Naturalism, and Psychology are potentially compatible with Dualism because they can be behaviourist.

The Behaviourism of Psychology is not concerned with what is inside the being, merely the externally-available (scientifically verifiable) observations – its behaviour. But Neuroscience is specifically interested in what is inside the brain physically, understanding how smaller physical elements combine to produce the observable phenomena of the whole. Progress in Neuroscience has become possible largely as a result of improvements in instruments to see inside the brain – first with EEG and more recently with PET and MRI scanning.

The point I want to emphasize here is that physicalism is necessarily reductionist and neuroscience is a physicalist science. Ultimately, everything can be reduced to – well, physics. Recall how Francis Crick famously said we’re ‘nothing but a pack of neurons’ – but that was for shock value. And this does not mean physics is superior to any other science; science is not just about reduction.


6. Layers of Explanation

There is a natural hierarchy in the natural sciences: biology sits on top of chemistry and chemistry sits on top of physics. We can explain biological behaviour in biological terms but, in principle, we could reduce biology to chemistry: we could run simulations at the chemical level that should reproduce the biological behaviour. This does not mean that biology is just chemistry. It does not mean that biology can just be reduced to chemistry. Rather than ‘reducing’, philosophers of science talk of biology ‘supervening’ on chemistry – which can be put simplistically as ‘sitting on top of’, as I said earlier.

A simulation of a human brain in a supercomputer that models the brain at the level of segments of neurons (such as being the ultimate goal of the Human Brain Project) may (at some point in the not-so-far future) produce behaviour commensurate with real brains but such a simulation would not have no explanatory value. It does, however, provide a very good reference from which explanations can be derived. So in science, we need abstraction (the generation of higher-level approximations from low-level behaviour) as well as reduction (the generation of low-level foundations for high-level theories.

Traditionally within science, there has been a disconnect between the social sciences and the natural sciences – the traditional domains of mind and matter respectively. Any science can be studied within either a behavioural (non-reductionist) framework or a physicalist (reductionist) framework. (Although, the very lowest level must remain purely behavioural until a theory about an even lower level can prove itself useful.) Neuroscience, the adolescent upstart within science, essentially takes a physicalist approach to try to eventually connect the social sciences with the natural sciences.

Of the main frontiers of science, physics operates at the hugely-large (cosmology) and the tinily-small (particle physics) which is of academic interest for an understanding of the world around us but has little impact on our everyday lives. But connecting mind to matter is something at the human scale, with human consequences.


‘mind’ social sciences sociology/economics ethology / sociobiology
–8< ———-
‘matter’ biology neuroscience physiology / anatomy
cell biology
molecular biology
chemistry organic chemistry
molecular chemistry
physics atomic physics
quantum physics


7. The Brain: Physically and Pragmatically

The last talk LINK ‘What I Know and Why I Know It’ looked at how the brain works in physicalist terms, breaking the brain down to a hierarchy (in very simplistic terms; more accurately, a jumbled mess with some semblance of hierarchy) of model-based predictors. This was Karl Friston’s ‘variational free energy’ theory – the beginnings of an overarching ‘universal’ theory of the brain. It then linked that with ideas in the philosophy of knowledge – epistemology. Specifically, it created a close association between Friston’s theory and Susan Haack’s Foundherentist theory of knowledge in which the brain builds up knowledge through a balancing act between internal coherence and correspondence with the external environment.

unified_model2 The diagram to the right has been presented before. At each level in the hierarchy maintains an internal model of what it ‘sees’ looking downwards. For example, level H ‘sees’ level G below it and maintains an internal model of it, G’. It continually updates the model and acts on the basis of its predictions.

The talk presented the acquisition of knowledge by the brain as an evolutionary growth of the connectome  (the entire network of neurons within the brain). It finished by looking at cognitive biases and how it is difficult to change established patterns in the brain, which is most difficult with the most general and longest entrenched views – out worldviews; our belief systems. Cognitive biases are practical difficulties when it comes to enforcing how we should know.

This talk continues the two themes of that talk – physicalism and pragmatism. In short, it takes a pragmatic approach to physicalism.


8. Slowly Shifting Worldviews

Because of our cognitive biases, it can take many generations for the predominant worldview to change. One person’s connectome grows in one way but, once ‘established’ (like a shrub), it is difficult to change substantially. But a person’s offspring’s connectome can adapt itself to the modified culture in a less encumbered way.

Since Descartes rationalized dualism 350 years ago, I would claim there has been a gradual shift towards physicalism:

  •          As a general populace, we have changed from a monolithic Christian society to one I would describe as dualist – belief in a ‘spirit’ of some form without adherence to a conventional religion is widespread. Into the future, I would extrapolate to increasing physicalism (atheism) although there is nothing inevitable (‘progressive’ historicist) about this. (2011 U.K. census results: 60% Christian, 25% no religion, compared with 71% and 14% respectively in the 2001 census.)
  •          Intellectuals within society have changed from rationalizing dualism, through defences of dualism to outright rejection of it. Dualists in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience departments are now the rare exception (survey of philosophers’ opinions) see this .
  •          The view of the world about us offered by science has changed from a simple clockwork-like mechanical (Newtonian) one in which life forms inhabit to a Gaia-esque one in which life emerges in all its (Darwinian) variety.
  •          That cold simple worldview of 350 years ago did not require much explanation. But then, there was not much opportunity to gain an education in order to understand back then anyway. Nowadays in contrast, we have benefited from universal education that has provided us with a scientific understanding of the world about us (to some degree) within a wider educational framework that is tacitly dualist. That is the best established position that can be currently achieved.
  •          Extrapolating into the future, we may have a more physicalist worldview. But that might require an education not available to us in our youth. We might need to re-educate ourselves – in rather exotic study topics such as neuroscience and systems science which will just be seen as normal to our grandchildren.


c. 1650 c. 1850 c. 1950 c. 2050
Christian Christian dualist (towards) physicalist?
Rene Descartes Henri Bergson Gilbert Ryle
Isaac Newton Charles Darwin Crick / Watson
minimal education becoming institutionalized scientific / implicit dualism scientific: neuroscience

9. A Suitable Home

I feel that there is an exasperation among atheists: why is it that, 150 years since Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’, the majority of people have not abandoned religion? Why don’t they ‘get it’? It is as though the choice – presented here between dualism and physicalism – were a simple one. But I think they have underestimated the strengths of dualism compared with present-day physicalism in providing a complete worldview. As already noted, physicalism does not yet provide the answers to many important questions which result when taking the mind domain away from dualism to leave physicalism. It has too many holes which need plugging. Most significantly, just how does consciousness arise from (ultimately) just physics?

Dualism: structurally flawed

I want to make an analogy between the worldview we choose for ourselves (inasmuch as it is a choice) and the home we live in. The question is “In which house would you choose to live?” The problem is that we currently fall between two worldviews (without making the absurd choice of living halfway between the two houses, out on the street):

  •          Dualism is like a comfortable house of a few hundred years old. The windows are a bit draughty and the plumbing is a bit primitive. But more significantly, it is suffering from a huge subsidence crack down one entire wall of the house. (That subsidence crack represents the failure to adequately connect the domains of mind and matter.)
  •          Physicalism is like a brand new house designed with all modern conveniences, but unfortunately it is still under construction, without any doors and windows in it yet.

Whilst we may be able to see that the brand new house will be an attractive proposition when it is completed, it is not currently. Some may envisage the completed house as being like the architect’s models – stark and devoid of the cosy charm of their current abode.

Physicalism: still under construction

All too often, atheists seem to be hectoring and ridiculing the religious. Sneering. The approach is like saying ‘go and live in that unfinished house there’ whilst you pull a few more bricks out from the huge crack in their wall. A more constructive approach would be to finish the construction of the unfinished house and put some pictures on the walls – to provide a complete worldview that might then compete more favourably with dualism.

(At this juncture, some might point out that physicalism is not like a new house at all as it has a rather long history dating back to Lucretius and further beyond that to Democritus. But a satisfactory account of how at least the behaviour of minds supervenes on the physical has been a very distant prospect. But progress in recent years means that such an account is now a ‘possibly within my lifetime’ prospect.)



10. Methodological Physicalism

The problem with both dualist and physicalist approaches, which leads to the conflict between science and religion, is that they are metaphysical positions. They are both making claims about what really exists, over and above the everyday existence of objects.

In contrast,  Sheldrake talked of science as a method of science. Recall:

… But there’s a conflict at the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry, based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system, or a worldview…

This conflict between methodology and metaphysics is commonly applied to naturalism:

But in this talk I’m using the term ‘physicalism’ rather than ‘naturalism’, as already noted, to emphasize:

  • Its monist (non-dualist) agenda
  • Its reductionist agenda

Hence I use the rarely-used terms ‘methodological physicalism’ (an oxymoron to some) and ‘metaphysical physicalism’ (a bit of a mouthful).

Whereas ‘metaphysical physicalism’ asserts what is, ‘methodological physicalism’ merely takes a stance –  a hypothesis, ‘as if’ what is claimed were true.

Michael Polanyi’s notion of a ‘personal commitment’ is at the strong end of the scale of claims of a methodological assertion. It is an individual effort, required to fully explore possibilities, defending an idea so that it is not prematurely rejected. This puts it at odds with a Popperian falsification. It is akin to an Athenian rather than Spartan approach to child-rearing: to nurture them until they are mature enough to stand on their own two feet rather than exposing them to the full forces of nature from the beginning. But this personal commitment still falls short of saying ‘it really is this’.

One example of a methodological approach as a systematic approach that may be familiar is Descartes’s ‘Methodological scepticism’ , also known as Cartesian Doubt.


11. Dennett the Dualist

To labour the point of a methodological position (or ‘stance’), I will provide another example, namely, Daniel Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’. Or rather, I will present my interpretation of his ‘intentional stance’ to try to illustrate the point.

Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ is a way of considering an object ‘as if’ it has a mind of its own, with its own intention. This is in contrast to the ‘physical stance’ (example: a thermostat includes a strip of steel and a strip of copper) and the ‘design stance’ (example: a thermostat includes a temperature-sensitive device, invented by John Harrison). We learn to interact with objects around us by applying the appropriate stance towards things. For people, we learn to apply the intentional stance but we can take any particular stance towards any object. The issue is merely whether it is useful for us to do so. So, to take an intentional stance with the thermostat might be to say: ‘a thermostat wants to maintain the temperature of a room by turning the heating on when it’s too cold and off when it’s too hot’. With the intentional stance, it is ‘as if’ we have attributed a mind to an object (be it a person, a thermostat or anything else). And when people think of ‘mind’ they typically conceive of it being distinct from matter. It is as if we’re being a dualist. But with any stance, we are not making any commitment to how things ‘really are’.

To frame this into methodological vs metaphysical terms, when Dennett (someone we consider to be antithetical to dualism) takes the intentional stance, he is being a ‘methodological dualist’ whilst at no point being a ‘metaphysical dualist’.


12. Dogmas, Pragmas and Morals

Returning to the list of values of science set out by Christopherou or the list of dogmas by Sheldrake (in ‘Dogma and Habit’), we can apply those values in different ways.

The initial position is that we can apply them in a metaphysical way: ‘I believe in the dogmas of science because they are true’.

But an alternative way is to apply them in an epistemological way: ‘I believe in the pragmas of science because they are useful’ (in as far as knowledge is useful). Pragmas are ‘rules of thumb’, heuristics, tools. They are not absolute.

Philosophy can be divided up into some major sub-disciplines:

  • Metaphysics / Ontology
  • Epistemology
  • Ethics
  • Aesthetics
  • Political philosophy

and many other sub-disciplines, often closely related to the sub-disciplines above. For example, the sub-discipline of the philosophy of science is closely associated with epistemology.

Looking at this list of sub-disciples, we can see there are other ways of applying the values of science. So, a third way of applying the values of science is ethically: ‘I believe in the morals of science because they are right’. I’m not going to say any more about this possibility now; it is just worth noting that it is a possibility. (And I suppose there is a fourth way: ‘I believe in the aesthetics of science because it is beautiful’.)


13. The Metaphysical and the Methodological

To hopefully illuminate the distinction between the metaphysical approach and the methodological, here is another crude comparison table with some notes…

Metaphysical Methodological
Dogmatic Pragmatic
Positivist Pragmatist
Absolutist Balanced
“is” “as if” (model)
Ontological Epistemological
Noumenal Phenomenal
Realism Anti-Realism
Objective Subjective
Dogmas Pragmas
  1. Dogmatic / Pragmatic: as already noted, the dogmatic implies fixed/unchanging (a fixed mark, around which everything else must be accommodated) whereas the pragmatic is amenable to change.
  2. Absolute / Balanced notion of truth: metaphysics provides absolute truths whereas methodological does not. But this does not mean that it is just relativist. The previous talk introduced a notion of truth as a balance between internal coherence on the one hand and correspondence with the external on the other. Knowledge is personal (person-specific) but constrained. It is not free to believe just anything.
  3. Objective / subjective: ‘about what is’ versus ‘dependent to some extent on the observer’.
  4.  ‘is’/’as if’: ‘what is there’ versus ‘as if it was like this’, where ‘this’ is a local model here of what is there. (I will have more to say about models later on.)
  5. Ontological / epistemological: ‘what is’ versus ‘what is known’.
  6. Noumenal / phenomenal: Kant’s distinction between the unknowable ‘thing-in-itself’ (the noumenal) and the mere appearance of whatever it is that is behind the phenomenal curtain.
  7. Realism / anti-realism: This is worth looking at in more detail…


14. Realism and Anti-Realism

There are many doctrines that go under the name of ‘realism’ – depending upon what is claimed as being real, but the most common is the one that claims that material ‘stuff’ really does exist – it is not a figment of our imaginations (it is not ‘idealism’ = idea-ism) and, more specifically, that only ‘stuff’ exists, denying that ‘mind’ (ideas) is separate. Over the past few decades this term has largely been superceded by ‘materialism’ or ‘physicalism’, the latter becoming more popular. As already noted, I prefer the latter term as is does not have everyday connotations that the former suffers from.

Within the Philosophy of Science, there is the rather separate debate of Scientific Realism versus Scientific Anti-realism. The former has the diluted claim that the world studied by science really exists – that scientific theory is ‘at least approximately true’ (whatever that means). And the latter also has a diluted claim in that it generally no longer denies that the everyday (approximately human-sized) objects that obviously seem to exist really exist. The issue is whether concepts postulated by science that are not obvious really exist – for example, sub-atomic particles.

There is the danger that we can then get bogged down in debates about whether the trees over there in the distance really exist because I can only recognize them when I have my glasses on. At this point, I want to avoid these problems and just effectively equate a non-realist position with methodological physicalism and so remain non-commital (sceptical) as to whether even everyday objects ‘really exist’.

There are many factions within the anti-realist / non-realist camp. The most significant are the instrumentalists and the constructivists. Instrumentalists treat science as an ‘instrument’ –  a tool to explain and predict phenomena. Constructivists see science as a community measuring and making models of the natural world. (Note the underlined terms highlighted are recurring themes – the use of models, to predict.) But all anti-realists are rejecting the idea that science is converging on ‘the truth’.


15. A Confutation of Convergent Realism

Recall that:

  • Realism is the doctrine that ‘stuff’ really exists.
  • Scientific realism is the doctrine that scientific theories really tell us things about what really exists. It is claimed that the theories are at least approximately true.

‘Convergent realism’ is the doctrine that, as science progresses, it gets closer and closer to ‘the truth’ – the approximations are better and better.

Now, why should an anti-realist think that science is not converging on the truth?

The problem is that there is a long history of ideas being accepted as being ‘really true’ only for them to be subsequently rejected by the scientific community. They are then just seen as being plain wrong – going up a dead end: they weren’t even approximately true! Larry Laudan’s paper ‘A Confutation of Convergent Realism’ (1981) provides a well-known list of such theories:

  • The crystalline spheres of ancient and medieval astronomy
  • The humoral theory of medicine
  • The phlogiston theory of chemistry
  • The effluvia theory of static electricity
  • ‘Catastrophist’ geology, with its commitment to a universal (Noachian) deluge
  • The caloric theory of heat
  • The vibratory theory of heat
  • The vital force theories of physiology
  • The electromagnetic aether
  • The optical aether
  • The theory of circular inertia
  • Theories of spontaneous generation

Most people will be unfamiliar with most of these theories, which are now consigned to the history of science. If some are known, they will almost certainly be among the few near the start of the list.

James Burke’s BBC book and TV series ‘The Day the Universe Changed’ (1985) looked at revolutions of ideas and included some more commonly-known examples of obsolete scientific theories in discussing transitions:

  • From the Ptolemaic (geocentric) system via the Copernican (heliocentric) system to the modern expansionary model due to Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble.
  • From the Newtonian ‘billiard ball’ universe to Einsteinian relativity;
  • From (Newton’s) corpuscular theory of light, via wave theory to the wave/particle duality.

Burke’s title is a good one: of course, no one believed that the Universe actually changed the day a new theory was adopted. It was only ‘as if’ it had changed; it looked different because our knowledge of it had changed.

Imagine a realist who said the geocentric system was ‘really true’ until presented with evidence to the contrary and who then adopts the heliocentric system, saying that that theory was ‘really true’. They are then presented with evidence for the expansionary universe. They lose credibility for asserting that their adopted latest theories are ‘really true’.


16. Instrumentalism, or Alternatively, Modelism

One of the isms I am subscribing to here is Instrumentalism – the major ism countering scientific realism, which is sometimes referred to as a form of anti-realism and sometimes as non-realism, outside of the realism/anti-realism debate.

(Note that scientific realism is the prevalent position among philosophers – see the PhilPapers survey: 75% compared with 11% for scientific anti-realism. Non-realism was not an explicit option. Those in favour of instrumentalism will be drawn from some of the anti-realism voters and some of the ‘other’ 14%.)

Now, consider a graduated scale with, at one extreme, ‘ideas’ and at the other end, ‘reality’. In the simplest terms, scientific knowledge is a set of ideas that tell us about that reality. Scientific method (such as it exists, c.f. Paul Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’) is about how we generate those ideas from that reality (and it can be chaotic).

Consider a number of intermediate points between ideas and reality on this scale:

  1. Ideas
  2. Descriptions
  3. Models
  4. Instruments
  5. Phenomena
  6. Reality

We can’t access ‘reality’ i.e. the noumenal world, but only the phenomenal world. And those phenomena may only be observable via instruments e.g. telescopes and microscopes.

At the other end of the scale, we generally access scientific knowledge not from ideas (conscious or otherwise) inside our head but from written descriptions. But normally, descriptions, in ordinary language, are vague and prone to subjective misinterpretation. They are often metaphors (we use ‘is’ rather than the similes ‘like’/’as if’ – a metaphysical/methodological blurring).

In the middle of the scale are models. Traditionally, they were codified in the international language of mathematics. But the model may alternatively be codified in a computer language instead – in order to describe behaviour that is very complex. For an example of a model at the most complex end of the spectrum, a major aspiration of the Human Brain Project is a whole brain simulation.  Models, unlike descriptions, are precise. If I simulate using the same model and the same inputs as you, I will get the same results as you. This allows repeatability, independent verification, and precise communication of ideas.

But having good models is not everything. A good model of the human brain that enables us to run accurate simulations will not provide explanations (descriptions) that will provide us with intuition (ideas, theories) about the model (or its concomitant phenomena/reality).

(A good model of the human brain will however allow us to assert that brain behaviour is entirely physically based and then provide us with a platform to tinker around with in order to abstract to higher levels in order to gain an understanding of the brain, in the way we cannot ethically tinker around with real brains.)

So science is not about just one of these steps – that leads to an eccentric position:, e.g. idealism, realism, phenomenalism, …). Instead it is about all these steps in parallel. Individual scientists may be focussed on a single stage but science requires all stages in appropriate proportions.

However, if we were to latch on to one of these steps to give the whole approach a name, ‘instrumentalism’ might have been adequate 100 years ago but now ‘modelism’ seems more appropriate.

An instrument is a tool, but so is a model.

We are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of models and of models being precise behavioural descriptions far beyond traditional mathematical formulae. It is only in recent years that the phrase ‘model-based’ is being applied to various approaches (methods) in science and engineering. We should place models at the heart of our thinking about science, as it is in the middle of the scale.

‘The Grand Design’ (2010)

Even some self-styled realists subscribe to a model-driven approach. For example, in ‘The Grand Design’ (2010), Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow talk of ‘model-dependent realism’ and of ‘reality accessible only through models of phenomena’.

To summarize, here is the scale again, with a bit more flesh on it…

  • Ideas: (i) conscious and (ii) tacit
  • Description: in vague language, including metaphorical language
  • Models: precise simulations, predictive. (i) mathematical: formulae in the mathematical language and (ii) computational: complex algorithms in an artificial language
  • Instruments: (i) Measuring: converting from some physical measure to an observable measure and (ii) Observing: converting from an insensible realm to a sensible one.
  • Phenomenon (the phenomenal)
  • ‘Reality’ (the noumenal)


17. Instrumentalism and Constructivism

Daniel Dennett’s ‘Tower of Generate and Test’ provides an evolutionary scale of creatures:

  • Darwinian: evolutionary (randomly varying i.e. mutating)
  • Skinnerian: adaptive
  • Popperian: using internal models (hypothesizing)
  • Gregorian: using external tools (physical and linguistic)

In ‘Scientific Creatures’ I confined Gregorian creatures to just physical tools and extended the scale with various stages of scientific creatures, which extend their capabilities by applying the generation, variation and adaptation of models to outside of the bounds of the creature:

  1. Scientific-I: create external models of the environment.
  2. Scientific-II: create objects in the external environment to ‘hypothesize’, i.e. automatically stimulate the environment and detect the response.
  3. Scientific-III: create external adaptive models.
  4. Scientific-IV: create external model generators.

This scale of individual intelligence was then complemented by an orthogonal scale of social intelligence, which was far less detailed but basically extended from individuals through pre-linguistic communicating groups, language and writing to elaborately organized societies of scientists, interacting via peer review.


Science = Instrumentalism & Constructivism

Now the focus is about science rather than intelligence and so I present the same picture as follows:

  • The vertical axis represents non-realist Instrumentalism, dealing with the individualistic aspects of science.
  • The horizontal axis represents anti-realist Constructivism, dealing with the social aspects of science.

To elaborate a bit further with Constructivism, the horizontal axis is where the scientific community constructs jargon and standards that are ‘just’ social conventions – they could quite easily be different – but are essential for scientific progress. Two examples:

  • The definition of scientific terms such as ‘planet’, which saw Pluto being reclassified it as a dwarf planet in 2006.
  • Our model of the Earth has changed over the many centuries from flat, to a sphere, to an oblate spheroid but for greater accuracy, scientists now use the WGS-84 standard, which provides the coordinate system for GPS. That standard is the culmination of international agreements following pragmatic conventions ultimately dependent on historical contingency – the use of the Greenwich Meridian followed by early radio navigation systems (so that the Greenwich Meridian now lies about 100 metres West of WGS-84’s 0°).

Neither the Instrumental nor the Constructivist axes on their own are adequate. It is only when the two are viewed together that we get a good picture of what science is about – a methodological science.

18. Ante-Conclusion

This is not the end of the talk, but it is the beginning of the end of the talk – time to take stock before making some final points. These concern expanding from our understanding of science to our understanding of science, religion and philosophy.

Dawkins: How We Know What is Really True

The naïve scientific view is that science tells us how things really are. This view is then reinforced by those atheists fighting against fundamentalist positions (religious fundamentalist, that is). For example, one of Richard Dawkins’s most recent books is ‘The Magic of Reality’ (2011), a good introduction to scientific knowledge for all ages, and wonderfully illustrated by Dave McKean. But the subtitle for the book is ‘How we know what’s really true’ (my underlining) yet covers the what and not the how of science and emphasizes the absolute certainty of naïve scientific facts.

In contrast, I started this talk with Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘The Science Delusion’ talk. To paraphrase him only slightly unfairly, he began:

“The science delusion is that science understands what really exists.”

I have framed the conflict within science that Sheldrake alludes to as one between:

  • Metaphysical physicalism: science as a worldview, and alternatively
  • Methodological physicalism: science as a method.

This alternative interpretation can often get lost in the heat of a science versus religion debate.

I have presented methodological physicalism as an approach to science:

  • That is committed to trying to explain our environment and ourselves in purely physical terms (one in which mind arises somehow from ‘matter’), but that does not make any commitment to saying how things really are.
  • That is a pragmatic approach to truth: a synthesis of non-realist Instrumentalism and anti-realist Constructivism – a mixture of social constructions and of truth as growing interactions between an individual (an individual’s brain) and their environment. But, although constructed, it is not relative; our personal growth of knowledge is severely constrained by our environment. We cannot grow truths just any old how.


19. Physicalism ≠ Dualism – Mind

A major problem with Physicalism is that our reference point is still Dualism. In saying that physicalism is just about the physical, we will tend to think of it as being physical in the way it is understood within Dualism, i.e:

Physicalism = Dualism – Mind

This leaves us with an unattractive, cold, lifeless ‘billiard-ball’ model of the universe. How could my conscious experiences possibly be derived from that?

But if we reject the concept of mind as a realm apart from the physical (as physicalism does), we need to conceive of whatever it is that dualists understand by ‘mind’ as being within the physical realm. Hence, we are going to have to change that physical realm.

Physical-realm(physicalism) ≠ Physical-realm(dualism)

If we see the physical in Dualistic metaphysical terms, i.e. ‘this is how things really are’, we will reject possibilities for the physical world that will be able to account for ‘mind’. As Sheldrake said:

“…unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free enquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour.”

So, how might we reform a Physicalist view in order to encompass both ‘mind’ and ‘matter’? In short, we are a long way from proposing anything adequate. But in recent years, people have started theorizing – proposing some serious theories. We now have some clues on how to proceed and avenues to explore. Here are some prominent ones:

  • Roger Penrose’s and Stuart Hameroff’s ‘Orchestrated Objective Reduction’ in which consciousness relies upon quantum phenomena in cytoskeletal microtubules within neurons.
  • Giuglio Tononi’s ‘Integrated Information Theory’: A 4-million pixel camera is just 4-million 1-pixel sensors whereas we integrate the information we see in many different ways as we discriminate shape/colour/etc and combine it into qualia.
  • Max Tegmark’s ‘mathematical universe hypothesis’ is a Platonist-like theory of everything in which substructures can be self-aware and perceive the mathematical world as a physical reality. Consciousness is ‘what information processing feels like from the inside’.
  • Although critical of physicalism, David Chalmers postulates ‘psychophysical laws’ which determine which physical objects are associated with qualia leading to a variation of panpsychism he calls ‘panprotopsychism’.

“Preposterous!” I hear you cry. But then so were the concepts of wireless telecommunication, quantum mechanics and relativity 200 years ago.

(I have previously looked at the issue of consciousness, in ‘Could Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, and I will hopefully be looking at some of the above ideas soon.)


20. The Compatibility of Science and Religion

Is Religion Compatible with Science? On 2 May 2000, Richard Rorty gave a lecture with that very title at West Valley College, Saratoga which restated some of William James’s and John Dewey’s pragmatic arguments on this topic. To illustrate his points, he began the talk by asking us to consider a hypothetical person, Professor Ryan, a church-going evolutionary biologist. Ryan does not seem to be troubled by any inconsistency between the two and she is well aware that:

  • Her parish priest would like her to take the Bible’s pronouncements more seriously, and
  • Her ‘swaggeringly atheist’ scientific colleagues make jokes about her religious beliefs behind her back.

As Rorty said:

“She is equally insouciant about both.”

There are many people like Prof Ryan. Are they behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way because they make no attempt to weave their scientific and religious beliefs together? Rorty says not:

 “Theology nowadays mustn’t try to compete with natural science in explaining how things have come to pass, how the human species got here, for example. Nor is it supposed to compete with science in predicting what will happen. Those days are gone. Once upon a time, in the 17th Century, the church and the new science offered competing predictive explanations. Now the church has given up on predictive explanation.” (11mins, 40s)

“Nowadays since the development of modern science, religious belief and scientific beliefs have become tools for doing different jobs.  Scientific beliefs help us predict and control events … Religious beliefs give us a way of thinking of our lives which puts them in an emotionally satisfying context.” (At 12mins, 30s:)

“This way of reconciling science and religion requires one to abandon the idea that there is one way the world really is and that science and religion are competing to tell us what that way is. Abandoning that idea is easiest if one thinks of beliefs as tools for accomplishing a purpose rather than as attempts to represent the intrinsic nature of reality – the way things are in themselves. Instead of insisting that there is such a way, one will hold that although there are alternative descriptions of things, descriptions useful for different purposes, none of these get closer to ‘the way things really are’ than any other. On this view, the sole virtue of any descriptive vocabulary is its utility. It can’t have a further virtue called ‘getting things right’. This view of the function of descriptions is at the heart of the pragmatism developed by James and Dewey.” (At 13mins, 20s)

Feel free to watch rest of the video. But from here on, I want to return to the issue of the metaphysical versus the methodological in considering the compatibility of science and religion, or otherwise.

Let me replace the dichotomy of science versus religion with a scale of belief:

  1. Religious fundamentalists
  2. Prof. Ryan’s congregation
  3. ‘Prof. Ryan, evolutionary biologist’
  4. A methodological physicalist
  5. Prof. Ryan’s work colleagues
  6. Militant atheists

Prof. Ryan finds herself caught between her congregation and her colleagues. I can empathize; a methodological physicalist will be criticized from both religious evangelists (1) and the dogmatic scientists (6).

A modification to this 6 point scale transforms it into mirroring science and religion, which may also be viewed as a mirroring of  the natural and the supernatural:

  1. Metaphysical religious
  2. Naïve religious
  3. Methodological religious
  4. Methodological physicalist
  5. Naïve physicalist
  6. Metaphysical physicalist

Positions 1, 2 and 3 categorize how an individual is religious, if at all. Positions 4, 5 and 6 categorize how an individual is scientific. But an individual could be both religious and scientific. My claim is that it is possible to span the divide between science and religion and hence hold a coherent (compatible) position, but only if the span is not too wide. To be both a metaphysical dualist (1) and a metaphysical physicalist (6) is clearly incoherent and is a stretch too far. But the other combinations are compatible:

  • 1 and 4
  • 1 and 5
  • 2 and 4
  • 2 and 5: both naïve positions – probably the largest group.
  • 2 and 6
  • 3 and 4: treating both science and religion as tools that do different things, as Rorty suggests Prof. Ryan does.
  • 3 and 5
  • 3 and 6: an interesting combination

Salvador Dalí: “Saint Surrounded by Three Pi-Mesons” (Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueras)

The combinations are possible either because:

  • they are unthinking: they involve one or more naïve positions, or
  • they are considered: they involve one or more methodological positions.

I find combinations involving the ‘methodological religious’ (3) to be the most interesting. This is a position in which someone adopts the practices of a religion not because they are true but because they are useful. I suspect that some senior Anglican clergy fall into this category, but I haven’t found any that would say as much to a stranger like me.


21. Anti-Conclusion

I have presented a story about science:

  • As a pragmatic methodology.
  • In which a methodological stance is preferred over a metaphysical stance.
  • In which a physicalist stance is preferred over a dualist one.
  • As an open-minded, dynamic process that allows development in surprising ways, such as expanding to include an account of consciousness.
  • As a stance that can be compatible with religion.
  • Which can be mirrored with religion: a similar ‘methodological versus metaphysical’ debate can be had with religion, with a methodological approach being proposed.
  • In which the reasonable middle ground of the methodological (scientific or religious) is disparaged by those from both sides from the metaphysical extremes.

But this is perhaps too cosy a view of the problem. I have presented a purely epistemological view of the problem, rejecting metaphysics and saying nothing of ethics. It is a compartmentalized approach to philosophy.

And anyway, I should be ask myself ‘who am I kidding?’:

  • An anti-metaphysical position is still a metaphysical position of sorts – it’s just a rather minimal one: ‘ontology-light’.
  • It is a bit disingenuous to think that ontology and epistemology are separate. Despite my sympathy towards Prof Ryan and my stated antipathy towards Dawkins, if I were to find myself in a discussion with Dawkins and Ryan, I would probably find myself agreeing with Dawkins on a physicalist interpretation whereas Ryan would be too happy to accept a religious interpretation.

I have rationally declared that science and religion are compatible. And I am happy with that interpretation. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t feel right. Sub-rationally, our metaphysical outlook does matter. We can ordinarily go along as methodologists. But when it comes to the crunch, it is as though we ‘revert to type’, myself moving towards the metaphysical physicalist and Prof Ryan moving towards the metaphysical dualist. So my metaphysics (such as it exists) pollutes my epistemology (and in saying that it ‘doesn’t feel right’, there seems to be a crossover to ethics here too).

It might be said of me that I have merely thrown metaphysics out of the front door only to let it back in via the back door.

Sub-disciplines of philosophy are Inter-related

Sub-disciplines of philosophy are Inter-related

We cannot keep the different sub-disciplines of philosophy completely isolated from one another. As one philosophy lecturer, critical of the modularization of university education, put it:

“Anyone who thinks otherwise just isn’t doing philosophy.”

There is interplay between metaphysics and epistemology but there are other ways in which one sub-discipline ‘pollutes’ another. It can go further, leading to complex dynamics, as intimated in the picture below.

A Dynamic Relationship

What has been presented in this talk has been a philosophical framework for science but that is only a first approximation and is far from the complete story.

(This introduction to the idea of the inter-relationship between ethics and epistemology now sets the scene for a future talk: how does what we know – specifically, what we are now learning about the brain –  affect how we think we should believe.)



I would like to thank Gary Loyden for bringing Rorty’s talk to my attention.




  • Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, ‘The Social Construction of Reality’
  • James Burke, ‘The Day the Universe Changed’
  • Loucas G. Christophorou, ‘Place of Science in a World of Values and Facts’
  • Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion” (2006)
  • Richard Dawkins, ‘The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true’
  • Arthur Fine: ‘The Natural Ontological Attitude’
  • Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, ‘Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory’
  • Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, ‘The Grand Design’
  • Larry Laudan, ‘A Confutation of Convergent Realism’
  • C. S. Lewis, ‘Miracles’
  • C. S. Lewis, ‘Mere Christianity’
  • Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Science Delusion’
  • B. F. Skinner, ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’
  • Max Tegmark, ‘Consciousness as a State of Matter’
  • Giuglio Tononi, ‘Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul’

Future reading:

  • Andrew Melnyk, ‘A Physicalist Manifesto’
  • Jaegwon Kim, ‘Physicalism, or Something Near Enough’
  • Emre Keskin, ‘Methodological Physicalism’


4 Responses to The Science Delusion

  1. Pingback: The Science Delusion Part 1 | Headbirths

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  3. Pingback: The Science Delusion, Part 3 | Headbirths

  4. Pingback: The Science Delusion Part 4 | Headbirths

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