Sunday, August 1, 2010

324. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 8

For describing our mental activity, we require, on one hand, an
objectively given content to be placed in opposition to a perceiving
subject, while, on the other hand, as is already implied in such an
assertion, no sharp separation between object and subject can be maintained, since the perceiving subject also belongs to our mental content. -- Niels Bohr, 1934

It would be a grave mistake to confuse what I have called "radical dualism" with the reinstatement of the traditional dualistic standpoint desired by Le Fanu, in which the differences between the purely materialistic explanations of science and those based on the notion of an independent mind or soul would be resolved on some higher level, incorporating the most meaningful elements of both. As should by now be clear, a "dialectical" integration of this sort, roughly equivalent to the "intelligent design" model, can't work. In the context of radical dualism, the two interpretations are never resolved on some "higher" level, but must be regarded as mutually exclusive -- by analogy with Bohr's "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum mechanics, in which the wave and particle interpretations of light (and all other electromagnetic phenomena) are regarded as mutually exclusive. The term used by Bohr was "complementarity":
The complementarity principle states that some objects have multiple properties that appear to be contradictory. Sometimes it's possible to switch back and forth between different views of an object to observe these properties, but in principle, it's impossible to view both at the same time, despite their simultaneous coexistence in reality. For example, we can think of an electron as either a particle or a wave, depending on the situation. An object that's both a particle and a wave would seem to be impossible because, normally, such things are mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, an electron is truly both at once (Wikipedia).

In such terms, the purely materialistic explanations of Darwinian evolution, as elaborated by modern biological science, must be seen as, in principle, correct. Every aspect of life, from its earliest manifestations to its most sophisticated "achievements," as exemplified most impressively in the human brain, can be explained via the basic principles set forth by Darwin, as summarized in the phrase "natural selection." This is true even to the extent that the "mind" and/or "soul" can be understood as a secondary (or emergent) effect of activities centered in the brain and nervous system, as they have evolved over many millions of years. In fact, this "must" be so, because, from the standpoint of modern science, there is simply no other explanation consistent with the evidence.

On the other hand, the opposite viewpoint, based on the notion of a fully independent "mind" or "soul" that could only have emerged through some mysterious process beyond scientific explanation, must also be regarded as correct. Because, from the standpoint of the conscious individual, there is simply no other explanation consistent with his or her own personal experience of both the self and the world. The two mutually opposed views can never be reconciled, but can be understood as "complementary" (in the sense defined by Bohr) to one another.

By the way, the application of "complementarity" in this sense to other fundamental problems, including the very problem we are discussing here, was proposed by Bohr himself, in a lecture titled Light and Life.

There are a variety of ways in which the analogy with quantum physics can be expressed. For example, the purely materialistic view of evolution, stemming from Darwin, could be seen as analogous to the understanding of light as an accumulation of discrete particles, while the "mentalist" view could be seen as analogous to the understanding of light as a wave. In the first case, everything is explained by the gradual build-up of discrete, incremental changes over time, step by step, mutation by mutation, adaptation by adaptation. On the other hand, everything is explained as part of a teliological process, in which, as in a wave, the various elements are subsumed within an all encompassing totality.

Or one could see the dichotomy as analogous to another aspect of quantum physics, the so-called "collapse of the wave function," where a particle appears only when a specific measurement is made. In such terms, one could say that the mentalist view "collapses" whenever a scientific analysis of a specific life form is made.

Another important analogy with quantum physics is the notion that the two complementary views presented here represent, between them, a complete description of evolution. For Le Fanu, the materialist view presented by science is incomplete: "Some other dramatic mechanism, as yet unknown to science, must account for that extraordinary diversity of life as revealed by the fossil record. . ." Thus, there is a "necessity for there to be some prodigious biological phenomenon, unknown to science, that ensures the heart, lungs, sense organs and so on are constructed to the very highest specificiations of automated efficiency" (pp. 120, 122). From Bohr's perspective, such an expectation would be equivalent to what, in physics, has been described as the "hidden variable" theory, the notion, held by Einstein among others, that the strange contradictions of quantum duality might someday be resolved at some indefinite point in the future, when new evidence becomes available. To Einstein's consternaton, Bohr completely rejected such a view, insisting that quantum theory was "complete."

I would now like to move from the realm of biology to that of culture. And the question that we are now in a position to ask goes something like this: can culture be best understood as the product of a purely biological process (Darwinian evolution), in terms of the first element in our dichotomy, or, in terms of the second, as a pure product of the mind?

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