A theory of everything?

Why you don't have to be a theist to think physics can't explain it all

There was an interesting letter in the TLS last week from the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel was responding to a letter in the previous week's issue from Stephen Fletcher, a member of the chemistry department at Loughborough University. Fletcher had complained that Nagel recommended Stephen C Meyer's Signature in the Cell in the TLS's Books of the Year round-up.

Meyer's book presents what he describes as a "radical and comprehensive new case" for intelligent design, one that apparently reveals "the evidence not merely of individual features of biological complexity but rather of a fundamental constituent of the universe: information". According to Fletcher,

"Intelligent Design" is of course a code phrase to obscure a malicious and absurd thesis; namely, that a supernatural being has interfered in the evolution of life on this planet. If Nagel wishes to take this notion seriously, very well, let him do so. But he should not promote the book to the rest of us using statements that are factually incorrect.

I haven't read Meyer's book, nor am I competent to assess Fletcher's contention that Nagel simply got the science wrong when he wrote, in his gloss of Signature in the Cell, that "Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause". In any case, it's the second paragraph of Nagel's letter that caught my eye:

The tone of Fletcher's letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. Since I am not tempted to believe in God, I do not draw Meyer's conclusions, but the problems he poses lend support to the view that physics is not the theory of everything, and that more attention should be given to the possibility of an expanded conception of the natural order.

The idea that atheism somehow entails a sort of materialistic reductionism, according to which all worldly phenomena can be wholly and exhaustively explained in physical terms, is controversial. It certainly requires more argument than people like Fletcher, or Richard Dawkins, for that matter, tend to provide. This is a point that Nagel made in his review of Dawkins's bestselling The God Delusion back in 2006:

The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed . . . We have more than one form of understanding. Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.

The point is that you don't have to be a theist to think that physics has a tough job accounting for phenomena such as conscious experience. Though if you believed Dawkins and his epigones, philosophers have long since resolved the puzzle of why that soggy lump of grey matter inside our skulls should give rise to anything so extraordinary as consciousness.


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Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Here’s everything wrong with Daniel Hannan’s tweet about Saturday’s Unite for Europe march

I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I was going to give up the Daniel Hannan thing, I really was. He’s never responded to this column, despite definitely being aware of it. The chances of him changing his views in response to verifiable facts seem to be nil, so the odds of him doing it because some smug lefty keeps mocking him on the internet must be into negative numbers.

And three different people now have told me that they were blissfully unaware of Hannan's existence until I kept going on about him. Doing Dan’s PR for him was never really the point of the exercise – so I was going to quietly abandon the field, leave Hannan to his delusion that the disasters ahead are entirely the fault of the people who always said Brexit would be a disaster, and get back to my busy schedule of crippling existential terror.

Told you he was aware of it.

Except then he does something so infuriating that I lose an entire weekend to cataloguing the many ways how. I just can’t bring myself to let it go: I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I never quite finished that book, but I’m sure it all worked out fine for Ahab, so we might as well get on with it*. Here’s what’s annoying me this week:

And here are some of the many ways in which I’m finding it obnoxious.

1. It only counts as libel if it’s untrue.

2. This sign is not untrue.

3. The idea that “liars, buffoons and swivel-eyed loons” are now in control of the country is not only not untrue, it’s not even controversial.

4. The leaders of the Leave campaign, who now dominate our politics, are 70 per cent water and 30 per cent lies.

5. For starters, they told everyone that, by leaving the EU, Britain could save £350m a week which we could then spend on the NHS. This, it turned out, was a lie.

6. They said Turkey was about to join the EU. This was a lie too.

7. A variety of Leave campaigners spent recent years saying that our place in the single market was safe. Which it turned out was... oh, you guessed.

8. As to buffoons, well, there’s Brexit secretary David Davis, for one, who goes around cheerfully admitting to Select Committees that the government has no idea what Brexit would actually do to the economy.

9. There was also his 2005 leadership campaign, in which he got a variety of Tory women to wear tight t-shirts with (I’m sorry) “It’s DD for me” written across the chest.

10. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is definitely a liar AND a buffoon.

11. I mean, you don’t even need me to present any evidence of that one, do you? You just nodded automatically.

12. You probably got there before me, even. For what it's worth, he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, and sacked from the shadow frontbench for hiding an affair.

13. Then there’s Liam Fox, who is Liam Fox.

14. I’m not going to identify any “swivel-eyed loons”, because mocking someone’s physical attributes is mean and also because I don’t want to get sued, but let’s not pretend Leave campaigners who fit the bill would be hard to find.

15. Has anyone ever managed to read a tweet by Hannan beginning with the words “a reminder” without getting an overwhelming urge to do unspeakable things to an inanimate object, just to get rid of their rage?

16. Even if the accusation made in that picture was untrue, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t count as libel. It’s not possible to libel 52 per cent of the electorate unless they form a distinct legal entity. Which they don’t.

17. Also, at risk of coming over a bit AC Grayling, “52 per cent of those who voted” is not the same as “most Britons”. I don’t think that means we can dismiss the referendum result, but those phrases mean two different things.

18. As ever, though, the most infuriating thing Hannan’s done here is a cheap rhetorical sleight of hand. The sign isn’t talking about the entire chunk of the electorate who voted for Brexit: it’s clearly talking specifically about the nation’s leaders. He’s conflated the two and assumed we won’t notice.

19. It’s as if you told someone they were shit at their job, and they responded, “How dare you attack my mother!”

20. Love the way Hannan is so outraged that anyone might conflate an entire half of the population with an “out of touch elite”, something that literally no Leave campaigners have ever, ever done.

21. Does he really not know that he’s done this? Or is he just pretending, so as to give him another excuse to imply that all opposition to his ideas is illegitimate?

22. Once again, I come back to my eternal question about Hannan: does he know he’s getting this stuff wrong, or is he genuinely this dim?

23. Will I ever be able to stop wasting my life analysing the intellectual sewage this infuriating man keeps pouring down the internet?

*Related: the collected Hannan Fodder is now about the same wordcount as Moby Dick.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.