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.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Tuition fees uphold socialist principles - the left should support them

The amount of disadvantaged students applying for university between 2005 and 2015 went up 72 per cent in England, which was bigger than all other countries within the UK, including Scotland.

Since their introduction under the Blair Government, tuition fees have been a contentious issue amongst the British left. Under the leadership of Ed Miliband, Labour adopted a compromise position of reducing tuition fees – a seemingly inoffensive concession from his original position supporting free education within higher education.

Whilst they may appearing to promote educational inequality, research has shown that tuition fees have actually had the opposite effect within education. Political Scientist Martin Robbins wrote in the Guardian that “in 2015, application rates of 18 year olds living in disadvantaged areas in all countries of the UK increased to the highest levels recorded”. Though it is unlikely that the increase of fees and their reinvestment within education would have had a large effect on that crop of students, it does demonstrate that tuition fees are not the educational barrier some present them to be.

In fact, the amount of disadvantaged students applying for university between 2005 and 2015 went up 72 per cent in England, which was bigger than all other countries within the UK, including Scotland.

The largest drop-off between the least and most deprived children within educational attainment is between the ages of three and fourteen. Despite this, the higher education budget is around double that of pre-school education, which is where the inequality of education begins to kick in. A more adept way of solving the inequality within education would be a tuition fees system where a set percentage of a student’s fee is retained by their university, and a set percentage put towards pre-school education, to set the taxation of education into a progressive context.

In the latest government White Paper on tuition fees, the Universities Minister Jo Johnson lays out the idea of a teaching excellence framework (TEF). In theory, this is not problematic. Rather than raise the chargeable rate of fees (as done in 2012) the TEF would allow universities to tax above the chargeable rate on account of good teaching. This would mean for the vast majority of university students, rates would be unchanged. However, as tuition fees are currently at the chargeable rate of £9,000, the policy within the current climate is too objectionable.

Jo Johnson’s TEF model is an example of a reasonable concept which would be ineffective in practice, due to the difficulty in ranking the quality of teaching at the point of use, rather than through the means of a policy such as a graduate tax, based off earnings. If the British left championed a version of the TEF with a lower base rate, or instead just a graduate tax, it would mean Labour would be able to once again control the narrative with a sensible but redistributive policy on education. This would not only regain Labour credibility amongst the electorate on financial matters, but could be used as a base to build on, as a positive case for wealth redistribution - whether it be to pre-school education, or through increasing grants for those at university, or via restoring EMA.

Taxation of further education is one of the few issues which can boast a large level of bipartisan support across the political spectrum, and is one of the few viable ways to ensure a fully-funded but regulated further education system, as tuition fees make up over half of many universities budgets. In fact, many political commentators have stated that tuition fees are the only example of taxation upon the middle class that Labour has got the Tories to agree on, albeit if it is a pre-emptive form of it.

Whilst tuition fees are not ideal, they ensure the safeguarding of much university funding, the freeing up of the educational budget to close educational inequality between younger students and to help move towards a meritocratic system of education - which is a thoroughly socialist principle.

Ben Gartside is the Under 19s Officer for North West Young Labour and founder and chair of the Young Greater Manchester Fabians.