Science in Christian Perspective
Book Reviews for December 1970
Mechanical Man by Dean E. Wooldridge, McGraw-Hill, New York (1968)
Mechanical Man by Dean E. Wooldridge, McGraw-Hill, New York (1968)
(See also Journal ASA 21, 56 (1969)) Two Reviews: I. T. Morrison and C. Daniel Geisler
Review by I. T. Morrison, Department of Chemistry, Butler University,
Two men sit down to write. They are evangelists, persuaders their gospel is nothing less than the truth about truth. Each has hit upon the ordering principle of all reality and wants to share this insight with us. Yet each considers the other hopelessly, incurably wrong and lost, off on the wrong scent entirely.
The first writer, Dr. D. B. Wooldridge sees all existence as beautifully contained and completely described in just one set of axioms, the laws of physics and chemistry. His goal is to convince us that these few foundational principles explain everything from inanimate matter to conscience and value systems. He even charts the future for us on the basis of the welcoming by men of this new awareness that we are machines.
Carefully selecting his data, he has skirted controversial and disputed areas and ignored whole areas of data of non-technological nature.
The other writer, Dr. M. Polanyi tells us explicitly that the attempt
all reality, especially that outstanding part of it called the mind of man, as
merely physics and chemistry is "nonsense". For him an
of principles exists, each dependent on, but not bounded by, the laws
of the set
of principles under it. He too looks into the future, but he sees a
of explorers" not at all limited to the laws of physics and chemistry.
It would be unfair for me to try to disguise my bias for Dr. Polanyi's views and against those of Dr Wooldridge. But I will try to show the beauty and comprehensiveness of Dr. Wooldridge's effort, which must be one of the most daring and complete treatments of the naturalistic and materialistic worldview ever attempted. He attempts all questions and capably marshalls the facts to give answers within his chosen framework. And therein lies the problem. Carefully selecting his data, he has skirted controversial and disputed areas and ignored whole areas of data of non-technological nature. Nonetheless one can learn very much from this hook and can even be lifted by the noble sweep of the effort to encompass all reality on this simple basis. Surely such an attempt must fire any scientist's imagination. Inasmuch as my task is primarily to review Mechanical Man, I will describe it and use only selected portions and ideas from two works of Polanyi, specifically The Tacit Dimension and Science, Faith and Society, to illuminate any particular discussion. By extensive use of quotations at length, I hope to give sufficient material for readers to form their own judgments of both works.
Dr. Dean E. Wooldridge, cofounder and formerly president of Thompson RamoWooldridge Inc. has won awards for science writing, specializing in the interrelationships of technology and the life sciences. He does write well; with very little background in either computer technology or biology I had no difficulty following his thoughts wherever they ranged.
The book begins with a clear formulation of the author's philosophy followed by an equally clear description of his quest. We are then treated to a hurried but complete answer to the question of man. Yes, that's right, in this slim volume our whole development past and future is firmly sketched. In quick flowing paragraphs we solve the problems of origins, of man's biological heritage, of the nature of our thought and finally we see the future, the intelligent life we will lead when we realize that we are machines.
Wooldridge has skillfully cemented together the latest and best findings of certain kinds of research with plausible imagination-created missing links and bright guesses. And there's the rub, his case is much stronger than his data warrant. Indeed he goes so far beyond what is known that even one who shared his materialistic presuppositions was forced to comment in reviewing a predecessor hook to this one,
"Experimental evidence is lacking here and henceforth the explanations are based on premise built on premise, all mechanistically sound to be sure, but the inexorability of the argument is gone. One can make other premises based on other models... 1
Thus a reader uninformed of the real state of knowledge in these
areas is likely
to he grossly misled.
Physicists may be pleased with the underlying axiom, ". . . there is but one ultimate science, and that is the science of the physicist." (p. 3) Contrast this with Polanyi's statement:
"Yet it is taken far granted today among biologists that all manifestations of life can ultimately he explained by the laws governing inanimate matter. K. S. Lashley declared this at the Hixon Symposium of 1948, as the common belief of all participants, without even consulting his distinguished colleagues. Yet this assumption is patent nonsense. The most striking feature of our own existence is our sentience The laws of physics and chemistry include no conception of sentience, and any system wholly determined by such laws must be insentient."2
Clearly we have a choice to make between these irreconcilable viewpoints.
Dr. W.'s working hypothesis is again demonstrated in his chapter "The Chemistry of Life" where he asserts that modern research is strengthening an already convincing case for the belief that nucleic acid/protein enzyme mechanisms are responsible for those properties we call lifelike. If this were so then life could possibly be explained in material science concepts. However he has not adduced sufficient evidence to cause us to concur in his belief.
As we follow Dr. W. up the ladder of life it is interesting to note that accidental occurrences are his necessary causes, yet he cannot free his language from ideas denoting intelligent, willful, purposeful actions. (cf p. 47)
The real heart of Mechanical Man is found in those chapters dealing with analogies between computer operations and the workings of human minds and nervous systems. I suppose expertise with these electronic marvels is the major qualification Dr. W. brings to his study. I learned very much about that field from this book and indeed very much about modern concepts of nervous system operation. Nevertheless the author's pitfall is evident here. Just as many a bench scale reaction in chemistry is found to be much more complicated than originally thought when scaled up to plant size operation, so the possibly correct elucidation of some operations of parts of the nervous system does not warrant the conclusion that we now have the keys to total brain/mind performance.
It was so pleasant to read, so genuinely infonnative and imaginative that I was angered by the page after page presence of non-sequiturs arising out of the author's faith and fervor, not out of logical reasoning based on data at hand.
An illustration of this overstepping of evidence is shown in his mid-argument summary (a device that again demonstrates the high quality of Dr. W.'s writing and his insight into a reader's needs)
"It was finally decided that such evidence constituted a powerful argument for the conclusion that all intelligence, whether of computer or brain, is the natural consequence of the powerful symbol manipulating capabilities of complex switching networks and that therefore the ordinary laws of the physical scientist are adequate to account for all aspects of what we consider to he intelligent behavior." (p. 128)
Unfortunately the evidence presented here is quite insufficient to allow this
In order for a man to be consistently reduced to a machine his "highest" faculty must be shown to he explicable on the basis of the laws of physics and chemistry alone. Dr. W. proceeds to give his thesis that consciousness is almost totally a product of such laws. From experiments with Isuman subjects relating electrical impulses to operations of the mind such as memory or even moral judgments (of. p. 139), he draws the conclusion that all conscious activities of the mind will be shown to be merely electrochemistry. Although he is more cautious here he does clearly believe that he has given sufficient evidence to warrant his final conclusion:
"Thus we have failed to discover any aspect of lifewhether related to the origin of organisms, to their physical properties, to behavior, to intelligence, or to consciousness-whose explanation appears today to lie beyond the ultimate capabilities of physical science. In the late 1960's we seem justified in the broadest possible application of what may he called the central thesis of physical biology that a single body of natural laws operating on a single set of material particles completely accounts for the origin and properties of living organisms as well as nonliving aggregations of matter and manmade structures. Accordingly, man is essentially on more than a complex machine." (p. 166, 167)
This is triumphant naturalistic materialism. As a philosophic system it has been sufficiently answered by many, such as C. E. M.joad3 and C. S. Lewis4.
The book concludes delightfully enough with Dr. w's sketch of the expansion of this Faith into realms of social and moral interactions and even to a readmittance of God-although He is simply the name for whatever we feel is forever beyond "scientific" explanation, a sort of "god of the Caps".
Frequently my emotional reaction to the book was one of irritation. It was so pleasant to read, so genuinely informative and imaginative that I was angered by the page after page presence of nonsequiturs arising out of the author's faith and fervor, not out of logical reasoning based oil data at hand. So many worthwhile insights, so many valid areas for continued research and even philosophic inquiry were provided that it is a shame that the central tenet is so weak. It is in fact his philosophy of science as much as anything else that is at fault. And it is here that the conflicts between views such as his (very popular today) and those held by Dr. Polanyi (not so popular) can he most clearly seen.
I am reminded also of the Eddington Lecture of Dr. James Conaut. In contrast to Dr. W.'s strong belief in the methodology of physics, this respected scientist observes, "The success of the natural scientists is not due primarily to their methods but to the aim of their efforts".5 In the course of this intriguing lecture Dr. Conant divides experience into three categories: the realm of nature, the realm of human nature and the realm of religions experience. Each realm he insists has its own proper methods and tools for truth seeking. Bases, tactics and conclusions proper to one realm do not necessarily have any power in another realm, nor can ideas pertinent to one area necessarily discount those of another. While he is unimpressd by any unifying world hypothesis he does welcome cross fertilization between realms of man's life.6 One would expect Conant and Polyani to be brothers-in-arms in their rejection of much of the thesis and argument of Mechanical Man.
Dr. Polanyi's approach to science is much less dogmatic than that of many scientists writing today. Look at Mechanical Man for instance, where Dr. W. says "Within a calculable and frequently very narrow range of uncertainty, the future is completely determined by the past. Given the laws and the particles, all else follows inexorably." (p. 3) Again, in frankly stating his own feelings and driving force,
"We find great appeal in the notion that all we can observe or feel is caused by the operation of a single set of inviolable physical laws upon a single set of material particles. This seems to us to be a logical extension of the unbroken chain of brilliant successes of physical science in accounting for one aspect after another of human experience. Therefore, to us, the evidence examined in this book seems right; we believe it easily, . (p. 203)
In clear contrast Dr. Polanyi writes:
"The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit7 thought forms an indispensible part of all knowledge, then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies."8
Or elsewhere ...
all these levels (of existing things] are situated above that of the inanimate, and hence they all rely for their operations-directly or indirectly-on the laws of physics and chemistry which govern the inanimate. If then we apply the principle that operations of a higher level can never be derived from laws governing its isolated particulars, it follows that none of these biotic operations can be accounted for by the laws of physics and chemistry."9
I found it cheering to have Polanyi quote the scholastics' "believe in order to know" approvingly'0 and adopt it as a foundation for viewing epistemology in the sciences. He even points out from his own laboratory experience that a residue of personal judgment is required in the decision to give a certain weight to any particular set of evidence in regard to establishing the validity of a particular proposition.11 I must say that this appears to he a much more effective and serviceable philosophy of science than the ones most popular in print today.
Wooldridge and fellow technolatrists see physical sciences as the
sources of infallible
truth. They believe science shows them all that is true. Thus they are like the
blind men clustered around the elephant in the old story, completely convinced
that their insights (useful and true as they may he) are all there is to know.
Others of us in science would like them to see the other parts of the elephant
too. In fact, thinkers such as Dr. Polyani would help us all to see
that not only
is there a xvhole elephant before us to he examined but that we the examiners
are also in the picture. No real insight to reality can occur unless we happily
admit we are in the picture and that this event is part of the data.
Neither god nor man exists in the materialist's universe. Part of the weakness of a treatment of science such as Mechanical Man in its failure to come to grips with the data of a Christian's life in communion with God. What simple law or physics does such a thing as that fall under?
1John Keosisu, Science, Vol. 152, (1967), p. 1496.
2M. Polanyi, The Tecit Dimension, Anchor Book A540, Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1967, p. 37.
3G. E. M. Joad, Guide to Modern Thought, Faber & Faber, Ltd., London, 1948, pp. 115, 119.
4C. S. Lewis, Miracles, A Preliminary Study, MaeMillan Co., N.Y., N.Y. 1948, cf Chap 2, 3.
5James Couaut, American Scientist, 55(3), 1967, p. 311 ft.
6Ibid, p. 321.
7In Dr. Polsuyi's thought the key concept is the "tacit" dimension to knowledge and thinking. Thus, lie distinguishes between a sort of inner, oouformslized knowledge and an outer knowledge, indicating that we must use the inner, tacit knowledge to reach and deal with the outer explicit knowledge. Elsewhere he sums this up by saying that we always know more than we can tell,
8Tacit Dimension, op. cit. p. 20.
9Ibid, p. 37.
10M. Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, Univ. Chicago Press, Phoenix Edition, P. 155, 1966, p. 15.
11Ibid, p. 31.
Review by C. Daniel Geisler, Departments of Electrical Engineering and Nenrophysiology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
In Mechanical Man by D. E, Wooldridge, a completely mechanistic model, or more exactly a system of interdependent mechanistic models of living creatures including man, is given. The book is written for the layman and as such cannot hope to cover the details of the work in all of the various fields involved, which range from molecular biology through neurophysiology to sociology. Hence, it is not surprising that the book contains over-simplifications, tenuous conclusions and important omissions. What is surprising is the fact that this particular book also contains some viewpoints which can only be described as scientifically outmoded. Hence, Mechanical Man is vulnerable to criticism on several counts. It would be a mistake, however, to evaluate it solely on the merits of the accuracy and completeness with which the various models are described, because these models are fitted together into a whole system. This system, which has important implications for the Christian, must also be considered, One word of caution: the author has not been careful to maintain a clear distinction between the models and the physical world, with the result that the two entities are blurred together in the book. Because the accuracy with which many of the models describe physical reality is not known, the author is forced to state that these models "must" or "probably" describe reality. These statements of faith are part of the literary style and world-view of the author and should not be considered as fundamental to the models or systems involved.
What is surprising is the fact that this particular book contains some viewpoints which can only be described as scientifically outmoded.
The book itself is composed of 19 rather brief chapters, grouped into five main
sections: The physical properties of organisms, Behavior,
and Implications of the physical explanation of biology. As indicated
by the section
titles, Dr. (Continued on page 156) Wooldridge's basic thrust is centered in the neural and behavioral sciences.
Briefly speaking, he first shows by some well-chosen examples that
of the brain and our ability to mimic its mechanisms have grown
rapidly in recent
years through the use of the physical and biological sciences. Extrapolating,
he then states that there is no reason to believe that these sciences will not
eventually be able to describe the entire workings of the brain, any brain, on
completely mechanistic grounds. This process of describing or
modeling the brain
mechanistically has already gone so far in Dr. Wooldridge's estimation that he
endorses this system of models as being the "only simple, direct
interpretation of these results that anyone has been able to devise."
Let us proceed to the book itself, directing our attention during this review to the central parts, those involving neuruphysiology and computers. The overall model presented in Part 2, "Behavior" (Chapters 5-6), and Part 3, "Intelligence" (Chapters 7-11), is that the animal brain is simply a computer, closely related to the digital computer. On the first point, Wooldridge is right to a certain extent; almost all brain scientists, Christians or not, treat the brains, or parts of brains, of experimental animals as if they were computers. Illustrative of this treatment is the title of Nobel-laureate John Eccles' latest book The Cerebellum as a Neuronal Machine, which concerns the part of the brain known as the cerebellum. Just how far this type of approach can be carried is not clear, but it presently is fueling a spectacular growth in our ability to describe brain mechanisms. As a benchmark, it seems likely that the complete modeling of the tiny brains of simple invertebrates will soon become possible. Before even that can happen, however, a much better understanding of many brain processes will be necessary; for instance, the mechanisms of memory, learning, attention and consciousness are almost completely unknown. The complete modeling of vertebrate brains, with their billions of nerve cells, is entirely out of sight. Contrary to the impression given in the book, there is little evidence to suggest that the animal brain has any but a superficial resemblance to the modern digital computer. The building blocks of the two systems are fundamentally different from each other, and the systems as a whole seem to use completely different mechanisms. For instance, many brain functions are best described in probabilistic terms, while a digital computer is a completely deterministic device. Moreover, since the brain's memory mechanisms are almost completely unknown, they cannot even be compared with those of a digital computer. Finally there are theorems in the field of symbolic logic which can be interpreted to mean that at least the human brain is definitely not a mechanical computer of any sort now understood.' Therefore, the considerable accomplishments of digital computers in mimicking certain aspects of brain function, some of which are reviewed in Chapters 9 and 10 ("The Intelligence of Computers" and "Machines that Imitate the Brain"), cannot be taken as supporting Wooldridge's contention that there is a family resemblance between brains and modern computers.
Part 4, "Consciousness" (Chapters 12-15) is the weakest section of the book. Current understanding
about consciousness is too skimpy to provide a firm theoretical base for Wooldridge, or anybody else. Moreover, the section is scientifically outdated in many respects, with must of the technical references 10 to 15 years old. Nevertheless, this section is important: it forms an introduction to the large and growing body of experimental evidence which indicates that many aspects of human and animal behavior and sensation can be dramatically modified and controlled by electrical, chemical or surgical alteration of the brain. The author takes these findings as being consistent with his basic brain/computer analogy.
In the final section of the book, the implications of the \Vooldridge system of mechanistic models are very briefly explored. Some of these implications, while dramatic, do not follow from the model system presented. For instance, the author concludes that "there is obviously no room for a personal God in a world that is rigidly obedient to inexorable physical laws." Yet the postulated physical laws need not outlaw God; they may in fact be found to include him explicitly. Another of Wooldridge's unsupported conclusions is that an afterlife is impossible. God, however, could bring a dead mechanistic man back to life simply by reassembling the parts.
The book, in summary, presents a completely mechanistic model of life. It's usefulness is limited: some of its arguments are incomplete, some of its facts are outdated, some sections make unwarranted conclusions, and theorems regarding the possible limitations of such an approach are not even mentioned. Contrary to the implications of the book, an unimaginable gap exists currently between human behavior and our ability to describe it mechanistically. It is true, however, that the general models used by most brain researchers are of a mechanistic nature. As the book correctly indicates, the results of these models are extremely impressive, demonstrating that many of the approaches used in the physical sciences can be successfully applied to the biological sciences as well.
In spite of its weaknesses, the significance of the present hook must not be underestimated; it is a harbinger of an invasion that is to come. The general system of models outlined by Wooldridge is a natural and plausible one, and we can expect many more such systems. Because the component models are being continually improved and expanded by the many scientists now working on the brain 2, 3 these future systems promise to model a greatly increasing amount of animal and human behavior with rapidly increasing vigor and sophistication.
It would be hard to overestimate the threat to Christianity that such mechanistic model systems present. The existing and expected successes of these systems in describing animal and human behavior will lead, indeed already are leading, many to conclude that the "only simple ... interpretation" of our world is a mechanistic one.
1The Logic of the Mind" by J. Bronowski, American Scholar, 1966, Vol. 35, p. 233.
2Brain and Conscious Experience, edited by J. C. Eccles, Springer-Verlag New York, Inc., 1966.
3The Neurosciences, edited by G. C. Quarton, T. Melnecbnk and F. 0. Schmitt, Rockefeller Press, 1967.