Re: black holism

Damien Broderick (
Wed, 30 Jul 1997 12:57:41 +0000

I recently used a coinage of my own here - `black holism'. Anders
subsequently noted that neologisms are the devil's mark of crackpots, so
perhaps I should try to spell out this phrase a little more. :)

Here's a quote from something in the works:

Careless scuba divers are prey to a disorienting buzz: nitrogen narcosis.
This addlement was known once by a beautiful, alarming name: `raptures of
the deep'. The compressed air-mixture breathed by divers, you see,
contains inert nitrogen, which gets forced into their brain tissues by the
pressure of the watery depths, causing silliness, unmotivated giggles or,
even more dangerously, fits of gloom and panic.
For most of us, untrained in the sciences, advanced physics is no less
alien a realm than the deep ocean. Venture beyond the safe shores of the
high-school lab and your common-sense is put at risk. Like victims of
nitrogen narcosis, you may find yourself slipping into irrational elation
or despair. Call it, especially in its New Age or astrobabble forms,
`raptures of the shallow'.
This is unhappy news if, like me, you take cautious pleasure in today's
cornucopia of scientific discovery. Science, after all, is the motor of
our age, and a large part of its secret ideology. While it is dismal that
so many of us are frightened, or dismissive, or simply ignorant of this
ornate and fecund landscape, even worse is its gleeful colonisation by
slipshod thinkers for whom equations are mantras. Those who find their
latest shallow rush browsing the New Age `holism' shelves especially adore
books about cosmology and quantum theory - the majestically great, the
enigmatic small.
For decades a key icon of shivery mystery was the black hole, that
mysterioso realm found deep in interstellar space where the laws of physics
get their comeuppance. Hijacked kicking and screaming from the tensor
calculus-encrusted pages of impenetrable physics journals, black holes
became sacred sites for `holistic' ninnies blissfully gobsmacked by big
ideas but too lazy or too eager for cheap epiphanies to work at the hard
details. Exploring the astonishing prospect of the Spike puts us, unless
we are very cautious, in danger of this unlovely fate, this black holism.

Black holism is mush-headed theft of hard, rigorous, limited, testable
ideas from science. Yes, science is based on metaphor, of course, like all
discourse, but that fact should not license the warping of its hard-won
findings by desperados who wish to shore up their angst with a miasma of
quantobabble. Discussing Bell's non-locality theorem, quantum theorist
Heinz Pagels noted scornfully: `Some recent popularizers... have gone on to
claim that... the mystical notion that all parts of the universe are
instantaneously interconnected is vindicated... That is rubbish.' You'd
never know it from the happy zeal with which black holists wave the Bell
theorem like a mantra. Of the ensemble theory of quantum reality, Pagels
asks: `And didn't John Wheeler, one of the physicists who helped develop
this many-worlds view, finally reject it because, in his words, "It
required too much metaphysical baggage to carry around"?' Introducing a
magisterial biography of quantum pioneer Niels Bohr, Professor Abraham Pais
wrote recently: `I hope that the present account will serve to counteract
the many cheap attempts at popularizing this subject, such as efforts by
woolly masters at linking quantum physics to mysticism.' (Wu Li Masters,
indeed!) Anyone with a grain of sense and taste will know what to do with
such claims. Certainly they won't erect a theory of Life, the Universe and
Everything on such a corroded armature. The salience and gravity of these
themes - cosmos, consciousness, death - make such muddled syncretism so
deplorable. It will hardly serve to guide us up the slope of the Spike.
Physicist and educator Alan Cromer has argued that science can really only
be done by people with formal operational skills, mental abilities defined
by psychologist Jean Piaget, that inadequate schooling has failed to
develop in perhaps half the adult population or more. Without these tricks
of objective thought, Cromer and Piaget argue, humans construct egocentric
narratives about the universe based on projecting the inner world into the
outer. Ego-centric in the literal sense - their worlds are experienced as
if actually projected outward from their own minds, indefinitely and
directly malleable before the power of wish. (Not even the hardest-nosed
reductionist doubts that optimistic or self-paralysing attitudes can
influence the way you act, which in turn changes both the parts of
objective reality you deal with and modifies the attitudes of other
people.) Egocentrism is the assumption about the supposed top-down flow
between (a, your) mind, and the world, which is made explicit in the sad
little New Age slogan: You create your own reality.

The non-intentional, self-organising properties of the universe emerges
from the `bottom up', out of the properties of its small stupid parts,
modified by the presence in the local neighbourhood of lots and lots of
other tiny mindless parts. This is true even if Stuart Kauffman and his
Santa Fe colleagues are correct and complexity tends to emerge via a quite
limited and fairly inevitable number of pathways. The interactions of many
small, stupid things tumbled together may form `attractors' in an abstract
configuration space, but those mathematical attractors do not cause the
behaviour they map and predict - not even to the extent that roads restrict
and channel the routes we drive along. =20
Things in the world accrete by the principle of the racheting crane, as
Daniel Dennett has neatly put it, and not by being tugged upward into the
empyrean by some holistic sky-hook. Once stuck together they often
generate new `chunks' that thereafter manifest new and determinate
properties not visible in their elementary parts, but this is because
structure limits the degrees of freedom of those constituents. My table
holds up my computer because its small, stupid atoms lock together in a
fairly stable, robust fashion, which they do by restricting each other in
their mutual proximity. =20
Is that a holistic fact or a reductionist one? Neither - it is an
explanation of a local whole by an understanding (in broad, general terms)
of its nanomolecular bits and pieces. I am not talking about the human
intentions which surely were crucial in selecting, shaping and connecting
the pieces of wood into a table. Nor do I mean the informational unfolding
of the tree's DNA which turned organic chemicals into timber. These
organised patterns, wonderful as they are, remain parasitical upon the laws
of quantum physics that obtain at the foundations of phenomenal reality.
And our knowledge of those laws, and their physical manifestation, are
utterly reductionist.
Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg cites Dostoyevsky's underground man: `Good
God, what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic if for one
reason or another I don't like these laws...' Weinberg's scorn for this
self-satisfied despair leads him into an awful pun: `At its nuttiest
extreme are those with holistics in their heads, those whose reaction to
reductionism takes the form of a belief in psychic energies, life forces
that cannot be described in terms of the ordinary laws of inanimate
nature.' He adds, candidly: `The reductionist worldview is chilling and
impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but
because that is the way the world works.'
Why, then, do so many people so ardently believe otherwise?=20
Our supreme eagerness to impute purpose, telos, narrative to the world
arises because that is indeed an appropriate way to understanding the human
realm, the regime of intentions for which our minds have evolved their
special competence. Minds, as we've seen, are more like rowdy parliaments
than diamond crystals. At the same time, like parliaments they operate
through a selected speaker. Oliver Sacks's An Anthropologist on Mars, for
example, is rich with bizarre and illuminating tales about the mind and its
breakdowns, especially autism and autistic gifts. He gives powerful
evidence for mental modularity, while insisting that what's missing in
autism, say, is exactly a higher level of global organisation - a
categorising self. Is this holism or reductionism? The complex reality,
in a way, eludes simple labelling. Finally, though, we are faced with
wounded people whose global functions have failed to emerge, one way or
another, from the parts that comprise them. Yet clearly we are genetically
structured to work as `selves', despite recent deconstructive bids to
disperse the self. =20
At a recent seminar given by a young woman graduate student working on
cyborgs, cyberspace and feminism, I heard much citation from Luce Irigaray
and other poststructural gurus. The performance was dazzling, impressively
learned after its fashion, and... totally arbitrary. No method was invoked
for testing the assertions other than by their shock value, on the one
hand, and their adherence to fashionable doxa, on the other. When I asked
why possibility X or Y had been discarded, I was told that the speaker just
didn't think it was... didn't feel it was... didn't... Next question,
please. I pressed her. Hans Moravec claims X, I said, and he's one of the
world's specialists in this field of artificial intelligence and robotics,
so how can you just bypass his claims because you don't feel like liking
them? Er um, what I really wish to concentrate on is... =20
The road to black holism is lined with cognitive dissonance.
Another example: I fell into conversation with a New Age woman touted as
enchanting and spiritually wise (utterly unlike me, in short). I found her
a sweet, kind, sickly sentimental, utterly gullible dipstick. We had a
very long and painful afternoon, interspersed by frantic cups of tea. Each
statement she made was weirder and more credulous than the item preceding
it; the world was run on principles of numerology, and you can change
traffic lights to green by wishing hard as you approach them, and aromas
cured everything that ailed your body (except for the grave intestinal
illness that had almost killed her months earlier, which was fixed in
hospital by huge doses of cortisone - which she ungratefully and in
retrospect dubbed toxic chemicals forced upon her by a crudely reductionist
science), and the iris was connected to da hip-bone, and UFOs were driven
by little grey aliens, and Sai Baba could levitate and pour endless
quantities of dust out of his open hand and vomit up gold phalluses a foot
long, and crystals had magical powers, and the Urantia Book was the source
of all wisdom, such as the passages about how humans had evolved through
the stages of Green Men and Purple Men and Blue Men, and... =20
At first I listened to this gibberish with wonderment, as if privileged in
an anthropological way to observe a rare sub-culture of Pre-rational
Humankind. After a while (shame on me!) I gratuitously began to lecture
the poor thing, in an increasingly frenetic and cross-disciplinary way, on
alternative explanations for these phenomena that current science might put
forward. I ranted on, delivering myself of cognitive science explanations
for just why she found such unsubstantiated hogwash so believable. She
reeled away hours later in a bruised mental condition, I gather, and I have
never seen her since. =20
You might wonder, as I do: why did I feel impelled to set her straight?
Leave aside whether I have any warrant for thinking that my book-larnin'
gave me a grip on truth superior to her woolly word-of-mouth subcultural
melange; of course I do. But I don't stand on street corners preaching
godlessness to passing Mormons. This urge only comes over me when I find
myself in a room with one or more black holists whose views affront me in
their inanity and intellectual poverty. Or, more importantly - not just
their views, but their ways of deploying, testing, applying and revising
those views. =20
Despite appearances, I am not especially dogmatic about any particular
sub-sections of my world view. Like a good many intellectuals struggling
to keep their heads above the torrent of new books and journal articles and
Internet postings, I modulate my opinions about quantum theory and
cosmology and the structure of mind and society according to whichever
brilliantly-argued source I read last. But (no credit to me in this fact,
of course) those somewhat flexible views form a kind of mutually-bracing
geodesic structure of some power and grandeur. And maybe they generate
Dawkins-style memes that insist on broadcasting themselves and fighting
opposing memes to the death. =20
Is holism a meme deserving of death, or at least retirement? On the one
hand, as we have seen, in some misleading sense everyone is a holist. Who
would deny that the simplest protein or even molecule manifests spontaneous
self-organisation, folding, specificity, that could not easily be predicted
from its components? A fortiori for living critters and cultures. But
that does not imply there's something like a mind doing the shaping,
putting in the complexity from the top down, which is the crucial step for
most holists. Nor is an emergent mentality at a level higher than the
individual human especially consistent with the world we observe. Despite
alleged `synchronistic' events or coincidences, I recall my experiences
rather than yours. We simply don't remember the experiences of others.
When I raise my hand to scratch my nose, your arm does not lift into the
air instead. We're firewalled by our skulls. If there is a `holistic'
channel, it is clearly very weak and noisy.
Top-down `holistic' lines of analysis reek to me of sad reports of African
Ebola victims. Owing to their ancient holistic wisdom, the luckless
victims in Zaire know that the disease is caused by evil or enraged
spirits, having nothing to do with anything so stupidly reductive as an
infesting microorganism, so they're holistically bribing the guards who so
unreasonably lock them away from the free exercise of their right to go
hither and yon unchecked, spreading the damnable disease. =20
Granted, that isn't a very sophisticated brand of holism, and classy black
holists can cite Paul Davies and Robertson Davies and for all I know Betty
Davis in their cause - but it remains wrong-headed for just the same
reasons that disease-demons are. The nearest I have seen to a strong
scientific case for physical holism is John Gribbin's recent Schr=F6dinger's
Kittens, which promotes John Cramer's quantum theory as the Final Answer.
Much is made of non-locality, of the strange connections from present to
future and back to past that wind everything together in the Cramer model.
One is obliged, learning of such models, to think a little more charitably
about a certain kind of holistic hyper-connectivity. But Cramer quantum
theory does not support mysticism, and Gribbin himself steals backwards
away from any such implication.
Reductionism has been faulted as evaluating credibility solely in terms of
rational and empirical criteria. One must not conflate the two, of course.
Any strict division between holist-introvert-intuitive and
reductionist-extrovert-empiricist is vitiated exactly because each of us
contains multitudes, and can shift modes depending on the demands of
reality. It's like `top down' versus `bottom up' - both strategies are
constantly in play, and often interact by way of Douglas Hofstadter's
Strange Loops. If it turned out (as some believe) that people empirically
tended to be healthier and happier if they organised their lives around
ludicrous cosmological tenets, perhaps you would have to grit your teeth
and endorse the practical `credibility' of these laughable or odious
doctrines. If it turned out that you really could build a better engine or
ecology by analysing them in terms that allowed internal contradictions -
that is, by being `non-rational', both A and not-A at once - a preference
for the empirical might oblige you to adopt those practices, despite the
outrage that would represent to classical logic.
Actually, it is arguable that quantum theory already requires the
abandonment of syllogistic canons of reason. And maybe pre-contact
aboriginal lifestyles exemplify the life-style benefits of doing so. (But
give me electric lights, high-speed dental drills, and antibiotics any
day). On the other hand, quantal complementarity is either restricted to
its tiny realm, or will prove to be just a stop-gap methodological kludge
until a still better physics is devised. And the social benefits of
animism seem to me largely a by-product of the practical impotence of such
doctrines. If your medicine is based on magic and your economy on foraging
(however much memory and skill is required in its practice), you fail to
reach the population growth that, as its side-effects, can produce
pandemics and arms races and power hierarchies and exponential re-entrant
knowledge growth. So among the benefits of believing incorrect things
about the world is that you are restricted to such terrific holistic
interventions as killing all the megafauna of an entire continent by
burning the original ecology to the ground over a few tens of thousands of
Must materialists be reductionists? (Presumably not: neuroscientist Steven
Rose is a Marxist who repudiates reduction as a philosophical method, even
if he adheres to it in the lab.) Certainly it is a materialist position -
whatever that means in a quantal universe where matter is congealed force -
to reject all hypotheses or methodologies that posit any top-down aspects
of reality not derived by evolution from fundamental forces and particles.
That still leaves lots of weird windows, though. =20
It might be, for example, that human minds are, after all, somehow and in
some respects quantally non-locally connected. Or perhaps earlier
intelligences arisen elsewhere in the galaxy have evolved by now to
`godlike' estate and secretly run the universe. Or maybe a Hoyle/Tipler
end-of-eternity Time God works backward through time to re-arrange history
(astonishing topics to which we'll return). Or perhaps the phenomenal
universe is actually and literally a cybersimulation in higher dimensional
space, with us as sub-routines... If any of these were true, then a
rigorous materialism would indeed require top-down explanations of many
phenomena at our human realm (as the Gaia hypothesis might turn out to do,
although James Lovelock's originating version is strictly materialist).
But there's no strong evidence that these merry conceits actually have a
real-world instantiation (except, maybe, the ambiguous data from the best
parapsychology labs). =20
In practice, reductionist hypotheses would seem preferable wherever
possible, because that's the way science has reached its goals in the past.
Notably, non-reductionist models (elan vital, for example) have turned out
to be misleading, based on bad analogies and wishful thinking. But
materialisms, too, can be `holistic' or non-reductionist, or claim to be;
Marxism is only the most well-known. None of this has much bearing on
issues of the mind, of the Freud-versus-Jung variety, say, except that as a
materialist I become wary (or even furious) when I hear intelligent people
airily invoke `psychic energies' or `ids' or `Shadows' as if these
metaphors possessed the same level of instrument-mediated reality as
electron flows and dopamine titres. Such figures might have a metaphoric
allure given our current comparative ignorance of the mind/brain-body, but
they drag us into explanatory culs de sac. =20
Watching Passions of the Mind, a series of television programs about the
life and thought of Carl Jung, I was entertained in a horrified fashion by
the way his acolytes handled Wolfgang Pauli's defection from the celebrated
Jung-Pauli synchronicity hypothesis. (The black holists never tell us
about that apostasy, oddly enough.) Pauli abandoned this great scientific
truth, said his former analyst, because he could not face the deep inner
mysteries of the Shadow. These monsters therefore lay in horrid wait for
him - and hence, she said with ill-disguised relish and self-satisfaction,
he swiftly died of cancer. Admittedly, psychological stress can be shown
(empirically and rationally) to obstruct immunological function via a
recently discovered brain chemo-modulator pathway... and so maybe stress
hinders repair of early cancer cells. Nonetheless, the claim that Pauli
got cancer and died because he resisted Jungian analysis is deeply
offensive and self-serving. But quite typical of black holism's malicious
or stupid magical thinking.
Well, perhaps that does not matter, if what counts is experiential richness
of life. For millennia, wise people have obviously lived wonderfully
satisfying lives without the slightest notion that the earth goes around
the sun or that the blood circulates or that tiny invisible animals make
you sick. But I cannot help thinking that to employ the best available
physics and physiology has to be preferable to clinging to time-hallowed
common-sense errors. It would be a terrible travesty of intellectual
justice if our dawning awareness of the on-rushing Spike became conscripted
by black holists, warped into yet another comical New Age fantasy of
effortless deliverance.

Damien Broderick