Physicist: Immaterial Explanations Aren't Necessarily False

In a video interview, Oxford physicist (and atheist) David Deutsch argues against reductionism (the idea that material causes can explain everything), saying that information is not material and consciousness exists. In the process, he makes four very important points:

  1. Information is not physical.
  2. Yet, information is the proper explanation for some effects.
  3. Though it is an immaterial cause, it does not contradict physics.
  4. Therefore, we must not impose a criterion of physicality on all explanations in science. Rather, we ought to look for the explanations that describe the way things really are.

From the interview:

If you think about how to explain physical events like a footprint on the moon…, it happened because of human ideas [not because of mere configurations of atoms]….

This information can't, in my view, be reduced to statements about atoms because, if you think about what that information does, it is in brains, but the same information then gets transferred into, let's say, sound waves in air, and then it gets transferred into ink on paper, and then it gets transferred into magnetic domains inside a computer, which then control a machine that instantiates those ideas in bits of steel, and silicon, and so on. There's an immense chain of instantiations of the same information…. What is being transmitted, what is having the causal effect, is not the atoms, but the fact that the atoms instantiate certain kinds of information, and not other kinds. So therefore, it is the information that is having the causal effect….

If explanation is going to be the fundamental thing—our criterion, for example—about what is or isn't real, then we have to say that information, and this particular kind which we call "knowledge," is real and really does cause things….

I think that the argument against free will from reductionism is just a mistake. It's a fundamental mistake. It's the idea that all explanation must be in terms of microscopic things. There's no philosophical argument in favor of that that I'm aware of. It's just an assumption. It has historical roots in how science centuries ago escaped from the clutches of the supernatural. And as I said earlier, certainly I'm opposed to any kind of modes of explanation in terms of immaterial things, in terms of abstractions, that contradict physics, but the idea that all such explanations by their very nature contradict physics is simply false….

We have to accept the physical world as we find it. We have to find the best explanations that explain it, rather than impose, by dogma, a criterion that explanations have to meet other than that they explain reality.

Deutsch doesn't explain which immaterial explanations he thinks would contradict physics, so perhaps he puts an infinite mind (God) in that category (though I'm not sure why the idea of God would contradict physics). But in principle, he has opened the door in his thinking to scientifically finding a mind to be the best causal explanation for effects that warrant that conclusion. I hope many more scientists will follow his lead.

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Amy K. Hall