Experiments in Political Theology and Dialogical Blogging

The first clause in the title of this post is the subtitle of Simon Critchley‘s newest book, The Faith of the Faithless (2012). Critchley is a deep ethical thinker who had until a week ago managed to fly under my radar. This isn’t all that surprising, since the admittedly still diffuse research methodology of my dissertation is rather like wandering backwards through an ancient and ever-growing bibliographic labyrinth of academic and para-academic publishing. Every week or so, I trip over one of the books tossed about on the floor, have a look, and discover another author whose thinking seems to be converging with my own. It’s not like these texts are randomly arrayed: I’ve been following a thread that I can see knots together those texts I’ve already read; it’s just that I’ve been walking backwards as I pull it.

Critchley’s book is, as he describes it, an experiment in thinking the strange and scary relationship between politics and religion. It is a relationship, much like that between religion and science, that is fraught with controversy and spilt blood. It has always been this way, and remains so today despite our modern pretensions to enlightenment and rational discourse. Emotional polemic is the name of the game in this arena, the teams neatly divided into the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and Sam Harris and the fundamentalist theism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ken Ham. I mostly watch this game play out from the stands, but every once in a while one of my sideline protests is heard and I get drawn into the field of debate (never with any of these individuals themselves, but with their wider community of supporters). I much prefer conversation and dialogue to polemical debate, but it has proved extremely difficult to have a civil or philosophical discussion about the relationship between politics, religion, and science. My forays into PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula have, on the face of it, proven completely fruitless, as have attempts to dialogue with Levi Bryant at his blog Larval Subjects. I say “on the face of it” because I remain optimistic about the effects of these conversations on those who may be reading silently in the background. Blogging is a public forum, one of the few remaining political sites for a democratic people to work out their self-authentification and self-governance. The Internet remains a virtual environment, but in our catastrophic epoch of the post-human and post-natural, reality itself is increasingly endangered, making virtuality a necessary haven of withdrawal. Those explicitly involved in these online arguments aren’t necessarily the only significant nodes of mutual influence. It seems to me that most often, it is those remaining silent who are influenced most significantly by the dialectic unfolding on screen. Even if their thoughts remain at the level of pre-discursive feeling and imaginal strain for the time being, the stress of silence acts as an alembic forming truly new thoughts that will no longer be trapped in the tug-of-war of old polemics.

All of us who blog religiously have a mission, that is, a religious mission. We are seeking to instigate political transformation. From Critchley’s perspective, politics may be conceivable without religion, but it will never be practicable. He justifies his claim by looking into the political thought of Rousseau, who “arguably provides the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics” with his 1762 treatise The Social Contract (p. 8). At first glance, Rousseau’s political theory seems to provide

an entirely immanent conception of political legitimacy…an egalitarian conception of association rooted in popular sovereignty (ibid.).

A deeper look at the composition of Rousseau’s Geneva Manuscript (later renamed The Social Contract) reveals that he made a rushed edition to the text just before sending it to the publisher in 1761, “scribbled in an almost indecipherable hand” despite the rest of the manuscript’s perfect penmanship (p. 28). The edition was a chapter titled “On Civil Religion.” Rousseau ends up seeming to contradict his immanentist account of political formation by pointing out the need for what Critchley calls the “fictional force” of a political religion.

Rousseau acknowledges the motivational inadequacy of a purely philosophical account of politics and offers the picture of a political religion…there is a need for fictions other than philosophical in order to unite the general will with the interests to act on that will… (p. 34).

“Philosophy,” in this context, should be understood to mean the rational, dispassionate discourse expected of modern, enlightened individuals. Rousseau recognized that logical argument alone was not sufficient to persuade a people to behave in the interests of the common good. Something else was required to overcome individual alienation, something like faith. The faith of a political religion is not about blind belief in the externally imposed doctrines of a priesthood, but rather concerns remaining open to the possibility of “a transformation [in our own] manner of existence,” or what Rousseau referred to as a “change of [our] nature” (p. 39). Critchley describes the transformation brought on by the enactment of faith as one of mystical love, an “act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being” (p. 20).

Rousseau’s “social contract” is a very strange kind of contract, since unlike every other kind of contract, the freely acting independent parties involved don’t even exist until after the agreement. Prior to the contract, the freedom required to justify its legal authority has not yet been created. The contract, at the time of its formation, is essentially a fiction. It is a fiction that the subsequently formed free individuals must conspire together in an act of mutual faith and trust in order to realize. This mutual act of faith–the”rare but ever-potential force…to give oneself in an act of association with others”–is the basis of any civil religion and so self-governing society. It follows that the primary purpose of engaging in political activity is not to persuade people, but to form a people in the first place. The formation of a people depends upon an experience of mystical love, an experience that begins as a fictional force but ends in a new communal reality.

Critchley’s is a civic faith without religious creed, based not on

the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather [on] the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand…a declarative act…an enactment of the self…a performative that proclaims itself into existence in a situation of crisis where what is called for is decisive political intervention (p. 13).

Critchley’s “infinite demand” emerges out of his study off Levinas’ ethics of otherness. Rather than the individualistic ethos of liberal modernity, Critchley’s ethical theory is rooted in what he calls “dividualism,” the existential process whereby

the self shapes itself in relation to the experience of an overwhelming, infinite demand that divides it from itself–the sort of demand that Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44) (p. 6-7).

Critchley’s experiments in political theology draw upon a rich history of radical mystics and religious revolutionaries, but he begins the book by unpacking what he calls “Wilde Christianity,” the faithless faith articulated by Oscar Wilde while in prison for two years (~1895-97). Wilde could not bring himself to believe in any church religion, but the symbol of Christ nonetheless remained compelling to him. Critchley reads Wilde’s imaginative engagement with the figure of Christ as a kind of “soul-smithing,” where through the fires of sin and suffering, one forges a new identity. We are to imitate Christ’s ultimate creative and artistic act: “the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form” (p. 5).

“To the artist,” writes Wilde,

expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so. With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece (quoted by Critchley, p. 5).

Politics, then, is as much a religious as an artistic endeavor. Religious in that it requires an act of self-giving akin to faith, or mystical love; artistic in that, as Wilde put it, “its symbols must be of my own creating” (p. 4), smithed in the caldron of my own soul rather than received externally.

Critchley continues:

Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures (p. 5).

A political religion is a religion based on the fictive force of love. Love, whatever its potential power, is hard to come by in this world. It is indeed mostly a fiction. But on those rare occasions when authentic political activity is allowed to emerge, it can only be the result of this fiction becoming a reality.

I’ll have more to say about Critchley’s experiments in political theology in subsequent posts. I found it a happy coincidence that he was brought to my attention just before Bryant’s inflammatory response to me regarding the role of religiosity in public life. I didn’t recognize myself in his “response to a new age nut,” nor do I think I’ve mischaracterized his Lacanian-Marxist perspective on religion and politics. I am not sure what exactly threw him into such a rage… maybe if I were more studied in Lacan, I’d be able to offer a psychoanalytic explanation. But I’m not. When I look at how religion has actually functioned in the world, I see a far more complex picture than Bryant does. I agree with a commenter at Larval Subjects that the detestable violence and oppression of the past cannot so easily be pinned on “religion,” since in that case we may as well blame “science” for the horrors of the 20th century industrialization of war. Yes, some religious institutions have and continue to violently oppress people, but perhaps this has more to do with the symptomatic evils of institutionalization itself than it does with something intrinsic to religious faith. But rather than trying to directly respond to Bryant, which seems pointless, I thought further fleshing out where I am coming from would be most productive. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here.

*[Update]*: Bryant just posted a response to another commenter that further clarifies his own position:

My criticism of your claims is not that beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes are irrelevant, but that you’re working at the wrong level of analysis and are not discerning the nature of the system at issue and why it functions as it does. I think this poor analysis arises directly from your background in phenomenology and Kierkegaard that emphasizes the subject and belief and that is therefore blind to large scale systems and how they function. It’s also noteworthy that all the things you suggest can be changed in these systems (hearts and beliefs) ***and*** the system can still function exactly as it did before. Why? Because hearts and beliefs weren’t the cause of this functioning in the first place.

Bryant has a point, of course. My own desire to experiment with political theology is not the result of being blind to this sort of Marxist analysis. It emerges because, after the revolution, I don’t think it will be possible to re-construct a people or a world for them to live in out of the ashes of neo-liberal capitalism without engaging with what have traditionally been religious issues. Yes, capitalism is largely a structural issue and it must be dismantled on that level. But if we succeed in dismantling it, there remains the project of composing a public, what Critchley calls a “work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths” (p. 4).

Related articles

Disambiguating Spirit and Matter (reflections on scientific materialism)

For several years now, I have from time to time engaged in philosophical debate with commenters over at Pharyngula (the atheist and biologist PZ Myers‘ well-traffic blog). It is often impossible to maintain a civil discussion or sympathetic reflection about the topic at hand (usually having to do with the ontology of life, the meaning of consciousness, or the role of spirituality/religion in contemporary society) because our complete lack of shared assumptions about the world quickly causes the conversation to degenerate into defensive ideological posturing. Myers (and the Sentinels who patrol his site always ready to beat back the vitalist and mysterian “trolls” who dare question scientific orthodoxy) displays a way of thinking that is perhaps the best contemporary example of what Alfred North Whitehead called scientific materialism. This mode of thought prevents its possessors (or those it possesses) from practicing what Keats once called “negative capability.” Negative capability could be described as the power or potency of the human imagination to think without acting, i.e., to contemplate the possibility of something without assuming its actuality. To practice philosophy, itself a spiritual and imaginative activity, one needs to have mastered this negative capability.

A recent post by Myers, wherein he ridicules the notion of “spiritual exercises” for atheists, illustrates well the conceptual blockage preventing scientific materialists from considering anything other than deterministic mechanical laws in their explanations of the natural world. Myers writes of spiritual exercises, like meditation, visualization, and breath work, that:

“…they are physiological exercises. [1]They do not manipulate ‘spirit,’ [2]they change the physical state of the brain. But these glib pseudoscientific quacks just love to borrow the language of science and slap the label of ‘spiritual’…”

Myers thinks he is able to discard the notion of “spirit” quickly and easily as a relic of pre-scientific dualism; but I think his concept of “spirit” is deeply confused. He seems to imagine “spirit” as some sort of super-matter, a subtler kind of extended substance capable of reaching in from the outside to direct physiological activity. He rightly dismisses this caricature of “spirit” in one clause [1], only to implicitly re-affirm it in the next [2]!

Who, exactly, changes the physical state of the brain? The language here is difficult, and some may argue that philosophy simply plays with the infinite ambiguity of linguistic reflexivity until all discernable meaning becomes entirely obscured. But if one is capable of any degree of philosophical sympathy with the likes of such difficult thinkers as Kant, Ficthe, Schelling, Hegel, Steiner, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, James, Whitehead, etc., I think it becomes rather obvious that the sublimity of feeling resulting from consciousness’ attempts to understand its own conditions of possibility (whether cranial or celestial) lead straight into what can only be called “spirituality.” “Spirit” is an easily misunderstood word referring to one’s own present consciousness. It is the “I” that knows who it is, the “will” who intends, regrets, and foresees. Spirit is that in the physiologist that experiences the feeling of knowing the structure and function of the brain. A thinker cannot reduce his or her own thinking to the structure and function of the brain without a performative contradiction.

This defense of spirit as irreducible to matter is not a plee for dualism. On the contrary, it is an attempt to provide the mechanistically minded with an opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of what even their own language cannot help but admit. Spirit and matter are not opposites, but complementaries: the two faces of a single, creative process.

One possible antidote to the self-erasure of scientific materialism is the organic cosmology of the Romantics, for whom nature was visible spirit, and spirit invisible nature. I won’t try to say it better than Emerson, who in Nature, writes:

Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass…The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use…This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. It appears to men, or it does not appear. When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts, if, at all other times, he is not blind and deaf;

—— “Can these things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud,
Without our special wonder?”

for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began; from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg. There sits the Sphinx at the road-side, and from age to age, as each prophet comes by, he tries his fortune at reading her riddle. There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms; and day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit. A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.”

More reflections on PZ Myers, science, and philosophy… 

Science, Art, Religion: The Role of Speculative Philosophy in the Adventure of Rationality

I’ve just completed Isabelle Stengers‘ formidable but rewarding text, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The final chapters concern the viability of Whitehead’s theology, specifically his articulation of the relationship between God and the World. Stengers’ asks the reader to go slowly while considering why a divine function became necessary in the course of Whitehead’s speculative adventure from The Concept of Nature, through Science and the Modern World, and on to Process and Reality. God is the keystone of Whitehead’s entire philosophical edifice; but even so, Stengers’ writes, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (p. 424). Stengers goes to great lengths to assure atheists who may otherwise lose interest or become dismissive that Whitehead was “perfectly explicit about the barbarous brutality of traditional religious statements, and particularly outspoken on the subject of the despotic role attributed to the monotheistic God” (p. 479). For Whitehead, religion has primarily to do with individual feeling, while philosophy is a devotion to the correction of our initial excess of subjectivity. His philosophy is “an attempt to save God himself from the role assigned to him by the theological visions that make him the respondent to the [overly subjective] religious vision” (ibid.).

“The concept of God,” write Whitehead,

“is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the contrary is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the Universe. In this respect religious literature has been sadly misleading to philosophic theory, partly by attraction and partly by repulsion” (Process and Reality, p. 207).

The religious feelings humanity has regarding God cannot, therefore, be evaluated outside of the demands of rational thought. Religious modes of knowing are to be held accountable to the same tests of experiential adequacy and conceptual coherence that are scientific and aesthetic modes. Whitehead insists that God’s function in the world be secularized (ibid.). This is perhaps philosophy’s most urgent task in our contemporary world: it must correct our initial excess of subjective feeling as regards the concept of God. When we at first entertain the Great Fact of the Universe, our tendency, due to the initially subjective excess of our individual perspectives, is to assert that this Universe, despite its apparent deafness to our complaints, must in the end conform with our hopes and aspirations. We expect and demand that there be some Advocate for us in the world who might correct the wrongs that have unjustly befallen us or those we love. Some psychologists have argued that the concept of God emerges naturally as the human psyche begins to consider the grave mystery of death. This is irrelevant from Whitehead’s perspective, since for him God is not first of all an emotional or psychological consolation, but rather a conceptual construct necessary for the coherence of his cosmological scheme (to employ the jargon of his system, God’s envisagement of the eternal objects is required as an explanation for their meaningful participation in the becoming of actual occasions).

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

Once Whitehead’s God has been constructed, however, it can no longer remain an abstract metaphysical technicality, since Whitehead’s real aim is not to build conceptual castles in the clouds, but to transform our experience of the actual world, to make life more interesting, more beautiful, more virtuous. The concept of God created by Whitehead’s imaginative leap must be tested on the ground of experience. As William James might ask, what does it do?, what is its cash value? Whether or not it passes the tests required of our adventure of rationality to succeed in becoming “true” for our civilization at large will only be known by future generations.

One of these tests concerns God’s relationship to Nature as it is studied by scientists. Can scientific knowledge and the divine element in the world co-exist? Many scientific materialists, including the biologist and renowned atheist PZ Myers (to whom this post is something of a reply), think not. Myers can conceive of no evidence that might persuade him of the existence of God. In the context of speculative philosophy, construing the problem of the existence of God in terms of whether or not there is “evidence” entirely misses the point, since the metaphysician is concerned with the construction of the very criteria that might determine what counts as evidence in the first place. Speculative philosophy cannot take for granted what positivistic scientists like Myers do, that our senses (and their extensions) paint a neutral picture before the Mind “in here” of Nature “out there,” and that the processes of both Mind and Nature can be explained and controlled by way of purely mechanistic models. Whitehead, a mathematician and a physicist, had already foreseen the need for philosophical re-evaluation of the basis of natural science before Gödel’s incompleteness theorem unhinged logic and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle delocalized material particle. The picture of the cosmos that had reigned since the Scientific Revolution dissolved before his eyes during the early 20th century: a Universe on the verge of being explained by the clarity of reductionistic materialism all the sudden seemed far stranger than 19th century physicists had imagined.

Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to naturalize God and to divinize Nature. Disenchantment and scientific investigation are no longer understood to go hand in hand, since for Whitehead, the Universe is ensouled. How does he know this? What is his evidence for this? Whitehead is the inheritor of James’ pragmatic philosophy, wherein the evidence of an proposition’s truth consists in the consequences of this proposition for our experience. Experience, in other words, and not the “objective world,” is the final arbiter of truth, since, as even Myers admits, the truth is what works. The evidence for Whitehead’s conception of the relationship between God and the world (which I unpack more fully in this essay on a naturalistic panentheism) is the Great Fact that the Universe continues to hold together as a whole, despite the freedom of each actual occasion to determine its own form of realization. That there is a Cosmos at all, and not just chaos, is the evidence for Whitehead’s God. God is the great unifier, that which “saves” the world from disharmony. One could deny that the Universe holds together, but this would put an end to humanity’s adventure of rationality. Reason, for Whitehead, is not an abstract ideal, but must be embodied by some actual entity: that entity is God.

Returning to Myers and his championing of scientific fact as the antidote to religious belief, he recently posted a blog in defense of the Nobel Laureate chemist Harold Kroto’s understanding of science. Kroto was criticized by journalist Andrew Brown for suggesting that “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Kroto went on to say that society has an ethical obligation to teach children the scientific method in order to assure they have a way to determine what is true based on evidence, because, says Kroto, “without evidence, anything goes!”

Whitehead was also an educator, and so certainly would have had an opinion on this matter. For him, education was about more than training in the scientific method, however. It was about the enrichment of the soul, awakening the student to their own potential for creatively re-imagining the cultural habits they have inherited.

As Stengers’ suggests,

“For Whitehead, thinking about what social progress requires designates education as a crucial site, in which an epoch judges itself on the basis of the way it fashions those who will prolong its choices, strengths, and weaknesses. Education can create the habit of appreciating concrete facts, complete facts. It can also create the opposite habit, as is the case with the education the produces professionals, the habit of yielding in the face of what is unacceptable, of adhering to what is incredible. Because for Whitehead, the link is obviously direct between the blind way in which thinkers who stuck to secure and definite habits of thought, that is, professionals, have subscribed to the concrete unacceptable consequences of industrial development, and the way in which other thinkers, just as ‘serious,’ have prolonged, in a routine way, the incredible theses that made nature birfurcate and reduced reality to the agitation of stupid, insensate matter” (p. 139-140).

Stengers’ then quotes Whitehead at length:

“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality. We want concrete fact with a high light thrown on what is relevant to its preciousness. What I mean is art and aesthetic education […] ‘art’ in the general sense that I require is any selection by which the concrete facts are so arranged as to elicit attention to particular values which are realizable by them. For example, the mere disposing of the human body and the eyesight so as to get a good view of the sunset is a simple form of artistic selection. The habit of art is the habit of enjoying vivid values” (Science and the Modern World, p. 199).

Myers’ asks in his defense of Kroto for someone to give an example of something about which we can have reliable knowledge that is not determined by science. The Beautiful and the Good come to mind. We can know these ideals, and be educated in their creation and appraisal, but we do so with methods other than science proper, like artistic and ethical practice. Science, Art, and Religion are different ways of engaging with reality, each equally important in its own context. I think Whitehead’s cosmology allows us to conceive of their proper relation to one another in a way that avoids the self-righteous positivism of those who think like Kroto and Myers. Science is not the cure to all of society’s ills. We have quite enough scientific specialists. What we need is a form of education that allows for the kind of imaginative generalization necessary for a coherent picture of the world, one which avoids bifurcations between “Mind” and “Nature,” or “subjective fantasy” and “objective fact.” Science, religion, and art can retain their unique differences, but Wisdom requires their integration into a unified image of the cosmos. Contradictions must be made into contrasts. The university must educate human beings to live in the Universe, not in a disinfected caricature produced by specialists.

Purpose in Biology

I couldn’t resist giving my two cents again over at Pharyngula. PZ Myers criticized the biologist and intelligent design theorist Michael Behe’s understanding of purpose in living systems. I’m not at all on board with Behe’s overall project (as you’ll see below), but I do think he is focusing on the right shortcomings in the standard Darwinian/mechanist account of evolution.

Behe is right to focus on complexity and purpose in his critique of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Before I explain why I think these are the crucial phenomena for any evolutionary theory to explain, it should be made clear that within biology, there are many distinct paradigms studying the evolutionary process, including evolutionary developmental theory, complex systems theory, niche construction theory, structural coupling/autopoietic theory, etc., and that each of these paradigms focuses on aspects of the process that a strictly Darwinian account leaves out. So while I agree with Behe’s criticism of one of these paradigms, I think his suggestion that Darwinism’s lack of a complete explanation for evolutionary phenomena demands postulating an intelligent designer is off the mark. Biology has other lenses than the Darwinian that allow it to understand the emergence of complex and purposeful organic structure and function without reference to design.

Notice that I refer above to purpose as a phenomenon, which is to say that purpose, or telos, is an observable feature of any living system. It isn’t a concept or an idea projected by humans onto organisms; it is an objective fact about what it means to be alive, whether that life be human or prokaryotic. Purpose is not to be defined as something added to a living system from outside by a designer (be it a supernatural or a natural designer). Rather, purpose has to do with the self-organizational dynamics seen in all living systems. This is not an original insight of Behe’s. Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment more than 200 years ago that there would never be a “Newton of the grass blade,” because unlike the inorganic systems that Newton was able to mathematize, organic systems are, as Kant put it, both cause and effect of themselves. Machines and other inorganic systems are structurally allopoietic (other-caused), whereas life is universally an autopoietic, or self-producing process. For a system to be cause and effect of itself does not mean it functions independently of its environment. Self-organization refers to the formal, or logical structure of a system, not to its material structure. On the material level, of course the organism is completely dependent on outside matter and energy for its continued survival. The significance of its formal, self-organizing structure consists in the way in which this outside material is transformed into the complex body of the organism in question. In philosophical terms, there is no strictly mechanical way (in terms of efficient causation) of explaining how inorganic matter takes on organic form. To adequately account for living beings that produce their own internal components and a selectively permeable membrane that continuously distinguishes them from their environment, one also must make use of non-mechanical forms of causality, specifically formal and final causality. The emergence that takes place on the molecular level to bring forth a living cell cannot be explained by reference to the parts, or the molecules, alone. A further explanatory principle is required to account for the way in which the components of an organism each work continuously to produce the organized whole of which they are a part.

These holistic and purposeful aspects of life require not the ad hoc hypothesis of a supernatural designer, but the re-appraisal of the materialist ontology that both Behe and Darwin share. That Behe may believe in a deity entirely above and beyond nature makes no difference for the way he conceives of natural beings in much the way Darwin did, as complex machines. What is needed, I think, is a cosmological picture wherein finality and formal causality are as natural as the mechanical causes science has been studying since Galileo. Not an external designer, but a principle of immanent purposes (much like Kant developed in the CoJ) may allow future biologists to overcome the false dichotomy between complete randomness and providential design. Perhaps the divine is not an all-powerful dictator above and beyond nature who shapes every atom and every animal from a pre-conceived plan, but a creative participant in the evolutionary journey of matter from initial simplicity to eventual complexity. In short, perhaps God is more of a lure toward beauty, an Omega toward which the evolutionary process is persuaded but not forced, than an architect who set it all up in advance.

Aristotle and the historical myopia of science

Another response to PZ Myers’ blog. I’m responding to this fellow in particular:

 

Aristotle decided observation was irrelevant? Are you joking? If we are going to base physics on how nature is actually experienced, then Galileo is the one ignoring observation. Galilean physics are based on ideal geometrical models, not actual observation, where friction and resistance are impossible to do away with. Aristotle’s is precisely an experiential physics, while Galileo’s is a mathematical physics.
I find it disturbing that so many of you science geeks dismiss Aristotle as a historical curiosity. Thomas Kuhn points out that this historical ignorance is the biggest obstacle to a full understanding of what science is and how it works.
Formal causes are actually forcing their way back into physics (information theory) and biology (autopoiesis, self-organization, etc.), despite materialistic pretenses. Final causation has also been part of physics for 150 years (thermodynamic energy gradients behave teleologically, moving toward equilibrium), and is obviously a required element in any description of a living system (though biologists, after Mayr, tend to call it “teleonomy”).
Just keep in mind as you self-assuredly brush Aristotle into the dust bin of history that in 100 years time, much of what passes for science today will be similarly dismissed as superstition (at least unless scientists begin to receive better education in history).

Natural Science and Spiritual Science

My recent comments on Pharyngula

Excerpts from my comments:

I should have written “all-loving” instead of “all-powerful” twice. Just a typo, nothing esoteric. The “etc.” was a placeholder for all the other typical attributes (infinite, eternal…).

I wouldn’t say these attributions are necessarily incorrect, they are just inadequate descriptors. Cataphatic theology must be balanced by apophatic theology, where God is defined negatively (Not this, not this…). Language ultimately fails to fully describe even trivial matters, like our day to day emotional states. Trying to describe God is even more difficult, because (at least in some traditions) God is the “Word” or “Logos” itself, that which makes all the meaning and order of our language (and the universe itself) possible in the first place. So trying to describe God with language is like looking for the glasses you’re already wearing. God is that which makes meaning possible.

The intellect can approach God, but there is a threshold that seems to be reached, at which point rationality and empiricism are no longer useful, or even relevant. Luckily, we have other psychological functions besides the intellect (Carl Jung came up with 4: thinking/intellect, feeling, intuition, sensation). God and religion generally seem to have more to do with intuition and feeling than sensing and thinking. Not to say that the latter two are necessarily inept when it comes to approaching God… just look at thinkers like Hegel or artists (masters of sensation) like Raphael.

God is a unified transrational reality, and so is the cosmos (I don’t think creator and created are separate, though I’m more a panentheist than a pantheist–perhaps this difference can be explained in another post, or by a visit to wikipedia).

I offer it reluctantly, but if you want my cataphatic theology, my analysis of the nature of divinity, then I would leave out all-powerful, and keep only three others: all-knowing, all-loving, and all-present. This is a drastic over-simplification. But in trying to approach the nature of God intellectually, it seems the dynamism of this Trinity gets us closest. These three omnis are the thinking, feeling, and willing of God, respectively. Humans are the likeness of God (so the story goes), and also think, feel, and will. But our will is not all-present. It is present only “here” in my body and my soul (i.e., my motor activity and mental imagery). God’s will is present here, there, and everywhere. There is nothing that God doesn’t do. When it comes to thinking and feeling (or knowing and loving), humans are made in the image of God (…just play along), and so are capable of participating directly in the thoughts and the feelings of God. It is within our human potential to see and hear with the eyes and ears of God and to feel with the heart of God. “The eye with which God sees me is the same eye through which I see God.” -Meister Eckhart

This is all nonsense, of course. I have no idea how I know it. The origin and cause of my thinking and my feeling is unknown to me, unconscious. Some would say it is the brain floating in my skull that produces the “psyche” (i.e., the scientific object studied by psychologists and, if materialism is true, neurologists) but as a psyche, a thinking, feeling, willing “I” that is not sure where his thoughts come from or how they get there, I cannot be at all certain of the scientist’s theory of their origins. It is too abstract, too removed from human reality. Is it “true” nonetheless? Who is to say? We are all human. We are all uncertain of our own origins. At least in a nominal sense, unless we (not believe in but) perceive God in our heart-mind. Empirical science is discovering some amazing things about how the soul is embodied, but none of it proves the soul is bounded by the body. Paradigms in cognitive science like Enactivism (Varela, Thompson) and Ecological Psychology (J.J. Gibson) suggest that consciousnes/soul/psyche is just as extended as it is “internal.”

All of this is an attempt to get closer to answering “why”–if as you say “we don’t know that God’s there to even invest time trying”– I persist nonetheless taking theology seriously as a form of study, or better, play. Can one live truly, in accordance with goodness and beauty, without talk of God? Sure, but even atheists seem to spend a lot of time talking about God. I think for better or worse, whether we call it anthropology or theology, humans will be trying to think and talk about God.

 

PZ Myers’ will never believe in God

PZ Myers’ blog post:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/eight_reasons_you_wont_persuad.php

Some excerpts from my comments (beginning around #403):

The sort of god PZ has decreed impossible to believe in has little in common with Augustine’s, or Plotinus’, or Aquinas’, or with any other great theologian’s God.

Natural science is epistemically closed to theological issues, not because they are unreal, but because the scientific method “works” precisely because it allows the scientist to bracket such ultimate metaphysical concerns to focus in instead on some specific slice of the observable universe. But just because science does not and should not enter such metaphysical terrain does not mean it should remain unexplored.

There is no experimental test for God, and no rational proof, either. The veracity of God’s existence is revealed only to the sufficiently prepared subject. Knowing God depends upon a psychological movement, or the development of a higher organ of perception within the soul; it has little to do with outward or external evidence. All the traditional attributes assigned to God (all-good, all-powerful, all-present, all-loving, etc.) are merely the intellect’s feeble attempt to analyze/rationalize what is essentially a unified transrational reality.

As Dante put it in the Paradiso: “The glory of the One who moves all things permeates the universe and glows in one part more and in another less. I was within the heaven that receives more of His light; and I saw things that he who from that height descends, forgets or cannot speak; for nearing its desired end, our intellect sinks into an abyss so deep that memory fails to follow it.”


What is “reason,” anyways? Is it really separable from imagination? I’m a bit of a Romantic, so I’ve always been drawn to Wordsworth’s take:

“[Imagination] is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.”

So far as I can tell, all human knowledge depends upon some act of imagination. Einstein wasn’t shy about admitting this. Nor was Karl Popper.

You’ve got to admit, reason itself is quite mysterious. Might it not even be referred to as supernatural? The knowledge gained by the scientist, if true, cannot without contradiction be collapsed into nature. How is it that the rational scientist claims the universe entirely lacks purpose and intelligence? What of the scientist’s own intelligence? Is it the one exception? When Kant tried to turn the eye of reason back upon itself, he discovered much of what the Medieval mind took for granted as true could not in fact be trusted. Reason, in the modern period, has become self-critical, and this is a good thing. But perhaps Kant prematurely limited the scope of human understanding. Perhaps intelligence creates and constructs as much as it discovers about reality, and can reach to knowledge of the things themselves (including God and the cosmos) through acts of imaginative inspiration (just as Einstein rode on a beam of light to grasp relativity).

I come here not to argue rationally about the validity of anything spiritual, only to offer an invitation… an invitation, that is, to a different way of experiencing reality. A way that scientific materialism marginalizes not as a result of scientific evidence or lack thereof, but because its methodological practices are all too often hypostasized into metaphysical principles, such that it denies the possibility of a more intelligent order at work in the natural world before it even begins investigating that world. The “world” of science, “Nature,” is defined as entirely external to and independent of the human mind (all modern science is essentially Cartesian in philosophical character). This is essential to science, which when properly practiced respects the insights of Hume and Kant, which is to say, it remains phenomenological. It simply deals with what shows itself to the senses and to bodily experience generally, not with what might ultimately underly these phenomena. Science becomes scientism when it denies the difference between phenomena and things themselves by suggesting that, for example, the findings of contemporary neuroscience have proven that consciousness–responsible for the lifeworld inhabited by human persons–is secreted from the electrochemical activity of the brain. In truth (and here I make a philosophical claim, not a scientific one), we do not know and have no immediate experience of the nature of the mind/brain interaction. Being conscious requires and is in fact operationally identical to being unaware of one’s own unconscious origins. Am I my neurons? Surely, but not only that. I am also a thinking, feeling, willing consciousness, and this I know from the inside out. It is self-evident. I know the natural worldperceptually, not rationally. I know it always “with” my body. Ultimate reality, the highest truths concerning spirit and nature, etc., would therefore be known not by way of empirometric science, but by our immediate psychological and sensory experience of being embedded the ongoing life of the universe. I offer an invitation to a way of being in the universe that depends upon a way of knowing the universe that scientific materialism displays ignorance of.

I’ll retreat back into my cloud of unknowing now.

Pushing back against Positivism

I felt like giving my two cents over at Pharyngula again. My response is copied below. I fear I repeat myself too much, but I just can’t help offering philosophical resistance whenever I come across scientism. Humanity has no future if meaning continues to be reduced to the measurable and culture to the technologically useful. Here is PZ Myers’ critique of a recent Guardian article by Mary Midgley about New Atheism: Bumblin’ Midgley babbles again. You’ll find a link to Midgley’s article there.

From the looks of it, Midgley’s article was probably chopped up by editors. That, or she tried to shrink wrap a complex, multi-tiered argument about the relationship between scientific materialism and traditional world-views into a few paragraphs. The philosopher Charles Taylor had the good sense to carefully unpack a version of this argument in no less than 900 pages (see “A Secular Age”).

I’ll assume no one has read Taylor’s book, so we’ll have to make due with Midgley’s spark notes. It is hard to dismiss her basic point without becoming a positivist by default. World-views that include some conception of the divine are not necessarily making factual claims. God is not a hypothesis meant to explain this or that natural phenomenon, at least not in traditional metaphysical approaches (Intelligent Design is a very recent school of thought that has more in common with materialism than, say, Aquinas’ philosophy of nature). Instead, God is posited as a necessary condition for the possibility of there being a universe that produces life and intelligence. In this sense, God is not a fact that might be tested for because the only evidence for God’s existence is existence itself. Positivists say this is nonsense, of course. But so long as human being’s are capable of thinking, metaphysics will be unavoidable. We aren’t satisfied with just thinking about external nature (a mode of thought science continues to perfect); we also think about thinking (the domain of philosophy), which necessarily supersedes natural scientific reasoning and inevitably leads one in a “spiritual” direction when pursued thoroughly. “Spiritual,” because upon sustained reflection concerning one’s own consciousness, it becomes apparent that the universe is not just a collection of measurable objects colliding with one another in extended space; the universe also has an inside (in the phenomenological, not geometric, sense) that is not accounted for by the known laws of physics.

The positivists are cringing again, I know. Philosophy supersedes natural science?! Yes, because no amount of empirical study of the brain will explain conscious activity or thinking, since these are the pre-conditions of any empirical study. Neurochemical processes are involved, I have no doubt, but it is a gross category error to assume there exists some description in terms of external material events alone that might account for mental experience.

But back to Midgley’s point… Human being’s don’t develop a world-view by adding up empirical facts to form the most likely picture of the universe. A fact is significant only given an imaginative background that supplies its metaphysical context. Without such a background, we could not even decide what counts as a fact in the first place. An observed correlation between a neurological structure and a specific conscious experience could be interpreted several ways depending on one’s cosmology. If you’re a mechanistic reductionist, this fact means the brain is somehow locally producing consciousness. If you have a more richly textured ontology, this fact means that the organized structure of the physical brain somehow taps into a deeper dimension of space-time (an ether of sorts), sapping or receiving consciousness from a non-local, non-physical source.

Parsimony!, screams the positivist. Yes, but the simplest explanation isn’t always the right one. This tired cliche about simplicity only works if reality is assumed from the beginning to be entirely material, and since the quantum revolution, its unclear what the term “matter” even means. Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t as simple as Newton assumed (or our everyday experience assumes) it to be. And anyways, who is to say which explanation is simpler? I’ve yet to come across even the hint of an explanation for how neurochemistry might create consciousness in scientific literature.

We can say no to some myths, but myth, or story, is as much a part of scientific narrative (especially those of the evolutionary sort) as it is religious narrative. Scientific stories work, as technology testifies. But so do religious stories, as the continued and indeed growing role of spirituality in our society shows.

Consciousness of Science, post at PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula

Link to Pharyngula

…To believe self-consciousness can be accounted for in purely neurochemical terms is simply a category mistake. Empirical science presupposes self-consciousness, otherwise scientific reasoning would not be possible. Science cannot explain self-consciousness mechanistically without calling into question its own privileged epistemic status. Natural science attempting to explain consciousness in terms of brain mechanisms is much like trying to explain rainbows in terms of atmospheric water droplets. It reflects a lack of philosophical understanding of the phenomenon in question. The rainbow is not located in the sky, it emerges out of the relationship between light, certain kinds of eyes, and certain kinds of skies. I think consciousness is similar. It’s a mistake to try to locate it inside the skull. It is emergent, not just out of neurons, but out of space-time as a whole. If we deny the cosmic context of consciousness, i fail to see how we can avoid a dualism between the human mind and the rest of the natural universe. Contrary to a paper linked above about the challenges for any future science of consciousness, philosophers are growing increasingly aware of the hidden assumptions of dualist and materialist metaphysics that bias genuinely scientific research into its nature. Yes, consciousness is natural, but it is unlike any other natural phenomenon in that it is also noumenal. That is, consciousness can become an object to itself, as when we introspect or correlate mental states to fMRI readings, etc., but it also always remains the subject underlying these experiences. Consciousness is not just phenomenal, it is also transcendental (or noumenal). I think there are many limitations to Kant’s philosophical compromise between science and religion, or knowledge and morality, but whenever I participate in discussions on Pharyngula, I find myself having to repeat his arguments. This isn’t because I find his conclusions satisfying, but it is because I recognize that he defined the problems and laid out the territory. The problem with this message board (from my perspective) is that most of you are unwilling to give anything but a minor supporting role to philosophy as regards natural science. In other words, you’re all positivists. The video of Dawkins above is a great example of what happens when a scientist is blind to their philosophical assumptions, and forgetful of the cultural history of Western science. I might be interested in responding to any responses I get to this post, but I’m well aware it is an exercise in futility for both sides. I’ll just do what I usually do, which is recommend a few books (Bruno Latour’s “Science in Action” and Donna Haraway’s “Modest Witness”). They put science in it’s true cultural and historical context. If you’re especially brave (and patient enough to consider views that are probably radically different than your own), you might even read my paper on how re-situating science within culture is a necessary step before any solution to our social and ecological crises are possible: http://matthewsegall.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/logos-of-a-living-earth-towards-a-gaian-praxecology/

Response to PZ Myers on Science and Philosophy

A link to my first comment (also pasted below):

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/02/criticism_deferred_but_buildin.php#comment-2256674

You’ll have to refer to the link above if you want to see the other comments I am responding to below, though I do repeat them in brief in my own responses.
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# 168:

I’ve read the entire thread and wanted to toss a few thoughts into the mix for whatever they are worth. In light of Darwin’s own admission that variation under natural selection was by no means a complete account of speciation*, I think Fodor’s criticisms would be better directed at neo-Darwinists like Dennett and Dawkins, whose absolutist attitude seems to distort via over-extension Darwin’s more modest proposal. Fodor seems to want us to consider the role of endogenous organization in the evolutionary drama, instead of assuming that all form is imposed from without by the environment. Not only evo-devo, but complexity theory have gone a long way in providing insight into the role played by endogenous organization. It seems that most biologists are well aware of the gaps that need filling, and Fodor doesn’t give them enough credit. I would like to defend his apparently “consequentialist” reasoning, however. Evolutionary psychology (especially Pinker) is filled with ad hoc explanations that really cannot be separated from political ideology. Hume’s too easy “is” v. “ought” dichotomy may hold for physics (though even there, it is apparent that research into nuclear weapons technology blurs the boundary), but in biology and especially psychology, when science begins to study the very life processes that generate our own cognitive capacities, core philosophical issues quickly rise to the surface. The knowing scientist, after all, is a part of the universe he or she is trying to understand. Moral considerations cannot be treated as if they exist outside the facts of nature. Morality IS a fact of (human) nature. All too often, those with a scientistic bent treat such philosophical considerations as if they were irrelevant: now that the scientific method has been formulated, they believe all that is left for us to do is fit our theories to the data**. The consequences of over-zealous reduction of evolution to a Darwinian algorithm (a la Dennett), when unreflectively applied as a “universal acid” to other fields like psychology–while certainly generating lucrative research grants–cannot be ignored unless we mean to uphold the sort of Cartesian dualism between the human soul and the rest of the natural world that Hume assumed to construct his “is”/”ought” dichotomy. The way humanity thinks of nature (whether scientifically or philosophically) is not at all separate from the sorts of social forms and ecological policies we adopt.

In closing, as a final defense of the importance of philosophy even in our technophilic and scientistic age, I’d like to recommend a book by Evan Thompson (Univ. of Toronto): “Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Science of Mind.” He has plenty of criticisms of Fodor’s approach to cognitive science, as well as Dennett and Dawkins approach to biology. Most relevant to what has been discussed on this thread is chapter 7 (starting on page 166). Most of it is on google books and can be read here: http://books.google.com/books?id=OVGna4ZEpWwC&lpg=PA170&ots=4madrcfcui&dq=evan%20thompson%20evolution&pg=PA166#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Thompson argues that Darwin’s mechanism assumes without explaining the self-production of biological individuals (which is logically prior to reproduction). Self-production (or “autopoiesis”) cannot be accounted for in Darwinian terms, and may require re-thinking the mechanistic ontology of nature that has gained ascendency since the Scientific Revolution. I’ve written a lengthy essay about this which also attempts to break down the “is”/”ought” dichotomy by showing how the modern conception of the biosphere in terms of competition and mechanism has more to do with capitalist social relations than it does with empirical facts.

The essay:http://www.4shared.com/file/167360855/ca8c5526/Towards_an_Integral_Economics.html?

*Darwin spoke of “evolution” only once in the 6th edition of “Origin.” The concept arose in Romantic philosophy long before Darwin. Lamarck (even if his proposed mechanism turned out to be misguided) was really the one who first made the idea plausible as an account of phylogenic change. Darwin wanted to avoid it because he wanted his theory to be strictly empirical, mechanistic, and therefore non-directional. Evolution implies the unrolling of something enveloped, and is therefore somewhat teleological. Romantic philosophers (Kant, Goethe, Coleridge, etc.) employed the concept to counter the mechanistic forms of thought that gained prominence in the late 18th and early 19th century. A good anthology on this: http://www.amazon.com/Romanticism-Evolution-Bruce-Wilshire/dp/0819143839

** Thomas Kuhn’s working out of the underlying perceptual re-orientations responsible for paradigm shifts should clue us into the fact that what makes science so successful is the plasticity of its method. Data and evidence are not the only relevant factors in scientific investigation. Facts are underdetermined by theories.

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# 169:

Also, I’d be curious to here what Pharyngulites think of this other NS article on horizontal gene transfer. It seems to me to present a much stronger case than anything Fodor has to say for the eclipse of Darwin’s mechanism as the most important factor in evolution:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527441.500-horizontal-and-vertical-the-evolution-of-evolution.html

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# 176:
Nerd of Redhead,

Sorry, not the peer reviewed scientific literature, which is the only thing that counts to science.

Let us hope that science never ceases to deeply engage with the philosophical underpinnings of its method. Once it severs its ties to philosophy, there is nothing to prevent it from becoming another unreflective form of dogmatism. Do not forget that the epistemological basis and ontological conclusions (if there be any) of scientific investigation are not themselves amenable to empirical investigation.

Scientific journals are where the nitty-gritty experimental work is hashed out, no doubt. But we will always need philosophy to put all the pieces together into some coherent picture of the universe and our place in it. This is especially true in light of the proliferation of scientific fields and the fragmentation of knowledge which has resulted.

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# 209:

I have to make a confession. I don’t do any of my thinking inside a laboratory–unless, that is, you are willing to grant me a metaphorical use of the term. Perhaps systematically thinking about thinking, and about thinking’s relation to our bodies, to other thinking bodies, and to the world, is a sort of scientific investigation. Except in my case, the laboratory is the Universe.

The relationship between science and philosophy has and will inevitably remain an intimate one. I will quote Alfred North Whitehead below because he seems uniquely positioned to provide insight into the turf war that always plays itself out here on Pharyngula. He lived through the quantum and relativistic revolutions as a physicist and came to realize their implications would require totally re-imagining the philosophical foundation of Classical physics. The classical relationships between space-time, energy/matter, and observation/consciousness that Galileo and Newton had assumed to be true could no longer serve as the metaphysical background of the scientific worldview. The results of scientific investigation, in this case, lead Whitehead deeper into philosophy.

From “Adventures of Ideas” (1933), chapter 9: ‘Science and Philosophy’, p. 143:

The emphasis of science is upon observation of particular occurrences, and upon inductive generalization, issuing in wide classifications of things according to their modes of functioning, in other words according to the laws of nature which they illustrate. The emphasis of philosophy is upon generalizations which almost fail to classify by reason of their universal application. For example, all things are involved in the creative advance of the Universe, that is, in the general temporality which affects all things…

Philosophy is concerned with the most universal aspects of human experience. Science is after the details. In the end, though, science must assume the imaginative background that the great philosophers have intuited and systematized (it is usually not the same philosopher to do both). There have not been many great philosophers, as has been pointed out several times on this thread already. Perhaps all of Western philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato, as Whitehead suggested. But when a particular field of science tries to trace back its ideas to their basic notions, it eventually reaches a point where further pursuit of their source is no longer relevant to its immediate purposes. They must hand the baton of knowledge to the philosophers. As Whitehead says, These basic notions [of science] are specializations from the philosophical intuitions which form the background of the civilized thought of the epoch in question… The collapse of nineteenth century [Classical] dogmatism is a warning that the special sciences require that the imaginations of men [and women] be stored with imaginative possibilities as yet unuitilized in the service of scientific explanation.

Philosophy provides this great service to human ideas, that it keeps them fresh and free to re-imagine the world when, as a result of ongoing experimentation in the laboratory of the Universe, old world-conceptions fail the tests of empirical adequacy and logical coherence.

To recap, philosophy is concerned with the universal aspects of experience, some examples of which are space, time, and consciousness. Physicists cannot measure or observe any of these three, because they are universal forms of intuition and not particular sensory objects. Space, time, and consciousness are pre-conditions for special scientific investigation into this or that corner of the natural world. We can only approach these categories philosophically.

None of this is to say that philosophy somehow provides us access to the ultimate truth. Knowledge is an evolving process, and I’d offer that balanced constructive competitiveness between scientific and philosophic attitudes will best allow our civilization to continue its historic adventure.

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# 212:

Raven,

Perhaps we can agree then that evolution is indeed more complicated than we currently understand, and that while vertical transfer of variation under natural selection may be the norm for higher taxa, evolutionarily prior to that (i.e., for roughly 3 billion years) the rules were very different. Evolution itself seems to have evolved.

To all,

It seems like Pharyngula is more concerned with the cultural implications of our biological origins than with the specific details of evolutionary theory (though of course I’ve read some fantastic scientific blogs by PZ here, too). While I agree that the fact of the common descent of species MUST be integrated into our self-conception as human beings, I tend to think that the materialism taken for granted here is just as misguided an understanding of the complexity of our universe as intelligent design. Neither takes seriously the implications of a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy. Yes, complexity emerges from simplicity over time without the need of an external designer. But when put in a cosmological context, the mechanistic assumptions of both materialism and intelligent design fail to adequately account for our current experience as self-conscious animals. Traditional religion is indeed dead, and has no better explanation for our existence;, but dead, too, is the clock-work conception of the universe that initiated the Scientific Revolution and inspired Darwin’s attempt to find a mechanistic law working to produce living phenomena. I’m not suggesting his theory is incorrect; it is demonstrably true. But its truth is conditional, not universal.

Perhaps we might take a step back and consider for a moment the larger arc of the history of ideas. It seems to me, from such a view, that we should remain ever-vigilant for the sort of hubris which leads us to suppose our age is the first to see clearly, whereas all prior ages were living in the dark. Humanity has deepened its understanding in light of modern science, but that doesn’t mean there is no longer any room for imaginative speculation and appreciation for the mystery of the sheer fact that such a beautifully ordered universe should exist at all. Pre-modern answers to spiritual questions no longer inspire us–and so we must go in search of our own. But search we must. Scientific certainty about this or that particular fact will never be enough to keep the human spirit alive.

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# 216:

Rorschach,

I fail to see how this universe is beautifully ordered, wouldn’t thermodynamic equilibrium actually mean the universe was dead ?

Define those terms [Truth and Goodness], otherwise this is just the mother of all ambiguous statements.

The expansionary model of the universe, as well as the seeming infinite potential of the quantum vacuum, calls into question the idea that it is all destined for heat death.

I hold, as Plato did, that Truth and Goodness cannot be finally defined, but only approached through ongoing dialectical struggle. That they exist as ideal forms is an assumption I seem unable to avoid. But that I might once and for all define them for you in abstraction from the concrete actuality of the always new particular situations in which they are to be applied is hardly possible. It is a bit like what Augustine said about time, that he knew what it was (the very essence of the life of his soul!) only until he was asked to define it. All but the most poetic language fails us in these situations, but unless we buy into the relativism of our intellectually impotent age, we cannot avoid the conclusion that we have at least intuitive access to these ideals.

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# 219:

John Morales,

You use the terms, yet you claim they’re ineffable. Do you see the oddity in this?

Not at all. Language allows us to approach intelligibility, but not to arrive at it in the form of fixed definitions. Inquire seriously into the meaning of most words and you’ll find you eventually reach an aporia. The ground of language is speech, which at its root is a matter of communication between persons. When we talk about Truth and Goodness, we are attempting to share attentional ‘space’ about ideas which do not in fact exist anywhere in our sensory experience of the physical world, but rather come to us as spiritual intuitions. I use the loaded word “spiritual” because our own self-conscious capacity to think (i.e., our spirit, or “I”) doesn’t appear to exist anywhere in the spatially extended world of material objects. Rather, it is that which is able to conceive of the world as a spatiotemporal manifold in the first place. Space and time, like Truth and Goodness, are ideas. You’ve never literally seen space. You’ve only seen shades of color. Nor have you seen time, only motion. You intuit space-time and can never be quite sure what it might be independent of your intuitions. Said otherwise, you can never be quite sure what the words “space” and “time” actually refer to; though of course this doesn’t mean we can’t have meaningful conversations about them so long as we are willing to take the imaginative leap necessary give them content.

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# 222:

I don’t mean to create some dualism between the mind and the extended world of nature here (a la Descartes). The challenging thing about a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is that it requires we articulate how it is possible for mental experience and material process to share a common origin. The universe doesn’t do what it does because of some extra élan vital; rather, the expansion of space-time and organization of matter/energy constituting our ongoing cosmogenesis was from the beginning in possession of interiority or mind. To speak of “matter” (or exteriority) as if it might exist in abstraction from “mind” (or interiority) is to employ a form of substance dualism. Unless our concepts of both mind and matter have a necessary relation to one another such that the one requires the other for its meaning, they sink into incoherence. We cannot conceive of them as separate substances requiring nothing but themselves in order to exist, even if, like many here at Pharyngula, we chose to ignore mind in favor of explanation by way of material substance alone.

All this is to say that while thinking, ideas, and intuitions cannot be outwardly sensed or weighed, they remain integral to the universe. They are not immediately evident anywhere “out there,” perhaps, but they nonetheless require and participate in the becoming of the world. Only by becoming real does the ideal complete its mission.

Language is itself a feature of the outside world, and so it cannot entirely contain the inwardly experienced meaning of our ideas–certainly not as abstract definitions. But we seem nonetheless able to change the world with our words, because by speaking with each other we give rise to shared networks significance, to entire civilizations.

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#225:

Agreeing on use of terms is important, but it is only because we can never quite agree that culture evolves by continually realizing new forms of language that give insight into our relationship to the physical world. We can only know the world, whether through judgement or otherwise, because of our relations to other people. I can conceive of perspectival space, for instance, only after taking into consideration the fact that others see the world from a different angle than myself. Truth and Goodness are not entities in the way that the apple I hold in my hand is an entity. They are ideal forms. As soon as I speak and give them a name, they become mere abstractions unless in some concrete encounter between myself and other people an immediate intuition is shared concerning their participation in our given situation. These ideas could be thought of as strange attractors guiding our complex interactions with one another in the world.

As for an account of self-consciousness as epiphenomenal to the brain, I refer you to my reasoning (#222) concerning the incoherence of any definition of matter in abstraction from mind. Yes, we are both material objects; but so are we spiritual subjects. Otherwise we would not be capable of the sort of knowledge science claims we have of the spatiotemporal world.

Human beings are not the only creatures with an interior perspective on the world, and so if we went extinct, space-time would still be realized by other beings.

I don’t think it is so easy to distinguish between perception and intuition. We always already perceive the world in terms of the concepts of space and time. These are the very conditions for the possibility of experience in the first place. We do experience a real world, certainly. But the constitution of this world includes both a mental and a material pole and can’t be reduced to one or the other.

This all sounds awfully Kantian, and I think his approach fails in the end to overcome Descartes dualism, but so far as it goes I think he successfully destroyed any hope for a materialistic account of thinking and self-consciousness.

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# 227:

Kel,

It’s not so much that there is something “beyond” the material. It’s that within matter itself there lies the capacity to think, to be aware, to know. This has implications so far as our general conception of the universe is concerned, the sort of implications that force us to wonder if perhaps the modern scientific notion of a dead, mechanistic universe–rather than the pre-modern one of an organic, living universe–is the mistaken projection. Science has corrected much that was wrong with ancient cosmology and totally reoriented us in the universe based on empirical observation, no doubt about that! But the total sterilization of the universe by reduction to exterior matter in motion according to deterministic law has turned out to be a bit premature. Such a picture leaves the human observer entirely out of the picture. Since relativity and quantum theories over-turned the Classical conception of the physical world, such an oversight is no longer excusable even within science, much less philosophy. We are in need of a metaphysical scheme that ties mind and matter together into a single evolutionary process. There’s no doubt they are intimately wed. But it is a huge leap to the assumption that we can hope to account for our very ability to give an account of anything (Plato referred to this ability as our participation in Logos, which could be translated as mind) in terms of external brain mechanisms alone. To do so is to ignore the significance of our own thinking activity.

Response to PZ Myers on the Philosophy of Science

The following was posted on PZ’s blog, Pharyngula, in response to this entry: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/10/nicholas_wade_flails_at_the_ph.php

Evolution. Theory, fact, or both? I don’t think answering these questions is as simple as PZ or Wade make it seem. It involves more than science and philosophy, and forces us to deconstruct notions of a pure science uncontaminated by politics, culture, industry, and the happenstance of history.

“Fact” comes from the Latin, “facere,” meaning “to do,” or “to make.” In this sense, technoscientific facts are constructed not only by what scientific heroes do in the laboratory, but by the larger socioeconomic context determining which questions are worth asking and which research programs provide the best opportunity for investment returns to shareholders. The production and protection of facts costs money. If someone wishes to contest a fact, it also costs money to set up a counter-laboratory. Take a look at Bruno Latour’s book, “Science in Action” if you’re interested in how scientists and their networks of human and nonhuman allies construct facts.

As for theory, it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with PZ’s statement that theories “integrate a collection of facts into a useful model in our brains.” It is difficult to articulate how mysterious the work of theory is precisely because we must already have assumed a theoretical background to say anything at all about the world. Contrary to PZ’s assumption that facts pre-exist theories, I’d argue that the theory (or paradigm) within which one operates determines what counts as a fact. This is only partially true of course, because scientists inevitably begin to notice after a while the unexplained “noise” which builds up around a once favored theory. Given enough world-class scientific experimentation, the history of science clearly shows that revolutions occur and theories collapse, leading to gestalt shifts in the way scientists perceive the world (see Kuhn, 1962). What was once the highest and most authoritative scientific fact can come to seem in a single generation to be the silliest sort of pseudoscientific superstition. Theories change everything, even facts.

This is not a metaphysical claim about reality. I’m not saying human theoretical frameworks literally create nature. I am making phenomenological claim by saying that in every attempt to know the world, the world changes us as we change it. Knowing is not passive observation, but active participation.

So… evolution. Fact, theory, or both? I’d say both. But there is a history behind the word “evolution” which makes it a problematic choice in this context. As much as I’d like to get into the various reasons Darwin refused to use the word anywhere in “Origin of Species” (until he entered it once in the 6th edition), for lack of time I’ll just sum up: There are many evolutionary facts (like the genetic unity of all life), just as there are many evolutionary paradigms (neo-Darwinian, DST, Teilhard, Aurobindo, etc).

Avoiding the Religion of Scientism

Several weeks ago, I posted a blog about my entry to Discover Magazine’s “Evolution in Two Minutes” contest. Developmental biologist and outspoken atheist PZ Myers is judging the entries (still no word on the winner), and out of curiousity, I decided to visit his blog Pharyngula. Though it is supposedly a science blog, Myers posts little about his field of study: evolutionary development. The few posts he did make over the past month about biology were fascinating, and I learned quite a bit. Evo-Devo is a research program attempting to fill in the gaps in neo-Darwinism, which originally assumed the development of organisms had little to do with the evolutionary process. I’m quite interested in Evo-Devo, as it calls neo-Darwinism out on its greedy reductionism. Organisms cannot be understood based only on the differential survival of genes. But Evo-Devo isn’t in any way in opposition to the basic approach of theModern Synthesis, unlike Developmental Systems Theory, which aims to totally overthrow the neo-Darwinian paradigm in favor of a more holistic account. Not genes or isolated organisms, but whole organism-environment systems become the focus. All this takes us far afield from the point of this blog, but suffice it to say that Myers’ biological work fascinates and excites me. The point of this blog, however, is about Myers’ (and the watchdogs policing his blog’s) militant brand of atheistic materialism. I can understand the frustration many scientifically-educated people express concerning the widespread denial of the common descent of species among fundamentalist Christians in America. But accepting evolution, and all of contemporary science for that matter, does not necessarily religate all forms of spirituality to a superstitous past. For me and a growing number of others, the scientific cosmological story provides a more numinous background to earthly existence than any ancient religious cosmogony to come before it. Matter, energy, space, and time have been on a 14 billion year adventure that has inexplicably lead to the creation of an intelligent species of ape capable of knowing so. It’s quite astounding.

The most pressing challenge of the 21st century is to develop a planetary mythos, a global spiritual worldview that allows all human beings to become integral with the ongoing process of creative expression that brought us into existence. Science must play a central role in any such development. Myers and his cheerleaders seem to go wrong not in their enthusiasm for science, but in their dogmatic insistance that the observations of science must be interpreted in a materialistic fashion. There are many complex arguments for a materialistic or physicalist interpretation of scientific facts, but none that I am aware of can coherently account for human consciousness. There is plenty of hand-waving, plenty of “just-so” stories pretending to explain how an entirely mechanical process could lead to sentience and volition, but so far as I know, no convincing solutions to the hard problem of consciousness have yet been devised. If anyone disputes this, please comment below and fill me in!

Many materialistic atheists would dispute the idea that our species still needs myth in a scientific age. This amounts to saying that consciousness can exist entirely independent of the unconscious. There is no hubris greater than this conceit, and none more dangerous. As William Irwin Thompson writes, “That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth,” (The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, p. 87). Science is an epistemic activity, a way of knowing. All our human attempts to rationally know the full extent of our cosmic existence are limited for the simple reason that we are that which we are attempting to know.

Alfred North Whitehead expressed a similar sentiment: “Every philosophy is tinged with the coloring of some secret imaginative background, which never emerges explicitly into its train of reasoning.” No amount of scientific progress will ever change this basic fact about human psychology. Knowing is not a disembodied, purely rational activity. What we know is always already shaped by our imaginative and intuitive faculties.

The danger of supposing science can totally rationalize our society is already apparent. The mechanistic model of nature has made possible the current global religion (at least in the West): capitalist consumerism. It’s a myth that has grown out of the assumption that the only truly real, truly powerful thing in the world is money, and that the non-human earth community is ours to exploit as we see fit (since it is nothing but blind matter in motion, anyways). There can be no solution to the current ecological crisis until this self-destructive mythos is totally re-imagined.

But the mechanistic/materialistic myth is not only dangerous because of its ecological implications; it also degrades human life. Prior to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, humanity had a system of values based on more than a merely horizontal scale. As E. F. Schumacher explains in his wonderful little book A Guide for the Perplexed, this flattening of value reverses the vertical conception humanity has held for the vast majority of its existence. The result is moral relativism and/or utilitarianism. The Good is measured solely upon what feels good at the time for me, so long as it doesn’t prevent others from getting their cheap pleasures, as well. Schumacher outlines the Great Chain of Being, which begins with matter and progresses through the plant kingdom, the animal, the human, and continues to God, the ideal Person. Natural science focuses only upon the material level, and so long as it doesn’t overstep its legitimate bounds by claiming to explain all other levels by reduction to matter, it remains a tool of utmost value to the human endeavor. Science is an empirical enterprise, and so fittingly studies only that aspect of nature that is visible. As Schumacher makes plainly evident, however, all of reality above the material level is invisible. To know anything about these higher levels, we must become internally adequate to them. This is where the vertical chain of being becomes so important. If you want to know what life is, or what consciousness is, or what self-consciousness is, you’ve got to develop your instrument of knowledge. The reason science is so successful and produces so many incontrovertable theories about the physical world is that any normal adult with fully functioning senses is adequate to understand it. When it comes to truths about higher levels of being, something more than simple logic and sense perception becomes necessary: namely, wisdom.

Schumacher writes:

“There is nothing more difficult than to be aware of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinised directly except the thought by which we scrutinise. A special effort, an effort of self-awareness is needed – that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself: almost impossible but not quite. In fact, this is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity,” (p. 54).

Science is one of the most valuable tools the human spirit has ever developed, but if all human knowledge is reduced to the empirically verifiable sort, most of reality is placed entirely beyond our reach. Further, a reductionistically naturalistic picture of the universe puts the cart before the horse by forgetting that all knowledge of the cosmos comes through experience (therefore, attempting to derive experience from nature conceived of as entirely physical is incoherent from the get go; read my essay Unearthing the Earth for a more developed explanation as to why). There is no conflict between faith and reason, nor between science and religion. The only conflicts arise when science is adopted as a religion, thereby becoming scientism, or when religion begins making scientific claims, thereby becoming creationism.

As Galileo put it: “The Bible [<—insert your spiritual tradition of choice] shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

And Kant: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Let us not obscure the difference.

Ongoing discussion on PZ Myers’ blog

Anyone interested in following the thread I’ve been participating in over on Myers’ blog, here’s the link:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/07/i_was_wondering_about_that.php

A little taste of what’s been going on there (one of my posts):

@ 201 John Morales writes: “those assumptions (of science) are that there is an external reality, and that it is consistent, and that only the senses can convey information about that reality.”

You must have left out the other necessary assumption on accident? I mean, that there be in addition to external reality, an internal consciousness capable of consistently observing, measuring, and formalizing all that sensory data into meaningful scientific theories? I would never deny the existence of the external world, but I would argue there is absolutely no sense (reasonable or empirical) to be made of any supposed pre-given, objective material world. The external world is always already together with the internal. Consciousness wasn’t parachuted into a sterile, mindless universe as if from outside; it grew right out of the center of what is actually more of an organic universe still in the process of creating itself. Based on my understanding, our scientific knowledge of the universe not only doesn’t disprove, but actually supports the idea that it is a directed (not “designed,” but lured by recognizable laws, like entropy or Teilhard’s complexity/consciousness), experiential universe, which is all that I am arguing for here (not for the existence of “God”).

John Morales writes: “you claim not to be a dualist, yet you refer to “spirituality”. Q: What is this ‘spirit’ concept (presumably you don’t mean mind), and why do you apparently consider it is not amenable to scientific scrutiny?”

I don’t bring up spirit because I want to annul matter, nor because I think the two are irreconcilably enemies or ontologically distinct substances. To tell you the truth, I don’t think we need to talk about anything but matter—but I think matter is more than brute stuff devoid of self-enjoyment. I think all organized material bodies feel the rest of the universe in an increasingly intense way depending on their complexity (I didn’t add above that we also need to talk about time, which is where this “increasingly complex” business comes from). Hydrogen feels gravitational gradients, stars feel magnetic fields, bacteria feel nutrient gradients, human beings feel the need to understand the universe. I think these feelings are leading the universe somewhere: time’s influence on matter is not merely accidental; to argue that it is to contradict the plainly evident pattern of natural history. If we had to separate matter and spirit for the sake of metaphor, I’d say that “spirit” describes what we call “matter” is evolving toward. We might also swap “novelty” for spirit and “habit” for matter, so long as we see that the two are really part of a single process called the universe and that no actually existing thing/event is ever one or the other exclusively. The universe is creative process–it is not entirely determined by the past but has spontaneously emerged to higher states of order on multiple occasions. I can only assume it will continue to do so. Science cannot scrutinize the idea that ours is a reasonable, a purposeful universe. If it were not such a universe, the scientific enterprise would not be possible. Reason has emerged in our universe—this is a fact. I do not think mechanistic materialism can account for this, other than to say it is a complete fluke. This leads us to the anthropic principle.

@216 John Morales writes: “you’d better look up anthropic principle, for I suspect you don’t understand it.”

Perhaps I don’t understand it. I’ve yet to hear it described by any two people exactly the same way. When I say that our universe can’t help but be human, I mean only that we necessarily exist in a universe whose processes were potentially, and are now actually intelligent.

John Morales writes: “the scientist says ‘there is no evidence of telos when examining the universe’. Note that to say something is a value judgement here is trite; any expression of a conclusion or judgement is de-facto a ‘value judgement’.”

As I said above, for the scientific enterprise (which I believe to be a cultural activity—I’m not sure where you’d begin arguing otherwise? More below) to be possible, human beings must be rational creatures in a universe which conforms to certain reasons (ie, purposes, causes, laws). Even Darwin’s theory of evolution invokes telos. Natural selection only does theoretical work if we take the analogy of human and natural selection quite literally. The scientist has every reason not to deny the universe is reasonable and purposeful. If he/she does, I don’t see how he/she can avoid erasing causality itself from the picture. It is only the materialist who argues based on any number of non-scientific motivations that the universe lacks all telos.

John Morales says: “Science is a self-correcting, bias-annulling and iterative process for acquiring knowledge about reality;”

Yes, science is that cultural institution which has proven itself to be the most progressive yet devised by the human spirit, at least in terms of technological advance. I don’t think this means civilization can thrive without other value spheres having a share of power, however. For instance, we have pressing moral decisions to make about how scientific knowledge ought to influence the way we relate to the rest of the non-human earth community. A materialist response to these moral issues (I think materialism is as much a moral, as a scientific stance) is usually either supportive of or indifferent to industrial growth capitalism, which is pushing us into the largest mass extinction since the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs according to E.O. Wilson. Science can and should help us make moral decisions about human-earth relations; a materialist wouldn’t seem to have a stake in the matter, because how can one argue that non-human nature has value independent of human desires if it is all just a blind mechanism? Economics becomes just another science concerned with objective facts with no ethical implications.

John Morales writes: “every person has experienced it (atheism)— it is the tabula rasa, or normal state before religious indoctrination/imaginative wishful thinking occurs.”

Actually, recent developmental psychology might show otherwise, that children are originally quite open to spirituality, and only as adults become self-described atheists: http://www.science-spirit.org/article_detail.php?article_id=128

I’ll admit this is open to debate, mostly for semantic reasons concerning how you prefer to use the word “atheist.” You say it means the lack of a belief in deities, but when a child says “God did it!,” I don’t think they mean the same thing that, say, Jerry Falwell did.

Noospheric Evolution: Science and Religion

A few weeks ago, a contest put on by Discover Magazine was brought to my attention. The publication asked for short video submissions explaining evolution (by which they meant specifically Darwin’s theory) in a lucid enough way that even the most dim-witted of creationists would be able to grasp it.

From Discovery’s submission page:

“Think you can convince even the most hard-headed creationist that Darwin was right? If so, show us—and that creationist—how it’s done
.”

I was a bit annoyed with the polemical attitude of the guidelines, but nonetheless decided to enter a submission with the A/V help of several others, which you can watch below. My hope was to find a form of discourse friendly to both scientists and the spiritual.

Evolution’s Essence:

As you can see, I decided to ignore the narrower focus of the contest’s guidelines, and instead tried to expand our scientific perspective of reality beyond the biological into the cosmological. If science and religion (or spirituality) have anything to talk about, the discussion would begin with cosmology, not with biology. This is not to say that our understanding of life is uninformed by our spirituality, not by any means–but merely to suggest we begin at the beginning so as not to get lost in trying to tell the story.

P.Z. Myers, atheist apologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota (his blog), just so happens to be the judge of the contest, and based on the debate I just listened to him have with Dennis Alexander, directer of the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion at Cambridge, I’m rather certain my entry will not be chosen.

Myers was basically accused of scientism by Alexander–a charge I would have to agree with. Of course, the term needs to be explained a bit to avoid it being merely pejorative. Scientism is a view of the world wherein the only valid knowledge one can hold is that produced by the scientific method. Myers, while he acknowlegdes the existence of “other layers of reality” like poetry, religion, and politics, does not grant these layers the same dignity that he grants to the scientific sphere. As far as he is concerned, the scientific sphere (ie, the empirically measurable external world) is the only true and real layer of what is in fact a layerless (purely extended and surfacial) universe of mechanism and chance without any interiority or depth.

What was most frustrating about listening to this debate was the way in which the scientific method and materialism were conflated. Myers continually, and I think correctly, argued the point that materialism and Christianity (or any spiritual tradition) are incompatible. The question at hand, however, was whether the scientific method and spirituality were somehow in conflict. Myers would probably argue that science and materialism are functionally equivalent, as the former cannot operate but under the assumptions of the latter. While I agree with Myers that one should not and need not discuss God in the laboratory, I think there are numerous metaphysical perspectives one could interpret the findings of science from other than materialism (ie, dualism–Leibniz, pantheism–Spinoza, panexperientialism–Whitehead, etc.). The scientific method provides us with valid theoretical relationships between facts from an ever-growing array of diverse fields. An individual scientist produces facts in only one very narrow slice of this larger torrent of experimentation, which is why talk of God is usually unnecessary in any specific scientific paper. In the science of cosmology, however, where all this theoretical information needs to be organized into a coherent whole, one cannot avoid asking metaphysical questions, such as “why should there be something rather than nothing?” Perhaps talk of “God” is still unnecessary in cosmology, but certainly questions of formal and final causation–the sorts of reasons for things that empirical science can leave (at least temporarily) unexplored when investigating various features of intra-universal phenomena–become of paramount importance.

Many cosmologists will refer to the anthropic principle whenever the issue of teleology comes up, which to oversimplify a bit states that ours is a universe that produced intelligent life, and so anything we scientificially discover about its nature must be such as to imply or at least allow for our existence. The fact that our universe is so finely-tuned as to produce such complexity is not explained by this principle, but it at least points out the way in which we as observers are necessarily embedded in an intelligence-producing universe. We can only know a universe capable of creating beings capable of knowing so. It’s a mouthful, but if you can manage to digest it, its meaning is profound.

A materialist could easily argue that, while paradoxical, the anthropic principle doesn’t rule out the possibility of our universe being created with the particular cosmological trajectory it has had entirely on accident. I would grant this, however I’d argue such a position contradicts what I find so laudatory about the M.O. of the scientific method: that we ought to pay attention to experience over conjecture. This is, after all, the only universe we can know. It has evolved over billions of years into intelligent life. Can we really, as cosmologists, ignore the implications of such a creative process? Can we hope to explain even the possibility of its existence, much less the actual emergence of life and intelligence, in a purely materialistic/mechanical way (ie, without formal or final causes)? I have argued extensively in other blog postings that we cannot.

I am not a supporter of creationism or intelligent design (my views are more in line with the likes of Teilhard and Whitehead than the Kansas Board of Education), but I do support organizations like Alexander’s and the Templeton Foundation in their attempts to redirect the evolution of the culture war between fundamentalists of whatever stripe, whether atheist or theist, in a more encouraging direction. I do think that there are regressive forms of religious belief, but so too are there regressive forms of materialism. Myers said in the interview that he wanted to look at the world in a rational and logical way, and I of course agree with him, at least on the surface. In reality, though, what he really means is that he wants to assume the world is reducible to mindless forces. Obviously, Myers and I have a different understanding of the nature of rationality and logic. He assumes they both necessarily lead one to interpret the world as a purposeless machine. I see our mental capacities as evidence of something quite the contrary, that we are in a universe capable of generating human organisms that contemplate the meaning of existence. Humans do not project meaning onto the universe, but express the meaning of the universe in their very humanness.

Finding the proper human expression of the meaning of the universe is religion’s reason for being. No doubt it has lead past civilizations to commit attrocities, but we cannot simply jettison all those layers of reality deeper than scientific measurement can reach because they are more difficult to agree about. Human beings are always going to ask big questions. Leading meaningful lives is always going to require that we have attempted at least some sort of answer to these questions. The scientific method should of course inform our journey as earthlings and our attempts to come to terms with our existence, but I think one unnecessarily handicaps themselves if they base their worldview soley on that layer of reality grasped by scientific discourse alone. There are artistic, moral, political, spiritual, etc., layers to reality, and none has final authority over any of the others (though each can aid our understanding of the other). Science is one perspective of many that human beings are capable of taking on the unfolding event we call the cosmos, each with its own limited spectrum of validity. Coming to some coherent, integral picture of the whole of reality requires going beyond the scientific method to tackle issues more existential than can be tested in a laboratory.

The results of Discover Magazine’s contest haven’t been announced yet, and perhaps I’m not helping my chances. I’d much prefer to speak up about my version of our universe’s story than win a contest, however. Alexander used the metaphor of a “drama” to describe our existence here on earth, and I think that reaches right to the core of the disagreement between Myers and myself. I cannot help but hold an enchanted worldview in which our universe is the play of spirit in time as evolving matter. I realize there is no scientific proof of this, but then I don’t expect science to pronounce one way or the other upon such metaphysical issues. As Myers himself admits, there are no scientific answers to metaphysical questions. I don’t think this means we cannot or should not continue to ask them.