Science, Religion, and Philosophy: Responding to a conversation b/w L. Krauss, D. Dennett, and M. Pigliucci

Above is my response to the recent conversation between Krauss, Dennett, and Pigliucci. If you don’t know the context of their meeting, see the links below. I agree with Dennett that cosmology is an area of natural science where we are not even close to being done with philosophy. My own small contribution to the philosophical underpinnings of cosmology is this essay: Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013).

Krauss’ original interview in The Atlantic

Pigliucci’s response to Krauss’ dismissal of philosophy.

Science v. Religion (in the lead up to my dissertation) – Al Jazeera interviews Richard Dawkins, and Lawrence’s Krauss thinks he’s special

Now that I’ve completed preparatory research essays on Schelling (The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency) and Whitehead (Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of A. N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology), it’s finally time to start zeroing in on my dissertation thesis. The title I’m proposing for now is Imagination Between Science and Religion: Towards a Cosmotheandric Process Philosophy. This title captures the 3 major themes l’ll be trying to weave together in my dissertation the(o)sis: 1) an imaginal method, or way of being-knowing, or soul-making, in congress with the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, 2) a rhetorical interpolation into to the popular science v. religion diatribe concocted by the entertainment-academia complex, and 3) a process philosophy adequate to the cosmotheandric experience, to the ontologically irreducible indwelling co-presence of universe, human, and divine.

In this post, I wanted to focus on the Science v. Religion theater. Here is tonight’s first sample: an hour-long interview with Al Jazeera’s Medhi Hasan:

Dawkins would seem to me to have conceded a lot of ground here, especially when he says he just isn’t interested in the good that religion has done in the past or may do in the future (Hasan mentions Gandhi and MLK, Jr.). There is a strong pragmatic argument to be made on behalf of religion’s ongoing importance in the modern world. It has not been made obsolete by science; science has merely forced religion to become experimental/experiential. To the extent that religion deals with life itself, and by proxy, with earth and cosmos, then it guides society faithfully into higher orders of wisdom and compassion. To the extent that technoscience is beholden to and in service of life, then it, too, can guide humanity safely into deeper sensitivities and perceptivities.

Here is tonight’s second sample from physicist Lawrence Krauss:

Krauss thinks he’s offering the world’s most anthrodecentric scientific knowledge of the bare truth of our own human irrelevance and of nature’s purposelessness, but really his theology of the “specialness/preciousness” of consciousness is among the most anthropocentric ideologies I could imagine. He has erased the intelligent evolutionary achievements of geo- and cosmogenesis–billions of years of adaptive dying by trillions of living creatures–and focused only on the human, even though the human is but an individuated mode of the universe informing and surrounding us. If humans are free to know (& to love?), so is nature.

His “emboldening” scientific (=technoindustrial) gospel has already been tried for more than 2 centuries and its not working; in fact, its eating the earth and disintegrating human society. Today’s technoindustrial societies have signed what B. Latour calls The Modern Constitution declaring humanity’s independence from the cosmos. The Constitution’s founding principles are the bifurcation of nature into physical quantities over and against psychical qualities, and of the human psyche into intelligent individual/rational animal over and against instinctual species/statistical genera. We are the special species, according to Krauss. We are the only ones (and the cosmically lonely ones), he says, who can provide meaning to the motion of the suns and planets, to the universe, or to our own lives. We must grab hold of our our spiritual bootstraps and launch ourselves into the entirely accidental future of life and civilization in the universe with nothing but our desire to feel individually special for guidance.

In this Krauss seems to brandish human freedom as a weapon against the deterministic chaos of nature, capable of slaying, slicing, and dissecting her into the digital figments of a physicist’s computer codes, or the vibrating filaments of a string theorist’s math equations. But what if the chaos is already inside us? What if we can’t control it/her? What if the very thing we think makes us free (=the will) keeps us forever lost at sea? What if the very thing we say founds our species ungrounds it, quickens it beyond eudamonia into madness? What if spirit is never simply in the center, but radiates always out around to the edge?

“Science is not a fairy tale.” -Whitehead. I take it he was right. That nature is a machine made for no other reason than for us to trick, tinker with, or exploit: there’s your fairy tale.

Old White Guys Ventriloquising Nature

“Scientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.” – A. N. Whitehead

This is a round table discussion called “Moving Naturalism Forward.” So far it is somewhat infuriating. There is no one there to problematize who should speak for nature. All of these dudes have signed the Modern Constitution (Latour) bifurcating culture (which is illusion) from nature (which is real). Couldn’t they have invited one thinker who wasn’t there just to preach to the scientific materialist choir? At the table are big names like Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Steven Weinberg, and Terrence Deacon. Have a look…

And then there is part 2, lead by Alex Rosenberg, where the basic constituents of reality are laid out. When the ontology of mathematics begins to be discussed, suddenly all the hardcore physical reductionists start sounding like mystics! Then there is the lack of teleology in physics and biology, which most of those present deny or radically qualify in some way. In regard to natural purposes, I think their is much these guys could learn from Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. Teleology, as I have learned to think about it, concerns what Whitehead called potentiality (and Deleuze called virtuality). Its not a matter of pre-conceived ideas waiting in the sky to be actualized as poor copies by earthly creatures. Its a matter of the actualization of relevant possibilities, where relevance depends entirely on contingent historical facts. Whitehead’s reaction to 20th century (quantum and relativistic) physics was to see the so-called “laws of nature” as evolved habits still in the process of generating themselves.  By getting rid of purpose outright, as many on the panel want to do, these guys end up undermining their own epistemic position as scientists in pursuit of the truth, or at least probability or approximate knowledge of it.

Part 3 was introduced by Terrence Deacon, who I found myself appreciating even more than I had before because I got to see him in his natural habitat (=”mad dog” greedy physical reductionists). His idea of irreducibly complex hierarchical constraints is not as cosmological and organic and realist as I’d like to see, but in the intellectual community of atheistic scientists that he interacts with on a daily basis, standing up for the intrinsic values of life irreducible to functions of physics can often be met with the same degree of incredulity as intelligent design. He used one of Whitehead’s terms, “causal efficacy,” in his defense of the physical effects of meaning. I doubt he’d ever be willing to talk about the cosmic constraints termed by Whitehead “God/Cosmos” and “Creativity.” Too metaphysical for these positivists. These guys deny the possibility of speculative knowledge right before going on to affirm their own speculative dualism between an inescapable manifest image and a verifiably true scientific reality (that only they the physical scientists have access to). I found the logical v. causal discussion around 1h:15m interesting. And then Dennett’s question about whether alien life emerging through alternative chemical pathways would nonetheless entail sociological, psychological, and economic behaviors obeying the same general laws of our carbon-based path. Its the historical, or causal dimension v. the logical, or mathematical dimension. What is necessary and what is contingent? Deacon nails it when he connects emergence to irreversible historical development. Accident, or Novelty (he used Whitehead the panentheistic metaphysician’s category!) as part of the fundamental dimension of reality.

This section of my essay on Whitehead’s relevance to 20th and 21st century physics clarifies (I hope!) my position on teleology and emergence in nature.

Skipping ahead to day 3 on philosophy and science, Owen Flanagan (@35mins) has some interesting things to say about the history of the reflection upon the nature of time from physical and from psychological and phenomenological perspectives (he mentions Bergson).

(@38mins) The (philosophical) point about the Hard Problem is precisely that naturalistic/physical explanation of consciousness is impossible, that “explaining” consciousness would require changing what scientists think they mean when they explain physics/nature.

Reflections on Physicist Lawrence Krauss and the Consolations of Philosophy

Below is Lawrence Krauss from a recent interview in the Atlantic (Thanks to Jason/Immanent Transcendence for bringing this controversy to my attention):

Krauss: …Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can’t spell the word “philosophy,” aren’t justified in talking about these things, or haven’t thought deeply about them—

Is that really a claim that you see often?

Krauss: It is. Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

Krauss just published A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. In it he attempts to explain cosmogenesis mechanistically using quantum field theory, with the larger goal of explaining away the need for spooky theological or philosophical questions about the creation of the universe, such as”why?” Like Weinberg and Hawking, he thinks physics can now do without philosophy, since all the important philosophical problems have already been solved (by science): Life evolved. Mind is in your skull. And now, if we take Richard Dawkins’ word for it, matter has been explained as a random by-product of the laws of quantum fields. Dawkins writes in the afterword of Krauss’ book:

“Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”

Philosopher of science David Albert wrote this review in the New York Times last weekHere is the last paragraph:

“…it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.”

I have a lot of sympathy for Albert’s perspective here, though I’d not heard of him until now. After a quick google search, I’m feeling more inclined to check out his book on quantum physics and experience.  Here is Albert offering a Bergsonian/process take on the history of time in physics (top video).
As for Krauss, his disparaging comments regarding the discipline of philosophy were so off key that Dan Dennett forced him to offer an apology of sorts in Scientific American. I would have a hard time myself defending the academic discipline of philosophy as it has come to exist in today’s techno-scientifically driven universities. What I do feel a need to defend is the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life. Given my immersion in Schelling lately, what really interests me in this whole controversy is the relationship between philosophy and physics. How is Schelling’s Naturphilosophie relevant here? How would Schelling respond to this comment in Krauss’ recent “apology” piece?:

“When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.  Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant.  In science, there are no authorities, and appeal to quotes from brilliant scholars who lived before we knew the Earth orbited the Sun, or that space can be curved, or that dark matter or dark energy exist do not generally inform our current understanding of nature.  Empirical explorations ultimately change our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not.”

Schelling would probably dismiss Krauss as a prekantian dogmatist who takes objective nature for granted without accounting for the subjective conditions of its appearance. Philosophically, Krauss has made very little progress in this respect. He has left himself, his own subjectivity, not to mention that of nature, out of his world-equation. It seems he is the one living before the Copernican Revolution (Kant’s).
Krauss has framed things this way: science progresses, while philosophy doesn’t, because science is based upon experimental trial in the real physical world. Fair enough. But the aim of philosophy was never to solve scientific problems; of course it isn’t going to “progress” in that respect. Philosophy is the love of eternal wisdom, of what cannot progress because it never changes. Put another way by Socrates (one of those ancient dudes too dumb to know about “dark matter”), philosophy is learning to die. A philosopher’s “progress” in loving wisdom and learning to die can only be measured one life at a time, and only by the one who is doing the dying. Its a personal matter, a concern to be contemplated only in the depths of one’s soul. On the other hand, as Max Planck famously put it, “science progresses funeral by funeral”; which is to say that science progresses generation at a time as individual scientists refusing to give up their cherished but stale paradigms slowly die off. Science is an impersonal process of knowledge accumulation. That is indeed what makes it special and uniquely valuable. It takes the epistemic weaknesses of finite personalities mostly out of the picture. But science doesn’t make the personal (or interpersonal) pursuit of wisdom in the face of death any less important, and certainly can never replace it with some impersonal techno-scientific methodology. Of course, I wouldn’t want to exempt philosophy from inquiring into impersonal matters. The universe has not only a personal, but an impersonal aspect, so philosophy certainly must include it in its cosmologizing. What is more impersonal than death, after all? At least, its impersonal until it happens to a loved one. Or until it happens to me. I’m really just trying to offer a helpful way of thinking about the difference between philosophy and science. As I said already, philosophy (at least as the ancients understood it) is a way of life. Science is a profession, a specialized discipline. As such it deserves high praise for all its accomplishments. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the good life, about how love wisdom despite death.
All that said, I am very interested in what Krauss has to say in his rebuttal to Albert about how quantum field theorists conceive of “nothing.” Krauss writes:

If all possibilities—all universes with all laws—can arise dynamically, and if anything that is not forbidden must arise, then this implies that both nothing and something must both exist, and we will of necessity find ourselves amidst something.  A universe like ours is, in this context, guaranteed to arise dynamically, and we are here because we could not ask the question if our universe weren’t here.   It is in this sense that I argued that the seemingly profound question of why there is something rather than nothing might be actually no more profound than asking why some flowers are red or some are blue.    I was surprised that this very claim was turned around by the reviewer as if it somehow invalidated this possible physical resolution of the something versus nothing conundrum.

Instead, sticking firm to the classical ontological definition of nothing as “the absence of anything”—whatever this means—so essential to theological, and some subset of philosophical intransigence, strikes me as essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying.   If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing’.  It may be that even an eternal multiverse in which all universes and laws of nature arise dynamically will still leave open some ‘why’ questions, and therefore never fully satisfy theologians and some philosophers.   But focusing on that issue and ignoring the remarkable progress we can make toward answering perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the something from nothing question—understanding why there is ‘stuff’ and not empty space, why there is space at all, and how both stuff and space and even the forces we measure could arise from no stuff and no space—is, in my opinion, impotent, and useless.

Krauss’ rejection of Leibniz’s famous question, “why is there something, rather than nothing?” reminds me a lot of Meillassoux in After Finitude. In the end, though, Krauss’ universe is made up of “stuff” and “space.” I don’t think its inconsequential that he fails to mention time (be sure to watch Albert’s video linked above on time if you’ve read this far). It is the false spatialization of time that first sent physics astray from Naturphilosophy. Time is intensity, not extension. Krauss can’t help but picture the pre-big bang quantum vacuum of “no stuff and no space” as some kind of stuff in space. What if we temporalize the question of the nature of the physical universe, relating to it not as a given thing or set of things, but as an evolving community of life, a growing, changing, ensouled creature (ensouled, as in not just stuff in space)? All the sudden, the big bang is no longer an event which happened back then, 13.7 billion years ago. Creation is what the universe is still doing. Plato already intuited the fundamental presupposition of physical cosmology in Timaeus (Krauss’ formulation is but an obscure footnote): something (the limited) and nothing (the unlimited) have always already been mixed. This mixing constitutes the life of the universe as a moving image of eternity.

Related articles

Schelling, Darwin, and the Romantic Conception of Life

I’m not yet midway through a thick tome by Prof. Robert J. Richards at the University of Chicago entitled The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (2002). It is soaked in personal details, the trysts and tears of the friends and lovers responsible for generating a literary and philosophical movement in late 18th and early 19th century Germany. Richards also provides a thorough account of the intellectual development of several figures, including Schelling.

His treatment of the relationship between Schelling’s and Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution has been especially helpful. Despite the mischaracterizations of some scholars, who had it that Schelling denied the physical descent of species in favor of some metaphysical ordering (p. 299), Schelling was an early proponent of the notion of the historical transformation of life through the ages (see On the World Soul). But his conception of evolution was organic, rather than mechanistic. Like Kant, Schelling dismissed the notion that life, either at the species or individual level, could be understood absent some principle of self-organization, or “archetypal creative force” (p. 305). In a well-cited epilogue, “Darwin’s Romantic Biology,” Richards reveals the genesis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a conception of a cosmos “divinized” by archetypal forces. Darwin was an avid reader of the Schellingian biologist, Alexander von Humboldt, of whom he wrote in his diary “like another Sun illumines everything I behold” (Beagle Diary).

Charles Robert Darwin. A copy made by John Col...

Image via Wikipedia

“The sensitive reader of Darwin’s works,” writes Richards,

“a reader not already completely bent to early-twenty-first-century evolutionary constructions, will feel the difference between the nature that Darwin describes and the morally effete nature of modern theory” (p. 553).

After reading On the Origin of Species for myself several years ago, I’d already gotten the sense that Darwin was not the reductionistic mechanist thinkers like Dawkins and Dennett make him out to be. Richards’ research has functioned as a further corrective to their intellectual revisionism.

Response to Knowledge-Ecology about Dawkins, Evolution, and Creationism

Knowledge-Ecology recently posted his lament about the scientific ignorance of GOP presidential candidate Gov. Perry, who denies both evolution and climate change. Adam also mentioned his support for Richard Dawkins’ rebuttal.

I might also count Dawkins as a political ally, but not as a cosmological ally. And since I, like Adam, struggle to avoid separating cosmos and polis, in the end I have to critique Dawkins as quickly as I do Perry. Jung said he was glad he was not a Jungian; I think Darwin would say something similar were he alive today. Dawkins represents a minority position in the ecology of ideas circulating in the rather large academic aquarium of the contemporary life sciences. His assertion that “natural selection” explains life, the universe, and everything seems no less fundamentalist to me than creationism. Darwin assumed much about the nature of reality in order to offer an account of the origin the variety of species. His assumptions were empirically justified, I’d agree, but not theoretically explained. His conception of life-itself is quite Romantic (yes, in the capital “R” sense; see Robert Richards’ work on the influence of Schelling and Goethe on Darwin). Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by natural selection assumes self-producing/autopoietic organisms capable of reproduction (E. Thompson makes this case convincingly in “Mind in Life”). Natural selection, in the neo-Darwinist genocentric context that Dawkins employs it, offers no explanation whatsoever even for how genes can produce individual living cells, much less animals or a potentially freely creative, self-reflective species like us. Creationists may not know how to rationally articulate their intuition that scientific materialism is inadequate, nor even how to rationally construct an alternative account of cosmogenesis; but nonetheless, their intuition is correct. Civilization cannot survive without a more adequate answer to the Biggest Question.

God and Religious Experience in Whitehead: another response to Levi Bryant

Levi Bryant has problematized my attempt to clarify Whitehead’s position on the function of divinity in the universe. He writes:

“You make the claim that without God there would be chaos and no order. This is a problematic claim for two reasons. First, you have repeatedly tried to claim that God isn’t supposed to explain anything, yet here you are evoking God to explain order. Second, it is unclear why, 1) God is required to explain order (the fact that order exists doesn’t entail that it must have been designed), and 2) it is not clear what God would explain about this order in such an account…”

I will admit that I am still thinking through these issues myself. Whitehead’s writing in this area is illuminating, but much remains obscure. I am struggling to “think with” Whitehead, not so much because his “arguments” are convincing, but because I come to his work already sharing many of the problems he found interesting. One of these is the problem of God, but I did not come to philosophize about God in order to rationalize my faith. God was not at first a religious belief for me. Though I went to temple and church as a child (mixed religious family), I began referring to myself as an atheist at 12 years old after learning a bit about cosmology from Steven Hawking and biology from Richard Dawkins. I remained highly skeptical of religious claims as my understanding of science and cultural relativity grew throughout my teens. Then, as a 17 year old, I learned a bit about the psychology of religion from Carl Jung. I came to to realize that our scientific narratives about the origins of the universe and life on earth are still mythically structured and shaped by cultural attitudes. Jung lead me into a deeper study of anthropology and the evolution of consciousness, allowing me to bracket the “reality” of God in order to consider God’s effect as a symbol, or archetypal complex, on the history of the human psyche. Soon after, I discovered the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser (a friend and associate of Jung’s), who completely transformed the way I conceive of the relationship between rational and religious consciousness. Eventually, like Whitehead, I came back to religion and theology (I feel most at home in the dialogue and practice emerging from the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity) as a result of philosophical reflection upon life. As a teenager, I thought God seemed like a belief added to experience by religious doctrine. After reading Jung and Gebser, I came to see the experience of God as constitutive of the order and harmony of our human consciousness of the world. After reading Whitehead, I saw that, for the sake of metaphysical coherence, God must also be constitutive of the order of the world itself.

One of Whitehead’s colleagues at Harvard, Ernest Hocking, reports that (Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on his Philosophy, 1963, p. 16), in regards to the concept of God, Whitehead once told him:

“I should never have included it, if it had not been strictly required for descriptive completeness. You must set all your essentials into the foundation. It is no use putting up a set of terms, and then remarking, ‘Oh, by the way, I believe there’s a God.”

Is God an explanation for order in Whitehead’s system? Not exactly. God is not best described as the cause of harmony, nor the designer of the world, since Whitehead’s God is involved in the world, as much the effect of its harmony as its cause. It would still be true to say that, without God, chaos would reign; but this doesn’t necessarily mean God is the explanation for order. Rather, God is the very presence of order in the world, not an absent designer who orchestrates the world’s order from a position beyond it. God is embedded in the world as a kind of aesthetic gravity holding otherwise conflicting possibilities together so as to transform them into novel contrasts in the experiences of actual occasions. Actual occasions are the only reasons for Whitehead, which is to say that God is not an explanation for the order brought forth by their individual decisions. God is also an actual occasion, a creature of Creativity, but God’s creatureliness is everlasting. As a result, God’s primordial nature conditions all temporal experiences as an ingredient in the concrescence of those experiences. God is what mediates between the infinite possibilities of Creativity and the finite actualities of the Universe. God is the World-Soul allowing ideas passage into reality. In this sense, Whitehead’s reformed Platonism is similar to Schelling’s, who built on the description of the World-Soul and its role in the realization of Ideas given by Plato in the Timeaus (I unpack these ideas in this essay on Schelling).

It may still remain unclear to Bryant exactly why God became necessary in the course of Whitehead’s, and my own, reflection upon reality. As I said at the outset, I struggle to think with Whitehead because I share his sense of what matters, of what the problems of philosophy ought to be given the facts of experience. Given these facts, as I experience them, the most urgent philosophical task is to bring together the insights of scientific experiment and religious experience into one rational scheme of thought.

Bryant writes:

“Throughout this discussion you have repeatedly appealed to 30,000 years of human religious experience that philosophy has a duty to account for. You seem to take this experience as evidence that there must be some ontological truth to the claims of religion (i.e., that God exists). Over at Knowledge Ecology’s blog I pointed out that there are at least 30,000 years of racism and sexism and that the form of your argument about God seems to commit you and Whitehead to the position that the ontological claims of racism and sexism must contain some truth.”

Adam has offered a response that I am largely in agreement with. He distinguishes between facts of experience and truths of experience. Religion, racism, and sexism are each facts of experience, though I am not prepared to claim that the content of these experiential modes necessarily corresponds to reality. I take a broadly Jamesian/Deweyan/Peircian approach to truth, however, in that I am more concerned with the effects of our descriptions of reality than with their accurate correspondence to a supposedly pre-given world. The truth of the claims arising out of religious experience are to be judged, from the pragmaticist perspective, by a “consideration of the experimental differences in the conduct of life which would conceivably result from the affirmation or denial of the [claim] in question,” as Dewey puts it (Century Dictionary, 1909). I think certain religious ideas and meanings stand on far better footing than racism and sexism in this respect, since the later two modes of thought have only been productive of hatred, violence, and injustice. I judge the experiential possibilities of racism and sexism to be undesirable based on “the experimental differences in the conduct of life” that their practice has been productive of in the past. No doubt some religious ideas have also been productive of violence and injustice, but I think it would be disingenuous to claim that religion has offered nothing positive to humanity. My pragmaticism may go beyond traditional definitions at this point, but when dealing with the ontology of the claims arising from experience, I take a radically participatory view. The history of humanity represents the Universe’s struggle to discover its own nature: we are the Universe’s conscious testing ground of truth, beauty, and goodness. These are ideals which are still in the process of working themselves out in our (and the universe’s) history. It is not simply a given that racism is wrong; its wrongness is a fact that must be discovered in our moral feelings and defended by our ethical practices. If Nazi Germany had won WW2, and its Final Solution had succeeded, we might be living in a world where the experiential facts confirmed the truth of racism. Fortunately, because of an outpouring of ethical will, this possibility was kept at bay. It has now become an ethical fact that genocidal racism is wrong, but only because the moral feelings of one sector of global society won out over another. Goodness is always at stake, always being defined and redefined in the adventure of civilization.

I’ve written about what a participatory spirituality looks like for me. I have more work to do to flesh it out, of course…

Finally, Bryant writes:

In your post over at footnotes2plato you make the odd claim that somehow naturalism prevents us from fighting neoliberal capitalism. This ignores the rather obvious fact that 1) Marxist thought is a naturalistic position, 2) those European countries that are most socialized are also overwhelmingly secular, and 3) religion has repeatedly sided with capitalism throughout history and provided support for forces that underly these forms of capitalism.

I would make the claim that atheistic naturalism (wherein the whole point of the scientific endeavor becomes the thorough disenchantment of the universe) makes criticism of neoliberal capitalism more difficult, since I think such critiques must penetrate to the metaphysical underpinnings of capitalism in order to be effective. These underpinnings include what Donna Haraway has referred to as “productionism”:

“Productionism and its corollary, humanism, come down to the story line that ‘man makes everything, including himself, out of the world that can only be resource and potency to his project and active agency’” -“The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others,” in Cultural Studies (1992), p. 297

Marx’s humanistic orientation and productionist metaphysics suggests to me that his naturalistic assumptions leave the deeper metaphysical structure of capitalism (that which makes it so socially and ecologically disruptive) untouched. Also, even if Marx himself was less than enthusiastic about religion, there are plenty of examples of religious communists, for whom it is religious experience that compels them to adopt communist ideals. Marx’s may have been a naturalistic position, but the Marxisms emerging in his wake have not always been.

As for “secularized” Europe, polls suggest that as much as 76% of Sweden, 80% of Denmark, 79% of Norway, 61% of France, 72% of Germany, 71% of the Netherlands, and 78% of the United Kingdom either believe in God or in”some sort of spirit or life force.” Church attendance may be down across much of the Continent, but this seems to be reflective of a move toward less conventional, more individual forms of post-religious spiritual expression.

A religious revival itself will not necessarily put a dent in capitalism. Žižek is fond of pointing out how New Age spirituality only functions to support the commodification of religious practice. And in some sense, even religion as understood esoterically (in both Western and Eastern contexts) may only foster a withdrawal into the apoliticism of mystical contemplation. This is why I think Whitehead’s philosophical project is so important, since it presents us with a way to bring science, religion, and politics into a more mutually enhancing relationship.

Beyond the Bifurcation of Nature

I’ve been struggling through Isabelle Stengers‘ newly translated book Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The first quarter of the book focuses primarily on Whitehead’s first explicitly philosophical text, The Concept of Nature (1920), in which he sets for himself the task of avoiding an account of nature based in a bifurcation between objective and subjective, or primary and secondary characteristics. On the one hand, there is the real world of atoms and molecules studied by physicists, while on the other hand, there is the apparent world of beautiful rainbows and delicious strawberries experienced by creatures lucky enough to be in the possession of something called a “mind.” This bifurcation is easily spotted in the abstractions mobilized by a number of contemporary scientific thinkers, especially Richard Dawkins. Listen to what he had to say earlier this year at a panel discussion on the essence of life (I’m particularly interested in what he says about “purpose” between the 4th and 5th minutes of the talk):

Dawkins’ on the essence of life

Purpose, from Dawkins’ point of view, is not a natural phenomenon, but an illusion produced by nervous systems, which themselves are the result of the differential selection of randomly mutating genetic molecules. Until brains evolved, nature was entirely without purpose or value, “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly…” (Science and the Modern World, 1925). According to this story, only once neural tissue came to be arranged in just the right way could the meaningful world celebrated by poets suddenly spring into existence (however illusory, or secondary it is). In what seems a miraculous flash, mind emerges out of nature: the sky becomes blue and the wind is no longer mute.

An evolutionary geneticist, Dawkins is trained to view the world through the abstractions of his particular discipline. As a result, his reasoning concerning the more general phenomenon of life succumbs to what Whitehead would later come to call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Living organisms, with all their spontaneity and experiential valence, become swarms of genetic algorithms blindly vying for passage into the next generation. The human world of aesthetic and ethical ideals becomes irrecoverably divided off from the physical world of mere mechanical motion. Whitehead laments the radical inconsistency underlying such an impoverished perspective on the nature of nature. For him, this inconsistency is characteristic of much modern thought, serving to distract and enfeeble it from the task of attaining a harmony of understanding.

We have “become content with superficial orderings from diverse arbitrary starting points…”

…the enterprises produced by the individualistic energy of the European peoples presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved. It is the fact, however you gloze it over with phrases (SMW).

In the final chapter of what is perhaps his best known book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins hammers home his bifurcated view of nature: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Only human beings, that is, are capable of rising above the purposeless mechanism to which all other entities are chained.

Dawkins was, until very recently, the professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford, and most non-academicians come to understand evolution and the relation between science and religion by reading his books. The challenge for Whiteheadians, I think, is to make his “wild” ideas digestible by a wider audience. Our civilization is in desperate need of a less muddled and self-contradictory cosmology, one that can offer a robust alternative to the consumerism that neo-Darwinism implicitly legitimates.

Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story with the late Thomas Berry, has done a tremendous job domesticating Whitehead’s metaphysical approach, and I think his understanding of the role of science and the place of the human in the universe offers a sorely needed alternative to still reigning perspectives like that of Dawkins’.

Michael Persinger on non-local consciousness.

Most of you have probably already heard of Michael Persinger. He is a distinguished and extensively published cognitive neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Ontario. He is best known for his research with the “God Helmet,” which is supposed to give most people who wear it a non-ordinary state of consciousness often described as encountering a divine intelligence or spiritual presence. Richard Dawkins tried it and only reported feeling a bit more relaxed in his limbs. Susan Blackmore (another cognitive neuroscientist) reported having one of the most profound experiences of her life. The helmet produces a weak magnetic field that alters the neural activity in a specific brain region in the temporal lobe of the right hemisphere. Persinger sometimes sounds like a bit of a reductionist when we speaks about the implications of this helmet, but recently he gave a lecture about other experiments he has done showing the connections between the electromagnetic activity of human brains and the activity of earth’s electromagnetic field. Really fascinating stuff, especially since it is coming from a very well respected and experimentally-grounded neuroscientist.

Persinger’s lecture

He ends up suggesting that the brain is analogous to a radio receiver or a television. This implies that consciousness isn’t produced inside the skull, but is a non-local field within which information is shared at the speed of light (i.e., independent of space-time). He seems to suggest that his lab has developed the beginnings of a communications technology capable of reading and/or controlling minds.

I have seen plenty of other “experts” in whatever-ology present their theories about these sorts of connections, but Persinger’s has hit me at a deeper level for some reason.

A Random Fragment on the Philosophy of Biology

Randomness is a concept that Dawkins usually attempts to qualify and differentiate. The process of adaptation within his neo-Darwinian paradigm of selfish genes and natural selection is not random at all–it is driven by the brute physical agency of the Natural Selector. What is random are the mutations, which he apparently conceives of as happening one nucleic acid at a time in a fragmentary and fundamentally non-directed, non-vitalistic, non-holistic way. His approach is a consequence of Crick’s central dogma of a one-way flow of information from DNA to mRNA to protein, a paradigm blind to the work of the whole living cell to maintain, repair, and (re)generate the order of the crystalline molecules in the nucleus of each of our cells. I do agree with Stephen J. Gould‘s sense of the contingency of biological history; there are many other adjacently possible worlds. I don’t think contingency is the same as randomness, though. The history and development of life on earth, or of protons and electrons in space-time, can be full of adjacent possibilities and still display a clear directional tendency in its large scale dynamics. An Omega Point is not necessarily the imposition of an artificial design that determines the free play of nature, but can be an erotic lure embedded in the dynamics of nature itself (as in Teilhard de Chardin and Whitehead).

Stuart Kauffman talks about “exaptations,” when an organ used by one generation for one task begins to be used by another generation for entirely new, perhaps adaptive, behaviors (as with the first fish to use air bladders as lungs). This sort of mutation is not random, but the result of a sort of Baldwinian evolution through learned behavior.

I think Whitehead’s conception of Creativity is actually very close to the concepts of randomness and chaos. Chaos just needs a dancing partner, rather than conveniently and irrationally being imagined as the sole source of reality.  It’s not “God v. not God,” “theistic creationism” v. “atheistic chaosism.” It’s the presence of God and Purpose and Order mutually conditioned by the abyss of creativity and the pure, relentless renewal of nature. Randomness is always on the verge of spilling over into order, which is to say that pure novelty–absolute randomness–cannot manifest or enter into actuality but as the head of a ouroburos eating its own tales and memories, driven by the desire for the immortality of its own experiences.

In other words, randomness is the womb and the tomb of order, its creator and its destroyer. Randomness is a compost heap made of dead ideas and decaying bodies that nourishes and provokes the ongoing adventure of life and rationality.

Belief in a Personal God

The following is my response to the theologian Jason Michael McCann’s blog post about the personal nature of God in the Christian tradition. Yesterday, he posted a critical response to one of my short essays on materialism and imagination that I will also respond to soon.

JMM,
The distinction between truth and fact (which I understand to be similar to that between archetypal/a priori and experiential/a posteriori knowledge, respectively) is very helpful. Your point that Medieval Christians were not trying to explain the measurable motion of matter, but rather (as I see it) to understand the existence of personality in the universe (which, indeed, seems to require entering into a loving relationship with this universe and His/Her/Its* personality or spirit) is also well taken. Post-Enlightenment materialists like Richard Dawkins refer to the “God hypothesis,” and dismiss it as unscientific since scientific explanation must refer only to natural phenomena. God is supposedly immaterial because supernatural, and to admit the existence of such a being (with each of His/Her/Its usual characteristics, especially omnipotence) would put all scientific attempts to explain the universe by reference only to physical phenomena in a rather uncertain epistemic situation. All the sudden, natural phenomena no longer exist and behave as a result of arbitrarily imposed “physical law,” but instead draw their being from the Being of God, and act according to His/Her/Its grace. But Christianity is not committed to an engineer’s conception of the universe, wherein “God” serves the role of explaining how the whole thing was designed and put together. God is not, as I imagine Him/Her/It, a clock-maker who oversees the proper functioning of the cosmic machine, interfering with its natural processes to perform miracles at various points of human history. God, rather than a hypothesis, is the very basis of my own existence, confirmed not by scientific proof but by the immediate relationship or felt presence of divinity in my personal and interpersonal life. God is present in my life as the voice of conscience which I know guides not only myself, but every human being. It is not my voice, it is the voice of God. His message and only commandment is simple: “Love.” We do not always have the ears to hear this voice, of course. We can become deaf to its gospel. Sin is a reality.
As for your reading of my thesis ["that autonomous human imagination and creativity is able to construct its own reality"], I would remove the words “autonomous” and “own.” The human imagination is to the divine imagination what the microcosm is to the macrocosm. As Coleridge put it, imagination is: “…the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.”
You write: “Like the primal relationship between mother and child, the primordial relationship between Creator and creature is one which occurs within the interiority of the human spirit without the demand of either party lacking concrete reality.” The notion of our relationship to God being only interior feels lacking to me. My relationship to the exterior cosmos as God incarnate is no less revelatory (indeed, perhaps it is more so). Earlier in your essay, you spoke of personality being a pre-requisite for sociability. I’d want to balance this statement by pointing out the opposite but equally reasonable notion that personality depends upon relationship. I do not think there is a specific point in time when a developing human becomes completely “cognitive” or self-conscious. There is a continuous movement toward more consciousness, if we’re lucky, but never a sharp break where we move from “dependent” to completely autonomous. My identity is never fully my own, as I remain dependent for the entirety of my life upon my relationships with others. Others are forever like mothers, in this sense. I can only be as intimate with myself as I can be with others, since I come to know who I am as a result of the way others respond to me. Personality is constituted by love and its need for both expression and recognition. I note in closing that the notion of a personal God would (if the above is valid) imply that God is not unaffected by human love.
*(sorry for the clumsy use of pronouns, but I think the nature of God is neither exclusively masculine or feminine, nor exclusively personal… Men [Him], women [Her], and children are made in the image of God, as is the universe [It]).

Consciousness: Problem, Paradox, or Practice?

A quick contextualizing note for those who are just joining the tangled thread of my recent blogalogue concerning the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the nervous system and surrounding cosmos: Last month, Steve Ramirez, a PhD candidate at MIT, posted an entry on his blog (http://okaysteve.wordpress.com/) concerning neuroscience’s supposed successes explaining the “problem” of consciousness purely in terms of electrochemical behavior in the brain. My name and some of the ideas I have expressed on YouTube were mentioned in his victory speech, so I decided to respond with a video. You can find his original entry, along with my short comment in response, here. Steve has since posted a follow-up rebuttal, to which I will respond in what follows.

Perhaps it would be best to begin by making my interests in this philosophical discussion about neuroscience clear. As a philosopher, I am not so much interested in the experimental results of neurophysiology labs across the world (which are only occasionally surprising), but in the paradigms that are employed to design and frame their research programs (i.e., to define “problems,” or what Thomas Kuhn called the “puzzles” of normal science).

Take the so-called “problem of consciousness”:  Is, or is not consciousness entirely reducible to/explainable in terms of  intracranial collisions between molecules? I will argue it is not, for philosophical reasons. Many neuroscientists, including Steve, believe it is. This belief informs the design of conceptual models and experiments, making it no surprise that results typically confirm the original hypothesis. The puzzle for neuroscience was never “what is the nature of consciousness?”, but “how is consciousness represented in the brain?” I think there are institutional reasons for this. The continued existence of the neuroscientific discipline as currently conceived depends upon framing the “problem” of consciousness in a reductionistic manner from the get go (this is not true of more interdisciplinary approaches, like neurophenomenology).

Steve sums the classical neuroscientific paradigm up well:

Your conscious thoughts really, and I mean really, are “just” the sum total of patterns of neurons firing.

My interest in claims such as this is existential, even emotional, rather than scientific. Thinking is the source of my very identity, the fount out of which all I know and am pours forth. I am unable to conceive of myself, or anyone else, as a bundle of neurons without first sterilizing my thinking, so that it gives birth only to abstractions and generalities, losing sight entirely of concrete, embodied life. Ethics is, for me like for Emmanuel Levinas, first philosophy. Only a sociopath could take literally the idea that thinking is “just” the mechanical interaction of neurons, because to do so would be to entirely ignore the radical ethical responsibility that comes immediately upon conscious recognition of another consciousness. Human beings are not objects, or the result of the activity of many tens of billions of tiny objects. No amount of objectifying knowledge about another consciousness could ever cancel his/her irreducibility as a consciousness. Thankfully, no scientist I know of actually does take literally the idea that consciousness is “nothing but” the brain. Something more complicated is encoded in their brazenly reductionistic rhetoric.

Science is not the disinterested pursuit of truth absent the emotions and feelings associated with goodness and beauty, or at least it can only be fallaciously conceived of as such. Sam Harris’ neo-Aristotelianism (or maybe neuro-Aristotelianism?–I discuss it again below) is a sign that science is beginning to realize that its findings have always had sociopolitical implications, and even Richard Dawkins gives an almost spiritual significance to the aesthetic value of science, calling it “the poetry of reality.”

So what underlies the seemingly absurd claim that thought is merely the movement of molecules? Not the truth of any empirically demonstrable theory. The reason I take issue with neural reductionism has nothing to do with a disagreement about scientific facts, and even if it did, “mountains of evidence” can easily be reduced to an ant hill by a shift in paradigmatic perspective (there was plenty of evidence for the Ptolemaic solar system for thousands of years; it took the Copernican metanoia to see it otherwise).

Then what leads some neuroscientists to claim in theory what they could never and would never live up to in practice? I believe it is a rather philosophically unreflective commitment to certain outmoded Enlightenment values (like the desire to rationalize and control all of life). The social imaginary associated with scientific materialism and the technologization of society has shown itself historically to be both dangerous and ultimately impossible.

It’s no secret. I’m an Idealist and a Romantic and am proud to carry forward, as adequately as I can, the spiritual and intellectual lineage of figures like Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson. I also champion science and the vastly expanded cosmological picture it continues to paint for humanity. But I conceive of science as another cultural activity alongside the likes of art, spirituality, and philosophy. These other spheres of cultural meaning approach the truth independent of the puzzle-solving of scientists. Consciousness in particular is a sort of ultimate issue, since it is, as far as we can tell, what makes us human. Steve nominally agrees that we need a multi-dimensional (or what I’d call a transdisciplinary) approach, though I think his choice of language says a lot  about how he’d like to go about collaborating (i.e., the “problem” of consciousness must be “attacked” from all sides). What if consciousness is neither a problem nor something best understood by way of assault?

The shortcoming of an overly scientistic approach to consciousness is precisely that consciousness’s paradoxical and participatory nature (paradoxical and participatory in that it manifests in different modes as both subject and object, noumenon and phenomenon) is artificially framed as a “problem” to be solved by way of reverse-engineering. But consciousness and its trinitarian panoply of thinking, feeling, and willing cannot be understood in the same way a mechanic understands an engine.

Steve writes:

A person’s (mis)understanding does not necessarily depend on how many “evident facts” they know – it depends on their ability to properly interpret a finding independent of their emotional state.

To approach an understanding of consciousness, you must fully participate in it. It is the living, breathing matrix within which everything we do and know and feel arises and subsides. Being conscious must be practiced and developed to be known, otherwise it remains not a problem but an insoluble intellectual paradox. In other words, emotional involvement is of the essence if it is our own and others consciousness we hope to understand. (Even from within the neuroscientific paradigm, research like Harris’ on the neural correlates of moral decision-making shows that the recognition of seemingly objective truths like 3-2=1 depends upon activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, associated with emotion and taste. I mention this study with some reservations about the notion of “neural correlates of consciousness” that I will explain below.)

I am not interested in the “problem” of consciousness, though I may on occasion philosophize about its paradoxicality as such. In the end, however, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I’d like to close by offering a take on the research program geared toward discovering the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC). Steve cites Crick and Koch’s research often, and writes the following in support of the general theory:

Specific qualia are evoked  from the interaction of the specific [neural] regions…depending of course on the properties of that of which we are aware. So if you’re reflecting on a painting in front of you, it involves the interaction of thalamo-visual-prefrontal networks, which transform and encode the painting (i.e. the stimulus) as a specific pattern of neural firing that you experience.

This approach to the study of consciousness conceives of brain activity as a kind of internal representation of the surrounding world. The basic idea is that some sort of isomorphism exists between the structure of things in the environment and the pattern of neural firing in the brain. The brain, it is said, generates a mental picture of the external world. This is where the paradox begins… On the face of it, the NCC approach claims that all we are finally aware of is the neural activity inside our skull, which is an encoded version of what our senses were able to perceive regarding the features of the mind-independent world. In theory, this neural activity should be sufficient enough on its own to convince a conscious subject that they were having an experience of the mind-independent world. In other words, even a brain in a vat, fed the proper electrical impulses to mimic sensory inputs, could be conscious (albeit of an entirely virtual world). The paradox is that if the neuroscientist is right about the neural basis of consciousness, he simultaneously calls into question the substantiality of the world he believes he inhabits.

But regardless of any hypothetical situation reminiscent of Descartes evil demon, the NCC approach ignores the extent to which consciousness is fully embodied and augmented by various cultural practices and artifacts (language, first and foremost). As Evan Thompson makes clear in his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, to claim that the content of a neural state and the content of an experiential state are identical is simply a category mistake.

Thompson writes (p. 350):

Experiential content and neural content are different kinds of content…Experience is intentional (world-presenting), holistic (constituted by interrelated perceptions, intentions, emotions, and actions), and intransitively self-aware (has a nonreflective subjective character). Neural content as standardly described has none of these features. Although there are various sorts of systematic relations between experiences and neural processes, we need not assume that these relations include any content match.

Thompson goes on to criticize the “building block model” of consciousness (a phrase coined by John Searle) upon which the NCC approach is based. It is an aggregative model wherein the full richness of actual experience is analyzed into separate sensory modalities so as to isolate the specific neural regions that these modalities may be associated with. Thompson follows Searle in problematizing the the assumption that consciousness is the summation of distinct sensory events that are somehow bound together into the unity of our experienced world. Instead, he suggests a different approach, which Searle called the “unified field model.”

Thompson again (p. 351):

According to this model, the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states, for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience of conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness.

With the unified field approach, consciousness is recognized to be an embodied process always already engaged with and interested in the world. Consciousness is understood not to be locally produced in specific neural regions, but brought forth through the ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, body, and world. Thompson’s approach to neuroscience is phenomenological, meaning it has roots in a Husserlian tradition where empathy, intersubjectivity, and the irreducibility of the lifeworld take precedence over the abstractions of scientific materialism. If you’re curious to know more about his approach to issues surrounding consciousness and neuroscience, read this essay about ecologically-informed epistemology, or an older blog entry about enactivism.

Here’s a clip of that ol’ rascal Alan Watts that seems relevant after all this headiness:

Open Letter to Richard Dawkins

I have not read Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion, but I’m sure I agree with just about all of what he argued for in it. The idea that a personal God is responsible for the creation and maintenance of this universe, that He answers prayers and passes judgment upon the deeds of men, is childish indeed, a leftover of pre-modern humanity’s lack of intellectual freedom and, hence, its dependence on the dubious and dogmatic claims of a learned ecclesiastical authority to quell fear of the unknown (much like a mother may lie to her child to keep it from worrying about what it cannot yet understand). Such beliefs have contributed to some of the greatest human tragedies in all of history and in fact continue to do so up until this very moment. Our world is in dire need of the rationality Dawkins employs in his deconstruction of its outdated religions, and indeed we have reached a point in time when the widespread availability and connectivity of information has given nearly every person on Earth the ability (and therefore the moral responsibility) to become more fully aware, both of the world around them, and to a lesser extent, to the world within them (1).

I do, however, have a few qualms with Dawkins’ credo, among which his insistence on referring to himself as an impassioned atheist. It makes him sound as though he has a deep-seated emotional bias against anything overtly spiritual. I suppose someone needs to do what Dawkins is doing, playing the kryptonite to orthodox religion’s Superman; but atheism is no more than a reaction to theism. Going out of his way to assert disbelief in God, usually condescendingly, Dawkins seems to reveal and underlying obsession with the supernatural that is just as fervent as the worship of those he rants against. All psychological analysis aside, though, my only real reservation about Dawkins crusade to rid the world of the silly literalisms of outdated religion is that he seems to offer little to replace them. That they need replacing is obvious, but that “science” alone might be able to fill the gap, as Dawkins suggests, seems a bit like suggesting that menus could replace meals. Obviously they cannot, or we would all soon starve.

The human being is and always has been both animal and angel, both worldly and spiritual. We are drawn to both the immanent and the transcendent, sometimes parading around like gods, other times moping guiltily for our sins. It seems, then, that throwing out our mystical side in favor of our rational will leave us with nothing but descriptions of the world unaccompanied by their experiential correlates. There is a certain inner sense of the genuinely spiritual hiding beneath the drab and pockmarked shell of religion. Now that it has come time for us to crack this shell, we ought to be careful not to toss the life of the yolk away with it. I fear that an overly literal interpretation of the merits of science could turn out to be just as destructive as the literal religion that preceded it.

I quote Dawkins at length from the opening to a recent documentary entitled The Big Questions:

The human race is one of the wonders of the universe, and of all our remarkable properties, one stands out. It is that we are restlessly drawn to ask questions like ‘why are we here,’ and ‘what is the purpose of life?’

So far, I have no problems. He goes on:

The great civilizations and cultures of the past came up with various answers, all unsatisfying because they were made up, rather than being properly investigated. Can science come up with something better? I think so.

I sense that Dawkins is here overstepping his bounds as a scientist. The most sacred of scientific creeds has it that one ought not apply the tools of the trade to areas where they do not apply, such as the spheres of value and meaning. Despite Dawkins protest that civilizations and cultures past were somehow mistaken in their “made up” beliefs about the purpose of life, science can in no way escape a similar type of subjective construction when it attempts to build its own models of the world. He goes on to say,

For most of the 500,000 years of human existence, we have been unable to answer the question of why we are here. It was only 150 years ago that science first tried to find an answer.

For Dawkins, that answer was Darwin’s theory of evolution. I would like to suggest, though, that Darwin’s theory is just one, albeit the most recent and admittedly the most empirically verifiable (2), in a long line of cultural mythopoeia. Every age has its own conception of the ultimate. For the people of Classical Greece, the gods of Homer’s epics were just as real as the particles and energies of the modern scientist. Neither Grecian nor scientist has ever actually seen either, but both will undoubtedly testify to having a direct conceptual experience of each.

As Voltaire once put it, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Human beings are inexplicably drawn to asking big questions. It seems, though, that this drive is overshadowed by our even greater desire to provide big answers, often times without merit.

The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, painted some 500 years ago by Michelangelo, reveals the prevailing mythos of the late medieval period of human history. At the center of the immense fresco is the famous image of The Creation of Adam, God reaching down to Man to bestow upon him the gift of knowledge. Such supernatural explanations for the complexity of the human mind are unacceptable by the more critical, scientific standards of today. We demand to know how God bestowed this gift, not just the obvious fact that he did. Hidden in this same image, though, is evidence that Michelangelo’s understanding of the mythological construction of belief was ahead of his time. An entourage of angels accompanies God, draping him in the unmistakable outline of humanity’s most powerful asset: its brain.

The artist is here illustrating both God’s creation of Man, and Man’s creation of God. In its literalist forms, Christianity asserts a God who exists high above His created masterpiece, divinely designing it from without, turning dust (matter) into intelligence (form). In a similar way, the scientist uses the technological skill offered by the brain to construct meaning from the ambiguities of the manifest world, thereby dragging God down from heaven, chopping Him into individual parts, and renaming each as the ego. Every individual thus becomes the designer of his or her own world. In this sense, “God” refers only to that which provides the necessary ground of being upon which any explanatory edifice must build its foundation. For the pre-modern Christian, this ground was the Biblical God the Father, the Holiest of Holies. For the modern scientist, the ground becomes the rational mind, the ego: God shrunken and internalized. God becomes, for the scientist, the only thing Descartes could not doubt. His famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” provided modern science with its own creation myth.

Science’s big answers, then, are no more final than any of humanity’s previous answers. Throughout our history, the elite classes of the time have always championed their own versions of how things came to be the way they are. Usually, these explanations come subliminally packaged as to promote and maintain the current social order. Church officials once claimed to offer the only route to heaven, and an intellectually and economically meager populace was forced to obey their every command. Scripture was written only in Latin, making it impossible for the uneducated masses to interpret their tradition for themselves. Most find themselves in a similar situation today, as scientists rule over the collective psyche of society from behind their university desks and obscure scientific journals, claiming to have answered the big questions with theories like evolution by natural selection. Most normal people, not having the scientific background to fully comprehend such ideas, are forced either to take the side of academic authority, thereby accepting the over-simplified, pop-science sound bites they hear used in the media, or to reject science in favor of some prior mythological authority, such as the Bible or their local church pastor. This creates a situation where the average person assumes they must pick one or the other: science or God, evolution or creationism, reason or faith.

In reality, such dichotomies exist only in the minds of the fundamentalist. When one has understood the intricacies of the scientific worldview, it becomes clear that science neither proves nor disproves the spiritual. While it may have much to say against literal belief in the miracles of the Bible, it has little to say about ultimate matters in general. It is almost universally true, though, that the scientific heroes of our past, while usually rejecting notions of a personal God, nonetheless found through their investigations into the natural world a numinousity so profound that it may as well be called spiritual. This was true for Newton, for Einstein, for Eddington… the list goes on.

Scientific theories do indeed go a long way toward explaining the how of the universe. What they fail miserably at is explaining the why. This is precisely the reason that so many scientific geniuses end up believing in some sense of the mystical. Their penetrating investigations reveal to them a reality so far beyond mere descriptions that the pure experience of its mystery becomes a form of worship.

We see, then, that the hows of science cannot replace the whys of spirituality. Dawkins’ suggestion that we reinterpret ourselves in light of natural selection as nothing more than “survival machines” simply will not do. The human psyche is so structured that it cannot function without equal doses of both knowledge and purpose. To be fair, Dawkins suggests that our ability to think and speak has given us what he believes amounts to “purpose.” The fact that our brains developed enough to allow us to create our own goals is what separates us from the blind forces of evolution. Unlike animals, we humans can decide for ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. Dawkins cites our mastery of technology as a prime example of this skill, as we can now “alleviate hunger with new strains of crops, predict the weather with high speed computers, and cure diseases with pharmaceuticals.”

While these innovations are doubtlessly great achievements, I must point out that around a billion people remain starving, hurricanes and tornados still kill thousands every year, and pharmaceutical companies participate in one of the most profitable and corrupt businesses in economic history, researching not cures, but treatments, as the former simply wouldn’t make shareholders rich enough to keep the racket going. We can see, then, that science can certainly provide the means, but when it comes to the motivations, it is silenced. Human values and meaning, therefore, must come through some other means, means I’m prepared to call spiritual. By spiritual, I do not mean we ought to revert to superstitious belief in a vengeful God who will smite those who disobey. Rather, I refer to the individually mediated experience of that which transcends the everyday categories of the mind, that which cannot be explained but most assuredly can be experienced. Such experiences universally produce feelings of compassion and connection to nature and to one’s fellow man. Only with such an internal understanding of one’s place in the world can the powerful external tools of science be used for good.

Science and religion must be integrated. Asserting the practical truths of science above and beyond the transcendent truths of spirituality leaves one in a valueless world where, indeed, only the fittest will survive. If we wish to fully embrace our dual human countenance, being as we are both animal and angel, we must respect the worth of each sphere, combining the best of both to create a new and more integral human future.

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(1)- There seems to be an excess of credible information about the exterior world available to human beings alive in our age. I’d refer to this as knowledge, the practical know-how that allows one to get things done in the world. However, when it comes to what I’d call interior spiritual wisdom, credible information seems less widely available, or at least much less sought after because of the Western world’s overtly extroverted worldview. Knowledge, again, provides us with the how. Spiritual wisdom provides us with the why.

(2)- Modern day science has reduced the meaning of empiricism to what can be experienced through the five senses, thereby negating even the possibility that one might objectively investigate matters of the mind and spirit through various types of intersubjective study. The reason Darwin’s theory is the most empirically justified is because no special injunction is required for one to see with their eyes that humans bare a striking resemblance to primates, or that during the early weeks of pregnancy, the fetuses of many animals appear almost identical. Even the layman can see such things. However, for one to see, for example, the empirically verified spiritual truth that all supposedly self-existing entities gain their apparent separateness only through their contextual relationship to all other entities (dependent origination) and that they therefore exist primordially as Sunyata, or emptiness, they would need to follow the carefully prescribed methods of the masters of their preferred tradition.