Bill Nye the Science Guy vs. Ken Ham the Creationist Bloke

Whatever you do, don’t go watch the entirety of the three hour debate that Bill Nye and Ken Ham just had at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky. Total waste of time. If you are interested in the “Science and Religion” dialogue, do watch at least the last 4 minutes. Here is a link. Fast forward to 2 hours and 38 minutes and listen to Ken Ham profess his faith in the creation story of the Bible, followed by Bill Nye’s inspiring scientific rhapsody about our place in the cosmos.
Overall, I think Nye did a great job remaining reasonable in an impossible conversation. But then at about 2:41 you’ll hear the same defense of science Nye repeated all night (my summation): “yeah, yeah, aside from being true, the universe story is emotionally thrilling and wonderful and all that–but ultimately the reason we should teach it to our kids is that it will make the American economy more competitive.”
So there you have it. The take home message of this very well publicized and widely watched debate is that, when it comes down to it, science is better than religion because it will make the resolution on our smart phone cameras a megapixel or two higher every few months.
Nye is a great communicator of science, but what worries me is how easily he was able to marshall evolutionary cosmology as an apology for industrial capitalism. It worries me because I don’t want the universe story to be co-opted by the techno-capitalist narrative of endless growth and progress.
Where does Nye go wrong? How is someone so committed to doing something about the ecological crisis so blind to the role of techno-capitalism in creating the problem in the first place? The religion of capitalism is just as absurd and in fact way more destructive than that of creationism.
It seems to me that we (the spiritual “post-nihilists,” if I may) need to shift the cultural conversation in a different direction, a direction as far away as possible from the sensationalized dichotomy “materialism v. creationism” that gets most of the air-time these days.What would this new sort of conversation sound like? I wonder how Nye (and Ham for that matter) would react to the cosmologist Brian Swimme‘s “The Journey of the Universe” film.

If anyone else didn’t read my advice in time and suffered through the whole debate, or if you just watched the last 4 minutes as I suggested, I’d be curious to hear your reactions.

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.

Another Critchley interview…

I’m almost done with Faith of the Faithless. Critchley is really clearing up a lot of my own thinking, confirming some intuitions I’ve had and really fleshing out what had remained below the level of articulation for me. I’ll post some more in depth reflections soon, especially on the issue of whether an anarchic community or sovereign people can be formed entirely within a plane of immanence, or if some sort of transcendent referent or religious calling remains necessary to accomplish this. For now, check out this recent interview with religiondispatches.org. An excerpt:

There’s a dogmatic secularism that just refuses to understand the persistence and the subtlety of what’s going on with religion. And it gets very angry when it’s challenged. And then you can tell that you’re dealing with a faith. When you challenge a secularist about what is fundamental, they will often get red in the face and will start banging a table. Then you’ve hit some kind of quasi-religious nerve.

Whitehead, Eternal Objects, and God

Those who take the time to familiarize themselves with Whitehead’s philosophy are almost always lead to praise him for the originality of his thought. He dissolves many longstanding problems by rooting abstract disembodied reason in concrete feelings of inheritance. The subject-to-object vector of the Kantian school of philosophy is reversed, such that the structure of the thinking subject is understood to emerge from the past activity of the universe (i.e., object-to-subject); it is important to remember that the converse is also true, that the past activity of the objective universe is nothing other than an achievement of the purposive decisions of subjects. Past decisions achieve objective immortality as data for all future subjectivities. Such purposive decisions (and in Whitehead’s anthrodecentric cosmology, we are talking about the purposive decisions of every of subjectivity, from photons to persons) are made possible by the ingression of eternal objects in the experience of actual occasions. These eternal objects are given concrete actuality through the envisagement of an actual God. The initial aim of each subjective decision is a divine feeling, made possible by Whitehead’s dipolar deity. Whitehead’s God is the everlasting world-soul whose values erotically lure each moment of finite experience toward the ideal of beauty (which is nothing other than the true and the good). This is not an omnipotent Creator deity. If anything is omnipotent, it is Creativity; God is a creature of Creativity like every other. God is the poet of the world, “with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (346, Process and Reality). Whitehead certainly dissolves old problems, but by introducing the novel concepts of “God” and “eternal objects,” he also creates new problems for philosophy. God may be alike in kind to the finite creatures of the World, but clearly there is so much more that is ingredient in the experience of God that this difference in degree approaches a difference in kind.

Here is Victor Lowe (Understanding Whitehead, 1962), first on God:

Whitehead seems never to have considered atheism as a serious alternative in metaphysics. An atheist would naturally suggest that all the potentialities for any occasion are derived from its historical environment. A “society,” in Whitehead’s cosmology, is built on this sort of derivation. Why then need the occasion also draw upon a God? The answer is that if the past provided everything for the present, nothing new could appear. Novelty and adventure were too real to Whitehead to permit him to say, like the materialists, that the apparently new is a reconfiguration of the old. Yet his thorough going rationalism did not permit him to say that novelty just happens. His religious humility told him whence it came.

Throughout his philosophy, Whitehead contrasts the compulsion of what is with the persuasive lure of what might be. God’s action on the world is primarily persuasive: he offers to each occasion its possibilities of value. The theory that each occasion creates itself by realizing an aim internal to it, however, requires that the germ of this aim be initially established at that spot in the temporal world by God; otherwise the occasion’s self-creation could never commence, since nothing can come from nowhere. Whitehead’s position is that the initial aim partially defines the goal which is best in the given situation, and that the temporal occasion itself does the rest (47).

God is necessary, for Whitehead, not only to explain novelty, but to explain memory. The Universe as Whitehead experienced it was clearly creative, having emerged from the fertile soil of some ultimately chaotic process; but just as clearly, it evidenced the endurance of ideals like order and progress. Past accomplishments are plainly preserved, just as possibilities are envisaged in the future for decisive action in the present. How are the many finite occasions of the Universe capable of holding together as a whole so as to produce a Cosmos? There must be a primordial Occasion who values the order of this World over an infinite range of other possible worlds, and an Occasion who feels as a whole the cumulative consequence of the universal society’s decision regarding this Occasion’s cosmic values. This is Whitehead’s dipolar deity.

Consciousness, for Whitehead, is a rare form of high grade experience, closer in degree to God’s primordial valuation of eternal objects than plant sensitivity or electronic prehensivity. Most experience is not conscious, but is ruled by the emotional currents of causal efficacy. Consciousness, we are told, is most generally “the feeling of negation” (161, PR). When we perceive “this stone as grey,” the feeling of conscious negation is “in barest germ,” while when we perceive the contingency of this coloration, that it could have not been grey, “such feeling is in full development” (ibid.).

Whitehead continues:

Thus the negative perception is the triumph of consciousness. It finally rises to the peak of free imagination, in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified (ibid.).

In its conceptual prehensions of the possibilities of the World, consciousness most nearly approaches an experience of God’s primordial nature. Consciousness begins to see what it is like to swim in the mind of God. In most cases, the abstraction inherent to such negative perception pushes God’s heart–the feeling of the warmth of God, not just the sight of God’s light–into unconsciousness. Here, Whitehead’s philosophy of religion complements his philosophy of science. Both the clear and distinct skeptical consciousness of rationalism and the vague feeling of divinity at the base of any radical empiricism are important (see Ch. 1 of Modes of Thought) in Whitehead’s scheme.

Here is Lowe, again, on eternal objects:

For Whitehead, as for Aristotle, process is the realizing of selected antecedent potentialities, or it is unexplainable. “Pure potentials for the specific determinations of fact”–that is what eternal objects are. And that is all they are. The ideal is nothing more than a possibility (good or bad) for the actual. Whitehead so emphatically repudiates the Platonic tendency to think of the realm of forms as constituting a superior, self-sufficient type of existence, that he interprets even the propositions of mathematics as statements about certain possible forms of process (43).

Whitehead did not conceive of eternal objects in abstraction from concreate occasions. These two categories are not to be conceived separately, as Cartesian substances like mind and matter; their coherence depends upon their explanatory coincidence. There can be no occasions of experience of a definite character unless there are eternal objects to so characterize them; and there can be no external objects with actual effects unless there are real creatures to value them.

Graham Harman on Atheism

Graham Harman recently posted about the tendency of atheist intellectuals to dismiss anyone with a theistic worldview:

Disbelief in God was cutting-edge in the 1600′s and is still cutting edge at age 15. I’m not saying you should believe in God after those two landmarks; I’ll leave that up to you. I’m just saying, it seems a bit absurd to use the question of someone’s belief or disbelief in God as one of the chef pillars of your judgment about that person’s intellectual caliber.

Theism/Atheism: Imagination and Ontological Openness

There is no need to oppose one possibility with the other. Speculative philosophy’s task is to overcome the dualistic limitations of sense-understanding (subject v. object, quality v. substance) by way of a schematic renewal of (or participatory intervention into) our habitual way of imaging the world. Speculative philosophy must hold the binary (God/no-God) together to form a coherent image of the universe. The question is not: “does God exist?” but “what is the universe such that God does and does not exist?” Theism makes no sense without the possibility of atheism, and vice versa: they are interdependent, sometimes parasitic, sometimes symbiotic modes of thought.

I would employ religious language by suggesting that “Faith” is a pre-requisite for knowledge of the speculative kind, whether banal or beatific. “Doubt” is a pre-requisite for knowledge of the scientific kind. Scientists don’t ask: “is it true?” but “can it be tested?” Without doubt, faith is blind; but without faith, doubt is closed to the experience of truth. How can philosophy hold faith and doubt, experiential potentiality and experimental verification, together? I continue to struggle to think their coincidence.

Speculation requires opening one’s imagination to the possible, so as to prepare oneself for the perception of what is actual. The search for “proof” is not the primary aim of speculative philosophy, since it operates on an imaginative plane of cognition interested in increasing the conceptual potentiality and aesthetic intensity of experience. Truth co-emerges with valuation and enjoyment, and so instead of attempting to prove anything, I aim only to express and suggest, to seek out exciting propositions whose “errors” (in Whitehead’s sense) are productive of greater beauty and goodness. The aim of speculative philosophy is the transformation of perceptual conflicts into novel conceptual contrasts. Then truth need no longer be opposed to falsity, since it is precisely because of its mistakes that the universe realizes itself as itself. The universe is not “really” a monadic God, or “really” an atomic aggregate. It is more like an unfolding process of nomadic cosmogenesis.

Religion and Philosophy: The God Problem

The discussion continues over on Levi Bryant’s blog.

Bryant agrees with me that Whitehead’s conception of God does not fall prey to many of the ethical and epistemological criticisms he levels against traditional theism. But he fails to understand the problem that Whitehead’s God is purported to have solved.

Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy. I don’t think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this, but he might add that the way this fact is to be integrated by philosophy is through some sort of sociological or neurological reduction (i.e., the content of religious experiences is entirely culturally or cranially constructed).

Whitehead integrates the fact of humanity’s religious inheritance (which is both experiential and scriptural–and these two sources are inextricably bound up in my opinion) in a different way. He abides by what Bruno Latour has since come to call the principle of irreduction: a phenomenon can sometimes be translated into a related phenomenon, but never explained by reference to anything other than its own internal reasons. Instead of reducing the content of religious experience to something merely cultural or merely neural that must be rejected wholesale as superstition, Whitehead accepts the cultural habits he has inherited as the “imaginative background” constituting the condition for the possibility of his own speculative flights into conceptual novelty. He sees no other choice but to think with the historical milieu in which he is embedded, even if this thinking leads eventually to a creative revisioning of his culture’s fundamental assumptions. As Latour and Stengers later articulated, Whitehead’s cosmology is not separable from his politics. Nor is his ontology separable from his sociology. Human experience is to be understood based upon the same criteria of explanation and existence as the experience of any other organism. If the vast majority of the earth’s human inhabitants currently find the concept of God meaningful in some ultimate sense, this is a cosmic fact Whitehead cannot afford to dismiss.

Bryant and other atheists may not find this at all compelling. That a majority of humanity holds certain beliefs about God is no evidence whatsoever as to the validity of those beliefs. Whitehead, however, is a pragmatist; for him, the truth of an idea is not a matter of correspondence to some pre-given reality; or at least if truth is correspondence, it is not very interesting to him. What matters to Whitehead is how our conceptual propositions create novel contrasts in our interpretation of experience in order to further the Universe’s adventure of ideas. In a Universe that relates to itself sensually (i.e., via prehensions), interesting lies are often more effective–more productive of value–than boring or obvious truths (at least if adventure is our goal).

It all comes down to how we construe the relationship between philosophy and religion. Hegel argued that the content of each was the same. Whitehead agrees. The role of philosophy is always to be the critic of abstractions, whether they be scientific or religious in origin. Scientific abstractions tend to be derived from empirico-mathematical (i.e., theoretical) cognitions, while religious abstractions tend to be derived from ethico-scriptural (i.e., practical) emotions. Philosophy’s role is to bring our thinking and our feeling into constructive harmony: the abstractions employed by science and religion are systematized by philosophy so as to presuppose one another such that in isolation they are meaningless.

It is perhaps a mistake to use the descriptor “Christianity,” since this will only invite the knee-jerk dismissal of what I am about to say; but nonetheless, I think the archetypal meaning of the Christ event is highly relevant in any discussion of the relationship between religion and philosophy. The history of Christian theology represents a sort of unhappy compromise between Hebraic eschatology and Greek cosmology. We should not underestimate the profound transformation that the God of the Old Testament had to go through in order to become the God of the Gospels. I think Christianity, whose central figure is purported to have accomplished the complete synthesis of spirit and matter, eternity and time, myth and history, creator and creation, etc., still has a significant role to play in the unfolding of our civilization. In fact, I think (like Rudolf Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin) that we’ve only just begun to feel the cosmohistorical repercussions of the Christ event.

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.