Avoiding the Religion of Scientism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schumacher writes:

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

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

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

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

Let us not obscure the difference.

The Science of Life

Daniel Dennett says biology is engineering. He argues that living organisms are machines, flattening the classical Aristotelian difference between natural and artificial. For Aristotle, natural things had their form and purpose internal to themselves, while artificial things were designed from without for a purpose other than themselves. Of course, the beauty of human art (film, painting, poetry, music, …) is also of itself so, and in this sense participates in the autopoiesis of nature (Plato was suspicious of the muse precisely because it brings the soul back in touch with the body). But can manufactured technologies, like computers, really explain living systems, like us? Is biology engineering, or is Dennett conflating science (i.e., theoretical knowledge) with technology (know-how)?

If my body is the product of a purely mechanical process “as patient as it was mindless” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 188), out of what did this process make the psychological existence that I am? Why was the early earth in such a rush to come to life? How did molecules begin to feel? And why is it that metazoa evolved eyes in at least 40 distinct hereditary lines? It is as though nature’s evolutionary adventure has an aim: seeing clearer in order to feel more intensly. Patient it may be, but now that nature has grown muscles and nerves, innovation has become a regularity.

Darwin wasn’t trying to account for the wholeness of organisms, but for specific differences between them. Dennett has turned this useful heuristic into a “universal acid,” thereby conflating a phylogenetic theory for a theory of ontogeny. In other words, Dennett tries to explain the immanent purposes and holistic form of individual organisms entirely in terms of the differential survival of replicating genetic algorithms. He doesn’t seem to find the question of how a living body continually produces itself particularly relevant to biology, or perhaps assumes Darwin’s anecdotes somehow explain self-organization and production. Certainly, variation and competition are necessary for evolution to occur; but they are not sufficient as an explanation for life. Darwin assumes the existence of autopoietic organisms that can reproduce–they are the underlying momentum powering his theoretical analogy between the domestication of animals via human selection and the entire history of life. The reductionist explanation for living organization cannot come out of a theory that already assumes it exists.

[Also, see my essay On the Matter of Life for the reason the Design paradigm fails from the beginning to approach biology from the proper angle (as physis, rather thantechne — for more on this distinction, see this essay: Unearthing the Earth). This is true whether we’re talking about Supernatural, or Natural selection/design.]

Timaeus, or the Universe as a Living Thing

Cosmology is an art that involves speaking about the whole: to do cosmology, I must share stories with others concerning what we all belong to. This can be done in many languages –some musical, others mathematical– and if I succeed, perhaps in English text.

The universe is a body, according to Plato– a Living Thing. It is unlike our own animal bodies, because it has no arms or legs to move around, since it is everywhere at once. Nor does it have a mouth, since there is nothing for it to eat except itself. Nor eyes, for who would it see?

Plato’s living cosmos is both still and in motion at once. It is a moving image of eternity. Our own bodies are signs of this body, mortal replicas of the universal model. This Cosmic Being is not just an empty body, though; it is given life by a soul.

Plato writes (as Timaeus in the dialogue) of a soul woven together with the body of the universe, and that:

…revolving within itself, [the world soul] initiated a divine beginning of unceasing, intelligent life for all time, (p.1240, Plato Complete Works).

Eternity can only appear to move and remain unified because of the harmony of time, as recounted by the soul. Plato sees the cause of the motion of the fixed stars is none other than there destiny: time is told according to number –past and future part of a single whole– together a “symphony of proportion.” The universe is a living likeness of the One held together by the music of the spheres.

Plato writes:

This world of ours has received and teems with living things, mortal and immortal. A visible living thing containing visible ones, perceptible god, image of the intelligible Living Thing, its grandness, goodness, beauty and perfection are unexcelled, (p. 1291, PCW).

Plato’s tale (he admits several times it is only a “likely story”) includes a demiurge, a divine craftsman responsible for shaping the chaos of matter into an ordered cosmos. The demiurge created lesser gods to make humans, because a truly immortal thing such as he could not create mortals. Intermediaries were required. Plato means the fixed and wandering stars (planets) when he speaks of gods, and says of the earth that it “ranks as the foremost, the one with greatest seniority,” and is our nurturer and guardian of night and day (p. 1244, PCW).

Though he speaks often of mortal bodies in general (by which he means the male body), seldom does Plato mention sex. When he does, he explains its origin thus:

…according to our likely account, all male-born humans who lived lives of cowardice or injustice were reborn in the second generation as women, (p. 1289, PCW).

It’s a fitting tale for a philosopher in love with only invisible ideas and their abstract explanations. But in the embodied world, sex remains to be encountered before it can be accounted for. Plato explains sexual difference by all but avoiding it, which is to say he demands we reign in our bodily desires to commit ourselves entirely to the Good itself, beyond all space and time, and especially beyond the pleasures and pains of the body. Only a brief line or two are required for Plato to remind the reader that the female body is but a corupted offshoot of man’s. He describes a woman’s uterus as though it were the cause of a demonic possession, making women nearly incapable of being reasoned with (Plato, in the Republic, does grant women rational souls of their own); he speaks of intercourse as “plucking the fruit from a tree, [sowing] the seed into the plough field of [the] womb” (p. 1290, PCW), thereby making man the cause of new life, and woman merely its temporary vessel. [Read this essay I wrote last year for more on the repression of femininity throughout Western history. Riane Eisler has elsewhere detailed the importance of agricultural metaphors in patriarchal civilization.]

Cosmology is the study of the body of the universe, its soul, and the living, procreating, and dying of the plants and animals within it. Plato retains a few precious hints of the goddess mysteries that tied pre-historical human civilization together; but much of his account of the cosmos is despite sex and death, rather than integral with them. Plato’s is the story of Man’s universe, though he is still forced at times to admit the presence of something else.

The most mysterious of Plato’s metaphysical concepts is not the demiurge, whose fatherly role is quite straightforward; rather, the motherly Receptacle remains “difficult and vague,” as Plato writes of this “wetnurse”:

Not only does it always receive all things, it has never in any way whatever taken on any characteristic similar to any of the things that enter it, (p. 1253).

The demiurge could not create on his own, but needed the help of space, of the cosmic womb. What does it mean that our universe is the product of such divine intercourse? Plato does his best to make it a sexless cosmos, and his failure is evidenced by his blatant phallocentrism. Where his ancient Greek tale fails, we modern children of Gaia are called to put the pieces back together. How are we to tell the story of our universe so that it celebrates women, sex, and mortality as much as the True, the Good, and the Beautiful?

Ongoing discussion on PZ Myers’ blog

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noospheric Evolution: Science and Religion

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

From Discovery’s submission page:

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

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

Evolution’s Essence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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