Ongoing discussion on PZ Myers’ blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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