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

 

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

I’ve been having a very stimulating discussion with a Christian theologian named Jason Michael McCann. He has held up a mirror to my ideas and allowed me to see them in a new light. His criticisms are fair and I hope we will each benefit from continued exposure to what may turn out to be radically different readings of the Christian tradition, as well as differing ways of expressing the Christ-impulse at our particular moment in history. I think it is already evident that JMM and I share similar perspectives, but for better or worse, my spiritual speculations and interpretations are unmoored from the venerable doctrines of any particular Creed or Council. I am not very systematic, either, and so to call any of what I do here on this blog “theology” is perhaps misleading. There may be some philosophy here, but I know for a fact there are many analytically-trained philosophers who would dismiss the expressions of my love of wisdom as poetic nonsense. I’m less interested in theo-logic, or any attempt to rationalize or justify a transcendent God, than I am in expressing what Raimon Panikkar has called the “cosmotheandric principle.”

In short, the cosmotheandric principle suggests that no account of reality can be complete unless it recognizes the interdependence of the universe, the divine, and the human. Christianity speaks to me not as a theology, but as an anthropology. This is not because, like Feuerbach, I think God is merely a human projection or ideal. Rather, Christianity is the natural culmination of anthropology, a lotus still sprouting from the murky soil of human civilization. And humanity is similarly the product of a cosmic longing for what Teilhard de Chardin called “personalization.” To continue the Teilhardian terminology: Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis, and anthropogenesis is Christogenesis. (Incidently, Paul writes in Galatians 6:14 that the world itself was crucified upon the cross, implying that Christ’s Resurrection is also the creation of a new cosmos.)

Perhaps the primary difference thus far uncovered between JMM and I concerns the role of imagination, which is not, for me, unrelated to the nature of the divine-human relationship. I dwell on the spiritual significance of imagination in what follows.

“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk,” writes John Keats in a letter to Shelly. Blake went so far as to call imagination “the Divine Body of lord Jesus, blessed for ever.” Blake saw clearly that the old quarrel between Plato and Homer was alive and well: the abstract philosophy of “Newton’s single vision” was in his day “warring in enmity against Imagination.”

Why is imagination so important? Because it constantly challenges the intellect’s attempts to systematize experience. A deadened imagination lead the Pharisees to place the letter of the law before the Spirit (Mark 2:3-28). Not even stone tablets can survive the fiery caldron of imagination that lights the hearts of the faithful. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which is not to say that scripture should not be read and respected. It is just a reminder that the Spirit’s revelations are ongoing, and that the doctrines codified by learned councils must be balanced by the poetic prayers and visions of mystics.

I believe the incarnation of the Word is an ongoing historical event that is re-making the world from the inside out. Human beings are participants in this divine-cosmic drama, and there is no higher form of worship than divine imitation (humble imitation!). Our task is to imaginatively body-forth an earth whose economy runs on love instead of envy and hate. Not closer adherence to law, but a transformation of the human heart-mind is required.

This NPR article mentions one of my professors, cosmologist Brian Swimme. Here is my comment:

Dr. Swimme calls gravity love, and I think it is an apt metaphor. Anthropomorphic? Perhaps, but how else are we to really understand gravity unless we can relate it to our human experience of the universe? And it is not as if physicists haven’t always been morphing that “great apparition” (Emerson) called nature into something more down to earth so as to understand it: energy, for example, is defined as the ability to do “work,” which is a sociological concept. Similarly, Darwin’s whole theory of natural selection is built upon an analogy with human selection of domesticated animals. Physics is typically mechanomorphic, which is to say it understands the nature of the universe by analogy to a machine. The universe is not a machine, of course. Dr. Swimme’s poetic cosmology is an attempt to remind us of the cosmos’ more human dimension.

Gravity Is Love, And Other Astounding Metaphors : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR.

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]).

A response to Owlmirror on Pharyngula,

You suggest that idealism is incoherent because 1) it doesn’t explain “things acting under purely physical rules, rather than mental states.”

-What is a physical rule, exactly? How are these rules or laws determined, and why, as in the case of our particular universe, are they so organized as to sustain and propel the “extreme complexity” of its living and intelligent inhabitants? Modern physics can be interpreted as having discovered that reality is made out of information (see “digital physics”)–if it is made out of anything at all. What is information? G. Bateson defined it as “a difference that makes a difference,” with the implication that it must make a difference to somebody. Information is the result of measurement, and you guessed it, minds are the only kinds of things we know of that can measure. So your first objection doesn’t seem to hold up. “Physical rules” are not mind-independent, but the result of the measurement of minds.

You suggest idealism is incoherent 2) for not explaining why minds become unconscious.

-If you’ll follow me in recognizing that there are both conscious and unconscious mental states, then it is quite simple for one of the idealist persuasion to explain why consciousness sometimes seems to disappear. When it does disappear, it is not therefore dissolved into nothingness, but enters the unconscious, which is still part of mind proper. The unconscious is full of feelings, images, instincts, and all sorts of proto-conscious  contents. The idealist is not committed to the notion that mind is always conscious mind.
You suggest idealism is incoherent because 3) it doesn’t explain death: “why should the minds that we see be so dependent on the body?”

-The idealist could still be correct about the nature of reality, if, upon his or her own death, the mind continues to exist in some other form in a dimension invisible to those of us who remain physically embodied, watching the idealist’s body decompose. Your question forgets that the death of another person is not at all the same, ontologically, as my own death. What I can know about the latter 2nd hand is not the same as what I can know 1st hand about the former.
You suggest sensation is explained as an “extremely complex chemical reaction.”

-This is true, living things are extremely  complex; but how, exactly, does this complexity of structure and molecular work become the conscious experience of agency, mental imagery, or the feeling of beauty? I’m not asking for an explanation of behavior that looks as if it were conscious. I am asking for an explanation, or at least a theoretical account, for the supposed causal mechanism that turns physical motions into conscious emotions. How does the exchange of electrons create intelligence? I am not disputing that, in some sense, this is exactly what is actually happening. My point is that matter must not be the kind of stuff the materialist assumes it is if consciousness is worth taking seriously (and not just dismissed as an illusion or epiphenomenon).
You suggest that materialism could be proven false, if only an idealist could demonstrate how mind could not be the result of material processes. But you’ve offered no theory for how matter (whose behavior is, I think you’d argue, purely mechanical) could make mind. The materialist is in no better position so far as demonstration goes.
Rationality of the kind known and practiced in Europe in the modern period shouldn’t be conflated with ancient traditions, whether they are Greek (Democritus) or Indian (Carvaka). Non-dual traditions like Madhyamaka are not analytical slouches, but their conclusions about the nature of reality are foreign to Western habits of mind. If we remain within our own categories, perhaps my arguments above about the superiority of idealism hold true. But I think Nargajuna’s dialectic successfully demolishes both materialism and idealism as independent systems. He reveals them to be ultimately self-contradictory (or mutually-dependent). All that is real, mental or physical, dependently co-originates. Idealism and materialism would then depend on an outer antagonism in order to maintain the semblance of their own inner consistency. I believe something similar holds true of atheism and theism.

Another response to NRG’s questions for me on Pharyngula:

I have trouble conceiving of God as all-powerful because of the problem of evil and my experience of human freedom. I associated God’s omnipresence with “will” even though, for God, there is really nothing to “do.” From the “perspective” of eternity, God is already everywhere and everywhen at once. It is when omnipresence get’s stepped down into its human incarnation, that it becomes will or desire; unlike God, humans between birth and death have a particular embodied perspective on space-time, but volition is our means of approaching the infinite presence of God. To actually unite with God’s infinite presence, I believe one would have to die for the love of or in love with all other sentient beings. We only get one chance per lifetime to will the infinite in this way. It is not easy, I suspect, to remain fully present to others in such a way during one’s own death.

I should remind you that I am playing here, that I have indeed stepped outside the strictures of scripture and am making this up as I go along, so to speak. Am I just feeling that these nice ideas should be true, or am I willing that they be so out of the power of my own imagination? I think I do feel and will that they are so. But I think this. My thinking is not separate from my feelings and my will. This is the mystery of the Trinity: three persons/functions, one God/Self. I do not think the intellect could know anything at all without volition (will) and judgment (feeling) involved in the act as well.

Does the reality of a soul, or of a soul not confined to the body but extended into the world, mean that “God did it?” No, as I said above, I don’t think the idea of God does any epistemic work when dealing with natural phenomena (the soul is “natural” in that it is part of the manifest world, part of the actual phenomena constituting our psychological experience as people). All that it means is that “matter” is not the ultimate explanatory principle.

I was raised with a foot in both Judaism and Christianity, and became an atheist around 11 or 12 when I first read Stephen Hawking’sA Brief History of Time.” I believed until about 17 that “science would win,” as Hawking has since suggested. I saw Western religious institutions as dogmatic and oppressive, and their scriptures (which I’d yet to read much of) as deluded and in flat contradiction to the facts of science (or the claims of scientists, a distinction I wasn’t yet able to make). But then I took a psychology class in 11th grade and read the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts, among others. I realized that something intrinsic to human nature inextricably lures us toward the sacred and would continue to do so despite the success of the scientific method. I begin to study philosophy more closely in college, and realized soon after that the “facts” of scientific materialism didn’t necessarily hold up after sustained reflection on the history of science (Kuhn). I came to see also that there existed a rich diversity of thriving philosophical attitudes concerning the ultimate nature of things–in short, I came to recognize that materialism was not the only conclusion to which one could be lead based upon the last 400 years of natural science.

“God” is an idea I play with, an idea I admit I cannot know fully, or even know how I know what little I may know about it. But everything I experience points me toward this “strange attractor” called God (or Hegel’s Absolute, or Plato’s idea of the Good, or Teilhard’s Omega).

When I first watched the following clip from an interview with Jung, I was intrigued by the expression on his face after being asked if he believed in God… “difficult to answer…” Something like the feeling he must be experiencing behind that smirking face guides my intuitions about the divine:

“NRG” posting over on Pharyngula asks me:

Why impute an admittedly Unknowable Omni God to explain currently inexplainable phenomena, if it’s much more reasonable, based on what we actually know, to assume that other citizens of the universe, evolved like us but to a much greater degree, are responsible for such phenomena? To make it shorter: Why say that God did it, when it’s better to say that Aliens did?

I wouldn’t marshall the concept “God” as an explanation for a natural phenomenon (explanation of the universe itself is another matter, as strictly speaking, the universe as a whole is not a “phenomenon” available for scientific observation–I’ll say more below). I suspect that if the miracles of the Old Testament turned out to be the handiwork of a technologically advanced extra-terrestrial species, Christians would no longer be satisfied that this presumed being, “Yahweh,” mistakenly worshipped by the Israelites, was in fact God. God is not a being among beings, a species among species. God, for a Christian (at least for a philosophical Christian like Augustine, Aquinas, or Hegel), is the Being of beings. God is Creator, and not creature (this doesn’t necessarily mean God is entirely separate from creatures, just that, while creation participates in God, God still transcends creation’s immanence).

Francis Crick had the same intuitive reaction to the complexity of life on the molecular level that Intelligent Design advocates try to rationally justify their belief in God with, but Crick correctly recognized that aliens are more likely to have engineered this marvel than Jehovah. But then again, this just passes the buck back another layer of explanation: we’re still left wondering who/what created the first living organism capable of such intelligent design. So maybe it is better to say aliens did it, but it is still only relatively better.

The universe contains many marvels assuring its continued existence as cosmos instead of chaos, but I don’t think resorting to “design,” whether theistic or naturalistic, is the best way to explain it. William Paley and Charles Darwin share more in common philosophically than is often admitted (ditto for Hegel and Marx). Design is itself a paradigm, and it does theoretical work whether one’s analogy compares God to human designers (who select for traits in domesticated animals) or one compares Nature to humans (as Darwin did). The universe cannot be explained by way of design (natural or divine) unless we are prepared to accept a dualistic framework, where one substance (God or Nature/Laws of Physics) shapes and lords over another (human beings/life).

I read Plato with great joy, especially the Timaeus, where he suggests it is a “likely story” that the universe is a living creature, rather than a clockwork. The universe is unique among science’s objects of study, because unlike natural phenomena in general, it does not and cannot show itself all at once. The scientist, like Plato, lives in a natural universe in the process of becoming. Neither can say anything for certain about its shifty and transitory nature, but each can offer a probable, or likely story. Fiction or non-fiction? Well, the difference is not so clear, but we can be discerning… Plato’s story remains a bit mythical, but his student Aristotle grounds his teacher’s celestial ideas in the more concrete matters of life on earth. Ideas (“ideas” in the Mind of God, or “causes” of Natural Selection) do not “design” or shape organisms from the outside, in Aristotle’s biology; rather, organisms give actual expression to God’s creative and intelligent potential.

There is no need to speak of “God” interfering with the course of events in Aristotle’s cosmos. The notion of an interventionist deity has more to do with Modernity than it does with traditional theism.

As for aliens, I wonder how much this possibility can be distinguished, in practice if not in theory, from the medieval notion of angels, or the pagan belief in faeries? Might not alien abilities and attributes be just as fantastic as humanity’s earlier iterations of the strange and unknown intelligence potentially lurking beneath the more mundane appearances of our universe?

[I’ve since posted several more comments on similar themes.]

My recent comments on Pharyngula

Excerpts from my comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PZ Myers’ blog post:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

This is my textual response to Steve Ramirez’s post:

Steve,

First, thanks for taking the time to rebut, in writing, some of my statements concerning consciousness on YouYube. As a thinker, I can hardly think of a more helpful gift than a detailed counter-posturing in response to my ideas. I think consciousness is involved in an evolutionary adventure, and by entering into such philosophical discussions with one another perhaps we can participate in its next few steps.

When it comes to consciousness, I am neither mysterian (like Colin McGinn and perhaps Penrose), nor a dualist (like Chalmers). Since you mentioned him, I would align myself with someone like William James, whose broadly phenomenological approach to consciousness is an important reminder to scientists that we are here dealing with the study of our own being and knowing, not with another abstract scientific object easily separable from ourselves as subjects. James developed a breed of monism, where concepts like mind and matter were both derived from a unified substratum of “pure experience.” Whether a particular natural event is understood to be material or mental depends upon its relations to other events, not on something intrinsic to its own substance.

I don’t want to get too much further into James’ ideas, but suffice it to say that our disagreement, Steve, is the result not of a misunderstanding on the level of evident facts (with all due respect, though I’m not a doctoral student in neuroscience, I’m not uninformed about the field), but on the much more foundational level of metaphysics. We each begin thinking about these issues out of radically different imaginary backgrounds. It seems that you begin by taking for granted that the “real world” of matter, energy, space and time is entirely mind-independent, and that mind somehow bubbles up out of inert matter when that matter unintentionally falls (via natural selection) into certain patterns of activity. I, on the other hand, cannot make intelligible sense out of such a picture, and so I begin with different assumptions (like those of James), that reality is not made of mind or matter; reality is a relational process whose features (psychical and physical) are continually brought forth out of a primordial, non-substantial creative ground.

Steve, in response to my claim that neuroscience has only shown a correlation between some conscious states and some brain states, you write:

“If we can explain how, when, and why neurons fire in particular patterns, interact with various other brain regions, and finally produce a particular behavior, then we have described all there is to describe. Calling this a ‘correlation’ is a deep misunderstanding of the term, and it’s what happens when a rookie throws his hardest 35mph intellectual fastball at the hard-hitting Babe Ruths of science.”

What is the neuroscientist trying to explain, consciousness or behavior? They are not the same thing. A car engine can behave functionally or it can break down. In neither case is the engine conscious. The only way complete knowledge of neural functioning could count as complete knowledge of consciousness is if the researcher assumed from the beginning that mental phenomena are an illusion or epiphenomenon. A more scientific position would be to withhold such assumptions until further study had been completed. In my estimation, neuroscience is about where physics was in the 18th century. The studies you linked to are impressive, but NONE of them offer even the beginnings of a theory to account for how neurochemical activity becomes or is identical to consciousness. Simply stating that consciousness is in the brain, even if you are wearing a white lab coat, is not the same as accounting for how this is so.

In the case of Crick and Koch’s research, I think their findings tell us more about visual perception than consciousness. It does appear that our visual experience is topographically correlated with activity in the occipital cortex. But as to how this neural activity is related to experience, their theory tells us nothing. And although you tried to argue that natural selection allows neural reductionism to avoid solipsism, aren’t research programs like Crick and Koch’s suggesting that the rich, colorful environment I see is actually the neural activity in the back of my skull? This sort of approach calls into question the whole enterprise of scientific objectivity and seems to me to represent a glaring inconsistency in the materialistic worldview. If our experience is caused by brain activity, we know nothing about the material world but what our contingent physiology allows us to. Nothing in the principles of natural selection suggest that true perception of mind-independent reality is necessary for survival and reproduction. The sort of reductionistic picture you’ve painted in this post suggests that all of our experience as conscious, willful human beings is delusory, or at best virtual. Not only would this undermine ethical responsibility and make a mockery of our justice system, but it calls the epistemic basis of scientific inquiry itself into question. If consciousness is just a product of the brain, and the brain is just a product of natural selection, then scientific knowledge is merely a likely story shaped by the contingency of our organs of perception.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather science rest upon more secure foundations. I’m worried that in the rush to crown itself the queen of human knowledge, natural science is in fact undermining its own validity.

The following is a video response I posted on YouTube to a blog post by Steve Ramirez about consciousness and neuroscience.

 

 

He writes the following:

Matthew Segall, known popularly as “0ThouArtThat0″ on youtube, is as eloquent as any up and coming philosopher – an eloquence rivaled in magnitude only by his deep misunderstanding of how science works. His musings on consciousness and God are admirable and bold, and it is refreshing to see a philosopher who doesn’t shy away from scientific theory. But he is also an example par excellence of a thinker who just gets science wrong.

I’ll rehash some of his claims because they echo the thoughts of numerous philosophers and – I hate to say it – even some scientists (these scientists tend to be more like Penrose and less like, say, Koch or Crick).

“Without a human brain, human consciousness is not possible… But it does not follow that consciousness is located inside the skull…”

“All the empirical studies of the brain that have ever been done and that could ever be done reveal only a correlation between experience and neural tissue. No causal relationship can be shown empirically…”

“No matter how hard we try to look for our own subjectivity in the brain, we will find only objects other than ourselves. You can’t see consciousness. You can’t feel it… This is why it is a category mistake to think empirical science could account for it in terms of brain activity alone.”

Really? You do not know, then, how precise our tools are. And so, allow me to lend a machete to this intellectual thicket. For starters, read this. It’s a nice and thorough review of what scientists mean by “consciousness” and the various, often clever, methods being used to show the connection between neural tissue and thought. (I purposely left out the word “correlate,” because as the studies below will demonstrate, causality is a realistic claim using today’s techniques).

Discovery stops when we sit down on the armchair and bask in awe at the magnificently complicated process of consciousness, and this awe blinds us to the tractability of the problem at hand. (To be fair, scientists often are up in the Ivory Tower for too long and forget to come down and share the importance of whatever experiment is brewing.)

 

Here is a message and my response that I’ve exchanged over on YouTube as 0ThouArtThat0.

 

From YouTube user drchaffee:

 

Thanks for understanding that I wasn’t trying to demean you with my length-constrained message to your video.

I’ve had a question rolling around in my head for a couple of days, and I just realized that you’d be a good candidate for someone with an answer. You see, I’ve been interested in philosophy and science for as long as I can remember. I find ontology to be very interesting, and I’m drawn to a naturalism in every field of endeavor. But, philosophers haven’t seemed to decide upon anything. There are people wandering around with Platonic forms in their heads, and there are people who think that, if those exist at all, they are derivative. Etc. Has philosophy had any big success? Is there some wholly philosophical arrangement that has won the allegiance of, say 95%, of the thinkers and has had demonstrable relevance? Because I look at science, and I see evidence for its utility, and I am just not seeing it within philosophy. Seemingly every book I get starts with “Plato said X, Aristotle said Y, Hume this, Kant that, Hegel something else, etc” I will enjoy philosophy either way, but if one were to ponder the nature of physical reality, it seems that physics might be a better route to take. (Or, in different areas of interest, the field(s) of science that address it.) So, what do you think – what can philosophers point to as a big intellectual accomplishment? The best answer I can come up with is “Know thyself”, the Golden Rule, and “Be Skeptical”.

Thanks,
Dave

While I’m at it, let me say that I’d really like to talk with you one of these days. I’ve come away with such a different worldview, that I think it would be an interesting conversation. I think our rationality is largely an activity in hindsight – making sense to ourselves out of what has already happened. I think our morality is subjective, and typically better called moralistic behavior. And, as I said earlier, I’m good at finding things which are mysterious, but have had no experience of spirituality, mysticism, the numinous, the divine, etc. When it comes to ontology, my preference is for a single category – no fundamental (properly basic) dualism.

 

 

My response:

drchaffee,

I wouldn’t have posted thousands of videos of speculative philosophizing online if I was worried about being demeaned by commenters. At least half of the comments I get on some videos are insults. You’re comment is among the most polite I can remember. YouTube is not a very friendly place for intuitive speculation. People seem far more entertained by intellectual and religious dogmatists.

As for philosophy’s lack of utility, my first thought is to agree, that it is absolutely useless in the technological and economic senses. Of course, Leibnitz did invent the computer and Pythagorus inaugurated the mathematical mysticism that currently holds sway among theoretical physicists. But each of them was more concerned with the ideas themselves than with implementing them in the world, or with changing history by realizing their implications.

Every philosopher in history was an individual human being, or at least strove to be. I think the philosophic task is always first and foremost autobiographical. Philosophy is exactly what you answered: it is a response to the call in our conscience to “know thyself.” You won’t find any general answers in philosophy that everyone agrees to, because philosophy is primarily concerned with YOU, with the unique opening in the causal world-process represented by your consciousness.

By the way, Plato’s ideas were not in his head. At least if you take him for his word and begin to participate in the universe that he knew. Plato’s ideas were MORE real than the bones forming your skull. Plato saw ideas at work in the cosmos itself (some of today’s physicists, like S. Hawking, call them “laws of nature,” which is more Roman than Greek… Plato’s nature was a transitory image). He saw nature as the activity of an only barely hidden intelligence. He was not a vitalist, nor was Aristotle. He simply recognized in the songs of the spheres and the moods of the seasons a certain harmony in nature that pointed toward divinity, toward the Good which makes all things. The pattern is plainly evident in the things themselves, if only one has the heart and the mind to see it.

Faith is often construed as a movement of the heart, rather than the mind, which supposedly would make it a religious, rather than a philosophical issue. But I am unable to philosophize without my heart, because my thoughts don’t seem to have any direction without a moral impulse at their root. I am not sure what you mean when you say our morality is subjective. I think I agree, but then I’d say damn near everything is subjective. What is objective, exactly? Natural science? How is that? Science is a cultural activity that gives the human organism a seemingly endless supply (depending on economic investment) of technological paradigms out of which we (that is, the lay public/consumer) bring forth perceptuobehavioral worlds. It doesn’t give us knowledge of a mind-independent reality. It enacts realities for us, usually (or at least historically) of the technoindustrial variety. What role does the human heart play in natural science? What role does it play in philosophy? Can the human heart evaluate the nature of reality in a disinterested, purely intellectual way? Is the truth entirely lacking any moral significance?

Naturalism, or materialism, or physicalism, or whatever sort of entirely de-spirited and disenchanted cosmology all leave me unable to answer most of the important questions I have about life.

I also do not think duality is fundamental. But what is the One True Substance? Matter? What is matter, anyway? Where did it come from? How did it organize itself?

I don’t know what God is, exactly. But I think if we are going to be Monists, whether we call the stuff divine or call it dirt, it has become personalized. We living breathing talking thinking human beings are the One Substance coming to know and love itself as itself.

I do not believe you when you say you have no experience of spirituality or the numinous. It is present with you all the time. Who are you? You are a spirit.

Be skeptical.

and be blessed,
Matt