Response to Kelosophy about Science and Materialism

Kel’s blog:

Hey Kel,

So I’d much rather enter a dialogue with you here than on Pharyngula. It doesn’t seem to me to be the best place to critically discuss these issues. I hope that is okay with you.
You wrote

“What I worry about Matthew is that this [my comment that a scientific cosmology could still be sacred] could be taken two ways. There’s the fallacy of taking an intuitive sense about the world and expecting science to hold that sacred – vitalism, dualism, the soul, gods, etc. – trying to impose these ideas into science just makes for bad science. But to celebrate science in the way Carl Sagan did or in the way Michael Dowd is doing, there’s already that now.From my interaction with you on here, I think you fall into the first category. You’ve repeatedly talked about the negative implications of materialism, so I have to wonder just why you would be trying to argue for celebrating scientific knowledge? You reject its implications!”

So far as I am aware, Michael Dowd is not a materialist. He does, however, take the revelations of the scientific method very seriously. I see him in the same lineage as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. The mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme is another for whom scientific knowledge is fundamental to his worldview, but who is also not a materialist. Vitalism, dualism, etc. not the only metaphysical options available aside from materialism that remain live options when considered alongside modern scientific facts. The most well-articulated metaphysical alternative to materialism that I’ve yet come across is that of physicist, mathematician, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. It is not a matter of expecting science to hold certain values sacred, but of holding our knowledge about the world to certain common sense tests of adequacy. If materialism, as a metaphysical system, is true, then all of our common sense notions about responsibility and freedom are wrong and our entire legal system and pretenses to civilized democracy are a sham. To me, this invalidates materialism as a possible metaphysical system, not for consequentialist reasons, but for empirical reasons. It is a a matter of hard-core common sense that human persons can behave intentionally. There is nothing more plainly evident to me than that “I think,” and that these thoughts are both influenced by and have real influences on material processes in the world. We cannot reject this assumption (in the way that materialism does) without a performative self-contradiction. The point isn’t that, as Descartes was lead to believe based upon his deductions from the cogito (“I think”), reality is composed of two different substances, mind and matter. Rather, if (1) material processes are not made of bits of stuff, but of experiential events (or what Whitehead called “actual occasions,” and William James referred to as “drops of experience”) and (2) intelligence is built into matter and not an extra, supernatural addition, then the evolutionary cosmology produced by modern science has all the necessary features to serve as a new sacred story for a new civilization. Check out Brian Swimme’s approach:

Where did the idea of “God” come from?

My response to this comment about “God” being a childish idea from a more primitive age.

Kev @ 45,

Maybe. But I understand the evolution of human consciousness a bit differently. Your theory (that God was invented in our species’ infancy by childish minds who wanted an explanation for things) seems to me to inappropriately project our modern scientific attitude back in time. We should not be so quick to assume that human perception and cognition operate today in a way identical to how they operated thousands of years ago. I don’t think our species became religious because it wanted an explanation for things, but because primal people actually perceived nature in a way that has become completely foreign to we technologically inundated city dwellers. The world around them was perceived to be full of meaning and significance. This was their immediate experience, not a conceptual projection onto experience based on the desire to explain things. Ancient people developed a relationship with spiritual realities because these realities were immediately apparent to them. We still live amidst the daily miracles of the natural world, but our sense of their numinosity has been dulled both by a nearly complete re-making of the earth in our own image (so that we live within and amongst various machines and are to a large extent cut off from the natural world) and by the dominance of abstract intellectuality that obscures or paints over the overwhelming mystery of every moment of our existence. We have a scientific explanation (or at least a hypothesis) for everything these days, and in our anxious modern rush to cover over the non-rational aspects of life with such explanations, we have become blind to the spiritual realities that once cosmically situated and gave ultimate meaning to our ancestors. God is not (or at least was not originally) a (bad) scientific hypothesis meant to explain some natural phenomenon, but a symbol of the human psyche’s need for and experience of transcendence. God is a word which today might be said to represent the object of the ecstatic experience of a few mystics, but which originally was the common experience of all primal peoples.

Purpose in Biology

I couldn’t resist giving my two cents again over at Pharyngula. PZ Myers criticized the biologist and intelligent design theorist Michael Behe’s understanding of purpose in living systems. I’m not at all on board with Behe’s overall project (as you’ll see below), but I do think he is focusing on the right shortcomings in the standard Darwinian/mechanist account of evolution.

Behe is right to focus on complexity and purpose in his critique of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Before I explain why I think these are the crucial phenomena for any evolutionary theory to explain, it should be made clear that within biology, there are many distinct paradigms studying the evolutionary process, including evolutionary developmental theory, complex systems theory, niche construction theory, structural coupling/autopoietic theory, etc., and that each of these paradigms focuses on aspects of the process that a strictly Darwinian account leaves out. So while I agree with Behe’s criticism of one of these paradigms, I think his suggestion that Darwinism’s lack of a complete explanation for evolutionary phenomena demands postulating an intelligent designer is off the mark. Biology has other lenses than the Darwinian that allow it to understand the emergence of complex and purposeful organic structure and function without reference to design.

Notice that I refer above to purpose as a phenomenon, which is to say that purpose, or telos, is an observable feature of any living system. It isn’t a concept or an idea projected by humans onto organisms; it is an objective fact about what it means to be alive, whether that life be human or prokaryotic. Purpose is not to be defined as something added to a living system from outside by a designer (be it a supernatural or a natural designer). Rather, purpose has to do with the self-organizational dynamics seen in all living systems. This is not an original insight of Behe’s. Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment more than 200 years ago that there would never be a “Newton of the grass blade,” because unlike the inorganic systems that Newton was able to mathematize, organic systems are, as Kant put it, both cause and effect of themselves. Machines and other inorganic systems are structurally allopoietic (other-caused), whereas life is universally an autopoietic, or self-producing process. For a system to be cause and effect of itself does not mean it functions independently of its environment. Self-organization refers to the formal, or logical structure of a system, not to its material structure. On the material level, of course the organism is completely dependent on outside matter and energy for its continued survival. The significance of its formal, self-organizing structure consists in the way in which this outside material is transformed into the complex body of the organism in question. In philosophical terms, there is no strictly mechanical way (in terms of efficient causation) of explaining how inorganic matter takes on organic form. To adequately account for living beings that produce their own internal components and a selectively permeable membrane that continuously distinguishes them from their environment, one also must make use of non-mechanical forms of causality, specifically formal and final causality. The emergence that takes place on the molecular level to bring forth a living cell cannot be explained by reference to the parts, or the molecules, alone. A further explanatory principle is required to account for the way in which the components of an organism each work continuously to produce the organized whole of which they are a part.

These holistic and purposeful aspects of life require not the ad hoc hypothesis of a supernatural designer, but the re-appraisal of the materialist ontology that both Behe and Darwin share. That Behe may believe in a deity entirely above and beyond nature makes no difference for the way he conceives of natural beings in much the way Darwin did, as complex machines. What is needed, I think, is a cosmological picture wherein finality and formal causality are as natural as the mechanical causes science has been studying since Galileo. Not an external designer, but a principle of immanent purposes (much like Kant developed in the CoJ) may allow future biologists to overcome the false dichotomy between complete randomness and providential design. Perhaps the divine is not an all-powerful dictator above and beyond nature who shapes every atom and every animal from a pre-conceived plan, but a creative participant in the evolutionary journey of matter from initial simplicity to eventual complexity. In short, perhaps God is more of a lure toward beauty, an Omega toward which the evolutionary process is persuaded but not forced, than an architect who set it all up in advance.

A taste of what’s to come…

Two abstracts for the papers I am writing for courses on Carl Jung and the Philosophy of Relgion, respectively.

Uncovering the Unconscious: Psychology and the Soul

William James credits W. H. Myers with the discovery of “subliminal consciousness” (i.e., the unconscious) in 1886, a discovery James’ suggests is psychology’s most important insight into human nature. But Carl Jung is still forced to admit more than half a century later that psychology is a long way from the mature state of other natural sciences: “Swamped by the knowledge of external objects, the subject of knowledge has been temporarily eclipsed” (OTNOTP, par. 357). Psychology, so long as it treats the soul or the unconscious as a natural object like any other, remains to this day in a sort of pre-Copernican state. Rather than a science seeking to explain and control the soul, psychology, I will argue, would be better served by seeking out reliable means of opening and sustaining imaginal dialogue with living psychic processes. The rational ego accesses and produces detailed scientific knowledge about the external cosmos, but it is precisely the alienating force of the ego’s outward-focused and divisive eye that pushes the psyche (and indeed the psyche-cosmu) into the shadows and the depths. My paper will ask: “How is the psychologist to develop and articulate a meaningful, systematic discourse concerning the soul if the greater part of her processes are unconscious?” Jung asked the same question, and may have been forced to re-imagine the traditional relation between self and cosmos in order to answer it. Following Jean Gebser’s rejection of a dualistic conception of consciousness and unconsciousness (see The Ever-Present Origin, p. 137, 204), I will attempt to develop Jung’s own intimations of a participatory and cosmocentric psychology.

On the Nature of the Psyche by Carl Jung
The Undiscovered Self by Carl Jung
The Red Book by Carl Jung
The Ever-Present Origin by Jean Gebser
Jung and Steiner: The Birth of a New Psychology by Gerhard Wehr

Notes from Gebser’s EPO:

“After the heights of heaven have been lost, the sciences pose themselves the task of “‘exploring the depths.'” (p. 393)
“Since the super-terrestrial no longer affects man, the subterranean surges upwards.” (p. 394)
“If we are sufficiently bold as to consider the ‘unconscious’ as an acategorical element, which is suggested by the spacelessness of the psyche, then the emergent awareness of the unconscious is nothing other than the psychic form of time’s irruption into our consciousness.” (p. 396)
“There is no so-called Unconscious. There are only various modalities (or intensities) of consciousness; a one-dimensional magical, a two-dimensional mythical, a three-dimensional mental consciousness. And there will also be an integral four-dimensional consciousness of the whole.” (p. 204)
“The ‘unconscious,’ if one insists on using this misleading term at all, is the structure of consciousness one dimension less than a particular or given structure; and it is the next ‘higher’ or incremented consciousness structure which makes the unconscious amenable to its mode of understanding.” (p. 204)

Steiner on Jung:
“Everywhere we find important facts that can only be successfully dealt with by spiritual psychology (anthroposophy). At least psychoanalysis has made us aware that the reality of the soul is to be accepted as such, but the devil is at their heals. By that I mean that they are neither able nor willing to approach spiritual reality.” (JS, p. 83)

Sample writing (introduction):

“The hypothesis of the unconscious,” writes Jung, “puts a large question mark after the idea of the psyche” (OTNOTP, p. 77). Philosophers had for many centuries assumed that the structure and function of the soul was already known in every detail, but as the 19th century came to a close, the burgeoning discipline of psychology began to reveal a far more complex and even irrational subterranean source of conscious processes. Rather than the static and easily compartmentalized model of the soul constructed by Scholastic thinkers, Jung was forced by his experience as a clinician to develop a dynamic, living relationship with psychic processes. For him, the soul was not a scientific object; on the contrary, it is what makes such objectification possible: “every science is a function of the psyche, and all knowledge is rooted in it” (ibid.).

But how is psychology, the study of the soul, to proceed if its foundational hypothesis assumes the existence of an autonomously functioning unconscious? The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser recognized this difficultly, and though he had the highest respect for Jung’s groundbreaking work, he nonetheless called into question the concept of the unconscious: “There is no so-called unconscious. There are only various modalities (or intensities) of consciousness; a one-dimensional magical, a two-dimensional mythical, a three-dimensional mental consciousness. And there will also be an integral four-dimensional consciousness of the whole,” (EPO, p. 204). Gebser suggests that the concept may still be used to describe the relationship between a structure of consciousness one dimension less than the incremented structure above it, but rejects entirely the dualistic framework, wherein consciousness is opposed to an unconscious. Jung himself rarely if ever collapsed the psychic terrain into so neat a dichotomy, but Gebser’s phenomenology of consciousness in terms of an unfolding series of structures assures that such a rationalistic reduction is avoided.

In light of Gebser’s important critique of the notion of an unconscious, Jung’s work will be interpreted in what follows as the tentative beginnings of an integral psychology. Both Gebser and Rudolf Steiner will provide important additions and amendments to Jung’s psychology, so as to avoid the undue reduction of spiritual realities to psychic projections. The purpose of psychology, I will argue, is to enter conscious dialogue with the archetypal energies of the soul, so as to heal the split our mental-rational civilization has hewn between instinct and intelligence. Jung’s practice of “active imagination,” as artfully displayed in The Red Book, will provide a working example of how this dialogue can be initiated and sustained.

I. Introduction
a. The discovery of the Unconscious
b. What have Jung, Gebser, and Steiner to do with one another?
II. Gebser’s structures and critique of the unconscious
III. Steiner’s spiritual psychology
IV. Towards a neo-Jungian re-imagination of the psyche
V. Conclusion

Towards a Spiritual Science: An New Story of Human Nature

The continuing and indeed growing influence of traditional religious modalities and New Age spiritual practices in the supposedly secular Western world has forced scholars to reconsider the role of such modalities and practices in human life at both the collective and the individual level. The inevitable decline of religion as a result of the march of technoscientific progress long theorized by sociologists has not materialized as expected. Instead, we live in a world both increasingly polarized by a diverse panoply of irreconcilable belief systems and increasingly unified by the planet-wide implications of ecology and the mind-bending revelations of physical cosmology.

In my paper, I’d like to explore the creative tension at the heart of the so-called culture war between science and religion, or more specifically, between New Atheism and what, after Sean Kelly, I’d like to call Gaian panentheism. The categories of “science” and “religion” as popularly understood serve as poor conceptual placeholders for a more complex philosophical terrain. Atheists and traditional believers alike tend to misunderstand the nature and scope of the scientific method; similarly, they over-literalize and so kill the spirit of religion. My goal is to unpack and deconstruct the categories of science and religion by way of a historical overview (with a focus on Platonic, Thomist, Cartesian, and Hegelian sources) and, then, to re-construct a more metaphysically nuanced account of their relation to human being and knowing in light of Barfield’s and Whitehead’s philosophical contributions. My research will focus especially on the rhetoric of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and PZ Myers, whose voices are cheered by a growing contingent of atheists who have begun calling themselves “confrontationists” to make clear their secular belief that religious belief “poisons everything,” as another outspoken New Atheist Christopher Hitchens has put it. (“Confrontationists” can be contrasted with “accommodationists,” or those who feel science and religion need not be in conflict).

My general thesis is that while New Atheism drastically oversimplifies both science and religion, its aggressive mode of discourse may in the end be providing the necessary intellectual and psychological impetus for a sort of second axial revolution. Such a revolution, I hope to show, must overcome the sharp divisions between ancient animism, medieval theism, and modern atheism/agnosticism by making transparent the evolutionary trajectory of our species toward a more wholesome integration of spirit and matter. A Gaian panentheism would preserve the rigor and empiricism of science and at the same time celebrate the participation of divinity in the course of earthly events.


Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on Aquinas
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield
Adventures of Ideas by Alfred North Whitehead
PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula


I. Theory and Theos in Western Thought
II. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science
III. Steiner’s conception of the Human
IV. A Third Option: Gaian Panentheism

Sample pages (introduction):

The last century has arguably brought more change to the Earth, measured either in terms of increased complexity (of culture and consciousness), or in terms of entropy release (as pollution), than any other 100 year period in the planet’s history. Human civilization, and the technoscientific mode of life which has come to dominate it, is largely responsible for this rapid transformation. Whether it be the population explosion and global poverty, the continued threat of world war, civil rights, feminist, and other social justice movements, peak oil, or the ecological crisis, ours’ is a world with much at stake for whom the fast approaching future may just as easily bring tragedy or triumph, or perhaps equal doses of each.

In such an unstable and uncertain context as this, how is humanity to orient itself cosmologically, and in the service of what ideals is it to direct its spiritual aspirations? These are not peripheral questions–they inevitably burn in the hearts of every individual faced with the aforementioned chaos. Answering them in an integral enough way so as to overcome political divisiveness while at the same time avoiding the subsumption of cultural difference is essential to assuring the future flourishing of our species and the planet. The possibility of a planetary civilization rests upon re-inventing our complex human identity, such that it is inclusive of our origins as embodied earthlings and our destiny as immortal spirits.

Whether our aim be scientific investigation of the cosmos, or religious worship of the divine, sooner or later we are going to have to articulate a conception of human nature. Are we creatures of God, or products of Nature? Or, is there an alternative conception of humanity (of God, of Nature) that overcomes this false dichotomy? The following essay is my attempt to provide such an alternative: an integral anthropology, or theory of the human, which is neither exclusively theological nor cosmological. After Pinnikar, my approach in what follows might be called “cosmotheandric,” in that I am attempting to tell a story about human origins and destiny that does justice to our traditional spiritual intuitions and is adequate to our modern scientific realizations. Contemporary debates, especially in popular media outlets, tend to collapse the complexity of the science/religion dialectic into easily digestible slogans derived from the most extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion. The cosmological options are typically dichotomously construed as atheistic scientific naturalism vs. literalistic creationism. These are not the only options.

The process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the spiritual science of Rudolf Steiner will be the primary protagonists in the alternative narrative I hope to construct. Before beginning this reconstruction, however, I must deconstruct the popular conceptualizations of “science” and “religion” which pit them one against the other as if irreconcilably opposed. Only a new synthesis can provide humanity with a viable way forward.

Nature as Spirit’s Symbol

Emerson believed that Nature was emblematic of Spirit, that Her productivity and instinctuality were symbolic expressions of Its creative intelligence. If this be true, then the philosopher’s desire for a romantic partner is analgous to his or her desire for wisdom. The two are both erotic desires, though the one be for flesh and blood, the other for divinity.

This analogical perspective on the Nature/Spirit relation helps us avoid duality, but a difference still manifests itself.

The mind wants to know what is true and what is false, while the heart wants to know who is to be loved and who is to be hated. The mind impersonally reflects the light of phenomena, but the heart feels the warmth of faces and intuits the source of light behind them. The mind tends to observe, but the heart tends to get involved.

How is the philosopher to reconcile his spiritual longing for truth with his bodily desire for union? Perhaps it is the ideal of Goodness that mediates between the truth of the mind and the beauty of the heart. Attention to the Good prevents ideology from distorting ethical relationships by keeping the mind’s eye open to the voice of the heart.

It is the beauty of Nature that leads the philosopher to the truths of Spirit, and it is the Good which serves as the fulcrum balancing each desire (for Love and for Knowlege).

Three Stanzas Remembered

I remember more
With each passing glance,
With every standing trance
That stalls me on my way.

I am moved by that which gives
All faces their romance,
And frozen by the stare
That makes me stay.

But time cannot stand
The memory of more
Than what it makes unpleasant
For me to understand.