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.