Old White Guys Ventriloquising Nature

“Scientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.” – A. N. Whitehead

This is a round table discussion called “Moving Naturalism Forward.” So far it is somewhat infuriating. There is no one there to problematize who should speak for nature. All of these dudes have signed the Modern Constitution (Latour) bifurcating culture (which is illusion) from nature (which is real). Couldn’t they have invited one thinker who wasn’t there just to preach to the scientific materialist choir? At the table are big names like Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Steven Weinberg, and Terrence Deacon. Have a look…

And then there is part 2, lead by Alex Rosenberg, where the basic constituents of reality are laid out. When the ontology of mathematics begins to be discussed, suddenly all the hardcore physical reductionists start sounding like mystics! Then there is the lack of teleology in physics and biology, which most of those present deny or radically qualify in some way. In regard to natural purposes, I think their is much these guys could learn from Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. Teleology, as I have learned to think about it, concerns what Whitehead called potentiality (and Deleuze called virtuality). Its not a matter of pre-conceived ideas waiting in the sky to be actualized as poor copies by earthly creatures. Its a matter of the actualization of relevant possibilities, where relevance depends entirely on contingent historical facts. Whitehead’s reaction to 20th century (quantum and relativistic) physics was to see the so-called “laws of nature” as evolved habits still in the process of generating themselves.  By getting rid of purpose outright, as many on the panel want to do, these guys end up undermining their own epistemic position as scientists in pursuit of the truth, or at least probability or approximate knowledge of it.

Part 3 was introduced by Terrence Deacon, who I found myself appreciating even more than I had before because I got to see him in his natural habitat (=”mad dog” greedy physical reductionists). His idea of irreducibly complex hierarchical constraints is not as cosmological and organic and realist as I’d like to see, but in the intellectual community of atheistic scientists that he interacts with on a daily basis, standing up for the intrinsic values of life irreducible to functions of physics can often be met with the same degree of incredulity as intelligent design. He used one of Whitehead’s terms, “causal efficacy,” in his defense of the physical effects of meaning. I doubt he’d ever be willing to talk about the cosmic constraints termed by Whitehead “God/Cosmos” and “Creativity.” Too metaphysical for these positivists. These guys deny the possibility of speculative knowledge right before going on to affirm their own speculative dualism between an inescapable manifest image and a verifiably true scientific reality (that only they the physical scientists have access to). I found the logical v. causal discussion around 1h:15m interesting. And then Dennett’s question about whether alien life emerging through alternative chemical pathways would nonetheless entail sociological, psychological, and economic behaviors obeying the same general laws of our carbon-based path. Its the historical, or causal dimension v. the logical, or mathematical dimension. What is necessary and what is contingent? Deacon nails it when he connects emergence to irreversible historical development. Accident, or Novelty (he used Whitehead the panentheistic metaphysician’s category!) as part of the fundamental dimension of reality.

This section of my essay on Whitehead’s relevance to 20th and 21st century physics clarifies (I hope!) my position on teleology and emergence in nature.

Skipping ahead to day 3 on philosophy and science, Owen Flanagan (@35mins) has some interesting things to say about the history of the reflection upon the nature of time from physical and from psychological and phenomenological perspectives (he mentions Bergson).

(@38mins) The (philosophical) point about the Hard Problem is precisely that naturalistic/physical explanation of consciousness is impossible, that “explaining” consciousness would require changing what scientists think they mean when they explain physics/nature.

4 Replies to “Old White Guys Ventriloquising Nature”

  1. I really appreciated Deacon’s careful modesty, his understanding, not unlike recent Latour, that we don’t really know what we are talking about in many of these areas and that there is much basic research to be done. This is the vital move beyond the cutting and pasting of texts to the experimental “carpentry”, the mangles of practices, that comes with actually engaging with the wider world.

    1. Most of these fellas are interdisciplinary. That at least makes their conversation interesting. Dennett and Flanagan especially have been hard at work advancing the scientific front into traditionally humanistic and “spiritual” territory (psychology, religious practice, etc.). I usually don’t agree with their methods or conclusions, but they have definitely provided me with the intellectual resistance necessary to begin understanding and articulating my own position vis a vis “naturalism.”

      Deacon is not only crossing disciplines, I think his earlier work on symbols/language and more recently on the emergence of life/mind/ententionality is the preamble to a full declaration of independence from the Modern Constitution.

    2. The experimentalists were few at this meeting… I think they all acknowledge at one point that only one of them worked in a lab. I like the notion of “carpentry,” the sense that scientific facts must be built, that knowledge must be glued together by alliances with other actors, be they satellites, mice, or alphabets.

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