Experiments in Political Theology and Dialogical Blogging

The first clause in the title of this post is the subtitle of Simon Critchley‘s newest book, The Faith of the Faithless (2012). Critchley is a deep ethical thinker who had until a week ago managed to fly under my radar. This isn’t all that surprising, since the admittedly still diffuse research methodology of my dissertation is rather like wandering backwards through an ancient and ever-growing bibliographic labyrinth of academic and para-academic publishing. Every week or so, I trip over one of the books tossed about on the floor, have a look, and discover another author whose thinking seems to be converging with my own. It’s not like these texts are randomly arrayed: I’ve been following a thread that I can see knots together those texts I’ve already read; it’s just that I’ve been walking backwards as I pull it.

Critchley’s book is, as he describes it, an experiment in thinking the strange and scary relationship between politics and religion. It is a relationship, much like that between religion and science, that is fraught with controversy and spilt blood. It has always been this way, and remains so today despite our modern pretensions to enlightenment and rational discourse. Emotional polemic is the name of the game in this arena, the teams neatly divided into the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and Sam Harris and the fundamentalist theism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ken Ham. I mostly watch this game play out from the stands, but every once in a while one of my sideline protests is heard and I get drawn into the field of debate (never with any of these individuals themselves, but with their wider community of supporters). I much prefer conversation and dialogue to polemical debate, but it has proved extremely difficult to have a civil or philosophical discussion about the relationship between politics, religion, and science. My forays into PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula have, on the face of it, proven completely fruitless, as have attempts to dialogue with Levi Bryant at his blog Larval Subjects. I say “on the face of it” because I remain optimistic about the effects of these conversations on those who may be reading silently in the background. Blogging is a public forum, one of the few remaining political sites for a democratic people to work out their self-authentification and self-governance. The Internet remains a virtual environment, but in our catastrophic epoch of the post-human and post-natural, reality itself is increasingly endangered, making virtuality a necessary haven of withdrawal. Those explicitly involved in these online arguments aren’t necessarily the only significant nodes of mutual influence. It seems to me that most often, it is those remaining silent who are influenced most significantly by the dialectic unfolding on screen. Even if their thoughts remain at the level of pre-discursive feeling and imaginal strain for the time being, the stress of silence acts as an alembic forming truly new thoughts that will no longer be trapped in the tug-of-war of old polemics.

All of us who blog religiously have a mission, that is, a religious mission. We are seeking to instigate political transformation. From Critchley’s perspective, politics may be conceivable without religion, but it will never be practicable. He justifies his claim by looking into the political thought of Rousseau, who “arguably provides the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics” with his 1762 treatise The Social Contract (p. 8). At first glance, Rousseau’s political theory seems to provide

an entirely immanent conception of political legitimacy…an egalitarian conception of association rooted in popular sovereignty (ibid.).

A deeper look at the composition of Rousseau’s Geneva Manuscript (later renamed The Social Contract) reveals that he made a rushed edition to the text just before sending it to the publisher in 1761, “scribbled in an almost indecipherable hand” despite the rest of the manuscript’s perfect penmanship (p. 28). The edition was a chapter titled “On Civil Religion.” Rousseau ends up seeming to contradict his immanentist account of political formation by pointing out the need for what Critchley calls the “fictional force” of a political religion.

Rousseau acknowledges the motivational inadequacy of a purely philosophical account of politics and offers the picture of a political religion…there is a need for fictions other than philosophical in order to unite the general will with the interests to act on that will… (p. 34).

“Philosophy,” in this context, should be understood to mean the rational, dispassionate discourse expected of modern, enlightened individuals. Rousseau recognized that logical argument alone was not sufficient to persuade a people to behave in the interests of the common good. Something else was required to overcome individual alienation, something like faith. The faith of a political religion is not about blind belief in the externally imposed doctrines of a priesthood, but rather concerns remaining open to the possibility of “a transformation [in our own] manner of existence,” or what Rousseau referred to as a “change of [our] nature” (p. 39). Critchley describes the transformation brought on by the enactment of faith as one of mystical love, an “act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being” (p. 20).

Rousseau’s “social contract” is a very strange kind of contract, since unlike every other kind of contract, the freely acting independent parties involved don’t even exist until after the agreement. Prior to the contract, the freedom required to justify its legal authority has not yet been created. The contract, at the time of its formation, is essentially a fiction. It is a fiction that the subsequently formed free individuals must conspire together in an act of mutual faith and trust in order to realize. This mutual act of faith–the”rare but ever-potential force…to give oneself in an act of association with others”–is the basis of any civil religion and so self-governing society. It follows that the primary purpose of engaging in political activity is not to persuade people, but to form a people in the first place. The formation of a people depends upon an experience of mystical love, an experience that begins as a fictional force but ends in a new communal reality.

Critchley’s is a civic faith without religious creed, based not on

the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather [on] the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand…a declarative act…an enactment of the self…a performative that proclaims itself into existence in a situation of crisis where what is called for is decisive political intervention (p. 13).

Critchley’s “infinite demand” emerges out of his study off Levinas’ ethics of otherness. Rather than the individualistic ethos of liberal modernity, Critchley’s ethical theory is rooted in what he calls “dividualism,” the existential process whereby

the self shapes itself in relation to the experience of an overwhelming, infinite demand that divides it from itself–the sort of demand that Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44) (p. 6-7).

Critchley’s experiments in political theology draw upon a rich history of radical mystics and religious revolutionaries, but he begins the book by unpacking what he calls “Wilde Christianity,” the faithless faith articulated by Oscar Wilde while in prison for two years (~1895-97). Wilde could not bring himself to believe in any church religion, but the symbol of Christ nonetheless remained compelling to him. Critchley reads Wilde’s imaginative engagement with the figure of Christ as a kind of “soul-smithing,” where through the fires of sin and suffering, one forges a new identity. We are to imitate Christ’s ultimate creative and artistic act: “the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form” (p. 5).

“To the artist,” writes Wilde,

expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so. With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece (quoted by Critchley, p. 5).

Politics, then, is as much a religious as an artistic endeavor. Religious in that it requires an act of self-giving akin to faith, or mystical love; artistic in that, as Wilde put it, “its symbols must be of my own creating” (p. 4), smithed in the caldron of my own soul rather than received externally.

Critchley continues:

Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures (p. 5).

A political religion is a religion based on the fictive force of love. Love, whatever its potential power, is hard to come by in this world. It is indeed mostly a fiction. But on those rare occasions when authentic political activity is allowed to emerge, it can only be the result of this fiction becoming a reality.

I’ll have more to say about Critchley’s experiments in political theology in subsequent posts. I found it a happy coincidence that he was brought to my attention just before Bryant’s inflammatory response to me regarding the role of religiosity in public life. I didn’t recognize myself in his “response to a new age nut,” nor do I think I’ve mischaracterized his Lacanian-Marxist perspective on religion and politics. I am not sure what exactly threw him into such a rage… maybe if I were more studied in Lacan, I’d be able to offer a psychoanalytic explanation. But I’m not. When I look at how religion has actually functioned in the world, I see a far more complex picture than Bryant does. I agree with a commenter at Larval Subjects that the detestable violence and oppression of the past cannot so easily be pinned on “religion,” since in that case we may as well blame “science” for the horrors of the 20th century industrialization of war. Yes, some religious institutions have and continue to violently oppress people, but perhaps this has more to do with the symptomatic evils of institutionalization itself than it does with something intrinsic to religious faith. But rather than trying to directly respond to Bryant, which seems pointless, I thought further fleshing out where I am coming from would be most productive. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here.

*[Update]*: Bryant just posted a response to another commenter that further clarifies his own position:

My criticism of your claims is not that beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes are irrelevant, but that you’re working at the wrong level of analysis and are not discerning the nature of the system at issue and why it functions as it does. I think this poor analysis arises directly from your background in phenomenology and Kierkegaard that emphasizes the subject and belief and that is therefore blind to large scale systems and how they function. It’s also noteworthy that all the things you suggest can be changed in these systems (hearts and beliefs) ***and*** the system can still function exactly as it did before. Why? Because hearts and beliefs weren’t the cause of this functioning in the first place.

Bryant has a point, of course. My own desire to experiment with political theology is not the result of being blind to this sort of Marxist analysis. It emerges because, after the revolution, I don’t think it will be possible to re-construct a people or a world for them to live in out of the ashes of neo-liberal capitalism without engaging with what have traditionally been religious issues. Yes, capitalism is largely a structural issue and it must be dismantled on that level. But if we succeed in dismantling it, there remains the project of composing a public, what Critchley calls a “work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths” (p. 4).

Related articles

Disambiguating Spirit and Matter (reflections on scientific materialism)

For several years now, I have from time to time engaged in philosophical debate with commenters over at Pharyngula (the atheist and biologist PZ Myers‘ well-traffic blog). It is often impossible to maintain a civil discussion or sympathetic reflection about the topic at hand (usually having to do with the ontology of life, the meaning of consciousness, or the role of spirituality/religion in contemporary society) because our complete lack of shared assumptions about the world quickly causes the conversation to degenerate into defensive ideological posturing. Myers (and the Sentinels who patrol his site always ready to beat back the vitalist and mysterian “trolls” who dare question scientific orthodoxy) displays a way of thinking that is perhaps the best contemporary example of what Alfred North Whitehead called scientific materialism. This mode of thought prevents its possessors (or those it possesses) from practicing what Keats once called “negative capability.” Negative capability could be described as the power or potency of the human imagination to think without acting, i.e., to contemplate the possibility of something without assuming its actuality. To practice philosophy, itself a spiritual and imaginative activity, one needs to have mastered this negative capability.

A recent post by Myers, wherein he ridicules the notion of “spiritual exercises” for atheists, illustrates well the conceptual blockage preventing scientific materialists from considering anything other than deterministic mechanical laws in their explanations of the natural world. Myers writes of spiritual exercises, like meditation, visualization, and breath work, that:

“…they are physiological exercises. [1]They do not manipulate ‘spirit,’ [2]they change the physical state of the brain. But these glib pseudoscientific quacks just love to borrow the language of science and slap the label of ‘spiritual’…”

Myers thinks he is able to discard the notion of “spirit” quickly and easily as a relic of pre-scientific dualism; but I think his concept of “spirit” is deeply confused. He seems to imagine “spirit” as some sort of super-matter, a subtler kind of extended substance capable of reaching in from the outside to direct physiological activity. He rightly dismisses this caricature of “spirit” in one clause [1], only to implicitly re-affirm it in the next [2]!

Who, exactly, changes the physical state of the brain? The language here is difficult, and some may argue that philosophy simply plays with the infinite ambiguity of linguistic reflexivity until all discernable meaning becomes entirely obscured. But if one is capable of any degree of philosophical sympathy with the likes of such difficult thinkers as Kant, Ficthe, Schelling, Hegel, Steiner, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, James, Whitehead, etc., I think it becomes rather obvious that the sublimity of feeling resulting from consciousness’ attempts to understand its own conditions of possibility (whether cranial or celestial) lead straight into what can only be called “spirituality.” “Spirit” is an easily misunderstood word referring to one’s own present consciousness. It is the “I” that knows who it is, the “will” who intends, regrets, and foresees. Spirit is that in the physiologist that experiences the feeling of knowing the structure and function of the brain. A thinker cannot reduce his or her own thinking to the structure and function of the brain without a performative contradiction.

This defense of spirit as irreducible to matter is not a plee for dualism. On the contrary, it is an attempt to provide the mechanistically minded with an opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of what even their own language cannot help but admit. Spirit and matter are not opposites, but complementaries: the two faces of a single, creative process.

One possible antidote to the self-erasure of scientific materialism is the organic cosmology of the Romantics, for whom nature was visible spirit, and spirit invisible nature. I won’t try to say it better than Emerson, who in Nature, writes:

Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass…The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use…This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. It appears to men, or it does not appear. When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts, if, at all other times, he is not blind and deaf;

—— “Can these things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud,
Without our special wonder?”

for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began; from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg. There sits the Sphinx at the road-side, and from age to age, as each prophet comes by, he tries his fortune at reading her riddle. There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms; and day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit. A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.”

More reflections on PZ Myers, science, and philosophy… 

Science, Art, Religion: The Role of Speculative Philosophy in the Adventure of Rationality

I’ve just completed Isabelle Stengers‘ formidable but rewarding text, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The final chapters concern the viability of Whitehead’s theology, specifically his articulation of the relationship between God and the World. Stengers’ asks the reader to go slowly while considering why a divine function became necessary in the course of Whitehead’s speculative adventure from The Concept of Nature, through Science and the Modern World, and on to Process and Reality. God is the keystone of Whitehead’s entire philosophical edifice; but even so, Stengers’ writes, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (p. 424). Stengers goes to great lengths to assure atheists who may otherwise lose interest or become dismissive that Whitehead was “perfectly explicit about the barbarous brutality of traditional religious statements, and particularly outspoken on the subject of the despotic role attributed to the monotheistic God” (p. 479). For Whitehead, religion has primarily to do with individual feeling, while philosophy is a devotion to the correction of our initial excess of subjectivity. His philosophy is “an attempt to save God himself from the role assigned to him by the theological visions that make him the respondent to the [overly subjective] religious vision” (ibid.).

“The concept of God,” write Whitehead,

“is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the contrary is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the Universe. In this respect religious literature has been sadly misleading to philosophic theory, partly by attraction and partly by repulsion” (Process and Reality, p. 207).

The religious feelings humanity has regarding God cannot, therefore, be evaluated outside of the demands of rational thought. Religious modes of knowing are to be held accountable to the same tests of experiential adequacy and conceptual coherence that are scientific and aesthetic modes. Whitehead insists that God’s function in the world be secularized (ibid.). This is perhaps philosophy’s most urgent task in our contemporary world: it must correct our initial excess of subjective feeling as regards the concept of God. When we at first entertain the Great Fact of the Universe, our tendency, due to the initially subjective excess of our individual perspectives, is to assert that this Universe, despite its apparent deafness to our complaints, must in the end conform with our hopes and aspirations. We expect and demand that there be some Advocate for us in the world who might correct the wrongs that have unjustly befallen us or those we love. Some psychologists have argued that the concept of God emerges naturally as the human psyche begins to consider the grave mystery of death. This is irrelevant from Whitehead’s perspective, since for him God is not first of all an emotional or psychological consolation, but rather a conceptual construct necessary for the coherence of his cosmological scheme (to employ the jargon of his system, God’s envisagement of the eternal objects is required as an explanation for their meaningful participation in the becoming of actual occasions).

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

Once Whitehead’s God has been constructed, however, it can no longer remain an abstract metaphysical technicality, since Whitehead’s real aim is not to build conceptual castles in the clouds, but to transform our experience of the actual world, to make life more interesting, more beautiful, more virtuous. The concept of God created by Whitehead’s imaginative leap must be tested on the ground of experience. As William James might ask, what does it do?, what is its cash value? Whether or not it passes the tests required of our adventure of rationality to succeed in becoming “true” for our civilization at large will only be known by future generations.

One of these tests concerns God’s relationship to Nature as it is studied by scientists. Can scientific knowledge and the divine element in the world co-exist? Many scientific materialists, including the biologist and renowned atheist PZ Myers (to whom this post is something of a reply), think not. Myers can conceive of no evidence that might persuade him of the existence of God. In the context of speculative philosophy, construing the problem of the existence of God in terms of whether or not there is “evidence” entirely misses the point, since the metaphysician is concerned with the construction of the very criteria that might determine what counts as evidence in the first place. Speculative philosophy cannot take for granted what positivistic scientists like Myers do, that our senses (and their extensions) paint a neutral picture before the Mind “in here” of Nature “out there,” and that the processes of both Mind and Nature can be explained and controlled by way of purely mechanistic models. Whitehead, a mathematician and a physicist, had already foreseen the need for philosophical re-evaluation of the basis of natural science before Gödel’s incompleteness theorem unhinged logic and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle delocalized material particle. The picture of the cosmos that had reigned since the Scientific Revolution dissolved before his eyes during the early 20th century: a Universe on the verge of being explained by the clarity of reductionistic materialism all the sudden seemed far stranger than 19th century physicists had imagined.

Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to naturalize God and to divinize Nature. Disenchantment and scientific investigation are no longer understood to go hand in hand, since for Whitehead, the Universe is ensouled. How does he know this? What is his evidence for this? Whitehead is the inheritor of James’ pragmatic philosophy, wherein the evidence of an proposition’s truth consists in the consequences of this proposition for our experience. Experience, in other words, and not the “objective world,” is the final arbiter of truth, since, as even Myers admits, the truth is what works. The evidence for Whitehead’s conception of the relationship between God and the world (which I unpack more fully in this essay on a naturalistic panentheism) is the Great Fact that the Universe continues to hold together as a whole, despite the freedom of each actual occasion to determine its own form of realization. That there is a Cosmos at all, and not just chaos, is the evidence for Whitehead’s God. God is the great unifier, that which “saves” the world from disharmony. One could deny that the Universe holds together, but this would put an end to humanity’s adventure of rationality. Reason, for Whitehead, is not an abstract ideal, but must be embodied by some actual entity: that entity is God.

Returning to Myers and his championing of scientific fact as the antidote to religious belief, he recently posted a blog in defense of the Nobel Laureate chemist Harold Kroto’s understanding of science. Kroto was criticized by journalist Andrew Brown for suggesting that “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Kroto went on to say that society has an ethical obligation to teach children the scientific method in order to assure they have a way to determine what is true based on evidence, because, says Kroto, “without evidence, anything goes!”

Whitehead was also an educator, and so certainly would have had an opinion on this matter. For him, education was about more than training in the scientific method, however. It was about the enrichment of the soul, awakening the student to their own potential for creatively re-imagining the cultural habits they have inherited.

As Stengers’ suggests,

“For Whitehead, thinking about what social progress requires designates education as a crucial site, in which an epoch judges itself on the basis of the way it fashions those who will prolong its choices, strengths, and weaknesses. Education can create the habit of appreciating concrete facts, complete facts. It can also create the opposite habit, as is the case with the education the produces professionals, the habit of yielding in the face of what is unacceptable, of adhering to what is incredible. Because for Whitehead, the link is obviously direct between the blind way in which thinkers who stuck to secure and definite habits of thought, that is, professionals, have subscribed to the concrete unacceptable consequences of industrial development, and the way in which other thinkers, just as ‘serious,’ have prolonged, in a routine way, the incredible theses that made nature birfurcate and reduced reality to the agitation of stupid, insensate matter” (p. 139-140).

Stengers’ then quotes Whitehead at length:

“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality. We want concrete fact with a high light thrown on what is relevant to its preciousness. What I mean is art and aesthetic education […] ‘art’ in the general sense that I require is any selection by which the concrete facts are so arranged as to elicit attention to particular values which are realizable by them. For example, the mere disposing of the human body and the eyesight so as to get a good view of the sunset is a simple form of artistic selection. The habit of art is the habit of enjoying vivid values” (Science and the Modern World, p. 199).

Myers’ asks in his defense of Kroto for someone to give an example of something about which we can have reliable knowledge that is not determined by science. The Beautiful and the Good come to mind. We can know these ideals, and be educated in their creation and appraisal, but we do so with methods other than science proper, like artistic and ethical practice. Science, Art, and Religion are different ways of engaging with reality, each equally important in its own context. I think Whitehead’s cosmology allows us to conceive of their proper relation to one another in a way that avoids the self-righteous positivism of those who think like Kroto and Myers. Science is not the cure to all of society’s ills. We have quite enough scientific specialists. What we need is a form of education that allows for the kind of imaginative generalization necessary for a coherent picture of the world, one which avoids bifurcations between “Mind” and “Nature,” or “subjective fantasy” and “objective fact.” Science, religion, and art can retain their unique differences, but Wisdom requires their integration into a unified image of the cosmos. Contradictions must be made into contrasts. The university must educate human beings to live in the Universe, not in a disinfected caricature produced by specialists.

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.

Aristotle and the historical myopia of science

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).

Natural Science and Spiritual Science

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.