Searching for Stars: A Conversation with Alan Lightman

Leron Shults’ “adaptive atheism”

“A clash of doctrines is not a disaster – it is an opportunity.” -A.N. Whitehead

This morning, Jesse Turri sent me a draft of LeRon Shults’ soon to be published paper “How to Survive the Anthropocene: Adaptive Atheism and the Evolution of Homo Deiparensis.” His basic thesis is that modern day religion (defined as “shared imaginative engagement with axiologically relevant supernatural agents”) functions to allow its adherents to ignore and repress the scientific claims of experts about the consequences of the presently unfolding ecological catastrophe. While perhaps adaptive in earlier eras of human existence, religion’s propensities to over-detect agency in nature and over-protect the social in-group from the social out-group have proven maladaptive in our modern, pluralistic society. Shults therefore argues that we ought to embrace scientific naturalism and political secularism as a form of what he call’s “adaptive atheism.” Only atheism, he says, will allow us to respond adequately to climate change and an increasingly multicultural global society.

Shults has also recently published two books, Theology After the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture and Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism. I’m going to have to read both of them and grapple more fully with his approach. The perspective he articulates in his “Homo Deiparensis” paper probably couldn’t be more opposed to the perspective I’ll offer at next week’s Whitehead conference. I regret that I don’t have the time to adequately incorporate a direct response to him in my present paper.

funeral pyres in Varanasi, India
funeral pyres in Varanasi, India

All I can say is that I don’t believe in the God he doesn’t believe in, either. I grant him that many religious believers do seem to believe in a supernatural agent. I am just as atheist about this sort of God as Shults is. I agree with him that this sort of religion should be transformed into something with more world-loyalty. I just can’t follow him when he says religion as such can or should be eliminated. Secularity is no less religious (in form, if not in content) than theism. Secular people worship other gods: Technology, Celebrity, Money, etc. They believe in the myths of Progress or Fame. Secularism is not without its rituals. Human beings, it seems to me, cannot live without some form of religious or spiritual outlook (and I think atheism is itself just another way of responding to, or orienting one’s personality in relation to, the mystery of life).

Religion really needs to be understood in such a way that “supernaturalism” is not essential to it, since most of our species’ past and present religious and spiritual traditions lack concepts for “nature,” not to mention “supernature.” Supernatural agents may be among the contents valued by some religions, but they are not essential to the form of religion as such. Our religious affirmations can orient us toward divine immanence or toward divine transcendence. I am myself strongly committed to the immanent or incarnational orientation (which I’ve expressed with help from Whitehead and Deleuze in this paper presented at the last international Whitehead conference in 2013).

[Update (5/28): I have been reading through some of the responses to Shults’ work on the Syndicate Theology page. I’m particularly interested in Philip Clayton’s response, which points out that functionalist explanations of why people believe in this or that religion “cut both ways.” In other words, if we are going to offer biological, psychological, or sociological explanations for religious belief, what is to stop us from offering such explanations for atheism? I’m also largely in agreement with Hollis Phelps’ critical response to Shults’ definition of religion in terms of belief. Phelps marshals the support of Bruno Latour in his criticism, who, incidentally, I’d argue offered us a far more pragmatic understanding of the relationship between religion and ecology in his Gifford Lectures on Gaian theology.]

An interview with Jesse Turri at Home Brewed Christianity on Science, Religion, Imagination, and more…

AlexGreyPsychedelicPaintingArtGalleryMars1LSDBicycleDay

HERE is the interview. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I remember a wide-ranging conversation on everything from my own intellectual and spiritual development, to the relationship between science and religion, to the role of imagination and psychedelics in the philosophy of nature.

HERE is Jesse Turri’s personal website.

Bill Nye the Science Guy vs. Ken Ham the Creationist Bloke

Whatever you do, don’t go watch the entirety of the three hour debate that Bill Nye and Ken Ham just had at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky. Total waste of time. If you are interested in the “Science and Religion” dialogue, do watch at least the last 4 minutes. Here is a link. Fast forward to 2 hours and 38 minutes and listen to Ken Ham profess his faith in the creation story of the Bible, followed by Bill Nye’s inspiring scientific rhapsody about our place in the cosmos.
Overall, I think Nye did a great job remaining reasonable in an impossible conversation. But then at about 2:41 you’ll hear the same defense of science Nye repeated all night (my summation): “yeah, yeah, aside from being true, the universe story is emotionally thrilling and wonderful and all that–but ultimately the reason we should teach it to our kids is that it will make the American economy more competitive.”
So there you have it. The take home message of this very well publicized and widely watched debate is that, when it comes down to it, science is better than religion because it will make the resolution on our smart phone cameras a megapixel or two higher every few months.
Nye is a great communicator of science, but what worries me is how easily he was able to marshall evolutionary cosmology as an apology for industrial capitalism. It worries me because I don’t want the universe story to be co-opted by the techno-capitalist narrative of endless growth and progress.
Where does Nye go wrong? How is someone so committed to doing something about the ecological crisis so blind to the role of techno-capitalism in creating the problem in the first place? The religion of capitalism is just as absurd and in fact way more destructive than that of creationism.
It seems to me that we (the spiritual “post-nihilists,” if I may) need to shift the cultural conversation in a different direction, a direction as far away as possible from the sensationalized dichotomy “materialism v. creationism” that gets most of the air-time these days.What would this new sort of conversation sound like? I wonder how Nye (and Ham for that matter) would react to the cosmologist Brian Swimme‘s “The Journey of the Universe” film.

If anyone else didn’t read my advice in time and suffered through the whole debate, or if you just watched the last 4 minutes as I suggested, I’d be curious to hear your reactions.

Science v. Religion (in the lead up to my dissertation) – Al Jazeera interviews Richard Dawkins, and Lawrence’s Krauss thinks he’s special

Now that I’ve completed preparatory research essays on Schelling (The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency) and Whitehead (Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of A. N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology), it’s finally time to start zeroing in on my dissertation thesis. The title I’m proposing for now is Imagination Between Science and Religion: Towards a Cosmotheandric Process Philosophy. This title captures the 3 major themes l’ll be trying to weave together in my dissertation the(o)sis: 1) an imaginal method, or way of being-knowing, or soul-making, in congress with the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, 2) a rhetorical interpolation into to the popular science v. religion diatribe concocted by the entertainment-academia complex, and 3) a process philosophy adequate to the cosmotheandric experience, to the ontologically irreducible indwelling co-presence of universe, human, and divine.

In this post, I wanted to focus on the Science v. Religion theater. Here is tonight’s first sample: an hour-long interview with Al Jazeera’s Medhi Hasan:

Dawkins would seem to me to have conceded a lot of ground here, especially when he says he just isn’t interested in the good that religion has done in the past or may do in the future (Hasan mentions Gandhi and MLK, Jr.). There is a strong pragmatic argument to be made on behalf of religion’s ongoing importance in the modern world. It has not been made obsolete by science; science has merely forced religion to become experimental/experiential. To the extent that religion deals with life itself, and by proxy, with earth and cosmos, then it guides society faithfully into higher orders of wisdom and compassion. To the extent that technoscience is beholden to and in service of life, then it, too, can guide humanity safely into deeper sensitivities and perceptivities.

Here is tonight’s second sample from physicist Lawrence Krauss:

Krauss thinks he’s offering the world’s most anthrodecentric scientific knowledge of the bare truth of our own human irrelevance and of nature’s purposelessness, but really his theology of the “specialness/preciousness” of consciousness is among the most anthropocentric ideologies I could imagine. He has erased the intelligent evolutionary achievements of geo- and cosmogenesis–billions of years of adaptive dying by trillions of living creatures–and focused only on the human, even though the human is but an individuated mode of the universe informing and surrounding us. If humans are free to know (& to love?), so is nature.

His “emboldening” scientific (=technoindustrial) gospel has already been tried for more than 2 centuries and its not working; in fact, its eating the earth and disintegrating human society. Today’s technoindustrial societies have signed what B. Latour calls The Modern Constitution declaring humanity’s independence from the cosmos. The Constitution’s founding principles are the bifurcation of nature into physical quantities over and against psychical qualities, and of the human psyche into intelligent individual/rational animal over and against instinctual species/statistical genera. We are the special species, according to Krauss. We are the only ones (and the cosmically lonely ones), he says, who can provide meaning to the motion of the suns and planets, to the universe, or to our own lives. We must grab hold of our our spiritual bootstraps and launch ourselves into the entirely accidental future of life and civilization in the universe with nothing but our desire to feel individually special for guidance.

In this Krauss seems to brandish human freedom as a weapon against the deterministic chaos of nature, capable of slaying, slicing, and dissecting her into the digital figments of a physicist’s computer codes, or the vibrating filaments of a string theorist’s math equations. But what if the chaos is already inside us? What if we can’t control it/her? What if the very thing we think makes us free (=the will) keeps us forever lost at sea? What if the very thing we say founds our species ungrounds it, quickens it beyond eudamonia into madness? What if spirit is never simply in the center, but radiates always out around to the edge?

“Science is not a fairy tale.” -Whitehead. I take it he was right. That nature is a machine made for no other reason than for us to trick, tinker with, or exploit: there’s your fairy tale.

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.

Another Critchley interview…

I’m almost done with Faith of the Faithless. Critchley is really clearing up a lot of my own thinking, confirming some intuitions I’ve had and really fleshing out what had remained below the level of articulation for me. I’ll post some more in depth reflections soon, especially on the issue of whether an anarchic community or sovereign people can be formed entirely within a plane of immanence, or if some sort of transcendent referent or religious calling remains necessary to accomplish this. For now, check out this recent interview with religiondispatches.org. An excerpt:

There’s a dogmatic secularism that just refuses to understand the persistence and the subtlety of what’s going on with religion. And it gets very angry when it’s challenged. And then you can tell that you’re dealing with a faith. When you challenge a secularist about what is fundamental, they will often get red in the face and will start banging a table. Then you’ve hit some kind of quasi-religious nerve.