Responding to Levi Bryant on the Question of Religion

I’ve copied my response to Levi below:

I’m glad you are not reducing all religion to the sort of literalism we’re both trying to critique (you from a scientific standpoint aimed at religion, me from a spiritual standpoint aimed at scientism). Regardless of what the majority of “believers” may think about the ontological status of their religious propositions (neither of us can offer anything but anecdotal evidence on this point), what I’ve been attempting to do in our discussion is shift us away from the sort of representationalist paradigm that would construe religion in terms of “true v. false” belief. Deleuze does thematize the modern turn away from certainty toward belief, but his discussion of belief is set in a pragmatic context where what is most important is not whether the object of the belief is fabricated or factual, but whether the effect of the belief is life affirming or nihilistic. A belief in the divinity of Jesus may be totally fabricated, but from my perspective, this is irrelevant. The important question to ask is how the “fictional force” of such a belief works to transform individual and social behavior and experience. The important question to ask is not “is religion true?” but “what does religiosity make possible?” I know this is part of the way you want to analyze the question of religion, as well. You tend to emphasize the negative effects. I recognize that certain expressions of religiosity are socially, politically, and ecologically damaging. But I also recognize other expressions of religiosity that have positive social, political, and ecological effects (e.g., Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who just yesterday spoke at our commencement here at CIIS). It is not at all obvious that the negative outweighs the positive; and even if it did, I question whether it is really possible to purify ourselves of religiosity, be it of the ancient, animistic sort or the modern, scientistic sort. Myth and symbol are inextricable features of human cognition, whether we are scientifically trained or not. I know of no scientific theory that is utterly free of narrative structure. Even mathematical formalisms share the metaphorical structure of poetry in their use of an “=” sign. I am not trying to equate scientific with mythic modes of experience; I think the scientific method is a sort of technological and empirical refinement of our innate story-telling capacities. I also think that we need a new form of spirituality today, one not limited by ancient or modern forms of literalism. My essay on Whitehead and Deleuze tries to spell out how we might proceed on this front.

What confuses me about your approach is that, as Jason and others have pointed out, you seem to ignore the important ground that was laid (or perhaps the ground that was demolished) by Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer. I’m sure you’re familiar with his short piece on the “true world” becoming a fable. If this “true world” is no longer tenable, what are we left with? Not the apparent world, surely, since the meaning of “mere appearance” is scrambled unless there is an original truth that appearance is a better or worse attempt to copy. So what are we left with? We are left with two choices: negation or affirmation. The latter choice requires admitting that we are world-creators as much as world-discoverers, that all our techno-scientific knowledge is but another genre of poetic expression (an extremely powerful genre!). Affirmation means accepting the participatory nature of all our supposed reflective knowledge, that it cannot grant us access to a ready-made Reality waiting to be “truly” or “falsely” represented, not only because knowing is always already performative/enactive, but because no such unified, ready-made Reality exists. Different modalities of knowing call forth the realities they desire to know. So let us not continue to pretend that the expression “True world” has any one precise meaning. The true world died along with God. What is left for us is artistic expression, song and dance, ritual and celebration. If Philosophy is to remain relevant today, it cannot do so as a form of ascetics, but must unground its traditional representational basis so as to become a kind of conceptual artistics (i.e., a creation of concepts, as Deleuze would call it).

Process Philosophy of Science

I’m pasting a dialogue that I’m having on Facebook with Steven Goodheart here so others can chime in if they so please!


Steven remarked that my comment about the paradox of science’s ancestral statements reminded him of Roger Penrose‘s somewhat Platonist take on the matter.

I responded by saying:


I think my statement about a witness being present at the big bang is really just to say that appealing to contemporary physical cosmology to debunk non-materialist accounts of consciousness actually raises more philosophical quandaries than is often assumed. “Science” can’t take a side in this issue. Maybe observation and mathematical inference will eventually allow us to figure out where the “laws” of physics were for the first few seconds of creation, but even if this is understood, basic philosophical questions about the relation between subject and object remain as perplexing as ever.

To which Steven responded:

I think that’s true, and may always be true, because if (and I don’t know if this is finally and only true) IF the stuff that philosophy is perplexed about exists as some sort of emergent aspect of “intelligent matter,” if the qualia of thought are in fact just that and nothing more, with no real referent to some “real” or “deeper reality’ (and again, I don’t know if this is so) then whatever neuroscience and physics can say about the *emergent* philosophical perplexities of this kind of mind and consciousness is, ipso facto, limited and provisional. More simply, the Schrodinger Equations have nothing to say about a Bach cantata, and never will. And the way neural nets fire and how they are organized will never tell us anything definitive about why “Starry Night” is so beautiful.

If there’s some deep, as yet unknown connection between the realm of values and meaning, and the realm of quarks and black holes and Big Bangs, I don’t think that’s obvious. Maybe there is; I’m open to the idea. But in the meantime, I think we do less violence to truth and avoid error if we don’t try to blend the two realms in terms of a “metaphysics” but rather keeping do the hard work of investigation and see what appears as we continue to learn about the nature of mind, consciousness, and matter.

My view is that the two domains–the domain of the qualia, the mental realm where things like meaning, values, truth, beauty, and “the good”—and the realm of brain chemistry and neural nets—are interdependent, are profoundly interrelated, but their subject matter is utterly different and, I believe, disjunctive in some basic way. I think there’s interplay between the two, and increasingly science has had a huge impact on philosophy since the age of science, apparently “solving” or making meaningless some of the old “problems” that reflected the biases of a non-scientific age. But, ironically, now, at the very limits and limitations of physics, are finding that the minds that do the science find that their “philosophy,” their view of “the beautiful, good and true,” seems to be utterly bound up in what mathematical vision of the universe is “right!” Does this mean, that, finally, it’s all been metaphysical and philosophical all along? I don’t think so.

The math of a Wheeler or a Penrose is no less beautiful (and self-consistent) than that of a Susskind or Hawkings (I *don’t* say this as one who can follow it, either, but I can get some of it) but some physicists find Penrose’s mathematical universe compelling, but more, probably, feel an affinity for that of Susskind and Hawkings. But the theory that finally “wins” is the one that proves most predictive, the one that’s verifiable, the one that can be test, and then, whether the theory is “beautiful” or “compelling” finally won’t matter. What’s matters is does the theory explain matter in a way that we can test and prove.

It seems to me that philosophical or metaphysical theories of mind and consciousness that want to, so to speak, step out of the realm of the qualia and their emergent value systems and say something about the physics of matter, space, time, energy, have to meet the same “test” criteria as Penrose’s math or Hawking’s math. And this is exactly where such theories fail again and again, however convincing, self-consistent, (and even true!) the theory may be in the realm of qualia and values.

My response:


I don’t think avoiding “error” is necessarily the best way to further Truth. Let me explain: The most disturbing thing about the scientific era for traditional philosophy and metaphysics is evolution. I mean evolution in its cosmic, not just its biological sense. Evolution is the idea that the cosmos is really a cosmogenesis, that it is a process of becoming and not a finished product. It has an origin, and everything that there is emerged from this origin. We can’t yet say if the universe has an end, or if this end is somehow “on purpose,” but we can say that there is something more than the playing out of random collisions between particles. Chaos may be the basis of order, but still, there is order. However, this order is always developing, always evolving. What is “Truth” in the context of an ontology of process and becoming? It cannot be other than “error”; somehow, Truth is produced at the edge of chaos and order, the result of the wanderings and mistakes of the evolutionary process in its human form. It is not quite discovered and not quite created. Truth, because it is not waiting out there for us to find or represent, cannot be understood in isolation from Beauty and Goodness. We know Truth as Truth only when we feel its Beauty and will its Goodness. Truth needs to be appreciated and protected. It never simply is. It is always contested, even at an ontological level. Science discovered evolution empirically, as fact, and philosophers have thought out its implications for our knowledge of Truth (fact is not Truth until the particular instance is unpacked to reveal the universal principle underlying it). Now we need to find a way to apply it to our civilization’s ethical, aesthetic, and theological assumptions, which continue to fragment society and destroy the biosphere. I see natural science as a subset of philosophy. Science is one of humanity’s organs, perhaps the eyes; philosophy is the mind of the whole organism.


The Sokal Affair has also been mentioned in my discussion with Steven and Julian. Here are some of my thoughts on that:

About the Sokal affair… one of Sokal’s main foes is the sociologist of science Bruno Latour. He has published extensively about the way that science “constructs” its facts. He really just goes behind the scenes to reveal how messy the process of scientific research is, how bound up in politics and economics it is; in short, he reveals that science is a cultural activity like any other, as much an art as a “science.” Is it really accurate to say, for example, that LHC particle collider is ‘discovering’ something about nature in its undisturbed state? Clearly, we are learning something about nature, but not nature as it would be independent of the artifice of technology that has been constructed to contort and torture matter so as to get it to reveal its “secrets.” In a radically evolutionary context, where even atoms are the products of irreversible processes, how do we know that what is going on in the tunnels of this accelerator isn’t actually changing nature, causing it to wander from its “normal” course? Science and art cannot be so easily separated.