Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Metaphysical Is a Non-Answer


I’m glad I posted my thoughts on the possible evolution of belief recently. First of all, I received some great references to check into further. One of those, in particular, will be discussed in this post. Also, I received this comment from a bit of a regular around here, McKiernan, who was gently poking at me:

For improvements to one's ontological (mis) understandings try reading:Gagdad BobIt might help you make it through the day, Middleman. On the other hand monkeys do no evil, see no evil and hear no evil. That could have been the evolutionary jumpstart on homo religiosis. Only kidding of course. McK

Well, I would hope he's kidding! Especially considering a) we didn't evolve from the monkeys of the world any more than they evolved from us. We're both here, in the present, aren't we McKiernan? And b) whoever came up with the image of "see no evil" etc. and adjoins it to our primate cousins, hasn't followed the studies on them. They can certainly be “evil”. Here’s an interesting story along these lines recently about apes (not monkeys). Here’s another from last year.

I like the present. It's all I have. I know I won't have it for long. I don't worry about it. I just try to find out a little here and there about the reality of the present - how the past connects to it - how the future may play out from it. It's no big deal and I'm not on a hunting trip to bag the ultimate truth – as if there were such a thing.

I read the two most current posts over at Gagdad Bob. I wouldn't presume to judge him based on that because I wouldn't want anyone to read the last two posts here and pretend, from that, to know all about The Evolutionary Middleman. Those 2 posts, however, represented a line of thought that I would describe as follows: strongly disliking the current popular expressions of religion in what they have done to the 'good name and nature' of higher (and true) religion and an attempt to resurrect what this "higher religion" should be, which is simply a way to live life and a mechanism for exploring those things we can not (and probably never will) know through science.

I don't have a huge problem with this. I can understand why even a highly intellectual mind needs to believe there is some "vast unknowable" that our limited consciousness can never grasp. It might even be true. I just don't care. Life, for me, is too short to spend more than a few weeks of it contemplating these things. I am more interested in what science can teach me. I am interested in exploring the outer edges of those possibilities, but always within a scientific framework.

Can we ever know the evolutionary causes of human consciousness? I don’t know. Perhaps the question I raised is one of those that you will never get an answer through science. But I think it’s worth exploring and not just throwing up our hands and declaring, unequivocally, that science can never define the evolutionary process of aspects of consciousness – such as a need for religion. Thanks to readers, I did find out who is working on these ideas, the books published on it and interviews with those who are studying it. I find their thinking fascinating and I'm excited that there is a sector of science that is exploring these things.

From the linked interview, here are a few questions to and answers from Harvard Biologist, Edward O. Wilson. (If the name rings a bell of controversy – this is covered in the article. It’s a good read).

Suppose, miraculously, there was proof of a transcendental plane out there. Would you find that comforting?
Wilson: Sure. Let me take this opportunity to dispel the notion, the canard, that scientists are against transcendentalism, that they want to block any talk of it, particularly intelligent design. If any positive evidence could be found of a supernatural guiding force, there would be a land rush of scientists into it. What scientist would not want to participate in what would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time? Scientists are simply saying -- particularly in reference to intelligent design -- that it's not science and it's garbage until some evidence or working theory is produced. And they are suspicious because they see it coming from people who have a religious agenda.

And…

I think this is actually of great importance when we're talking about science and religion. There are a lot of people who discount the literal interpretation of the Bible because it does not square with modern science. And even God is such a loaded word. What if we put that word aside? Can we talk about energy or some sort of cosmic force?
Wilson: That's why I say, I leave this to the astrophysicist.

Not the religious scholars?
Wilson: Oh, of course not. They don't know enough. Literally. I hope I'm not being insulting. But you can't talk about these subjects now without knowing a great deal of theoretical physics, particularly astrophysics and developments in astronomy concerning the origins and evolution of the universe. But one thing we may very well be able to understand from start to finish -- we haven't done it yet -- is the origin of life on this planet. And that's what counts for human beings. Where we came from. And it's beginning to look -- it's looking pretty persuasively -- that we are in fact ultimately physical and chemical in nature, and that we evolved autonomously on this planet by ourselves. There's no evidence whatsoever that we're being overseen or directed in our evolution and actions by a supernatural force.

Also…

This is not a view that all scientists subscribe to. Stephen Jay Gould famously talked about how science and religion are two entirely separate spheres. And they really didn't have anything to do with each other.
Wilson: Yeah, he threw in the towel.

He dodged the question.
Wilson: He dodged the question, famously. That's no answer at all. That's evasion. I think most scientists who give thought to this with any depth -- who understand evolution -- take pretty much the position that I've taken. For example, in the National Academy of Sciences, which presumably includes many of the elite scientists in this country, a very large number would fully accept the scientific view. I know it's 80 percent or more who said, on the issue of the immortality of the soul, they don't care.


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His answers are spot-on. When it comes to these types of questions, I don’t really care and, to the degree I do, I’ll read what the astrophysicists have to say before I spend 2 minutes listening to Deepak Chopra and others.


It gets back to the basic question that must be posed to the proponents of Intelligent Design – if you are correct, what does it tell us that in any way helps us through our life here on earth? How does simply saying that there are things so great and awesome that we can never know about them through the scientific process, teach us anything of value?


In my mind, 2 hours of jogging, 2 hours of helping out at your local park and 2 hours of blogging on these subjects has more value in the real world that we reside in than a lifetime of prayer or meditation. I’m not critical of those who choose the latter, because we do what we have to do, to make it through another day. I just know what makes sense for me. People fascinate me and that’s why I appreciate McKiernan’s comments and the link he provided.

12 comments:

Buridan said...

"I can understand why even a highly intellectual mind needs to believe there is the "vast unknowable" that our limited consciousness can never grasp. It might even be so. I just don't care. Life, for me, is too short to spend more than a few weeks of it contemplating these things. I am more interested in what science CAN teach me. I am interested in exploring the outer edges of those possibilities, but always within a scientific framework."

Nicely put John! My sentiments exactly.

John said...

Well, if I can't get YOU to agree on this, I might as well hang up my laptop.

tom l said...

on the big bang: once upon a time there was a young creature named God who was playing with matches near an open gas source - kaboom! the entire universe was created, but the little God thingie was unfortunately killed by the blast ....

just a thought.

John said...

Pigeon, that's as good as any other explanation of these things - and why I, like Dr. Edward Wilson, leave it to the astrophysicist.

Anonymous said...

There could be other explanations since the big bang was not a Pearl Harbor event that went away.

"Consider it this way: the big bang did not just happen once upon a timeless, some 14 billion years ago. Rather, a cosmos mysteriously explodes into being every moment, in every individual's consciousness. Likewise, an entire cosmos comes into being with each new birth, and a whole unrepeatable world fades into oblivion with each death. And it's all happening now."

John, do you suspect that is the present of which you speak ?

I liked this line as well,

"Traditional cosmologies…will not yield their meanings to the cognitively greedy accustomed only to linear, scientific ways of knowing; one cannot simply grasp at them, but must approach the endeavor with, with, with ..."

Some people aren't ready just yet for Aristotle's unmoved mover ? Yet another cosmic joker in the trick deck of life.


McK

Anonymous said...

Oops, another one falls off the apple cart:

Prayer of Zero

Church of Zero
Divide-by-Zero
Zero-sum be Thy Name.
Zero will Come
Undo the One
Dust is its final Reign.
Bless me Zero for I am Me.


"It's a paltry belief in nothingness that masquerades as faith in Science."

- by "Keith in Silicon Valley" in AMERICAN DIGEST: Comment on Judas: A Saint for Our Seasons

McK

John said...

McK - who am I to say you are wrong? Who am I to say Islam is wrong? Who am I to say Hinduism is wrong? Who am I to say Buddhism is wrong? Who am I to say The Native Americans were wrong? Who am I to say the ancient Africans were wrong?

The poem you cite is right on. I can't deny its applicability to my life. It kind of a sad and lonely place to find ones self, but it's how I see it.

I do know that science can never answer everything I want to know. That said, I also know that none of the above gives me any answers either - only a false hope. You are welcome to it. I don't want to strip anyone of their beliefs. I know it gives comfort. Though if I'm correct about the general direction that you and perhaps Gagdad Bob are pointing toward, I truly fail to see what "hope" that would give you. Feel free to explain.

"It's a paltry belief in nothingness that masquerades as faith in Science."

This sounds an awful lot like some guys over at Answers In Genesis! You know what they say about 'laying down with dogs', McK! But the difference between the description and me is this - On the one hand, I do have a "paltry" belief in nothingness. On the other hand, as long as I exist, I'm interested in my existence, which science assists in by lightening my load - you lable my appreciation of science as "faith", probably because it comforts you to put us on the same level. My statement above "I do know that science can never answer everything I want to know" is not new, I've made it here and elsewhere that you have read and is clearly a refutal of any assertion that my gratitude and enjoyment of science is faith based.

I realize that this is what religion does for people concerning some things that science can't fully assist on. But this fact doesn’t make religion real. Yours is a slightly more sophisticated myth than Adam and Eve; and I wish you well.

Anonymous said...

The line under the Zero prayer is quoted from the American Digest site. It doesn't represent my own thoughts. So I'm not judging anyone and haven't have a clue what Answers in Genesis is about, as I've never been there. I doubt the world I perceive would be acceptable if the site represents a fundamentalist point of view.

There is a line in the chapter, the Country of the Mind in Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams that I like:

"A Lakota woman, Elaine Jahner once wrote that what lies at the heart of the religion of the hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape. To put it another way, occasionally one sees something fleeting in the land, a moment when line, color, and movement intensify and something sacred is revealed, leading one to believe there is a another realm of reality corresponding to the physical one but different."

McK

John said...

Answers In Genesis would, indeed, not want you around. I wasn't really implying that you are the same as them. It's just that you do represent a quest for spirituality and by using a line from Reader's Digest you are certainly moving into "that" camp! But I get where you are coming from as opposed to what they are about.

Just for fun, check out this page AIG from the Answers In Genesis website. I think it's really funny. It warns fundamentalists to stop using all of the arguements that you typically hear from them against evolution (like "Darwin recanted on his death-bed" - no evidence of such, plus wouldn't have any effect on the fact of evolution even if he did).

John said...

Sorry about that link. Try this:

Arguments we think creationists should NOT use

Anonymous said...

Aarggh. Not very funny. I doubt even some serious bluegrass music would help them.

McK

John said...

No, but it couldn't hurt.