Posts Tagged ‘science’
If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.
In the previous post I summarised Ken Wilber‘s take on modernism as expressed in his The Marriage of Sense & Soul. Basically he feels that, although we have gained much by splitting the medieval fusion of instrumental, moral and subjective thinking, we have drained much of our felt life of its meaning by adopting such a purely mechanical model of the world. Part of his search for a way to undo this damage involves revisiting what he feels we have lost.
The Great Chain of Being Broken
On page 61 he picks up the thread:
. . . all interiors were reduced to exteriors. All subjects were reduced to objects; all depth was reduced to surfaces; all I’s and WE’s were reduced to Its; all quality was reduced to quantity; levels of significance were reduced to levels of size; value was reduced to veneer; all translogical and dialogical was reduced to monological. Gone the eye of contemplation and gone the eye of the mind – only data from the eye of the flesh would be accorded primary reality, because only sensory data possessed simple location, here in the desolate world of monochrome flatland.
He goes on to contend that when science discovered that mind and consciousness were anchored in the natural organism i.e. the brain and not disembodied, the Great Chain of Being, the old world view, took a colossal hit from which it never recovered (page 62).
I need to digress one moment to unpack what he sees as an essential aspect of this Great Chain of Being:
In the natural order, earth (rock) is at the bottom of the chain: this element possesses only the attribute of existence. Each link succeeding upward contains the positive attributes of the previous link and adds (at least) one other. Rocks, as above, possess only existence; the next link up, plants, possess life and existence. Animals add not only motion, but appetite as well.
Man is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit as those above. In this dichotomy, the struggle between flesh and spirit becomes a moral one. The way of the spirit is higher, more noble; it brings one closer to God. The desires of the flesh move one away from God.
This should have a familiar ring to it for anyone with a spiritual view of the world. It certainly has for Bahá’ís. There are many quotations I could choose from to illustrate this but the passage below is particularly appropriate in the context of this discussion where science and spirit have come to seem at war:
If we look with a perceiving eye upon the world of creation, we find that all existing things may be classified as follows: First—Mineral—that is to say matter or substance appearing in various forms of composition. Second—Vegetable—possessing the virtues of the mineral plus the power of augmentation or growth, indicating a degree higher and more specialized than the mineral. Third—Animal—possessing the attributes of the mineral and vegetable plus the power of sense perception. Fourth—Human—the highest specialized organism of visible creation, embodying the qualities of the mineral, vegetable and animal plus an ideal endowment absolutely minus and absent in the lower kingdoms—the power of intellectual investigation into the mysteries of outer phenomena. The outcome of this intellectual endowment is science which is especially characteristic of man. This scientific power investigates and apprehends created objects and the laws surrounding them. It is the discoverer of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the material universe and is peculiar to man alone. The most noble and praiseworthy accomplishment of man therefore is scientific knowledge and attainment.
The irony, that a capacity, which Bahá’ís see as spiritual in origin, should have been harnessed to a process that has undermined our understanding of the spiritual, will not be lost on anyone reading this post. Wilber makes a subtle but important point on page 70:
Notice the difference between the interior of the individual – such as the mind – and the exterior of the individual – such as the brain. The mind is known by acquaintance; the brain, by objective description.
This contempt for our subjective experience as a source of legitimate data is something he feels we need to overcome. This forms the basis for his more balanced model of empiricism, one that he feels does not fall into the trap of privileging matter over mind.
‘Real’ Science and ‘Real’ Religion
Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating (page 169):
. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.
To arrive at this point he has covered ground that it would be impossible to reproduce completely here. I am offering only a selection of the barest bones of his argument. I am aware that this treatment may reduce the power of his case somewhat and can only suggest that, before dismissing it out of hand, anyone put off by my summary should read the original case in full as Wilber puts it.
One of his most basic points is that science is inconsistent if it claims that all its conclusions are based solely on external evidence. He admits that science at its best does not claim this. On the contrary it acknowledges that interior processes such as mathematics play a huge part in the construction of its world view. However, it does a sleight of hand when it privileges the interior processes upon which it relies (e.g. mathematics) while ruling out of court those interior processes that it regards as suspicious (e.g. meditation). In Wilber’s view (pages 148-149), if you accept the one you must accept the other.
Give a Little
However, for true progress to be made, in his view, both sides need to give a little (pages 160-161):
We have asked science to do nothing more than expand from narrow empiricism (sensory experience only) to broad empiricism (direct experience in general), which it already does anyway with its own conceptual operations, from logic to mathematics.
But religion, too, must give a little. And in this case, religion must open its truth claims to direct verification – or rejection – by experiential evidence.
He builds further on this (page 169):
. . . . religion’s great, enduring, and unique strength, is that, at its core, it is a science of personal experience (using ‘science’ in the broad sense as direct experience, in any domain, that submits to the three strands of injunction, data, and falsifiability.
By injunction, he means ‘If you want to know, do this.’ This applies in equal measure to using a microscope correctly and to practising mindfulness skilfully.
Thus, if science can surrender its narrow empiricism . . . . ., and if religion can surrender its bogus mythic claims in favour of authentic spiritual experience (which its founders uniformly did anyway), then suddenly, very suddenly, science and religion begin to look more like fraternal twins than centuries-old enemies.
This he sees as a way of reintegrating what has been for so long so damagingly disconnected. As he puts it towards the end of his book (page 196):
. . . . the crucial point is that sensory-empirical science, although it cannot see into the higher and interior domains on their own terms, can nonetheless register their empirical correlates.
If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.
I’ve had a plan for some time that looked like it would never see the light of common day. In the years before I began blogging I had read a number of books that impressed me deeply. I thought what a great idea it would be to blog about them as well, not just about the books I’m reading at the moment. So, I sorted them out onto a shelf for future processing. And they’ve stayed there ever since. Just not enough time in the day to revisit them, refresh my memory and convey my sense of why they are so important.
Then I had a windfall. I discovered that I’d done extensive notes on at least one of the books electronically in early 2001. In this post and one more I’ll attempt to winnow out what I feel now are some of the most telling points I captured at the time from The Marriage of Sense & Soul by Ken Wilber.
The Costs of Splitting
Wilber is concerned about what is also one of my obsessions: the price of modernism and the conflict that exists between religion and science. The Marriage of Sense and Soul is a brilliant attempt to capture the essence of his thinking on this issue in a reasonably accessible form between the covers of a single book. I don’t think he oversimplifies his position as a result.
Wilber acknowledges the dignity of modernity in its liberalism – equality, freedom, justice; representational democracy; political and civil rights:
These values and rights existed nowhere in the premodern world on a large scale, and thus these rights have been quite accurately referred to as the dignity of modernity.
This dignity comes (and he adduces scholars from Weber to Habermas in support of this contention) from the differentiation of art, morals and science; i.e. the beautiful, the good and the true. Each has its own language: I, we and it language (page 50). Because these are differentiated the We can no longer dominate the It. Religious tyranny can no longer dictate to science what is true. Nor can the “we” of the church or state over-ride the rights of individuals (“I”). As we shall shortly see, there is though another trap that a simplistic enthronement of reason has set for us.
It may help to bring in what Pusey and Sloane, in different books, have to say that sheds further light on this crucial set of distinctions.
Michael Pusey I have quoted in a previous post. He explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Jurgen Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.
As the process of modernisation continues, the different modes of rationality tend to become isolated in separate ‘orders of life.’ The resulting divisions present a serious problem to individuals who need to form personal identities capable of integrating several modes of rationality. Habermas writes: “Cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive orientations of action ought not to become so independently embodied in antagonistic orders of life that they overcome the personality system’s average capacity for integration and lead to permanent conflicts between lifestyles. (Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1, 1984: page 245)
In short, art, morals and science have flown apart and we are bearing the consequences!
Colonising the Life-World
Worse even than that, Wilber forcefully argues, science has invaded the other spheres (page 56):
. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. .. . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism, the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.
Trying to turn the clock back is no solution: attempting to regress to some theoretical Golden Age in the past is a dead end. On page 57 he states:
Premodern cultures did not have this disaster precisely because they did not possess the corresponding dignities, either, and thus they cannot serve as role models for the desired integration. The cure for the disaster of modernity is to address the dissociation, not attempt to erase the differentiation!
He ends that chapter with the bleak description:
A cold and uncaring wind, monological in its method and calculated in its madness, blew across a flat and faded landscape, the landscape that now contains, as tiny specks in the corner, the faces of you and me.
We’re on familiar territory here. McGilchrist has more recently addressed it in terms of getting a better balance between left and right brain functioning. Sheldrake is fighting to get science to put down the blunderbuss of materialism in favour of a less reductionist more holistic approach. What is Wilber’s answer? That’s what the second post will be about.
Posted in Book Reviews, Civilisation Building, Identity & Society, Science, Psychology & Society, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Daniel Dennett, Emile Durkheim, Jonathan Haidt, moral capital, progress, religion, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, science on 17/07/2012 | 1 Comment »
If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion.
The Hive Switch
I watched a compelling BBC Four programme the other day on the price of progress. One of the commentators, David Suzuki, listed the kinds of capital what he calls the ‘pseudo-science’ of economics dismisses as ‘externalities’ – the ozone layer, deep underground aquifers, top soil, biodiversity – all of them the ‘kinds of services’ that ‘nature performs.’
He did not include another kind that Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind, brings into the closing chapters - moral capital. He begins with a slightly different concept – social capital (page 290):
Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties. When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors.
Social capital has a strong link, in his view, with morality (ibid.):
To achieve almost any moral vision, you’d probably want high levels of social capital.
He goes on to define what he thinks moral capital is (page 292):
[W]e can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community. . . . . the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.
He examines its effects. It is a double-edged sword (page 293).
Moral capital leads automatically to the suppression of free riders, but it does not lead automatically to other forms of fairness such as equality of opportunity. And while high moral capital helps a community to function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities. High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or a fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.
The root of this whole highly debated issue, for Haidt, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length earlier in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247).
Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.
How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).
. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”
I got a faint taste of what he is describing, and with something of the same sense of ambivalence as he is pointing towards, when I attended the last night of the summer proms last weekend at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, celebrating its 21st birthday. The soprano got us all standing at the very end for an enthusiastic rendering of ’Land of Hope and Glory.’ Many there were waving the union jacks they had bought and almost everyone was singing – a buzz of hivish activity, without doubt. I was standing half-wanting fully to participate, but so strong is my inoculation against massed activity, administered I think by so much footage of the Nuremberg rallies seen at a very early age, I didn’t sing and hadn’t bought a flag. In this way at such events I miss out on the positive for fear of the negative effects. Interestingly, an isolated but reasonably large Welsh Dragon was tolerated but the lady who unfurled a massive Chinese flag was asked to put it away – so even something as apparently innocent as a flag at the Proms isn’t entirely without the power to disturb.
An Attack that Misses the Point
Haidt accepts that religion, because it is linked to moral capital, can be the same kind of double-edged sword as moral capital (page 247-248):
Morality binds and blinds . . . . . Many scientists conclude that religion is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims. I do not deny that religions do, at times, fit that description. But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion—and understand its relationship to morality and politics—we must first describe it accurately.
He then embarks on a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of religion, starting with the attacks of the new atheism. He focuses on those writers who have some claim to be scientific in their approach (page 249-250):
Harris was a graduate student in neuroscience at the time, Dawkins is a biologist, and Dennett is a philosopher who has written widely on evolution. These three authors claimed to speak for science and to exemplify the values of science—particularly its open-mindedness and its insistence that claims be grounded in reason and empirical evidence, not faith. . . . For Harris, beliefs are the key to understanding the psychology of religion because in his view, believing a falsehood (e.g., martyrs will be rewarded with seventy-two virgins in heaven) makes religious people do harmful things (e.g., suicide bombing). . . . [R]eligion is studied as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, and these beliefs are said to be the cause of a wide range of harmful actions. Dennett takes that approach too.
Haidt contends that this approach is far too narrow to do religion justice (page 250):
. . . trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.
For him community is the key to understanding the core of religion (ibid.):
. . . . the function of those beliefs and practices is ultimately to create a community.
Parasite or Adaptation?
He skilfully contrasts two schools of thought (page 253-254).
To Dennett and Dawkins, religions are sets of memes that have undergone Darwinian selection. Like biological traits, religions are heritable, they mutate, and there is selection among these mutations. . . . Some religions are better than others at hijacking the human mind, burrowing in deeply, and then getting themselves transmitted to the next generation of host minds. . . Dennett proposes that religions survive because, like those parasites, they make their hosts do things that are bad for themselves (e.g., suicide bombing) but good for the parasite (e.g. Islam). . .
Scientists who are not on the New Atheist team have been far more willing to say that religion might be an adaptation (i.e., it might have evolved because it conferred benefits on individuals or groups). . . [I]nstead of talking about religions as parasitic memes evolving for their own benefit, Atran and Henrich suggest that religions are sets of cultural innovations that spread to the extent that they make groups more cohesive and cooperative. . . . Among the best things to do with a by-product God, according to Atran and Henrich, is to create a moral community. . . If the gods evolve (culturally) to condemn selfish and divisive behaviors, they can then be used to promote cooperation and trust within the group.
The conclusion Haidt draws from this, and other evidence that there is not space to quote, is (page 256):
There is now a great deal of evidence that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.
The next post will explore more in terms of the complexities and ambiguities that qualify the optimism of that position if we take it too much at face value.
I got the heads up from a friend on FaceBook about a forceful and timely article by Stephen R. Friberg on the issue of religion and science to be found at the Huffington Post (see link for the full article). The theme is at the forefront of my attention at the moment and Friberg’s approach is a valuable one, so the desire to pass on the hint was irresistible.
Drawing on the Bahá’í view of reality he states:
Weakening, sidelining, ridiculing, or disparaging science or religion in favor of the other has very real consequences: “Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism” (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, pg. 143).
The article deals with four key issues:
Below, we describe four possible ways inspired by the Bahá’í teachings of [realising in practice] the unity of science and religion:
- Reduce or eliminate conflicts over evolution
- Develop moral and ethical principles for global progress
- Provide universal education in scientific literacy
- Renew and transform religion
It’s well worth a closer look.
Poets and Mystics
Other posts have talked of the three modes of discourse: instrumental, ethical and aesthetic. We are dangerously too fond of the instrumental and, at considerable but apparently invisible risk, privilege what it teaches us.
Mystics and poets inhabit a world where aesthetics and ethics come strongly into play (and play is the operative word, given how closely play and creativity are related). Modern poetry has tended to turn its back on ethics at least in the sense of the moralising that corrupted much popular Victorian verse, but it is still pretty explicit about what it values. Mystics and poets both still inhabit a world where their best practitioners can see a world in a grain of sand. To say that the naive realism of the worst science, often called scientism, can only see the grains in a world of wonder is not too wide of the mark.
The mystical-poetic mode is what both lumpers and splitters may be missing and, when we are, we can neither of us see the heaven in a wild flower, or at least not very often. We each need to work at developing a different way of seeing, our third eye if you like.
I once practised mindfulness using this lump of quartz, which is the same one in the same place as the one shown at the start of this post, though photographed under different light. As I stared at it I eventually became aware that there were tiny areas which broke light into a spectrum (I couldn’t get them to show up in the photograph). I needed a magnifying glass to see them really well but careful watching had revealed them to my naked eye. I had had this piece of stone for years and never noticed that before. Apart from conclusively demonstrating that I’m definitely no mystic, what was the point of that personal anecdote?
It shows that this relationship between the surface of an object and the light that falls on it is far more complex than we think. What’s more disappointing for lumpers and splitters alike is that, even when we’re bouncing photons of light off the waves of quantum flux, we still cannot see to the bottom of things: the particles of light are too big to get through the gaps. Even more importantly though, the light-world relationship has a deeper significance, a spiritual one, which only a penetrating mystical sensibility could observe and convey:
. . . . . all the variations which the wayfarer in the stages of his journey beholdeth in the realms of being, proceed from his own vision. We shall give an example of this, that its meaning may become fully clear: Consider the visible sun; although it shineth with one radiance upon all things, . . . . yet in each place it becometh manifest and sheddeth its bounty according to the potentialities of that place. For instance, in a mirror it reflecteth its own disk and shape, and this is due to the sensitivity of the mirror; in a crystal it maketh fire to appear, and in other things it showeth only the effect of its shining, but not its full disk. . . . .
In like manner, colors become visible in every object according to the nature of that object. For instance, in a yellow globe, the rays shine yellow; in a white the rays are white; and in a red, the red rays are manifest. Then these variations are from the object, not from the shining light. . . . .
In sum, the differences in objects have now been made plain. Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance — that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes — he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world. And some do gaze upon the effulgence of the light; and some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself.
The danger when we gloss over or enmesh ourselves in details is that we fail to see the sunburst inside everything. We are so dazzled by the ballet danced by all the shadows and the colours of this world of matter that we miss the intimations that surround us about what holds all this in being. We do not see the lessons Bahá’u'lláh tells us lie hidden in every atom of the universe and we fail to see the oneness of it all, often with drastic and divisive consequences.
So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”
And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.
Andrew Powell, in Thinking Beyond the Brain, an intriguing book edited by David Lorimer, put me onto Goswami. He concludes, ‘Everything is mind,’ (page 182) and goes on to say:
. . . there is a more important truth to be discovered, that we are one. If humankind should ever learn that what belongs to one belongs to all, heaven on earth will be assured.
If this stuff about ‘consciousness’ seems a bit cold, in the same book (pages 128-131) there is an account of a similar but not identical mystical experience. Charles Tart quotes the story of a Doctor S who was an atheist at the time. He was alone, watching the sunset, which was particularly beautiful that evening. All verbal thinking stopped. While what he experienced was, he said, impossible to express, he did try to convey it in words:
I was certain that the universe was one whole and that it was benign and loving at its ground. . . . . God as experienced in cosmic consciousness is the very ground or beingness of the Universe and has no human characteristics in the usual sense of the word. The Universe could no more be separate from God than my body could separate from its cells. Moreover the only emotion that I would associate with God is love, but it would be more accurate to say that God is love, than that God is loving.
Most religions, and the Bahá’í Faith is no exception, hold that God is more than the universe: they mostly agree also that God permeates the universe in some way. Which means, of course, that He is in us also. Bahá’u'lláh confirms this when He exhorts us to:
Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee . . .
(Hidden Words from the Arabic: Number 13)
And again in His mystical work, The Seven Valleys, just before the passage already quoted, Bahá’u'lláh describes what happens when someone travels the spiritual path and arrives at the valley of unity:
He looketh on all things with the eye of oneness, and seeth the brilliant rays of the divine sun shining from the dawning-point of Essence alike on all created things, and the lights of singleness reflected over all creation.
And it’s probably best I leave it there — for now at least.