Archive for the ‘Science and Religion’ Category

Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

In an attempt to shed light on what is meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart’ in the Bahá’í Writings, it seemed a good idea to use metaphors to explain a metaphor, given that logical language would probably not be up to the task.

I have reflected so far upon two images, used in the same scriptures, which shed some light on the matter: a lamp/candle/fire and the garden. These two images are not all we have to go on though. The mirror image is equally fruitful to contemplate.

O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys: pp 21-22)

In previous posts I have discussed the value of reflection, though not in the sense of the way that mirrors reflect, yet the link is interesting. I have drawn on writers such as Koestenbaum who describes how reflection is a process of separating consciousness from its contents. I have used the analogy of the mirror to illustrate what this might mean. What is reflected in the mirror is not the mirror. In the same way what we are thinking, feeling and planning may not be the essence of our consciousness, simply the ‘objects’ that are reflected in it.

This discussion tended to presuppose that the mirror of our consciousness was clean enough to reflect what it was turned towards. This pins down the two essential aspects of the mirror of the heart that concern us here. Let us side-step for now whether the deepest and usually inaccessible levels of consciousness are what Bahá’u’lláh means by the heart: I will return to that topic again shortly.  Let’s consider instead the issues of dust on the mirror and the direction of its orientation.

In Bahá’í terms, as I understand them, turning the mirror of your heart towards debased objects defiles or dirties it.  It therefore has to be cleansed before it can reflect higher spiritual realities even if it is turned towards them.

The mirror referred to in the quote above is one of the ancient kind made of metal. It would need to be burnished with chains not with a soft cloth and polish – altogether more effortful, even painful. And the burnish is defined as love and detachment from all save God. This suggests that we are back with the idea that all the many different attachments we harbour in our hearts, all the different kinds of meaning systems we have devised as lenses through which to experience reality, are just dirt on the mirror of our heart.

It is fairly obvious then that metaphors such as weeding or purifying by fire, as one can do with metals when they’re mined, all add to our idea of what to do and how to do it in order to further this process that is described in terms of a mirror as ‘burnishing.’ We can set aside time to be mindful and locate in our own being the weeds of hatred and envy, for example, and see refusing to act them out and replacing them with kindness and admiration as a kind of weeding or burnishing depending upon what most vividly makes sense to and motivates us. Our minds all work in different ways and there is no one method that suits all.

Whatever method we use to step back from identifying with what impedes us (see link for one example: Disidentification exercise), I feel it could therefore be argued that if we were able to peel back all this dross that veils our hearts from discerning reality for what it truly is we would in effect be unhooking our consciousness from all the curtains that hide reality from us.

Wert thou to cleanse the mirror of thy heart from the dust of malice, thou wouldst apprehend the meaning of the symbolic terms revealed by the all-embracing Word of God made manifest in every Dispensation, and wouldst discover the mysteries of divine knowledge. Not, however, until thou consumest with the flame of utter detachment those veils of idle learning, that are current amongst men, canst thou behold the resplendent morn of true knowledge.

(Kitáb-i-Íqán: pages 68-69)

It’s intriguing that Bahá’u’lláh seems to be saying there that detachment will enhance our understanding of symbolic terms such as the metaphors we are examining here. If I was more detached I would not need to struggle so hard to understand what the metaphor ‘heart’ means in the first place!

Road less travelled

Scott Peck, in spite of his well documented failings as a human being, was one of the first writers I came across who made it clear that love is not just a feeling if it’s a feeling at all in our usual sense of that word. He stated strongly that love is not a feeling: it is a kind of work (The Road Less Travelled pages 116-119):

. . . love is an action, an activity. . . . Love is not a feeling. . . . Genuine love . .  implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. . . . . In a constructive marriage . . . The partners must regularly, routinely and predictably, attend to each other and their relationship no matter how they feel. . .  Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy takes much the same line (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – pages 218-19):

Marrying because of love is considered quite reasonable in our culture, and love is dominantly thought to be a feeling, not a kind of choice. The feelings of love are extremely unpredictable. We speak of love as if it were an accident; we say that we fall into and fall out of this emotional state, for example. It should not then be a surprise when we fall into and fall out of marriages in much the same way. . . . Consider how much easier it is to keep a marriage vow if marriage is based on a choice to marry and love is considered to be a choice to value the other and hold the other as special.

They go on to speak of the importance of commitment.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point. Better late than never though.

Obviously now one of the things that bedevils our ability to understand what the heart is in a spiritual sense, apart that is from taking it too literally and piling on too much baggage from our culture, is that we base our idea of the heart on feelings that come from the gut. We discount the possibility that the feelings that originate in the heart as the doorway to moral and spiritual progress may not feel like feelings at all in the same way. The feelings from the gut promise much and are so easy to give expression to, lie so close to what we see as our comfort zone, but they all too frequently fail to deliver on their promises and bring profound discomfort in their wake.

The feelings from the heart, on the other hand, compel us upwards, involve effort and even hardship often, but the rewards are beyond my ability to describe – of course, that applies only as long as it’s not for the rewards that we follow them. They seem more to do with enacted values than emotions in the usual sense of that word. We tend to forget that emotions and motives have the same root in the idea of movement. We all too often feel moved without moving, or else set off in the wrong direction!

We need to remember, not just sometimes but always, the words of Al-Ghazali: ‘You possess only whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck.’ Near Death Experiences have a similar message. In Lessons from the Light one woman reports that the being of light sent her back and, when she asked what she should do, she was told that she could bring with her to the next world only what she had learned of love and wisdom. This seems a general lesson from such experiences:

One task that NDErs seem to agree on is to learn about love. We do that in a world limited by time and space where we have to make our choices. Many NDErs will agree we have a free will and we are free to choose our way through our world. But since we are part of a Unity Universe our interconnectedness makes that everything we do has an effect somewhere else. All our actions, even the seemingly insignificant ones, ripple through the universe. They have an effect.

So, in the end, it seems that I will only be able to get a better hold of what it means to have an understanding heart by increasing my level of detachment by way of a strenuous and continuous attempt to live in as wise and loving a fashion as I am capable of.

The evidence from research in neuropsychology is clear now that focused and deliberate effort changes the brain, and some research is said to suggest that years of meditation can lead to a synchronisation of the two halves of the brain that creates a very significant change of consciousness. Given that the left-brain is connected with logic and the right-brain with deep intuition, perhaps this gives some idea of the possible physiological substrate of an understanding heart as well as of the prolonged effort that would be necessary to connect with it consistently in consciousness.

Easier said than done, then, but I suspect I have no choice.

So, it has become clear that the heart cannot be the seat of understanding if we coast comfortably along assuming that it is the natural home of feelings in a conventional sense. If it were, how could the understanding heart, for example, protect the flame of love we are encouraged to kindle there from the gusts of negative feeling that blow from the emotional centres of the brain? If we are treating these feelings as though they are what the heart is evolved to house all the time, we’re in trouble. The heart, in the sense we are concerned with here, can’t both harbour the gales of emotion and at the same time shield us from them. The light of love will end up inevitably and rapidly extinguished.


This is where the mirror image is so helpful. It assists us in separating out what is part of the heart in its true sense and what is not. An account of a dream I had many years ago might help here.

There is a lake in the mountains. By its shore a rabbit squats munching leaves or grass. Overhead a hawk flies. A slight breeze wrinkles the surface of the lake so the image of the sky and clouds is crumpled too. Only my eye is there to see this scene: I am not aware of my body at all.

To simplify somewhat, as the dream has other implications as well, after some work on its content I came to see it as an image of my mind. The hawk is my anger, the rabbit my fear, the surface of the lake my superficial consciousness. Not only the sky but the hawk and rabbit are reflected in it.

If I see the surface of the lake as who I truly am I will live my whole life a prey to fear, anger and all the other changes in the mental weather – the clouds, winds, rain and so on of my inscape – that disturb and distress me. But in essence I am not these things. They are only the contents of my consciousness just as they are not the lake itself in the dream, only reflections in or perturbations of its surface.

My mind is the lake itself and the more deeply I allow myself to experience its full reality the closer I get to the ground of my being, where the essence of who I truly am is most closely in touch with the foundation of my existence. If I live my life from this level of awareness I will be authentic, I will be who I really am in essence rather than the person I seem to be in appearance: I will be in touch with my understanding heart. Heaven knows, if I persevere sincerely enough for long enough, one day I might even become capable, before I die, of being my understanding heart, at least for fleeting moments here and there. 

Thanks to all those who have stuck with me this far and I’m sorry if the final conclusion seems disappointingly modest after all the high-flown expectations!


Read Full Post »

Metamorphosis v2

For source of image see link

Read Full Post »

Charles Darwin

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’

John Hatcher quoted by Kitzing in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 203)

Optimisation – the sceptical view

To recap briefly where we got to last time, in considering the issue of evolution, we reach a point where life seems impossibly improbable, yet it exists. Something seems to be driving it to create increasingly complex forms of life, but we don’t know what. Now I come back to the issue of complexity from two atheists’ point of view before looking at the Bahá’í perspective once more.

A key issue that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini deal with in their book What Darwin Got Wrong concerns what they call optimisation.

Put simply (page 81):

Evolution seems to have achieved near optimal answers to questions which, if pursued by the application of exogenous filters to solutions generated at random, as the neo-Darwinist model requires, would have imposed searching implausibly large spaces of candidate solutions. This seems an intractable enigma, unless prior filtering by endogenous constraints is assumed.

The standard neo-Darwinian model won’t work, they conclude (page 85): ‘The picture of a blind search winnowed by selection is utterly implausible.’

They have analysed the endogenous constraints within the genome that I referred to last time and are also aware that basic laws of science add in further limits (page 86):

 . . . it seems that only physico-chemical and geometric constraints can explain the narrow canalisations that natural selection must have explored.… [Otherwise] the space of possible solutions to be explored seems too gigantic to have been explored by blind trial and error.

There are still mysteries that remain unexplained, for example (page 89) concerning the angle of wings:

The angles of effective wing stroke are extremely narrow . . . and one wants to question the process through which this narrow wedge of angles became fixated even before there was any real flight.

They give several other examples of optimisation including the foraging strategies of bees, before moving on to a particularly spectacular one: the example of the wasp that zombifies cockroaches with two strategically perfect injections at the exactly right intervals, prior to making its victim the comatose but still alive host and food supply to its young. They go on to say (pages 90-91 – my emphasis):

Not even the most committed adaptationist neo-Darwinians suppose that all kinds of alternatives have been blindly tried out by the ancestors of the wasp … True: wasps have been around for a very long time (some 400 million years, maybe more) but even this is not a long enough time to try out innumerable alternative behavioural solutions, with alternative possibilities conceivable at each step of the behavioural sequence. What, then? No one knows at present. Such cases of elaborate innate behavioural programs… cannot be accounted for by means of optimising physico-chemical or geometric factors.

There has to be some explanation. Whatever it is science hasn’t found it yet but, as scientists, they understandably place their faith in science none the less (page 92):

The problem of finding optimal solutions to evolutionary problems by filtering candidates generated at random would often be intractable. But, as we have just seen, there are some instances of optimal (or near-optimal) solutions to problems in biology; so, if natural selection cannot optimise, then something else must be involved.. . . factors that the progress of science will in due time reveal.

This is an act of faith even so. We’re in Eric Reitan territory here when he writes in Is God a Delusion? (pages 181-182) that:

 . . . atheism is a matter of faith, . . . a way of seeing the world that they have chosen from an array of alternatives about which reason and evidence have nothing to say. . . . Religious faith . . . involves a choice that is no less rational than theirs.

Complexity and Faith

So, what might a religion have to say about this problem that would be just as rational?

Eberhard von Kitzing writes in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 183):

Just as embryonic development consists in the actualisation of the information stored in its genome, evolution based on the existence of a potential order ‘reveals’ the implicit order encoded in fundamental laws of nature.

. . . Because of the gigantic improbability of the result of evolution by chance, today chance as the primary source of complex life is generally rejected. Most modern evolutionary biologists would agree that pure chance cannot explain the complex order of life.

This seems reasonably concordant with where I left Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just now. Kitzing goes on (page 185-86) ‘. . . as pointed out correctly by Ward, the gradual appearance of order begs the same level of explanation as its sudden emergence: . . . . If complexity needs explaining, it needs explaining, however long it took to get there!’ adding that (page 192) ‘The origin of complex order by chance alone is too improbable for such a possibility to be taken seriously.’

It should come as no surprise at this point (page 194) to find Kitzing pointing out that ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá proposes the need of a voluntary First Cause to avoid the problem of an infinite regression of causes.’

Picking up on the issue of optimisation, or in his terms ‘complexity,’ Kitzing quotes Hatcher (pages 203-04):

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’ . . . Hatcher concludes that there must be a special kind of force which causes this complexification during the evolution of life on earth.

Hatcher voices the conclusion to which this inevitably leads (page 204): ‘It seems reasonable to call this force “God,” but anyone uncomfortable with that name can simply call it “the evolutionary force”.’

Ultimately (page 206): ‘Although there are differences in the details of the arguments of Hatcher, Ward, Loehle, and the author of this essay, they agree in the conclusion that God’s will is necessary to explain the origin of the complex order of life.’

We each of us have to make up our own minds, on the basis of the evidence as we understand it, where we stand on this issue. My main contention here is to suggest that a religious explanation of evolution is as rational as a materialistic one: to commit to either is an act of faith. Reason alone can only warrant agnosticism.

The Social Consequences of neo-Darwinism:

Having dealt with the main issue, I would like to take a brief look at another aspect that needs to be borne in mind: what has been the impact on culture and society of buying into a neo-Darwinian perspective?

Kitzing makes clear that (page 213):

[‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s] particular interest was in the social and religious consequences of Darwinism as it was interpreted by ‘some European philosophers.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá has not been the only one to voice such concerns.

David Wallace-Wells, in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, speaks of how Social Darwinism appeals ‘to unequal outcomes as “fair” ones, an already familiar one-percenter view.’ In effect, neo-Darwinism works hard to make bllnd competitive selfishness seem  almost rational and certainly inevitable.

In Alas, Poor Darwin, Hilary & Steven Rose strongly express their concerns (page 3):

The claims of evolutionary psychology in the field of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and philosophy are for the most part not merely mistaken, but culturally pernicious.

One of the many examples in the book comes from Charles Jenks (page 44):

Social Darwinists and John D. Rockefeller . . . argued that, since nature shows the survival of the fittest coming out of competition, then society should make permanent the winners and losers. It is only natural to follow natural selection. In spite of such arguments continuously being shown to be logically false and morally suspect, they are, I believe, being continuously made and especially by those trained to avoid them, academics.

One way to fossilise inequality, I suppose.

There is another delusion whose balloon he seeks to puncture: it’s the deterministic one about free will being an illusion. This is rooted in a reductionist view of the mind which Dorothy Nelkin explains (page 18): ‘Evolutionary psychologists…, [c]onvinced of the centrality of the genes, believe that the mind will ultimately be reduced to material properties…’ Ironically, they proselytise their views in the manner of religious evangelists (page 19): ‘Evolutionary psychologists are missionaries, advocating a set of principles that define the meaning of life and seeking to convert others to their beliefs.’

Charles Jenks then spends a whole chapter subverting the idea that this means all we do is determined either by genes or culture (page 31):

 . . . we actually have three variables: nature, nurture and self organisation. For convenience I will label them genes (G), culture (C) and free will (F).

He argues that sneezing is almost completely genetically determined while artistic creativity is one of the most extreme examples of the exercise of free will.

If there were no free will, and everything was determined, then none of us would be responsible for what we do and should not therefore be held to account for it, a proposition that would make it hard to adhere to any workable system of crime and punishment.

Perhaps as importantly, it would make most of us give up the struggle to overcome tormenting mental states such as depression and obsessive-compulsive drives.

Thankfully there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that this would be a defeatist delusion. There is a book dealing with a wealth of research that is exactly in line with this.

The Mind & the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley tackles the complexities of the issue in a  most accessible style and marshalls the evidence in an engaging and persuasive way (page 18):

Modern neuroscience is now demonstrating what James suspected more than a century ago: that attention is a mental state . . . that allows us, moment by moment, to “choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, [to] choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense . .

The authors discuss in detail various models of mind, highlighting the problems problems with reductionism (page 40):

The basic principles of evolutionary biology would seem to dictate that any natural phenomenon as prominent in our lives as our experience of consciousness must necessarily have some discernible and quantifiable effect in order for it to exist, and to persist, in nature at all.

They introduce us to Chalmers‘ notion that consciousness can be regarded (page 47) as a “non-reductive primitive,” a “fundamental building block of reality”.

It would be impossible to describe all the evidence they adduce to support the claim that volition is real and its exercise can change the brain, i.e. mind alters matter in this case and it cannot be explained as one part of the brain working on another part.

Crucially, they draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.” His model involves four stages. He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work they spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . [M]odern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

So, there I will leave the matter for now at least.

In my view, it is as rational to believe in a transcendent driver behind the improbable complexities of evolution, as it is to believe we will eventually find a convincing material one. There may also be good reasons for being more alert to some of the more potentially toxic ways a neo-Darwinian perspective has been contaminating our culture.

Over to you.

Read Full Post »

Charles Darwin

In truth, neither of these extreme positions is valid. It makes no sense to reject evolutionary ideas; and it makes no sense to try to use these ideas to justify atheism.

(Page 54: Colin Tudge The Secret Life of Trees) 

Why am I suddenly struggling to understand evolution when it stands in the middle of what is fairly abstruse and alien territory to me? I can do psychobabble till the cows come home, reading and writing it fluently and with relative ease. Wading through texts that use terms like ‘chaperonines,’ ‘transposons,’ ‘epistasis,’ and many others, most of which I have filtered out of this sequence in order to stick with what I feel fairly confident of understanding, is an altogether different and more difficult matter.

Well, I got a nudge from Tudge as the quote at the head of this piece suggests, followed by a hard prod from Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver[1], but the final motivator was the invitation to give a talk to a local humanist society about the Bahá’í Faith.

I will have to mention that a key tenet of the Bahá’í Faith is the essential compatibility of religion and science. I can deal ad nauseam, as readers of this blog will already be aware, with mind, brain, soul and spirit issues, but evolution is quite another matter. I have been quite content to take for granted that lines of thought exist to make evolution and Bahá’í metaphysics comfortable companions: what made me uncomfortable was that I would not be able to marshall them clearly and deeply enough if anyone raised questions about this issue.

So, as luck would have it, there were three books on my shelves, two of them purchased around the year 2000 plus What Darwin Got Wrong bought in 2010. That I had read none of them beyond the first few pages until now indicates the level of my indifference blended with the degree of difficulty I experienced plodding through their opaque arguments whose value I was blind to – till now that is.

I’m going to attempt now to give as clear a presentation of the Bahá’í perspective, derived in the main from Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown, mixed with quotes from the other two books, where they help to clarify the points I’m trying to make. I have to confess I didn’t get far with Alas, Poor Darwin edited by Helen and Steven Rose: its relevance to my purpose was too low to motivate me to persist after culling a handful of helpful pointers.

It is worth bearing in mind right from the start the caveats articulated by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in the introduction to their book, What Darwin Got Wrong.

They honestly admit that (page xvi):

In fact, we don’t know very well how evolution works. Nor did Darwin, and (as far as we can tell) nor does anybody else.

They also criticize neo-Darwinism’s attitude in the face of undermining evidence (ibid) ‘[N]eo Darwinism is taken as axiomatic… a view that looks to contradict it, either directly or by implication, is ipso facto rejected, however plausible it may otherwise seem.…,’ before concluding that ‘we think that . . . Darwin’s theory of natural selection is fatally flawed.’ The position they attack smacks of materialism’s a priori rejection of any evidence that suggests there is some kind of transcendent realm. Needless to say, this is not science but dogma.

The Basic Bahá’í Position

Quotations in this section come mainly from Evolution and Bahá’í Belief except when indicated otherwise. All references from pages up to 133 are from Keven Brown: the references after that are from Eberhard von Kitzing.

Brown draws an important distinction. He states that (page 77), from a Bahá’í point of view, everything in the universe ‘exists by design and has a purpose, . . . whereas ‘evolution’, in the meaning of Darwin, implies the transmutation of species without any underlying goal.’

He confirms that (page 84) ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá does not deny the reality of evolution as a process by which the universe and its creatures change and develop overtime, . . . All created forms are progressive in their planes… under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life’ and explains that ‘this state of motion, which implies transformation, is not a purely random and chaotic motion.’ However, he also emphasises that ‘It does not imply the transmutation of one species into another . . . ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is adamant that physical species evolved purposively within the boundaries of their own essences.’

The term essence is used here somewhat in the sense of a divinely created template which shapes the material forms of all species.

So, (page 86) ‘Creation and evolution, to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, are not contrary, but complementary and mutually necessary processes.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá is prepared to accept, Brown argues, that (page 94) ‘. . . there was a time when the material reflection of the human essence, due to the undeveloped nature of the planet, took on more primitive forms,’ which implies that (page 95: ‘[A species essence] must contain all of its possible evolutionary pathways from the most primitive to the most advanced,’ and that (page 105) ‘. . .  each timeless species essence should begin manifesting its influence as soon as the environmental conditions are prepared to receive it.’

Kitzing takes the clarification a step further (page 163): ‘Only if evolution can be decomposed into a sufficient number of small gradual progresses does neo-Darwinism become reasonable.’

Progress in Small Steps driven by an Organisng Force:

The relative subtlety of the Bahá’í position now begins to surface (page 167):

The explicit dependence of life on its history makes it impossible to apply the classical concept of essences as it was applied in classical biology, which assumes that the form of a particular cat is defined only by a timeless reality considered to be independent of the details of the particular history of the ancestors of this cat.

Moreover, this gradual but purposive development cannot be automatic (page 174): ‘Only disorder occurs on its own; complex order needs a non-trivial origin.’

The existence of some organising force seems necessary (page 179:

If the form of the laws (of the universe) are not predetermined by any kind of timeless abstract order, one would expect different chemistries in different parts of the universe. . . . Dennett would have to explain why the chemical laws are apparently the same everywhere and all the time in the known universe.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini locate the limits of their scepticism right from the start of their first chapter (page 1):

[Even though the authors believe that] Natural selection (NS) is irredeemably flawed . . . it is perfectly possible – in fact, entirely likely – that the genealogy of species (GS) is true even if NS is not. [They feel it likely that] most or all species are related by historical descent, perhaps by descent from a common primitive ancestor . . .

This still leaves room for a driving force, albeit subject to constraints from within not just from outside (page 27):

 . . . the whole process of development, from the fertilised egg to the adult, modulates the phenotypic effects of genotypic changes, and thus ‘filters’ the phenotypic options that ecological variables ever have a chance to select from.

Their search for a driving force of course stops short of a Creator (page 30 – my emphases for clarification):

Evo-devo tells us that it’s the other way around: nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of developmental biology.… Researchers have been grappling for some years with the problem of reconstructing the way in which similar genes mastermind the development of wildly different creatures.

‘Mastermind’ is an interesting metaphor in this context.

The process of boundary setting is crucial in their view (page 32):

The old argument in evolutionary biology was about whether internal constraints are the exception or the rule; the present consensus is increasingly that they are the rule.

Scientists are still not clear exactly how this all works. The authors start by quoting from Rob Krumlauf (page 35):

‘A major challenge for the future will be to decipher how the basic gene “tool kit” and common signalling pathways are controlled and integrated in the development and evolution of so many distinct organisms.’ . . .

And then add in other points, for example (ibid.):

The list could be continued with RNAi (i stands for ‘interference’) and various processes of ‘proofreading’. There are also processes of post-transcriptional silencing, adding a further mechanism of regulation.

Their focus is predominantly on the role of DNA variation and its constraints. However, it seems to me they are positing a driving force of some kind none the less, whose existence, given the improbability of life existing at all in terms of the Anthropic Principle, stands in need of explanation.

Just in case there are those unfamiliar with this term, Russell Stannard in his book Science and the Renewal of Belief (pages 132-139) summarises the Anthropic Principle by saying that the preconditions for life provide an infinitesimally narrow window in terms of the constraints around the range of variables permitting an appropriate big bang and the required force of gravity. These, combined with the improbability of carbon, make the odds against the existence of life in any form unbelievably long.

The odds are so daunting Paul Davies, in The Goldilock’s Enigmaalmost threw up his hands in despair (pages 292-93):

So, how come existence? . . . all the approaches seem . . . hopelessly inadequate: a unique universe which just happens to permit life by a fluke; a stupendous number of alternative . . . universes . . .; a pre-existing God . . .; or a self-creating . . . universe with observers. . . Perhaps we have reached a fundamental impasse dictated by the limitations of the human intellect.

So, we reach a point where life seems impossibly improbable, yet it exists. Something seems to be driving it to create increasingly complex forms of life, but we don’t know what. In the next post I’ll come back to the issue of complexity from an atheist’s point of view before looking at the Bahá’í perspective once more.


[1]. It was also a bit strange to find the name Kingsolver embedded in What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. The initial of the writer of a piece they quote on the evolution of insect wings is ‘J’. I can find no internet evidence they are related, but it seems likely they are.

Read Full Post »

In the light of the current sequence on Climate Change and Denialism, it seemed a good time to republish  three poems and weave them in-between the other posts. 

Read Full Post »

Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology, idealism and meaning systems, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

Read Full Post »

How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. [I have now bought the book and my views are expressed in a short sequence starting in March.]  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »