Archive for the ‘Science and Religion’ Category

English: Image of Alvin Plantinga released by ...

Alvin Plantinga (Wikipedia)

My latest sequence mentions the Bahá’í view that religion and science are compatible and necessary if our civilisation is to progress. It therefore seems appropriate to republish this earlier sequence. This is the last of four: the first was published on Tuesday. 

If it proved difficult to grasp that there is no real conflict between religion and evolutionary theory, somewhat more difficult to even hear that there is only a superficial conflict between religion and science, and almost a self-evident and inescapable contradiction that ‘there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and religion,’ then Plantinga‘s last idea will seem bizarre in the extreme. The last chapter of his deeply engaging book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, argues that there is ‘superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism.’

By ‘naturalism’ he means a system of belief that excludes a priori any idea of God, supernatural power, spirit or anything similar. There can be no such things ever anywhere. This position, in his view, is fundamentally incompatible with science. As most of us have been indoctrinated to believe the exact opposite I may have to take his exposition of this case rather more slowly even than I did the explanation of his previous idea. This is why the quotes are even longer and there is a certain amount of repetition. Those who have got the point already should feel free to skim.

Naturalism and Evolution

Let’s pick up his argument with evolution (page 308):

The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends. . . .   On the one hand, therefore, we have the scientific theory, and on the other, there is the claim that the course of evolution is not directed or guided or orchestrated by anyone; . . . .  This claim, however, despite its strident proclamation, is no part of the scientific theory as such; it is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on.

He goes on to explain an aspect of naturalism that I was not expecting to hear (page 310):

Naturalism tells us what reality is ultimately like, where we fit into the universe, how we are related to other creatures, and how it happens that we came to be. Naturalism is therefore in competition with the great theistic religions.

However, there is an undermining aspect of naturalism for anyone who chooses to espouse it (page 313):

. . . . .  suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? . . . . . . the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. But then . . . . . if I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties.

We need to unpack a little more the logic that underlies this conclusion (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

Where exactly does this lead us? In Plantinga’s view to this conclusion (page 316):

With this notion of conditional probability in hand, we can put Darwin’s doubt as follows: the conditional probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalism together with the proposition that we have come to be by way of evolution, is low.

So, if you believe naturalistic evolution is true you cannot be sure any of your beliefs, including naturalism, are true.

He goes onto to show how what naturalism proposes almost inevitably leads to and fuses with materialism and the implications of that for the viability of this world view (pages 318-320):

First, naturalists often argue that dualism (the thought that a human being is an immaterial self or substance intimately related to a human body) is incoherent or subject to crushing philosophical difficulties; hence, so they say, we are rationally compelled to be materialists. . . . A second and somewhat better reason is this: . . . It may not be completely easy to see or say precisely what naturalism is, but, so goes the thought, at any rate it excludes things like immaterial selves or souls.  . . . A third reason is as follows. Naturalists will ordinarily endorse Darwinian evolution; but how, they ask, could an immaterial soul or self have come to exist by way of the processes that evolutionary science posits? .  . . . . . That seems doubtful. . . . For these reasons and perhaps others, most naturalists are materialists about human beings. For present purposes, therefore, I propose to assimilate materialism to naturalism; . . . .  and what I’ll be arguing against is the conjunction of current evolutionary theory and naturalism, the latter including materialism.


He examines the nature of beliefs. He sees (page 321-322) that they have two aspects from a materialist point of view: neuro-physiological properties (NP) and content. This raises a critical question:

NP properties are physical properties; on the other hand content properties—for example the property of having as content the proposition all men are mortal—are mental properties.   . . . how are content properties related to NP properties—how is the content property of a particular belief related to the NP properties of that belief?

materialismThere are two types of explanation for that (page 322): a reductive materialist and a nonreductive materialist one. He explains what this means (page 322):

. . . [according to] reductive materialism,  . . . mental content properties are reducible to NP properties; according to nonreductive materialism, content properties are not reducible to NP properties, but are determined by (supervene on) NP properties. 

We then come to the key conundrum (page 326):

what is the likelihood, given evolution and naturalism (construed as including materialism about human beings), that the content thus arising is in fact true.

We mostly tend to assume (ibid.) that ‘the beliefs they produce in us are true.’ He feels that those of us who espouse naturalism are not so fortunate (ibid.):

What I do mean to argue is that the naturalist—at any rate a naturalist who accepts evolution—is rationally obliged to give up this assumption.

Why should that be (ibid.)?

This underlying neurology causes adaptive behavior; as Churchland says, it gets the body parts where they must be in order to survive. But (in line with nonreductive materialism) it also determines belief content. As a result, these creatures have beliefs, which of course have a certain content. And here’s the question: what reason is there for supposing that this belief content is true? There isn’t any.

Reliability of Belief

He does not expect us simply to accept that without further explanation (page 328):

Fleeing predators, finding food and mates—these things require cognitive devices that in some way track crucial features of the environment, and are appropriately connected with muscles; but they do not require true belief, or even belief at all. . . . . The objector is therefore right in pointing out that fitness requires accurate indication; but nothing follows about reliability of belief.

The physiological structures that underpin the cognitive devices that detect predators, amongst other things, have a limited function (page 330-331):

the structure is correlated with the presence of a predator and indicates that presence; but indication is not belief. Indication is one thing; belief content is something else altogether, and we know of no reason (given materialism) why the one should follow the other. . . . 

It is just a meaningless coincidence that this particular content tends to ride on the back of the firing of this useful clump of neurones (page 334):

The content doesn’t have to be true, of course, for the neuronal structure to cause the appropriate kind of behavior. It just happens that this particular adaptive arrangement of NP properties also constitutes having that particular content.

This has disturbing implications for the materialist follower of naturalism (page 336):

. . . . we can’t assume that if materialism were true, it would still be the case that true beliefs are more likely to cause successful action than false beliefs. And in fact, if materialism were true, it would be unlikely that true beliefs mostly cause successful action and false belief unsuccessful action.

Perhaps I need to spell out here what he explains above but perhaps too technically. Awareness that a predator is present is not a belief. It is a trigger to action based on Predator and preylower level brain processes.  Any beliefs that ride on the back of those processes at a higher level of brain function are irrelevant to the production of life-saving behaviour and may or may not be true.

And if that weren’t bad enough for our materialist follower of naturalism worse implications follow (page 338):

the underlying neurology is adaptive, and determines belief content. But . . .  it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.

This is because this leads to the conclusion (page 340) that:

 the naturalist who sees that [the probability of beliefs being reliable when naturalism and evolution are both true] is low has a defeater for [the reliability of beliefs], and for the proposition that his own cognitive faculties are reliable.

This is therefore , in the case of a materialistic naturalist, a defeater for (page 345)

. . . . any other belief she thinks she has, including [Naturalism and Evolution] itself. . . . . . If you have a defeater for [the reliability of belief], you will also have a defeater for any belief you take to be produced by your cognitive faculties, any belief that is a deliverance of your cognitive faculties. But all of your beliefs, as I’m sure you have discovered, are produced by your cognitive faculties. Therefore you have a defeater for any belief you have. . . . . This is a really crushing skepticism, and it is this skepticism to which the naturalist is committed.

The final upshot of all this is (page 345): “Conclusion: [Naturalism combined with Evolution] can’t rationally be accepted.”

Perhaps with his tongue slightly in his cheek, Plantinga closes his book by saying (page 349):

My conclusion, therefore, is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Given that naturalism is at least a quasi-religion, there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies.

I accept that this book, in places, is somewhat inaccessible. The argument is sometimes dense (or perhaps it’s me) even when he has not closed me out with symbolic logic (though I have to admit I got slightly better at decoding it as the book went on). However, for me the theme of the book is absolutely critical. If we do not, as a culture, find a way of reconciling the apparent differences between religion and science and of working from a deep understanding of their fundamental compatibility, we will fail to solve the problems our increasingly global society faces swiftly enough to spare most of the lifeforms on this planet unacceptable levels of suffering. This reality is well captured in the words of a recent paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre:

Social action, of whatever size and complexity, should strive to remain free of simplistic and distorted conceptions of science and religion. To this end, an imaginary duality between reason and faith—a duality that would confine reason to the realm of empirical evidence and logical argumentation and which would associate faith with superstition and irrational thought—must be avoided. The process of development has to be rational and systematic— incorporating, for example, scientific capabilities of observing, of measuring, of rigorously testing ideas—and at the same time deeply aware of faith and spiritual convictions.

I am very aware that in this sequence of posts I have been trying to convey the ideas of someone who is focusing on problems well outside my area of expertise. As a result, there’s been a great deal of quotation and relatively little comment. Next, I will be turning to an area of human experience which has been a focus of mine for almost forty years: the mind. At least the next two posts, and maybe more, will be looking at consciousness – again.

‘No surprise there, then,’ did I hear you say?

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chartres023 buttreses

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be! and all was light.”

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

My latest sequence mentions the Bahá’í view that religion and science are compatible and necessary if our civilisation is to progress. It therefore seems appropriate to republish this earlier sequence. This is the third of four: the first was published on Tuesday, and the last will appear tomorrow. 

The two previous posts have looked at various aspects of Plantinga‘s view of the relationship between religion and science as expressed in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies. The first post took an overview to phase us in gently, and the second focused on two components of his detailed argument against the idea that religion and science are fundamentally opposed.

Now we have come to one of the two key buttresses supporting his overall position. Both these will be surprising to those who have come to accept the conventional view that science and religion are fundamentally at odds. He summarises them as follows before launching into a more detailed consideration of the first one (page 265):

Recall my overall thesis: there is superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion and science, but superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.

Most people who have bought into the prevailing myth will have expected the exact opposite and he knows that.

In this post let’s take a closer look at his first trance breaker. We’ll save the second plank in his argument till next time.

The History of this Harmony

He opens with an obvious truth which most of us may well have overlooked and whose implications he is keen to unpack (page 266):

Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else. . . . it was Christian Europe that fostered, promoted, and nourished modern science. . . . This is no accident: there is deep concord between science and theistic belief.

He defines what he means by science in this context (pages 267-268):

the fundamental class to which science belongs is that of efforts to discover truths—at any rate it is science so thought of that I mean to deal with here.

He accepts that what distinguishes the scientific approach or method is empiricism, the need to test belief against experience in a systematic way (page 268):

While it is difficult to give a precise account of this empirical component, it is absolutely crucial to science, and is what distinguishes science from philosophy.

Then begins a line of thought that might at first seem likely to test the patience of an agnostic to breaking point, but I would ask any reader coming from that position to take the time to consider his argument very carefully indeed. He is looking at the notion, commonly held by Christians everywhere, that we are made in God’s image, and this will have an unexpected link to empiricism (ibid.):

God is a knower, and indeed the supreme knower. God is omniscient, that is, such that he knows everything, knows for any proposition p, whether p is true. We human beings, therefore, in being created in his image, can also know much about our world, ourselves, and God himself.

This capacity to learn about our world is a key aspect of our being and relates to this issue in his view (ibid.): ‘this ability to know something about our world, ourselves and God is a crucially important part of the divine image.’ And this is where he springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case (pages 268-269):

God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. . . . . For science to be successful . . . there must be a match between our cognitive faculties and the world.

That match is not at all what we should necessarily expect. The world could just as easily, probably far more easily be an incomprehensible and apparently random puzzle to us, but it is not.

As we discussed in the first post of the series evolution does not entail that our beliefs are true, only that our behaviour is adaptive (page 270):

Natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, behavior that conduces to survival and reproduction; it has no interest in our having true beliefs.

What we find we have though goes far beyond the requirements of mere survival (ibid.):

I’ve just mentioned perception; clearly this is a most important source of belief about the world; and one condition of the success of science is that perception for the most part, and under ordinary and favorable conditions, produces in us beliefs that are in fact true.

And beyond that, science requires that we can accurately predict consequences on the basis of these beliefs (page 271):

For intentional action to be possible, it must be the case that we, given our cognitive faculties, can often or usually predict what will happen next. . . . . science as practiced by us humans requires predictability given our cognitive faculties.

This predictability makes successful empiricism possible. An expectation of such predictability is built into theistic religion (ibid.):

It’s an essential part of theistic religion—at any rate Christian theistic religion—to think of God as providentially governing the world in such a way as to provide that kind of stability and regularity. . . . . The world was created in such a way that it displays order and regularity; it isn’t unpredictable, chancy or random. And of course this conviction is what enables and undergirds science.

The Laws of Nature

Ancient of days

He quotes Alfred North Whitehead as attributing (page 272 ) this ‘widespread instinctive conviction to “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”‘ This rationality extends beyond moral laws (page 273):

The rationality of God, as Aquinas thought, extends far beyond the realm of morality. God sets forth moral laws, to be sure, but he also sets forth or promulgates laws of nature, and he creates the world in such a way that it conforms to these laws.

He sees this point as crucial (page 275):

It is important to see that our notion of the laws of nature, crucial for contemporary science, has this origin in Christian theism.

An additional critical factor is that the laws of nature lie within the grasp of our understanding (page 276):

On this conception, part of the job of science is to discover the laws of nature; but then of course science will be successful only if it is possible for us human beings to do that. Science will be successful only if these laws are not too complex, or deep, or otherwise beyond us. Again, this thought fits well with theistic religion and its doctrine of the image of God; God not only sets laws for the universe, but sets laws we can (at least approximately) grasp.

Also changing them, on the other hand, must lie beyond our reach (page 280)

The laws of nature . . . resemble necessary truths in that there is nothing we or other creatures can do to render them false. We could say that they are finitely inviolable.

So, to his conclusions (page 282):

With respect to the laws of nature, therefore, there are at least three ways in which theism is hospitable to science and its success . . . First, science requires regularity, predictability, and constancy; . . . From the point of view of naturalism, the fact that our world displays the sort of regularity and lawlike behavior necessary for science is a piece of enormous cosmic luck, a not-to-be-expected bit of serendipity. But regularity and lawlikeness obviously fit well with the thought that God is a rational person who has created our world, and instituted the laws of nature.

Second, not only must our world in fact manifest regularity and law-like behavior: for science to flourish, scientists and others must believe that it does. . . . such a conviction fits well with the theistic doctrine of the image of God.

Third, theism enables us to understand the necessity or inevitableness or inviolability of natural law: this necessity is to be explained and understood in terms of the difference between divine power and the power of finite creatures.

Mathematical Maps

Blake Newton

He goes onto to consider other more familiar issues, for example the uncanny way that the world can be described mathematically (page 284):

What Wigner notes . . . is that our world is mathematically describable in terms of fascinating underlying mathematical structures of astounding complexity but also deep simplicity. . . . It is also properly thought of as unreasonable, in the sense that from a naturalistic perspective it would be wholly unreasonable to expect this sort of mathematics to be useful in describing our world. It makes eminently good sense from the perspective of theism, however. . . . So here we have another manifestation of deep concord between science and theistic religion: the way in which mathematics is applicable to the universe.

What’s more, understanding the universe (page 286-287):

. . . involves mathematics of great depth, requiring cognitive powers going enormously beyond what is required for survival and reproduction. . . . What prehistoric female would be interested in a male who wanted to think about whether a set could be equal in cardinality to its power set, instead of where to look for game? . . . numbers and sets themselves make a great deal more sense from the point of view of theism than from that of naturalism.

The deep simplicity of the underlying regularities of our world is not what a godless universe would lead you to expect (page 298):

It isn’t a necessary truth, however, that simple theories are more likely to be true than complex theories. Naturalism gives us no reason at all to expect the world to conform to our preference for simplicity. From that perspective, surely, the world could just as well have been such that unlovely, miserably complex theories are more likely to be true.

He concludes that (ibid.): ‘We value simplicity, elegance, beauty; it is therefore reasonable to think that the same goes for God.’

And this paves the way for his final thoughts on this subject (page 302):

In this chapter, we’ve seen that theistic religion gives us reason to expect our cognitive capacities to match the world in such a way as to make modern science possible. Naturalism gives us no reason at all to expect this sort of match; from the point of view of naturalism, it would be an overwhelming piece of cosmic serendipity if there were such a match.

The next post will deal with his other major issue: ‘superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.’

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld cana

My latest sequence mentions the Bahá’í view that religion and science are compatible and necessary if our civilisation is to progress. It therefore seems appropriate to republish this earlier sequence. This is the second of four: the first was published yesterday, and the last two will appear on Friday and Saturday. 

As we noted in the previous post Plantinga, in his thought-provoking book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, feels evolution has incorrectly been seen as hostile to religious belief (pages 63-64):

The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided. But that idea isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.

Divine Intervention

He covers many aspects of the religion/science problem in his book, including the ‘fine tuning’ hypothesis, ie that the probability of the preconditions for conscious life being so exactly met is vanishingly small, and the argument from design. This is well-trodden territory. I felt it might be more interesting to cherry pick some of the more unusual arguments even at the risk of selling short the power of his overall case. He covers so much ground so thoroughly that it would be impossible to do this book anything like justice. It would be best to take the examples below as an inadequate sample or taster and go direct to the book before judging the quality of his argument as a whole.

A topic he moves to along the way is the question of divine intervention. I am risking doing his case an injustice by only picking up his argument from where he begins to deal with the implications of quantum mechanics, but this kind of selectiveness is unavoidable, I fear (pages 94-95):

If we try to define a miracle as an event that is incompatible with (what we presume, on the basis of the best evidence, to be) laws of nature, then it seems that water changing to wine, a dead man coming back to life, etc. are not miracles because they are not incompatible with QM. But QM does say that they are very, very improbable.

It is a short step from this to his feeling that (page 96) ‘[o]n the “new picture,” therefore—the picture presented by QM—there is no question that special divine action is consistent with science.’

Incidentally, QM has other implications as well that other thinkers have seized upon to undermine the default assumption of naturalism. Take Kelly and Kelly, for example, in their book, Irreducible Mind (page xxii):

. . . advances in physics from Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation to 20th century developments in quantum mechanics and relativity theory have undermined the classical and commonsense conceptions of matter to such an extent that reducibility of mind to matter is anything but straightforward, and hardly a foregone conclusion.

Plantinga, before expanding on the implications of QM, argues that the possibility of divine intervention does not necessarily impact upon our ability to make informed decisions about how to act (page 103):

What’s required for free action is that there be enough regularity for us to know or sensibly conjecture—at least for the most part and with reasonably high probability—what will happen if we freely choose to take a given action. . . . . All that’s required for purposeful free action is reasonable confidence in substantial regularity in the neighborhood of the proposed action. And that’s certainly compatible with God’s sometimes intervening.

However, he is not content to leave the matter there (page 108):

The reasons for supposing God couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene in his creation are weak. But now we must face a more poignant question: what, from the point of view of the new picture, is intervention?

Quantum Mechanics

Link to the source of this summary

His argument gets rather complicated here and I hope I have condensed it accurately. It seems to me to boil down to the idea that quantum theory supposes that reality collapses at a ‘regular rate’ into a new state, but there is no requirement for this state to be identical with the previous state. There is considerable uncertainty about how frequent this regularity is. I expect I have lost some of his argument’s subtlety somewhere somewhat but I think that is the basic point.

He feels this paves the way for supposing that divine intervention, rather than being the exception, is in fact the normal state of affairs (pages 115-116):

Perhaps, then, all collapse-outcomes (as we might call them) are caused by God. If so, then between collapses, a system evolves according to the Shrödinger equation; but when a collapse occurs, it is divine agency that causes the specific collapse-outcome that ensues. On this view of God’s special action—call it “divine collapse-causation” (“DCC”)—God is always acting specially, that is, always acting in ways that go beyond creation and conservation, thus obviating the problem alleged to lie in his sometimes treating the world in hands-off fashion but other times in a hands-on way.

The freedom in nature to collapse into any form whatsoever paves the way for God’s hand to be free in this respect (pages 116-117):

[I]t is in the nature of physical systems to evolve between collapses according to the Shrödinger equation; it also is in their nature to undergo periodic collapses; but it is not part of their nature to collapse to any particular eigenstate. . . . . Hence, in causing a nature to collapse to a particular eigenstate, God need not constrain it against its nature.


Methodological Naturalism

He goes on to take a careful look at what happens when practitioners of the scientific method, including those who also believe in God, bracket the possibility of religious belief and remove it from their methodological process (page 169).

Consider the fact that many who practice historical Biblical criticism themselves personally accept the whole range of Christian belief, but separate their personal beliefs (as they might put it) from their scripture scholarship; in working at scripture scholarship, they prescind from their theological beliefs; they bracket them, set them aside. Why would they do that? Because they believe an effort to be scientific requires this separation or dissociation. Their thought is that scientific investigation requires thus setting aside theological belief. They accept the methodological naturalism (MN) that is widely thought to characterize science.

This is not the same as the naturalism he attacks, and which we looked at in the previous post. Methodological naturalism is confined to the one area of activity (ibid.):

The methodological naturalist doesn’t necessarily subscribe to ontological naturalism. MN is a proposed condition or constraint on proper science, or the proper practice of science, not a statement about the nature of the universe. . . . “Science neither denies or opposes the supernatural, but ignores the supernatural for methodological reasons.”

He spells out what this means in practice (pages 171-172):

According to MN, furthermore, the data model of a proper scientific theory will not invoke God. . . Secondly, there will also be constraints on the theory itself. . . . according to MN the parameters for a scientific theory are not to include reference to God or any other supernatural agents.

There is a totally unsurprising consequence of this (page 174):

Then the relevant point is that the evidence base of the inquiry in question includes the denial of central Christian (and indeed) theistic beliefs. If so, however, the fact that this inquiry comes to conclusions incompatible with Christian belief would be neither surprising, nor—for Christians—an occasion for consternation or dismay.

It is perhaps worth mentioning here that this a priori exclusion of the spiritual dimension from scientific enquiry may not be sustainable for much longer. The Irreducible Mind points up very clearly how psychology must at some point bring this aspect of reality into its approach. Referring amongst other things to psi phenomena, Edward Kelly writes (page xxviii):

These phenomena we catalogue here are important precisely because they challenge so strongly the current scientific consensus; in accordance with Wind’s principle, they not only invite but should command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the mind.

The prevailing attitude of course in many cases goes far beyond methodological naturalism into the strongest possible form of it (op.cit. page xxvii):

Most critics implicitly – and some, like Hansel, explicitly – take the view that psi phenomena are somehow known a priori to be impossible. In that case one is free to invent any scenario, no matter how far-fetched, to explain away ostensible evidence of psi.

In terms, though, of methodological naturalism alone any conflict is in Plantinga’s view trivial. This leads him to conclude at this point (page 190):

To return to that main line: so far I’ve argued that there is no conflict between Christian belief and evolution; nor is the claim that God acts specially in the world in conflict with science. I’ve gone on to argue that there is indeed conflict between Christian belief and certain areas of evolutionary psychology and historical Biblical criticism; this conflict, however is superficial. So much for conflict; I turn next to concord between Christian belief and science.

But that will have to wait for the next post in this series.

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My latest sequence mentions the Bahá’í view that religion and science are compatible and necessary if our civilisation is to progress. It therefore seems appropriate to republish this earlier sequence. This is the first of four: the second will be published tomorrow, and there last two on Friday and Saturday. 

It’s hard to tell which falling straws are a good guide to the way the wind is blowing.

Is it the one whose label can be drawn from the research Cosmo Landesman wrote about in the Sunday Times recently?

The average Briton feels a hundred percent fit and healthy only 61 days a year, according to a report out last week. . . . . What has turned us into a nation of hypochondriacs?

Or is it the one drawn from the research indicating that the UK’s stiff upper lip reluctance to trouble the doctor is adversely affecting this country’s treatment of cancer?

Should we be dashing to the GP at the first faint whiff of trouble or should we stop whinging and ignore our trivial aches and pains.

I was sitting in the GP’s surgery having decided I was more likely to be one of those who let the curable turn into the untreatable rather than someone with a highly volatile twinge magnification system. I clearly had a serious case of late-onset lung rot: I really needed to be here.

While I waited to be called, to distract myself from dwelling on how few days were probably left for me to put my house in order, I listened to a BBC radio interview with Professor Brian Cox. Among the interesting ideas he shared was the view that, although he doesn’t believe in God himself, there is nothing at all in science that rules God out (or, as I suspect he could have added, rules Him in either).

If research data cannot even clarify for certain whether I should go to the doctor’s or not, how can we fairly expect science to determine the God question – one for which it is totally unsuited. Incidentally, you may be relieved to learn that my cough will not carry me off just yet. So much for my experiment with hypochondria.

Symbolic logic

A Deep Concord

Thank heaven (my view, obviously) that some people are talking sense about the science vs religion issue from within the scientific community. I’ve already written on this blog about Rupert Sheldrake, Eben Alexander, Ken Wilber, Jenny Wade, Margaret Donaldson and others. Now I can add Alvin Plantinga to my list.

I need to own up from the start that there are dozens of pages of his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, that I simply don’t understand. These occur when he resorts to symbolic logic to explain his point. Maybe it is the briefest way to explain a complex issue. Maybe it is the best way of cutting out any of the cognitive biases that can creep in from dodgy heuristics. Maybe it’s the best way of showing the opposition what a big hitter he is. Whatever the reason it leaves me outside the warmth of his argument in the winter cold with my nose pressed fruitlessly against the glass. I’ve found though that skipping such pages doesn’t affect my basic grasp of the rest of what he says, and what he is saying is welcome and compelling stuff. Take this for starters from his introduction:

If my thesis is right, therefore—if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism—then there is a science/religion (or science/ quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion: it’s between science and naturalism 

He defines ‘naturalism’ as ‘the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.’ He sees it as a kind of religion.

He doesn’t claim that the expression of religious feeling is universally benign but he’s clear that, not only do religions not have a monopoly on the creation of suffering, but also their efforts in that direction are comprehensively upstaged by secular ideologies:

. . . . the world’s religions do indeed have much to repent; still (as has often been pointed out) the suffering, death, and havoc attributable to religious belief and practice pales into utter insignificance beside that due to the atheistic and secular idiologies of the twentieth century alone.

This is a point Jonathan Haidt has also addressed in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis.‘ In his view idealism, and this is not by any means restricted to religion, has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

The Real Conflict

religion & Science

To go back to our main argument, Plantinga clarifies where the conflict seems to lie for him:

There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).

If there is no deep-seated conflict for Plantinga between the theory of evolution and theism, the same is surprisingly not true in the case of naturalism and science:

I argue that the same most emphatically does not go for science and naturalism. . . . . there is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. . . . it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. . . . . a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. . . . naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can’t rationally accept them both.

Later posts will come back to this point again but I probably need to clarify this summary of it. Basically he argues that, from naturalism’s perspective, all beliefs are reducible to neuronal activity and all that evolution ensures is that the actions that neuronal activity produces are conducive to our survival. The content of our beliefs is an irrelevant by-product of this neuronal activity and cannot be relied on for its truth value. All that is required is that the action patterns produced by our synaptic activation keep us alive. There is no need for the beliefs we also coincidentally hold to be true and therefore no guarantee that they are. There are therefore no good grounds in terms of a completely reductionist evolutionary theory for believing that naturalism is true. After all, believing in naturalism would have had no survival value in our prehistory and therefore no warrant in this version of evolutionary theory. For this reason naturalism disqualifies itself as a well-founded belief system.

The evangelical atheists have, in Plantinga’s view, grossly overstated their case (pages 24-25):

Dawkins claims that he will show that the entire living world came to be without design; what he actually argues is only that this is possible and we don’t know that it is astronomically improbable; for all we know it’s not astronomically improbable.

He wryly adds (page 28): ‘Whatever happened to agnosticism, withholding belief?’

The nature of the situation is, in Plantinga’s view, much less clear cut. He starts with a simple statement of naturalism’s position before exploring some of his doubts about it (page 34)

Life itself originated just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry (through a sort of extension of natural selection); and undirected natural selection has produced language and mind, including our artistic, moral, religious, and intellectual proclivities. Now many—theists and others—have found these claims at least extremely doubtful; some have found them preposterous. Is it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness, or the ability to compose great music, or prove Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, or think up the idea of natural selection should have been produced by mindless processes of this sort? That is an ambitious claim.

He looks at Dennett’s position (page 35): ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea as set out by Dennett is a paradigm example of naturalism’ and calls it seriously into question (pages 37-38):

Locke believed it impossible in the broadly logical sense that mind should have arisen somehow from “incogitative matter.” . . . . Contrary to Dennett’s suggestion, the neo-Darwinian scientific theory of evolution certainly hasn’t shown that Locke is wrong or that God does not exist necessarily; it hasn’t even shown that it is possible, in the broadly logical sense, that mind arise from “pure incogitative” matter. It hasn’t shown these things because it doesn’t so much as address these questions.

Plantinga feels that the Dawkins and Dennett position is creating a major problem in the States at least (page 54):

The association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy to evolution in the United States, and to the teaching of evolution in the public schools. . . . As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust.

One of the main purposes of Plantinga’s book is to scotch this misconception for good and all (page 55):

Well, if we think of the Darwinian picture as including the idea that the process of evolution is unguided, then of course that picture is completely at odds with providentialist religion. As we have seen, however, current evolutionary science doesn’t include the thought that evolution is unguided; it quite properly refrains from commenting on that metaphysical or theological issue.

And that is what makes it seem worthwhile spending another three posts exploring various aspects of his argument – and even that will barely scratch the surface of this brilliant book.

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Connections 4 Oct 2013

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the third of four: they appear on consecutive days, the last tomorrow.

At the end of the last post I rashly promised to pick up the threads of Hatcher’s overall position on the brain-mind-soul-spirit issue in his valiant effort to explain their interrelationships in Close Connections. So, here goes.

In spite of all that we are not sure about, what is clear, from Hatcher’s and my point of view, is there are four aspects to experience important to any consideration of consciousness:

  1. the body/brain which can up to a point receive messages from
  2. the mind which is related in some way to
  3. the rational soul/human spirit which in turn has some kind of access to
  4. the Spirit with a capital ‘S.’

I am certainly not competent to take the matter any further other than by unpacking what I have just said slightly more clearly.  It is this physical aspect of awareness – the brain – through which we consciously experience what we call our mind, which there is much evidence to suggest has access to a dimension of reality that seems best described as spiritual. I tend to see the ‘human spirit,’ as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá terms it in one place at least, as the ‘soul.’ The mind, whose signals are decoded albeit imperfectly by the brain, emanates from this ‘human spirit’ or ‘soul’ which in turn has access to a spiritual realm of infinite proportions, whose complexities it seeks to transmit to the brain via the mind.

This may be the weakest point of Hatcher’s treatment and/or my understanding of this subject, but I am none the less grateful to him for triggering me to probe somewhat more deeply into the matter than I had done so far, and also to provide me with other avenues to explore for evidence and understanding.

This process by which this kind of communication between spirit and body brings ‘about patterns of action that enable the daily life of the individual to demonstrate an ever more refined spiritual or inner life’ is by no means automatic. Willpower plays a critical role (page 223):

Within this context ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms that our own advancement, however much it may be assisted from forces outside ourselves, must be instigated and sustained by our own will.

And there is no wriggle room here, no get-out clauses (page 224):

… while we may have little or no control over the path our life will take or what tests and calamities will befall us, we do have control over how we respond to all circumstances.


Jeffrey Schwartz

This blog has explored two schools of empirically based thought which validate the importance of the exercise of willpower in personal change. Schwartz, in his thorough description of his understanding and its basis in the experimental literature – The Mind and the Brain – sees it this way (his model involves four stages – 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.

The other approach, which is complementary not contradictory, is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, explored by Hayes at al in the book of the same name (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

Hatcher is not blind to the heated debate which continues to rage around this whole issue between materialists who wish to see everything, including consciousness, explained entirely in physical terms and others who argue for the reality of a metaphysical dimension. His response is clear (page 227):

… The simplest response to [materialistic] arguments is that if these hypotheses are fashioned by the author’s own illusory faculties, then the hypotheses themselves maybe illusory or baseless. In effect, any hypothesis to the contrary has quite as much weight if all suppositions about reality are purely subjective and self-constructed.


We’ve been here before with Alvin Plantinga‘s brilliant and cogently argued hoisting of naturalism’s arguments, rooted in evolutionary theory, with its own petard in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

Hatcher goes on to examine evidence that the will can affect not just the brain, as Schwartz has demonstrated, but also physical reality outside the body of the consciousness deploying its intentions. He looks at the work of Jahn and Dunne, for example. They were critically reviewing, amongst other things, what they concluded was the rigorous evidence for tele/psychokinesis (pages 228-29):  ‘Amazingly, the documented results revealed an interplay between the conscious will of the participants and the distribution of the [ping-pong] balls.’ This kind of evidence, as we know, is dismissed a priori by practitioners of scientism on the grounds that they know this is impossible and the experiments must by definition be flawed and therefore not worth looking at let alone seeking to replicate.

While I am not familiar with the experiments Hatcher is referring to I have read two books which look carefully at the research evidence as a whole in the field of parapsychology. Both books come down cautiously in favour of the idea that something genuine is happening in terms of psychokinesis, though the most compelling evidence is derived from studies which involved influencing a random number generator rather than dice, because methodological rigour is easier to achieve. Deborah Delanoy in Jane Henry’s book Parapsychology: research on exceptional experiences quotes Radin and Nelson (page 54) who:

. . . . concluded that “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that under certain circumstances, consciousness interacts with random physical systems.”

Harvey Irwin in his book An Introduction of Parasychology makes a very sophisticated point about these same data (page 134):

That this phenomena [sic] necessarily entails a “mind over matter” effect as implied by the PK [psychokinesis] hypothesis is another issue. . . . . Statistically significant performances may stem not from a psychokinetic process but from precognitive identification of an appropriate time to commence the experimental series or to make a response in the experimental task. . . . . .  Recent analyses … suggest that this explanation does not fit the data as effectively as the assumption of direct (PK) influence, but the simple fact that the intuitive data sorting hypothesis can be proposed is sufficient to indicate that the PK research is not conclusive for the issue of ontological reality. . . . It cannot be said that a “mind over matter” effect has been authenticated.

Even so, if PK cannot be definitively ruled in because some form of clairvoyance might be at work, this hardly boosts the materialists’ cause.

You may be relieved or disappointed to know that we are now close to the end of Hatcher’s brave and for the most part lucid account of this complex area. He next gets to grips with issues such as memory, the definition of whose exact nature still eludes the experts. More of that in the next post.

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Dizzy heights

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the first of four: they will appear on consecutive days.

I recently read John Hatcher’s latest book Understanding Death. The second half was compelling reading and I’d thoroughly recommend it. However, it maps so closely onto so much that I have blogged about recently I thought I’d refrain from reviewing it in detail. It inspired me though to go back to an earlier book of his published in 2005 – Close Connections. Improbable as it might sound to a materialist, this book on spirituality helped keep me grounded in reality recently while I was staying on the dizzying 32nd floor of a Shanghai hotel. While the themes it deals with, unlike the hotel, are not exactly a million miles away from my well trodden home turf, it has much that enriched my understanding further, so I thought reviewing the second half of this book would be well worthwhile.

He looks in the first part of the book, at science, evolution and theodicy, amongst other preoccupations of mine, before he reaches the core topic of his book which I want to look at more closely. I am going to pick up his theme roughly halfway through (page 154): ‘our metaphorical self (our body) is the outward expression of our metaphysical self (our soul).’

The first half of his book has sought to establish that there is both a spiritual and a physical aspect to reality. This is a theme developed elsewhere on this blog so I thought I’d skip that aspect of his argument this time round. I am mainly interested for now on where he goes with this.

Much that he says has echoes of my other reading and I’ll point this up where it seems appropriate to do so.

He sees parallels between the maturation of the individual and of society (page 162).

Even as the advancement of the human body politic is portrayed in [Baha’i] terms of an “ever-advancing civilisation,” so the advancement of the individual can be portrayed in terms of an ever more inclusive or expansive definition of “self” . . . . an expanding sense of one’s relationships with and obligations to others, even eventually to the whole of mankind.


Robert Wright

The resonates with Robert Wright in The Evolution of God and Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilisation. Wright’s position is captured in a quote I’ve used in an earlier post:

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

(page 428-429)

Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, takes a more nuanced position but nonetheless highlights the positive power of empathy (page 16):

Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.

A recent article suggests that the empathy debate is a vigorous one.

From here Hatcher moves through familiar territory marshalling evidence in support of the metaphysical including near death experiences (NDEs) for example. There is much on this blog on this subject also (see the earlier links) so again I will not dwell on this.

It’s when he refers to Larry Dossey quoting the work of Paul Davies (page 180-81) that we move closer to the core of my current preoccupations.

‘What stuff is the soul made of?’ he asks.  ‘The question is as meaningless as asking what stuff citizenship or Wednesdays are made of. The soul is a holistic concept.’ This essential concept of ‘the mind,’ or ‘self,’ or ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’ as nonlocal and nonmaterial – though capable of interacting with physical reality – is critical to our discussion.

pim v l

Pim van Lommel

This proves to be a truly challenging issue once you get up close, as we will see in the sequence of four posts.

The start is deceptively familiar, straightforward even. He brings in, at this point, the metaphor of the ‘transceiver’ which I had already met in the work of Pim van Lommel who unpacks it in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 68 – see an earlier post for a fuller treatment):

The computer does not produce the Internet any more than the brain produces consciousness. The computer allows us to add information to the Internet just like the brain is capable of adding information from our body and senses to our consciousness.

Hatcher puts it this way (page 181):

To consider that the consciousness and its powers (will, memory, rational thought) can function through a transceiver (the brain) without being localised is at the heart of the Bahá’í concept of an ‘associated’ or ‘counterpart’ relationship between the physical self (especially the brain) and the metaphysical self (the soul). Dossey states the concept succinctly: ‘the fact that the mind maybe nonlocal does not mean that it could not act through the brain.’

These ideas, I have recently discovered, have their roots in the thinking of a 19th Century pioneer in this area, FWHMyers. Kelly in the book Irreducible Mind summarises a key part of his position (page 73):

. . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self

After exploring the effects of prayer, he draws on the insights of Lothar Schafer (pages 184-85): ‘. . . the background of reality has mind-like qualities.’ This is reminiscent of what Amit Goswami, the physicist, described in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe:

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.

This paves the way for a close consideration of the light that the Baha’i Writings shed on this intriguing and all-important matter. Consideration of that will have to wait till the next post. It’s where concepts get really slippery and hard to hold onto.

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William James. (For source of Image see link.)

William James (for source of image see link)

We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance—for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks – pages 130-131)

“Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has become associated with irreligion,” James writes, “and I believe a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin.”

(William James quoted in Lamberth – page 152)

Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.

(Paul LampleRevelation and Social Reality – page 6)

. . . . and this is the last post republished on the back of my most recent visit to Hay-on-Wye. What would I do without second-hand books? not much, I suspect!

My battle to finish reading Irreducible Mind, the Kellys’ monumental and significant collection of chapters on how psychology lost the plot at the beginning of the last century and where it should think about going from here, alerted me, when I visited Hay-on-Wye and Cardiff, to look out for anything about William James or Frederick Myers.

I found zilch on Myers in either place, sadly, as I wanted some real books of his instead of the soft copies I’ve downloaded. It feels distinctly incongruous reading massive 19th Century masterpieces on an iPad.

I was much luckier with the better known, but not necessarily more significant James. I decided to start by reading the thinnest of the three books I now have, one I’d acquired in a bookshop hidden away down Morgan’s Arcade in Cardiff near the Plan café.

This may not have been as smart a move as I thought as thin does not mean easy to read, as I discovered. None the less David Lamberth’s book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience, has turned out to be an excellent starting point, even though I probably understood less than half of the first half of the book.

The last part, though, from my point of view, was crammed with valuable insights into where James took us to and where we might now profit by following the path he was pointing towards.

The key to what Lamberth feels James is saying is summarised in the title to this piece. Not surprisingly grasping this idea, for me, Lamberthdepends upon a rigorous way of analysing what religious revelation might mean operationally for those of us who are striving to understand where humanity is spiritually at this point in its history. By that I mean ‘What does it imply both for how we enhance our understanding further and how do we turn that understanding into effective action, socially, scientifically and morally? Lamberth helps towards the clearer definition of those implications.

Acknowledging that Lamberth may not be able to recognise his own ideas in the use I am going to make of them, I will quote him whenever possible, though obviously outside of the full context of his thinking which I don’t completely understand. I doubt I’ll ever make it now as a philosopher.

James’s Dissatisfaction with Materialism

It would seem that, while James was a resolute empiricist, he was deeply frustrated by materialism (page 155):

[James] generally sides with empiricism on methodological grounds, even though he was consistently dissatisfied with the world-view of its premiere representative, materialism.

This seems partly to relate to the distinction, in James’s own words (page 182), between ‘theoretic . . knowledge about things’ as against ‘living contemplation or sympathetic acquaintance with them.’ The former ‘touches only on the outer surface of reality.’

Lamberth explains (page 184):

. . . [c]uts that are made in the fabric [of experience] conceptually must be seen to be arbitrary to a degree, in that they are not necessarily “natural” to the pure experience itself . . .

James expresses the problem vividly (page 186):

Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results.

Lamberth goes on (ibid.):

(James) seeks a philosophy that both can account for the practical successes of the sciences and can value and provide insight into our moral and religious sentiments and experiences . . . .

The Nature of the Transcendent

This leads on to the consideration of exactly what is truth and its possible relationship with our concept of the absolute. Lamberth quotes James’s own statement of part of this problem (page 192):

. . . .[I]s one all inclusive purpose harboured by a general world-soul, embracing all sub-purposes in its system? Or are there many various purposes, keeping house together as they can, with no overarching purpose to include them?

James clearly struggles with this, remarking on the next page of A Pluralistic Universe, from which this quote was taken, that ‘We are indeed internal parts of God and not external creations.’

Lamberth takes the view that, in the end, James does not feel able to conclude with certainty that there is an Absolute. His ‘pluralism’ (I will return to what that might mean for James) assumes (page 197) ‘that the superhuman consciousness, however vast it may be, has itself an external environment, and consequently is finite.’ As we will see as this argument unfolds, this is a much subtler and far less reductionist position than might at first seem the case.

It will help to start from James’s own words (page 198):

Our “normal” consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to an external environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable common connection [between all]. Not only psychical research, but metaphysical philosophy and speculative biology are led in their own way to look with favour on some such “panpsychic” view of the universe as this.

The modern mind, saturated as it is in materialist mantras, could find this naïve. Lamberth is keen to dispel this preconception (ibid):

Contrary to what his final conclusions suggest, James was actually quite sceptical of jumping to conclusions about the veracity of purported psychical events. He did, however, find himself forced to resolve that the most reasonable explanation for certain psychical phenomena was to postulate some sort of “leakage” between a wider, interpersonal area of consciousness (or experience) and the otherwise “fenced” individual field or sphere of experience.


Wind-rose (for source of image see link)

From this we move, in my view, to a strong sense of the transcendent (page 199):

Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the wind-rose[1] on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibles not yet in our present sight. And just as we are co-conscious with our own momentary margin, may we not ourselves form the margin of some more really central self in things which is co-conscious with the whole of us? May not you and I be confluent in a higher consciousness, and confluently active there, tho [sic] we now know it not?

The pluralism mentioned earlier therefore stems from our multitude of different perspectives as unique individuals who are subliminally interconnected and potentially subsumed into a greater consciousness.

James’s use of the word ‘pragmatism’ has been part of the source of confusion as to exactly what he means and what the implications are for any sense whatsoever of the ‘Absolute.’ Lamberth is clear that pragmatism, for James, was not limited to the material realm (page 212).

This allows for the possibility of the transcendent, the absolute even, and therefore absolute truth, in some sense, but in what sense exactly has been a vexed question apparently (page 216):

. . . the question of “Truth” has continued to vex interpreters of James to the present.

Lamberth finds Hilary Putnam’s work helpful here. Putnam sees James as distinguishing between ‘absolutely true’ and ‘half-true’ (page 216-17):

On Putnam’s reading, what is merely verified is always only “half-true” for James, while what is “true” by contrast, is true absolutely, standing in relation to an ideal or absolute truth to which we imagine all our formulations will converge.

Which is not the same, by any means, as saying that anyone knows the absolute truth (page 217):

“No relativist who ever actually walked the earth,” writes James, “has denied the regulative character is his own thinking of the notion of absolute truth. What is challenged by relativists is the pretence on anyone’s part to have found for certain at any given moment what the shape of that truth is.” James concludes by noting that “the proposition ‘There is absolute truth’ is the only absolute truth of which we can be sure.”

He continued (page 220):

. . . “[W]e have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.” . . . . . “No pragmatist needs to dogmatise about the consensus of opinion in the future being right,” James writes; “he need only postulate that it will probably contain more truth than anyone’s opinion now.”

Lamberth unpacks exactly what this implies, clearly and succinctly (page 222):

On this view, truth claims – however stable – are only ever hypothetical and provisional; moreover, counterfactuals, should evince some concrete grounding in fact, are only the beginnings of new trails of enquiry that lead to the revision of old truths or the addition of new ones. For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

A Two Way Street

Lamberth explains that after James’s death (page 226):

. . . the study of religion . . . . . developed in such ways that the insights of James’s views, in particular, the varied commitments of radical empiricism as a systematic, spiritualistic world-view, were never fully explored, much less embraced.

Science nominally endorses James’s criteria for the correct application of empiricism, but in practice privileges its own untestable assumptions while dismissing those of others. James has little patience with this kind of double standard[2].

Lamberth explains (page 227):

James seeks critically to hold off temptations towards reduction, whether reduction to quasi-mystical phenomenalism that eschews valuable reflective insights – scientific or philosophical – or reduction that privileges the philosophical or scientific account over the concrete, diverse first-order experiences that are its spark.

Lamberth nails his own colours to the mast shortly after this (page 229):

I . . . think that James’s turn to experience – understood in the broader context of his radical empiricism – is of crucial, substantive importance to the philosophy of religion, now and in the future.

A core component in his view as in James’s is a two-way street (page 234):

Considering James closely suggests that we should not adopt a theoretical stance that presumptively protects dominant metaphysical assumptions concerning “scientific” or “realistic” explanations from . . . scrutiny any more than we should adopt such a protective strategy for religious explanations and experiences.

If science were (page 235) to subject ‘its own metaphysical assumptions . . . to critique, testing and revision in a dynamic, empirically informed but rationally accountable form of inquiry, ’Lamberth feels, ‘such an open, minimally presumptive stage for investigation’ would be most beneficial. It would facilitate two important things:

1. the productive reopening of a range of presumptively foreclosed questions for novel reconsideration; and

2. the development of new insights.

Bahá’í Implications

A full understanding of all the implications of these insights goes further than simply hoping to reconcile science and religioncolorful_hands_small while they continue to go on their separate ways.

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities[3].

For those who have the time, a viewing of the video below will demonstrate a part at least of what I am trying to say.

Here we see communities across the globe applying their current understanding of the Bahá’í model for community action, learning from what goes well and what does not, to enhance their implementation.

It is important also to realise that all significant details concerning these experiments are fed back to the centre of the faith, collated and fed back to the Bahá’í world as a whole for further implementation, experimentation and hopefully eventual validation. What is learnt is also preserved, to be cascaded down through time as well as across widely dispersed locations.

It is precisely the lack of this co-ordinated and consolidated kind of information preservation and exchange that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Andersen lamented in Cultural Creatives, their seminal examination of modern movements for cultural change. Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. When a group in one place dies, as is often the case, all that they learnt is lost. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.

For pragmatism, scientific or religious, to produce valid revisable conclusions of lasting practical value, the improbable combination of radical open-mindedness and strong institutional co-ordination is vital. It is to this combination of essential qualities that the Bahá’í community aspires – not an easy task by any means, calling as it does for a degree of detachment from what you think you are doing so you can see what is actually going on, whether at the individual, community or institutional level.

Whereas so far the main attempts to validate religious practice have focused on such admittedly significant areas as meditation, and the related experience of mysticism, or the correlation between religious beliefs and an individual’s charitable action, there have been very few examples indeed of the careful examination of the beneficial impact of constructive religious practices on communities as a whole. This is what in my view makes the Bahá’í process an innovative if embryonic example of pragmatism in the Jamesian sense. To operate this way effectively, of course, those who are testing the model need to accept that they will sometimes get it wrong as well as right.

It is for me exciting to see a rigorous explanation of why, in philosophical terms, such an enterprise makes sense, though it is also disappointing that there are, so far, so few concrete examples in either field of pragmatic and dispassionate investigation crossing the currently great divide between religious and scientific practice, though both these disciplines have the capacity to mount them and a self-evident duty to do so.

[1] A wind rose is a graphic tool used by meteorologists to give a succinct view of how wind speed and direction are typically distributed at a particular location. When the magnetic compass began to be used in navigation, the wind rose was combined with it and used as a compass card.

[2] Not everyone would agree that science lacks this kind of humility. For instance, Paul Jerome Croce describes it somewhat differently in his book Science and Religion in the Era of William James – page 4 – stating ‘probabilism, relativity, and hypothetical methodologies firmly established the fundamental uncertainty of modern science.’ I will be looking at this in more detail in a subsequent post. My suspicion is, as Croce also suggests, that the evangelists of science, who tend to monopolise the public gaze, were then and, for me, are now mostly dogmatic materialists. This is even more true in the UK, I suspect, than in the States.

[3] There are those on what are probably the edges still of the scientific community who would already recognise this as a viable method of investigation, one that will enhance both understanding and practice. One example is the model of action research described by Peter Reason.

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