Archive for the ‘Science and Religion’ Category

The Great Chain of Being

If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace –page 107)

In the light of Roger’s recent comment I thought I should in fairness republish my sequence of posts explaining the value of Wilber’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2012 and picks up on aspects of Wilber’s thought to which I resonate more strongly than those in his Theory of Everything.

In the previous post I summarised Ken Wilber‘s take on modernism as expressed in his The Marriage of Sense & Soul. Basically he feels that, although we have gained much by splitting the medieval fusion of instrumental, moral and subjective thinking, we have drained much of our felt life of its meaning by adopting such a purely mechanical model of the world. Part of his search for a way to undo this damage involves revisiting what he feels we have lost.

The Great Chain of Being Broken

On page 61 he picks up the thread:

. . . all interiors were reduced to exteriors. All subjects were reduced to objects; all depth was reduced to surfaces; all I’s and WE’s were reduced to Its; all quality was reduced to quantity; levels of significance were reduced to levels of size; value was reduced to veneer; all translogical and dialogical was reduced to monological. Gone the eye of contemplation and gone the eye of the mind – only data from the eye of the flesh would be accorded primary reality, because only sensory data possessed simple location, here in the desolate world of monochrome flatland.

He goes on to contend that when science discovered that mind and consciousness were anchored in the natural organism i.e. the brain and not disembodied, the Great Chain of Being, the old world view, took a colossal hit from which it never recovered (page 62).

I need to digress one moment to unpack what he sees as an essential aspect of this Great Chain of Being:

In the natural order, earth (rock) is at the bottom of the chain: this element possesses only the attribute of existence. Each link succeeding upward contains the positive attributes of the previous link and adds (at least) one other. Rocks, as above, possess only existence; the next link up, plants, possess life and existence. Animals add not only motion, but appetite as well.

Man is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit as those above. In this dichotomy, the struggle between flesh and spirit becomes a moral one. The way of the spirit is higher, more noble; it brings one closer to God. The desires of the flesh move one away from God.

This should have a familiar ring to it for anyone with a spiritual view of the world. It certainly has for Bahá’ís. There are many quotations I could choose from to illustrate this but the passage below is particularly appropriate in the context of this discussion where science and spirit have come to seem at war:

If we look with a perceiving eye upon the world of creation, we find that all existing things may be classified as follows: First—Mineral—that is to say matter or substance appearing in various forms of composition. Second—Vegetable—possessing the virtues of the mineral plus the power of augmentation or growth, indicating a degree higher and more specialized than the mineral. Third—Animal—possessing the attributes of the mineral and vegetable plus the power of sense perception. Fourth—Human—the highest specialized organism of visible creation, embodying the qualities of the mineral, vegetable and animal plus an ideal endowment absolutely minus and absent in the lower kingdoms—the power of intellectual investigation into the mysteries of outer phenomena. The outcome of this intellectual endowment is science which is especially characteristic of man. This scientific power investigates and apprehends created objects and the laws surrounding them. It is the discoverer of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the material universe and is peculiar to man alone. The most noble and praiseworthy accomplishment of man therefore is scientific knowledge and attainment.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Foundations of World Unity – page 48)

The irony, that a capacity, which Bahá’ís see as spiritual in origin, should have been harnessed to a process that has undermined our understanding of the spiritual, will not be lost on anyone reading this post. Wilber makes a subtle but important point on page 70:

Notice the difference between the interior of the individual – such as the mind – and the exterior of the individual – such as the brain. The mind is known by acquaintance; the brain, by objective description.

This contempt for our subjective experience as a source of legitimate data is something he feels we need to overcome. This forms the basis for his more balanced model of empiricism, one that he feels does not fall into the trap of privileging matter over mind.

‘Real’ Science and ‘Real’ Religion

Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating (page 169):

. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.

To arrive at this point he has covered ground that it would be impossible to reproduce completely here. I am offering only a selection of the barest bones of his argument. I am aware that this treatment may reduce the power of his case somewhat and can only suggest that, before dismissing it out of hand, anyone put off by my summary should read the original case in full as Wilber puts it. Also I have discussed on this blog Alvin Plantinga’s powerful exposition of a similar argument.

One of Wilber’s most basic points is that science is inconsistent if it claims that all its conclusions are based solely on external evidence.  He admits that science at its best does not claim this. On the contrary it acknowledges that interior processes such as mathematics play a huge part in the construction of its world view. However, it does a sleight of hand when it privileges the interior processes upon which it relies (e.g. mathematics) while ruling out of court those interior processes that it regards as suspicious (e.g. meditation). In Wilber’s view (pages 148-149), if you accept the one you must accept the other.

Give a Little

However, for true progress to be made, in his view, both sides need to give a little (pages 160-161):

We have asked science to do nothing more than expand from narrow empiricism (sensory experience only) to broad empiricism (direct experience in general), which it already does anyway with its own conceptual operations, from logic to mathematics.

But religion, too, must give a little. And in this case, religion must open its truth claims to direct verification – or rejection – by experiential evidence.

He builds further on this (page 169):

. . . . religion’s great, enduring, and unique strength, is that, at its core, it is a science of personal experience (using ‘science’ in the broad sense as direct experience, in any domain, that submits to the three strands of injunction, data, and falsifiability.

By injunction, he means ‘If you want to know, do this.’ This applies in equal measure to using a microscope correctly and to practising mindfulness skilfully. As I have argued elsewhere there are various pragmatic experiential exploration at the command of religions to explore their truths other than simply examining meditation, Wilber’s main focus, or similar purely individual experiences. For example, 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 collective action is transforming our communities[1].

From this validation of personal experience Wilber reaches the encouraging conclusion (ibid.):

Thus, if science can surrender its narrow empiricism  . . . . ., and if religion can surrender its bogus mythic claims in favour of authentic spiritual experience (which its founders uniformly did anyway), then suddenly, very suddenly, science and religion begin to look more like fraternal twins than centuries-old enemies.

This he sees as a way of reintegrating what has been for so long so damagingly disconnected. As he puts it towards the end of his book (page 196):

. . . . the crucial point is that sensory-empirical science, although it cannot see into the higher and interior domains on their own terms, can nonetheless register their empirical correlates.


[1] 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.

Read Full Post »

If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace –page 107)

In the light of Roger’s recent comment I thought I should in fairness republish my sequence of posts explaining the value of Wilber’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2012 and picks up on aspects of Wilber’s thought to which I resonate more strongly than those in his Theory of Everything.

A Windfall

I’ve had a plan for some time that looked like it would never see the light of common day. In the years before I began blogging I had read a number of books that impressed me deeply. I thought what a great idea it would be to blog about them as well, not just about the books I’m reading at the moment. So, I sorted them out onto a shelf for future processing. And they’ve stayed there ever since. Just not enough time in the day to revisit them, refresh my memory and convey my sense of why they are so important.

Then I had a windfall. I discovered that I’d done extensive notes on at least one of the books electronically in early 2001. In this post and one more I’ll attempt to winnow out what I feel now are some of the most telling points I captured at the time from The Marriage of Sense & Soul by Ken Wilber.

The Costs of Splitting

Wilber is concerned about what is also one of my obsessions: the price of modernism and the conflict that exists between religion and science. The Marriage of Sense and Soul is a brilliant attempt to capture the essence of his thinking on this issue in a reasonably accessible form between the covers of a single book. I don’t think he oversimplifies his position as a result.

Wilber acknowledges the dignity of modernity in its liberalism – equality, freedom, justice; representational democracy; political and civil rights:

These values and rights existed nowhere in the premodern world on a large scale, and thus these rights have been quite accurately referred to as the dignity of modernity.

This dignity comes (and he adduces scholars from Weber to Habermas in support of this contention) from the differentiation of art, morals and science; i.e. the beautiful, the good and the true. Each has its own language: I, we and it language (page 50). Because these are differentiated the We can no longer dominate the It. Religious tyranny can no longer dictate to science what is true. Nor can the “we” of the church or state over-ride the rights of individuals (“I”). As we shall shortly see, there is though another trap that a simplistic enthronement of reason has set for us.

It may help to bring in what Pusey and Sloane, in different books, have to say that sheds further light on this crucial set of distinctions.

Michael Pusey I have quoted in a previous post. He explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Jurgen Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.

Tod Sloan, in his book Damaged Life, quotes Habermas directly in support of his position (page 60):

As the process of modernisation continues, the different modes of rationality tend to become isolated in separate ‘orders of life.’ The resulting divisions present a serious problem to individuals who need to form personal identities capable of integrating several modes of rationality. Habermas writes: “Cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive orientations of action ought not to become so independently embodied in antagonistic orders of life that they overcome the personality system’s average capacity for integration and lead to permanent conflicts between lifestyles. (Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1, 1984: page 245)

In short, art, morals and science have flown apart and we are bearing the consequences!

Colonising the Life-World

Worse even than that, Wilber forcefully argues, science has invaded the other spheres (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Trying to turn the clock back is no solution: attempting to regress to some theoretical Golden Age in the past is a dead end. On page 57 he states:

Premodern cultures did not have this disaster precisely because they did not possess the corresponding dignities, either, and thus they cannot serve as role models for the desired integration. The cure for the disaster of modernity is to address the dissociation, not attempt to erase the differentiation!

He ends that chapter with the bleak description:

A cold and uncaring wind, monological in its method and calculated in its madness, blew across a flat and faded landscape, the landscape that now contains, as tiny specks in the corner, the faces of you and me.

We’re on familiar territory here. McGilchrist has more recently addressed it in terms of getting a better balance between left and right brain functioning. Sheldrake is fighting to get science to put down the blunderbuss of materialism in favour of a less reductionist more holistic approach. What is Wilber’s answer? That’s what the second post will be about.

Read Full Post »

Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

My current sequence of posts on subliminal influences makes it seem timely to republish this sequence that last saw the light two years ago. I have changed the numbering from before. This is the last of the sequence.

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 »

Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

My most recent sequence of new posts concerns itself with the power of the subliminal. It therefore seemed reasonable to republish this short sequence from early last year. The first part came out yesterday.

At the end of the last post I stated it may not be enough to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possible exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

Here I turn to Alvin Plantinga as the most coherent proponent of the case that has convinced me. His book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, deserves the attention of every sceptic. His introduction marks out his core contention:

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 and definitely not a science. Atheists need to bear with this a little longer to give his argument a fair chance.

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).

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Must Evolution be Unguided?

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.

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.

One of the main purposes of Plantinga’s book is to scotch the misconception that a theory of evolution inevitably entails the assumption that it must have been unguided 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.

He concludes that 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.

Caveman and Dinosaur

For source of image see link

Can Naturalism be trusted?

His perspective has other solid ground to stand on. One point he sees as crucial (page 275):

It is important to see that our notion of the laws of nature, crucial for contemporary science, has [its] 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.

From this he concludes (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.

For me though the killer blow that he delivers is even more fundamental. 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.

For example, awareness that a predator is present is not a belief. It is a trigger to action based on lower 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.

In short, and to me very sweet, if you believe naturalistic evolution is true you cannot be sure any of your beliefs, including naturalism, are true. Unpacked a bit more it says, if we believe that how we think has been exclusively determined by natural selection, which is only concerned with our capacity to survive long enough to reproduce, then we cannot absolutely trust our beliefs about anything beyond that level, including both our belief that our thinking ability is fixed by evolution and our conviction that there is no God and no spiritual dimension.

Accepting this entails accepting that naturalism cannot be a science. If you add into the mix that excluding any potentially valid data a priori is unscientific then naturalism, which enshrines the ideas that all we are is the fruit of evolution and that anything suggesting there is a spiritual dimension must be false, definitely cannot be a science.

QED, in my book. Gone in a puff of compelling logic is any valid reason in true science to exclude a priori from consideration evidence that supports a spiritual explanation.

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.

The Conscious Universe IRMIn Summary

For me then the case is strong.

There is enough evidence, much of it referred to elsewhere on this blog, to support the notion that the mind is not reducible to the brain, and beyond that the mind seems to have the capacity, under certain conditions, to respond to wavelengths of reality that contradict our materialistic consensus.

There are compelling reasons for mainstream science to take this evidence seriously if it is to be true to its own most fundamental principles. And there is no good reason for pretending that the idea of a spiritual reality is so preposterous we’ve no need to look at the evidence in its favour. In fact, a central tenet of modern science, the theory of evolution, suggests the exact opposite: any claim to reduce our reasoning entirely to material origins in evolution and to protect that claim by ruling out in advance as false any evidence to the contrary, would, if it were true, undermine its own validity.

All of this can be explored in more depth at the links below. Any atheist who refuses to explore not only my version of the books referred to but the books themselves, should at least consider that they might be protecting their prejudices rather than behaving rationally. If, after careful consideration, neither the argument nor the evidence contained in those links shifts them from conviction to at least agnosticism, then they should acknowledge that what they believe is at least as much an act of faith as my position on the matter.

Related Articles

Hard Evidence


Consciousness beyond Life (1/3): problems of scepticism
Consciousness beyond Life (2/3): ‘consciousness does not happen in the brain
Consciousness beyond Life (3/3): nonlocality

Book Review (1/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ and its critique of materialism
Book Review (2/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ on consciousness
Book Review (3/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ on the costs of the materialistic approach

Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self


Book Review (1/2): Radin, Psi and Scepticism
Book Review (2/2): Radin on Processes of Distortion


Where the Conflict Really Lies (1/4): preparing the ground
Where the Conflict Really Lies (2/4): a superficial conflict
Where the Conflict Really Lies (3/4): a deep compatibility
Where the Conflict Really Lies (4/4): the deep conflict

Possible Implications: Heart & Head

An Understanding Heart (1/4): divided we fail
An Understanding Heart (2/4): a consensus trance
An Understanding Heart (3/4): separating gut from heart
An Understanding Heart (4a/4): redressing the balance
An Understanding Heart (4b/4): of lamps and gardens
An Understanding Heart (4c/4): of mirrors and reflection

The Third ‘I’ (2/5): Kahneman Revisited – the three ‘I’s
The Third ‘I’ (3a/5): the wisdom of dreams
The Third ‘I’ (3b/5): the wisdom of dreams
The Third ‘I’ (4/5): whispers from the heart
The Third ‘I’ (5a/5): the power of silence
The Third ‘I’ (5b/5): interthinking

Three Brains Revisited (1/3): A Stranded Mariner?
Three Brains Revisited (2/3): Are We Too Trigger-Happy?
Three Brains Revisited (3/3): Is Mammering the Best Policy?

Read Full Post »

[The] stone is the lowest degree of phenomena, but nevertheless within it a power of attraction is manifest without which the stone could not exist. This power of attraction in the mineral world is love, the only expression of love the stone can manifest. . . Finally, we reach the kingdom of man. Here we find that all the degrees of the mineral, vegetable and animal expressions of love are present plus unmistakable attractions of consciousness. That is to say, man is the possessor of a degree of attraction which is conscious and spiritual. Here is an immeasurable advance. In the human kingdom spiritual susceptibilities come into view, love exercises its superlative degree, and this is the cause of human life.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 168-69)

Once we have explained all the physical structure in the vicinity of the brain, and we have explained how all the various brain functions are performed, there is a further sort of explanandum: consciousness itself. Why should all this structure and function give rise to experience? The story about the physical processes does not say.

(David J ChalmersThe Conscious Mind, page 107)

Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist.

(The Science Delusion –  page 109)

In preparation for my next new post, coming out tomorrow, that deals with the idea of holographic consciousness, it seemed a good idea to republish this short sequence from 2012.

Putting my best foot forward?

 Three years ago I tackled the issue of the afterlife.  I felt, and still feel, that on this issue a good place to start is with the black swan problem and it works even better as an argument for the independence of consciousness from the brain.

Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.

It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.

The same can be said of mind/brain independence, something which points to consciousness being more than matter. There is one near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom. His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?” (page 184 passim). Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain. None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.

The problem here is that my ‘black swan’ torpedo, something that holes the titanic edifice of materialism below the waterline, is someone else’s ‘delusional anecdote’ only serving to prove how gullible we afterlifers are.

How good it is, then, to find a science heavy-weight pulling together a massive array of assorted evidence to call the whole enterprise of materialism into serious question. Rupert Sheldrake may not be a mainstream scientist accepted by the practitioners of the prevailing orthodoxy but he has too much credibility to be lightly dismissed.

The evidence he marshals in his book, The Science Delusion, covers many areas. For the purposes of this post I am focusing on the evidence that relates to consciousness in some way and supports the possibility of its not residing entirely in the brain. In fact, according to the evidence he quotes, some its most important aspects appear to be located elsewhere altogether.

Brainless means brain-dead, right?

Let me put a key point right up front.

Even the dimmest materialist can tell me that I must be wrong about consciousness because, when you do enough damage to the brain, the lights go out. Sheldrake enables me to ask, though, how much damage is enough? 25%? 50%? 75%? 95%?

He has an answer. There is no way of knowing how much damage will destroy effective consciousness and functioning in any individual case. Massive damage can sometimes have little detectable effect (page 193):

John Lorber . . . scanned the brains of more than six hundred people with hydrocephalus, and found that about sixty had more than 95 per cent of the cranial cavity filled with cerebrospinal fluid. Some were seriously retarded, but others were more or less normal, and some had IQs of well over 100. One young man who had an IQ of 126 and a first-class degree in mathematics, a student from Sheffield University, had ‘virtually no brain’. . . . . His mental activity and his memory were still able to function more or less normally even though he had a brain only five per cent of the normal size.

He looks then at the well-researched area of memory to unearth an intriguing possibility (page 194-198):

More than a century of intensive, well-funded research has failed to pin down memory traces in brains. There may be a very simple reason for this: the hypothetical traces do not exist. However long or hard researchers look for them they may never find them. Instead, memories may depend on morphic resonance from an organism’s own past. The brain may be more like a television set than a hard-drive recorder.

. . . the fact that injury and brain degeneration, as in Alzheimer’s disease, lead to loss of memory does not prove that memories are stored in the damaged tissue. If I snipped a wire or removed some components from the sound circuits of your TV set, I could render it speechless, or aphasic. But this would not mean that all the sounds were stored in the damaged components.

. . . But what if the holographic wave-patterns are not stored in the brain at all? Pribram later came to this conclusion, and thought of the brain as a ‘wave-form analyser’ rather than a storage system, comparing it to a radio receiver that picked up wave-forms from the ‘implicate order’, rendering them explicate.

And it’s a small step from there to Goswami’s ‘consciousness is the ground of being’ which we described in the earlier post (page 114-115):

The philosopher Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, is amazed by the willingness of so many of his fellow philosophers to deny the reality of their own experience . . . He argues that a consistent materialism must imply panpsychism, namely the idea that even atoms and molecules have a primitive kind of mentality or experience. . . Panpsychism does not mean that atoms are conscious in the sense that we are, but only that some aspects of mentality or experience are present in the simplest physical systems. More complex forms of mind or experience emerge in more complex systems.

It all depends upon your point of view perhaps (page 119):

The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce saw the physical and mental as different aspects of underlying reality: ‘All mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter . . . Viewing a thing from the outside . . . it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside . . . it appears as consciousness.’

David Bohm

Our point of view will have consequences

It is an important issue though as our conclusions about it have implications for the way we live. Consciousness may be inherent in the universe. Bohm is another who raises this point (page 126):

Bohm observed, ‘The question is whether matter is rather crude and mechanical or whether it gets more and more subtle and becomes indistinguishable from what people have called mind.’ . . . In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by an electron.

If so what are the implications then? A sense of purpose is a major one (page 128).

It makes a big difference if you think of yourself as a zombie-like mechanism in an unconscious mechanical world, or as a truly conscious being capable of making choices, living among other beings with sensations, experiences and desires.

Maybe what we make of ourselves and of our world, in other words our entire future, will in part hinge on the answer we find to the question of consciousness (page 130):

Purposes exist in a virtual realm, rather than a physical reality. They connect organisms to ends or goals that have not yet happened; they are attractors, in the language of dynamics, a branch of modern mathematics. Purposes or attractors cannot be weighed; they are not material.

To make the point completely clear he later states (page 140):

Developing systems are attracted towards their ends or goals. They are not only pushed from the past, they are pulled from the future.

Yes, there is a push from the past and this is driven mostly from our unconscious as a 2012 Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But, as we have already said, there is also a pull from the future which is mostly responded to in consciousness.

So, what is going to happen lies in our own hands and depends to a significant extent upon our conscious choices. If we come to feel that those choices are all already completely determined by some billiard-ball-type interactions among our billions of neurones, we will behave very differently from how we would behave if we felt that we could freely choose a course of action determined to a significant extent by a freely chosen vision of what we wanted to achieve. At the very least, it creates a greater sense of responsibility for our actions.

What is also important is that the concept of consciousness being explored here by Sheldrake implies a strong degree of interconnectedness that in turn, for me, suggests that more than mirror neurones lie behind the experience of compassion. It is interesting in this light to read Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light (Ken Ring – Lessons from the Light – page  287):

And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”

But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.

And before you say it, if my preference for this picture, based on the evidence I have adduced, has in fact really been predetermined, then so has the preference of a materialist for a different reductionist picture. So why would his or her views have more weight than mine?

We all know the choice is ours really. Nothing can rationalise that reality away, I believe. A lot depends upon it.

No pressure then.

Read Full Post »

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá  in Some Answered Questions, page 208)

The sciences evolve, and so do religions. No religion is the same today as it was at the time of its founder. Instead of the bitter conflicts and mutual distrust caused by the materialist worldview, we are entering an era in which sciences and religions may enrich each other through shared explorations.

(Baumeister & Tierney: Willpower, page 340)

What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.

(George Berkeley)

In preparation for my next new post, coming out on Thursday, that deals with the idea of holographic consciousness, it seemed as good idea to republish this short sequence from 2012: part two comes out again tomorrow. 

Consciousness is preposterous. It can’t be possible yet it exists. I know it does because I am writing this. You know it does if you are reading this. Because it exists and we are in a sense (well, five of them at least, actually) the experience of consciousness, we are usually blind to its sheer improbability. So much for the senses, then.

Perhaps this paradox is why it is currently a battle ground between those who believe mind is merely matter and those who believe that mind is much more than matter. This difference, as we will see, has implications for whether our actions are completely determined by unconscious processes or are freely chosen. Yes, there is a push from our unconscious, partly the result of evolution and partly the result of automated memories, as last Tuesday’s Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But – and it’s a very important but – there is also a sense of purpose which creates a pull from the future which is mostly mediated through our conscious mind.

In my lifetime I have switched sides in this battle for reasons too many to list here. I used to believe in nothing that I couldn’t directly experience with my ordinary senses. Now I believe there is a spiritual dimension even though it would be fair to say I have never experienced it directly. Other people that I have come to trust have had such experiences though and my earlier conversion to this point of view is constantly reaffirmed by their testimony.

A Physicist’s Personal Testimony

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, which I quoted in a post about three years ago,  confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

More Mystical Angles on the Matter

Andrew Powell, in Thinking Beyond the Brainan intriguing book edited by David Lorimer, put me onto Goswami. He concludes, ‘Everything is mind,’ (page 182) and goes on to say (page 186):

. . . there is a more important truth to be discovered, that we are one. If humankind should ever learn that what belongs to one belongs to all, heaven on earth will be assured.

In the same book (pages 128-131) there is an account of a similar but not identical mystical experience. Charles Tart quotes the story of a Doctor S who was an atheist at the time. He was alone, watching the sunset, which was particularly beautiful that evening. All verbal thinking stopped. While what he experienced was, he said, impossible to express, he did try to convey it in words (page 130):

I was certain that the universe was one whole and that it was benign and loving at its ground. . . . . God as experienced in cosmic consciousness is the very ground or beingness of the Universe and has no human characteristics in the usual sense of the word. The Universe could no more be separate from God than my body could separate from its cells. Moreover the only emotion that I would associate with God is love, but it would be more accurate to say that God is love, than that God is loving.

Most religions, and the Bahá’í Faith is no exception, hold that God is more than the universe: they mostly agree also that God permeates the universe in some way. Which means, of course, that He is in us also. Bahá’u’lláh confirms this when He exhorts us to:

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee . . .

(Hidden Words from the Arabic: Number 13)

The implications for the nature of consciousness are immense if, as I do, you believe this to be true. What if you don’t?

Is this the best hard evidence we can get?

Aren’t these just anecdotes and metaphors, carrying no more weight than any other personal opinion? Is this going to help reconcile the differences between faith and science in this all important area?

Fortunately, since I first explored this question much more research has come into the public domain. And I’m not talking about things like Near Death Experiences (see the links at the end of this post), or David Fontana‘s explorations of the reality of the soul and the afterlife. I’m referring to work such as Schwartz‘s that demonstrates that the mind is not easily reducible to the brain but rather can, by force of deliberate willed attention, change the brain. Not quite enough to carry a hard-line materialist with me, though? Not even enough to cause him or her a fleeting doubt?

Well, beyond that, and most recently, there has been Rupert Sheldrake‘s book The Science Delusion. In the next post I will seek to unpack some of the most telling points he makes that should cause us to question too glib an attachment to a materialist explanation of consciousness.

Related Articles

The Afterlife Hypothesis (1/3)

The Afterlife Hypothesis Tested (2/3)

Is the Afterlife Hypothesis Useful (3/3)

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »