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Charles Darwin

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

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

Optimisation – the sceptical view

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

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

Put simply (page 81):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complexity and Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Social Consequences of neo-Darwinism:

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

Kitzing makes clear that (page 213):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One way to fossilise inequality, I suppose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you.

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Charles Darwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They honestly admit that (page xvi):

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

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

The Basic Bahá’í Position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress in Small Steps driven by an Organisng Force:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mastermind’ is an interesting metaphor in this context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote:

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

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Question: What do you say regarding the theory of the evolution of beings to which certain European philosophers subscribe?

Answer. . . . Briefly, this question comes down to the originality or non-originality of the species, that is, whether the essence of the human species was fixed from the very origin or whether it subsequently came from the animals.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Some Answered Questions – 2014 edition – page 220,  quoted from the earlier edition in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown – page 45)

A friend recommended I read Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘If you only read one book in the next 12 months, let it be this one,’ he insisted.

To be honest, of late I’ve not taken much pleasure in novels. I’m a bit stuck in the past. Apart from Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much,in recent days I’ve usually drawn a blank with anything later than Virginia Woolf.

Not so this time though.

I recently battled to define the balance successful novels need to strike if they are to hold the reader’s attention. For me, they should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in the memory. If authors stray too far from some form of narrative it is possible they might diminish the long-term impact of their books on the reader. From the reviews I skimmed Unsheltered looked like it would manage to avoid that trap.

I checked that my local Waterstones had a copy and dashed down there to get it. I hadn’t much time before I was due to meet my wife in town. I scanned all the shelves and was frustrated not to be able to find it anywhere.

There was an irritating queue at the counter. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes to go. I slotted in at the back of the queue.

‘Thank you for your help,’ the woman at the front enthused, as she struggled with her bags, purse and cards.

‘I’m really looking forward to reading this,’ she droned on as she was forcing the book into a spare corner of her M&S bag, dropping her points card on the floor as she did so.

With relief I saw her pick up her card, stuff it back into her wallet and stagger out of the shop with her bags.

The person in front handed over his paperback and was gone in seconds, thank God.

‘Can I help?’ the familiar face behind the till enquired, her hand poised over the keyboard as I approached with my notebook in hand. She knew me well enough to realise she might have an online search on her hands.

‘I hope so,’ I smiled. ‘I’m looking for Kingsolver’s Unsheltered,’ I explained. ‘It says on your website you’ve got it here but I couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s not on the new stack or the main novels section.’

I took a quick look behind me to see if anyone was waiting. Thankfully no one was. I’d’ve been as irritating as the bag lady if there had been, blethering as I was.

‘I’ll just check for you. I won’t be a moment.’

She headed straight for the new stack I’d just searched carefully through.

She found it within seconds.

‘So it wasn’t stored in alphabetical order,’ I said, feeling slightly embarrassed as it had obviously been in plain sight.

‘No, we stack them in order of priority. We put the best ones near the top.’

‘Ah! I’ll try and remember that next time.’

‘Do you want to buy it?’

Usually I would scan a £20 book before risking a purchase, but there was no time for that.

‘I do,’ I said at the same time as wondering whether this might be a big mistake.

‘Do you need a bag?’

‘No, I’ve got one here.’

I had my points card and my cash in hand, paid for the book, picked it up, shoving my receipt hastily inside, fumbled it into the Waterstones bag I always carried with me and hurried to the exit. Time was running out, and so should I.

. . . .

I couldn’t wait to get home. I didn’t contradict my wife when she supposed I had work to do. There was work, it was true, but I wanted to squeeze in an extra few moments to taste the opening pages.

At first I thought I might have made a mistake. The opening didn’t grip me as I’d hoped. Dialogues about the state of a building aren’t my cup of tea. I had to get on with my work at this point and found it hard to stop beating myself up for wasting my money again by buying in haste a book I didn’t like.

As soon as I could, I beat a retreat to an armchair with a coffee and the book. I needed to find out if I’d thrown my money away.

Within 13 pages I was hooked. A death is almost bound to get my attention. I could barely put it down. Every spare moment after that I stepped back into the double worlds of this enthralling novel. The stepping between the past and present reminded me of A S Byatt’s Possession, though the themes are different. Kingsolver is more concerned with how the two periods in history echo each other: bigotry, inequality, denialism and so on.

In terms of the nineteenth century story line, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the passionate resistance to it are a main thread. In terms of the twentieth century it’s our similar and far more potentially threatening commitment to unsustainable economic growth.

Either way it matches my current preoccupations since the cruise by emphasising from early on our connection with nature. Mary Treat tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants (page 83):

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’

Within four days of buying it I had finished it. I was scribbling in my diary quotes from the closing chapters, so I wouldn’t forget them.

The moment, for example, when Thatcher, the main character from the nineteenth century, an invention of the author, refrains from telling Mary Treat, a real-life courageous female pioneering scientist of the time and respected correspondent of Darwin’s, that ‘he could see her soul. It was a giant redwood.’

This had not been the first such quote. Willa, the main contemporary character, ‘looked at the oak over their heads. Its trunk was a monument to resilience and its branches to tenderness.’ That resonates with the part of me that wrote the poem Oak in Winter.

Also in September I published on this blog a sequence about becoming an Ent. I wrote:

I came to feel a powerful affinity with trees. It was as though at some deep level I feel as though I am a tree, an image of myself I need to hold onto. It represents patiently and resiliently operating in a long time scale, rooted in the earth but reaching after the sun – in effect constituting a kind of bridge between earth and heaven, something we all have the potential to be.

What makes the book so marvellous for me is that it brings together both that aspect of my inner life and my reactions to the society we live in. For example, towards the end of the book, Tig, Willa’s daughter declares vehemently, ‘The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.’

Now that I have finished the book, and am experiencing that strangely bereft feeling that comes when you can’t step back into the fascinating world of a superb fiction, I find myself taking stock.

I thought I had made it clear to myself that from now hearticulture is my calling. I thought that would make it easy to decide what I needed to do and what would be a waste of time.

‘Was reading novels like this a waste of time?’ I found myself thinking. ‘You told yourself you’d focus on poetry.’

‘Well, yes,’ I replied to myself. ‘But compared to this most of the poetry I’ve got on my shelves is boring. I only really like about half a dozen poets and the rest I rarely look at.’

‘And anyway,’ another part of my head chipped in, ‘Wading through too much poetry wouldn’t be much better than drowning yourself in novels.’

The words of Unsheltered came back to me again, ones I’d resonated to almost in tears as I read them the first time: ‘Mary had lived with her discipline. Both of them had, she and Thatcher, with an integrity that led them to give up, practically speaking, their lives. . . Willa ached for a devotion like that, something to move her beyond herself.’

I began to wonder whether all this might be a sign that I wasn’t completely on board with my hearticulture plan in the context of my Bahá’í convictions, as I’d fooled myself into believing I had. Was I now calling my calling into question? Perhaps I still haven’t found out what, given my current levels of energy, I should be focusing my time on for the rest of my life, over and above the obvious commitments I have.

Where was all this taking me?

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Last time I described my quest to understand our penchant for evil acts, including what might help us get past this fatal flaw, and what drew me to buy and start reading Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life.

Before I begin to tackle his exact contribution to this quest, I need to summarise the key ideas I’ve gleaned from those who are his forerunners in my investigations. My right-brain has agreed to this because I can pull most of this in from previous posts so it won’t greatly delay its desperately needed return to poetry.

Our Moral Imagination

Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God argues that in evolutionary terms we are being forced to expand our sense of common humanity ever wider if we are not to face destructive challenges.

He states (page 428):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (page 428-429):

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.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

At the end of this sequence I will be exploring more fully the implications of this with the help of the diagram on the left. For now all I will say is that it will take a long period of time before enough of us to make a real difference shift from the ‘me now’ position to expanding the compass of our compassionate understanding so that it embraces the whole of humanity.

Writght feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos (we’ll be coming back to that word again in much more detail later). He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

Jeremy Rifkin, in his thought-provoking book The Empathic Civilisation, articulates an important caveat to any assumption that an increasing global culture will inevitably move us onward and upward. He adduces evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start of the book (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

In terms of Wright’s position, entropy notwithstanding, what we need to understand is what is blocking the process he describes of expanding the scope and range of our ‘moral imagination,’ or in my terms the compass of our compassion.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Our Objects of Devotion

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

In Wright’s terms, if the compass of our compassion is set too narrow, and we only identify with a subgroup of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole, we’re doomed.

Idealism, Ideology and Mistaking our Maps for Reality

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism 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.

McGilchrist’s contribution towards enriching my understanding of this issue is in his profound interrogation of the negative impact of the dominant left-hemisphere’s processing on our thinking. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Group Dynamics

There are also social facilitation, group difference and status differential effects. Take, for instance, Zimbardo’s perspective, which is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behaviour of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations that steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things, not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

The power of such influences is reinforced by Haidt’s idea of the hive effect.

Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.):

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

Being ‘part of a whole’ can have an unacceptable price, though, as I will explore next time.

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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

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

Psi

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

Science

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?

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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.

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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