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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Donaldson’

brian-cox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbolic logic

A Deep Concord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Conflict

religion & Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Birmingham QE Hosp MedicalSchool

As I walk onto the platform a garbled announcement on the PA system informs me that the crackle for Birmingham will hiss from crackle 4.

I stroll in plenty of time to the appropriate end of platform 3. I’m glad of the bench on which to park my faded brown backpack loaded with food, coffee and a laptop. Just as I’m putting it down I hear a voice in my ear.

‘This train doesn’t usually go from 4, does it?’ The tone is full of a positive energy that sounds quite infectious.

I look up. A lady, slightly younger than me, is placing a brightly coloured shopping bag on the bench.

‘It used to but it hasn’t happened for ages. Not sure why now,’ I answer.

As we speak our train goes past the platform causing a moment of confusion before we realise it will have to reverse back onto the cul-de-sac of platform 4.

‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.

‘To the University.’

‘Oh! Why there?’

‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’

‘Oh wow!’ She almost leaps out of her skin. ‘That’s my life’s work. I’ve spent years working on that.’

‘You’re kidding,’ I say, almost equally astonished.

‘No. Honestly. It really is.’

Our train pulls to a stop behind us. We pick up our bags and wait by a door for the light to come on.

‘Do you mind if we sit together? I’d love to talk,’ she asks.

‘I’d be happy to. I will just need 15 minutes before we get to University station to go over my notes.’ (There’s copy of them for anyone interested in the footnotes.)

‘No problem. I’ll be getting off at Worcester.’

‘Perfect.’

The light comes on. I press to open the door and we settle at a table close by in the warm sunlight streaming through the glass.

The talking begins between us even before I take my coat off. It continues in a constant flow thereafter. Two girls who initially chose to sit at the table opposite to us decide to move to the next carriage. The idea of an hour’s exposure to the excited exchanges of two old fogeys discussing mind, spirit, higher energy, God, the universe and an afterlife is clearly too much for them.

Later, as the train pulls out of Great Malvern I take a card out of my wallet to write down the name of the book we were just discussing: Faith, Physics & Psychology by John Fitzgerald Medina.

‘Are your details on the back?’ she asks.

‘For sure. Is it OK if I have yours,’ I ask getting out my notebook.

‘No problem. I don’t have a television, email address or computer anymore, but this is my mobile.’

I scribble it down.

‘I wasn’t planning to take this train,’ she explains. ‘But my sister wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest so I said I’d go back early.’

‘That’s weird,’ I reply. ‘I was going to take the later train but the organiser of the seminar wanted me there earlier to set up, so I decided to travel on this one.’

We definitely conclude that our meeting is synchronicity not coincidence. Chance doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation.

She gets off at Foregate Street. I get out my notes to check, for the last time, that they will work for an interactive session with about 15 people. Well before my destination I am happy with my notes. I just watch for the tall clock tower that will signal I am nearly there.

There it is on schedule. I pack up my stuff. As I walk along the platform towards the exit stairs I ring the organiser.

‘I’m going to need my car,’ she tells me, ‘so give me time to drive around the one-way system to pick you up. It’ll take me longer than it would to walk.’

I wait in watery sunlight for the lift, with my destination in eyeshot. I am totally unprepared for what is about to happen.

In about five minutes her car pulls up. Within less than a minute we are squeezing into the cramped car park in front of the looming facade of the Medical Centre. We talk our way through the elaborate security system and I’m in the shining glass and gleaming metal entrance hall again. Memories of the last time four years ago flood back. I’ve described them before so won’t dwell on them now.

We climb the stairs to the first floor labyrinth. We fruitlessly loop round the circle of one set of seminar rooms and set off from the stairwell round the next. We are in luck. The last room we come to is the one for us.

Thirty chairs. Rather more than I was expecting but still not too many for a seminar-style approach even if the room is full.

As the system there won’t talk to my Mac, I save my Keynote slides onto a memory stick in PowerPoint format. The university computer obligingly accepts them. The first slide appears on the screen.

Consciousness

We’re good to go.

Fifteen minutes before we start. The room is filling up. We need more chairs. Five minutes to go and a student asks me if she can sit down in front of the first row. Before I can even answer, another student kneels down to my left.

‘That’s not necessary,’ I joke, implying I’m not a guru. She seems to get the joke but I’m not quite sure.

The professor I’ve been talking to in-between all the toing and froing, stands up at this point, looks around and says, ‘I’m going to find a bigger room.’ Our organiser goes with him. I look up towards the door and see the queue of people three-wide snaking out into the corridor.

I decide to start packing up all my stuff to set up again somewhere else. I sense this could take some time.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After what seems an eternity of fidgeting restlessly in our places, whether sitting, kneeling, pacing or standing, we’re told to follow the professor to a lecture theatre up stairs. We trail behind him chatting desultorily. When we get to the stairs there’s a traffic jam.

Stalled half-way up the stairwell on a step less wide than my foot is long I’m left with an insecure sense I might topple backwards at any moment onto the tail of the queue below .

Minutes pass.

‘We need to go downstairs to the ground floor. There’s a room there,’ someone shouts from on high.

We dutifully turn round and slowly descend. We wait in the shining entrance hall. I begin to see how many of us there are. This is definitely going to be no seminar. It really will have to be a lecture. Lectures aren’t my thing. I love bouncing ideas around in small groups, learning from others in an intense exchange of perspectives.

Still, I’m going to have to make the best of a bad job.

At last! The porter (not sure that’s the right word) comes back and leads us along a different labyrinthine corridor, from which we step into a massive hall with the lectern stuck in the far left corner away from the door.

This could be tricky, I think.

As people take their seats I set up again.

The microphone doesn’t work and it’s fixed to the desktop so I can’t carry it anyway.

I stare incredulously into the vast space around me. The front row is several feet away and the back row seems in a different dimension altogether. I’m going to have to shout. I get my flask of coffee out. I’m going to need it if I don’t want to be croaking by the end. At a conservative estimate there are about 100 people here. I’m glad I didn’t know this in advance. I’d be jelly by now if I had.

I set the slide to show the word ‘Consciousness’ again. I prepare my reluctant mind for lecture mode.

They introduce me. I start by explaining that I want to leave space for questions and feedback as we go, even though we are so many. I want to learn from their perspectives as well as sharing mine.

I try to click onto the next text with my right hand on the mouse. The right button does nothing. I need a track pad!

‘This isn’t working,’ I share. ‘I’m used to a real computer.’ They laugh. That helps.

‘Press the left button,’ a supportive voice from the front row advises.

That works. ‘Spirit, Mind or Brain,’ appears.

I ask my three questions. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is simply a product of the brain?’ Maybe forty hands or so shoot up. There are too many to count properly. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is independent of the brain?’ Almost the same number. That’s encouraging. ‘How many have no real idea which way to go on this?’ Probably about twenty.

I go on to share my collision of perspectives in 1982 after I’d moved from atheism to the Bahá’í Faith. I click for the ‘Abdu’l-Bahá quote. After repeating my earlier mistake, the quote appears.

Mind & Spirit

Mind & Spirit

Things begin to settle down. The details of the kind of explanation I intended to give I will share in the next short sequence of posts. It’s close to what happens on the day but not exactly the same. I’ll keep the story very brief for now. I’ve gone on long enough.

Episodes of explanation interspersed with a few questions flow on from here for over an hour.

I start by explaining my default position of doubt . . . . .

Inevitable Uncertainty

Inevitable Uncertainty

. . . . . before moving on to the improbability of life: how much more so of consciousness.

“Why bother investigating at all if we can’t prove anything for certain?’ someone asks later. I think after the event I should have said, ‘If science had only ever investigated what looked like a cast-iron certainty, where would quantum physics be now? By the end of the 19th Century eminent scientists thought there was hardly anything left to find out!’

As it is I offer, ‘We need to balance science and spirituality, as the Bahá’í Faith argues, if our civilisation is going to fly rather than crash even though the best we will ever get with human minds is an enhanced but still incomplete understanding which we can’t be completely sure is true.’

The muddle of models about the mind brain relationship. Isn’t monism the better idea? Is it all a solipsism?

‘Filter or spectrum?’ is the question I put. The brain as transceiver maybe.

Myers Spectrum 2

Myers Spectrum (1/2)

The effects of skunk. Do psychedelics break down the filter both ways – the infrared of stuff from below and the ultraviolet of input from above?

Myers Spectrum

Myers Spectrum (2/2)

Psi, though a small effect, is too rigorously explored and too improbable to dismiss – the issue is the explanation not the effect itself. Science has to take this seriously.

‘Isn’t all this a waste of time when we know consciousness is just the beautiful product of evolution and the massive complexity of our neuronal connections?’ asks a student in the second row. I pause to stop myself responding too sharply. I feel at least half the material so far was supposed to have dealt with that. I answer quietly, ‘Such a discount in advance of investigation dismisses countless experiences and phenomena as pure fantasy even though so many people are convinced they are real.’ I should have added, ‘Open-minded agnosticism is the only objective stance for science to take without betraying itself.’

Just before stopping I ask how many people present would be prepared to risk their reputation to investigate the spiritual aspects of consciousness. About ten people put up their hands. That is more than I would have expected. Encouraging again.

At the end there is a queue of students asking more questions and to share contact details. By the time I leave at 19.20 to catch my train I am in a daze of disbelief. I just hope I didn’t sell the topic short as I believe a more open-minded approach to the issue of consciousness is vital if we are to move towards the collaboration between science and religion that is required if we are to create a healthier society.

As I remember stating before, on my previous talk in this same building, if we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in a crash landing.

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

Footnote

The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!

If there are fewer than 20 people I might ask them their names and one relevant fact.

Then:

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is entirely a product of the brain?

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is in some way independent of the brain?

How many of you are not at all sure which way to go on this?

  1. ‘Doubt Wisely’

Explore the agnosticism case:

William James

Dennet & Churchland

John Hick & Eric Reitan

  1. Prevalent Theories
  2. Eliminative Materialism
  3. Epiphenomenon
  4. Emergent Property
  5. Seen by most as unscientific

Given the improbability of life unless there really are infinite universes (the multiverse theory) the improbability of consciousness is even greater, so perhaps we need to approach the problems it poses with as open a mind as possible (cf Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma – God or infinite universes – both unacceptable to him.)

  1. Mind as completely independent of the brain.

This need not imply survival after bodily death but does entail the idea that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain and that, though probably immaterial, it can control/influence the material brain (cf Schwartz).

  1. Mind as a spiritual entity.

This brings with it baggage our mainstream empirical materialistic culture does not welcome.

  1. There is a spiritual dimension including perhaps a collective unconscious and a potential capacity in all humans to access experiences without any obvious material mechanism (cf work on psi);
  2. There is survival after death (cf reincarnation, mediumship – inconclusive given fraud and super-psi);
  3. What survives is our sense of perceptive individuality in relation to others who have died, to the material world and to a transcendent power often referred to as God in Western culture (NDE evidence cf especially Sartori).

 So What?

The issue should be not to say that the evidence must be seriously flawed because I know the direction it points is not possible. Rather to admit that the evidence raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Otherwise we have scientism not science. The issue is the validity of the interpretation not the validity of the evidence.

How to explore it further?

Well, experimenter expectation effects have to be taken into account. These cut both ways. The convinced will tend to elicit positive results: sceptics the opposite.

Also putting people with suspected psi through thousands of repetitions of the same task will inevitably lead to increasingly random performance. Imagine going to the optician as I did recently and have them run the dot spotting peripheral vision acuity task 1000 times. I’d probably be rated spot-blinded tunnel vision by the end as boredom and fatigue increasingly eroded my attention.

Also the threat to your career as a credible scientist needs to be addressed. Not many people are prepared to commit career suicide by investigating what has been written off a priori as delusional. Often also neither unbelievers nor believers are keen to spend years investigating what they already know to be a fact.

What we need in any case are detached and genuinely agnostic scientists to come forward (because they are most likely to obtain objectively credible results), jeopardise their careers, struggle for funding and devote decades to the exploration of an aspect of this issue.

How many of you are up for that right now?

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Among other principles of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings was the harmony of science and religion. Religion must stand the analysis of reason. It must agree with scientific fact and proof so that science will sanction religion and religion fortify science. Both are indissolubly welded and joined in reality.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá   – Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 175)

In the context of posts on deep conversation this seems relevant to publish.

You may wonder why this post follows so closely on from two very long recent ones on consciousness. Well, beyond the fact that I’m obsessed with the topic anyway, that is. ‘Why now?’ is the issue really, I suppose.

The answer is that, on the Bahá’í New Year 21st March, I had to go to the Birmingham medical school to run a seminar on consciousness and some aspects of the experience stuck with me.

The building was not reassuring. I was already feeling slightly apprehensive as the topic sprawls way outside my area of expertise. Yes, I know I’m a psychologist but that’s less than a tenth of it. Consciousness has a finger in the pie, mathematically speaking, of physics. It has vexed philosophers into paroxysms of confusion and special pleading. Doctors have to grapple with its practical manifestations when coma strikes. And here I was walking into a lion’s den of different kinds of experts to teach my grandmothers to suck eggs. At least that’s how it felt.

And the modernist feel of the building’s interior was quite unsettling in a Kafkaesque sort of way. A massive entrance hall with off-putting security and gleaming surfaces (the picture below is of the library, but it has the same feel) led me up the stairs into a grid of intersecting corridors running in parallels at right angles and all very much the same apart from the identifying codes on doors that read like WAP passwords.

After hanging around stairwells, dithering for what seemed an eternity uncertain which direction to take, I managed to find an Ariadne to guide me through the labyrinth to the seminar room we were due to be in at 5 o’clock.

I was half an hour early and the room was occupied (not by the Minotaur, I hasten to add) so I moved through to a seated area within sight of the library. It was a hot day and the building was warm. I was sweating rather a lot after my walk from the station. Nerves? What makes you think anxiety had anything to do with it?

A psychologist in denial, I sat down in a leather-upholstered chair at a shining table, with an impressive phalanx of academic heavyweights gazing down on me from their imposing portraits, and got out my notes for the umpteenth time, desperately trying to convince myself I had internalised them.

Then the hour of judgement arrived. The seminar room had no outside windows and was uncomfortably warm. No refreshments were allowed to cross its sacred threshold. It was going to be a throat-testing experience, as if mine wasn’t dry enough already.

We were about 16 people – men, women, young, old, atheist, agnostic, religious, culturally diverse. I began to feel more comfortable. People are just people after all. I checked out the audience for experts. Any qualified psychologists? One tentative possible. Relief! Any doctors? Just a small handful. I could cope with that. I’d thought I’d have a roomful. Any ‘real’ scientists? Just one man with a 30-year old physics degree. Things were getting better and better.

My plan was to cover challenging issues such as the improbability of consciousness, caveats about its reality, doubts about the materialist position and aspects of the nature of consciousness as we currently understand its workings.

Not overly ambitious then for a two hour exploration.

It would be too complicated to give a blow-by-blow account of what transpired though it will inform any future attempts I make to explore the topic. I’ll just pick up on a couple of the more intriguing points.

One of the most striking things was the lack of consensus across all shades of opinion about the free will issue. There were those who found the implications of determinism for a just and responsible society too destructive to make that hypothesis acceptable. Other people by contrast were quite comfortable with the idea that what we do is determined in advance by processes of which we are completely unaware and over which we have no control. This last position is bewildering to me, it’s so counterintuitive. ‘But what’s so reliable about intuition?’ you might ask.

Another aspect was that even the agnostics, who felt that theirs was the only rational approach to the issues of free will and determinism and of mind-brain independence, veered towards feeling the reductionist approach was somehow more plausible on both counts.

It’s as though the materialistic dogma of our times biases reason in favour of its assumptions even though they are no more reasonable than spiritual explanations. Materialism is a factoid that doesn’t know it yet. It is as much an act of faith as a belief in God and both creeds should seem equally reasonable or unreasonable, depending on the biases of the observer. And agnostics are supposed to be unbiased.

When the seminar was over the building did not release me easily from its grip. It was even harder to pass through security to get out than it had been to get in. It felt as though the building was finding its own way to express its modernist disapproval of all this flaky spiritual stuff. ‘Only matter matters after all,’ it seemed to say. ‘Agree and I’ll let you out.’ Thanks to a rebel on the inside with a passkey I managed to escape alive to tell this tale.

This clash of values is a serious issue though.

If we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in oblivion.

Sometimes it feels as though we are well on the way already, but that’s in my darker moments. Most of the time I believe that the tipping point can be reached where a critical mass of humanity gets the right idea in time. If Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance has any truth in it, the more people change their minds the easier it will become for the rest of us. Can we have more Blondins to balance on this tightrope please?

Charles Blondin

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Muller-Lyer Illusion: the lines are of equal length

Muller-Lyer Illusion: the lines are of equal length

We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance—for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge.

Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.

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

Last week I republished two posts which dealt in part with the issue of religion and science that had been raised earlier in the week. This post from 2013 looks at the same issue from yet another angle. 

I have just finished reading Robert McCauley‘s book on the issue of religion and science. It is a valiant attempt to deal with this issue as dispassionately as possible. It is, however, in my view, only partially successful. I think this is largely because he holds back by far his most effective explanation of the key considerations until the very end. The result is that much of the book appears not to be comparing like with like.

Let’s look at his basic case first, as explained in the opening half of the book, before looking in more detail at how his treatment of his topic has to some degree undermined his argument.

The Basic Points

He lays a foundation for his argument by explaining at length what he regards as two forms of natural cognition: there are learned skills/cognitions as against what he describes as maturational ones. Chewing and walking are maturational skills: they come inevitably as we grow. As he explains (page 22) they occur very early, we don’t remember learning them and they don’t require the guidance of adults to acquire. Writing and riding a bike are different. They come naturally up to a point but entail coaching, we remember learning them as a rule and yet we exercise the skill automatically and unconsciously once acquired and they feel completely natural.

He concludes his introductory overview by stating (page 30):

This suggests (i) that most of humans’ maturationally natural forms of knowledge arrive comparatively early, (ii) that they will address some of the most basic problems humans face (like those that are solved by chewing and walking), and (iii) that they will prove to be so ubiquitous that their emergence counts as normal development. In contrast to capacities that possess a practiced naturalness and are second nature to us, perception, cognition, and action that possess maturational naturalness are first nature to us.

LearnToRideWhen it comes to interpreting our environment, maturational cognition kicks in swiftly. It had to in the past. Our survival depended upon it. It lies behind our susceptibility to visual illusions such as the Müller-Lyer illusion which cannot be over-ridden in spite of knowing the reality, happens completely automatically and unconsciously, and for example can cause us to almost instantly interpret unexpected noises as a potentially malign presence or, in his terms, agent. It operates on minimal information and involves no higher processes of reflection. Kahneman has examined many of its manifestations in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, and McCauley refers to his and Tversky‘s work often in this book.

Kahneman uses the expression ‘System 1’ to describe this mode of thinking (page 21):

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

This same system of thinking causes us all sorts of problems when we have to interpret information for which it is ill-suited but to which it nonetheless confidently and immediately responds with a completely erroneous answer. An example would be useful here as it helps clarify why much of scientific thinking is not natural – much more of a System 2 operation in fact. A favourite area and rich source of examples of erroneous thinking typically involves probability, something we humans are very blinkered about.

McCauley draws an example from the work of Tversky and Kahneman (page 124). They gave character outlines to many people including the scientifically sophisticated, who can find it almost as difficult as the rest of us to counteract these biases despite all their practice to the contrary. One of these outlines includes the information that Linda was a bright, outspoken philosophy major in college and was active in a variety of causes concerned with questions of justice. They were asked to decide what her job is likely to be now. The list included two items: ‘bank teller’ and ‘feminist bank teller.’

The overwhelming majority of subjects assumed that she would have become a feminist bank teller. This is a beautiful example of where our maturational cognitive system leads us astray. As they explain (page 125):

The probability of two claims both being true can never exceed the probability of the truth of the least probable of the two claims.

It would therefore always be more probable that she would be a bank teller rather than a feminist bank teller. Even when we know that intellectually, it is almost impossible to see it as more probable that Linda would end up a bank teller rather than a feminist bank teller. It goes so much against the grain of our first nature to reach that conclusion. We automatically feel that ‘like goes with like’ (Gilovich: ibid).

Implications for Religion and Science

He then moves onto explaining why science, that, by and large, cuts against the grain of these maturational ways of thinking is so much harder for us to learn than religion that cuts far more with grain. The whole of the first part of the book is concerned with expanding upon this point.

It was really not until page 211 that I felt he fessed up clearly to what he had really been doing in the book as a whole, and which had caused me considerable irritation. He says:

Up to this point the target of my analysis has been the cognitive status of popular understandings about religious belief and action, as the corresponding representations are entertained and as religions’ rituals are carried out by ordinary participants. It has been a discussion of religion at the retail level.

So basically he has been contending that hard real science is difficult for us to learn whereas popular religion comes naturally. He concedes that theology is just as difficult as science and draws upon many of the same higher order cognitions that produce counter-intuitive conclusions, though it does not dispense with the idea of an agency working behind the scenes. He also recognises that our intuitive ideas about the reality that science deals with are just as blinkered, automatic and ineradicable as the simplistic ideas of supernatural agency that he attributes to retail religion. But the annoying implication up to this point has been that real science is inherently superior to any form of religion altogether.

That he concedes there is tough thinking inherent in theology, though welcome, doesn’t go far enough for my taste in any case, even when he Osho-Buddha-MAJJHIM-NIKAYAcreates a clearer basis for his comparisons in the final chapter of his book. He completely fails to recognise the existence, let alone the possible validity, of replicable experienced-based forms of religious practice that are not symbolic rituals and also are clearly not abstract and quasi philosophical.

There is no mention of meditation and the resultant mystical experiences that a consistent practitioner can replicate. Margaret Donaldson and Ken Wilber, amongst others, argue cogently, in books such as Human Minds and The Marriage of Sense and Soul, for the need to respect that tradition at least as much as science’s. The conclusions arrived at through meditation were also frequently higher order and counter-intuitive.

These are religious traditions in some cases without any ‘theology’ but which have a deeply sophisticated understanding of psychology and of physical reality derived from centuries of meditative practice – for example, in Nāgārjuna (ca. 150 C.E.). In my view, though physics is catching up, psychology is still lagging woefully behind. A recent major consideration of this is to be found in Irreducible Mind, a work to which I shall be returning in this blog. There is at least one religion, the Bahá’í Faith, with no rituals and no theology. It is also at its core pragmatic and empirical as well as transcendent in its approach, measuring spiritual progress to some extent by positive measurable results in the social world – very much ‘treading the spiritual path with practical feet.’ He seems to regard these examples as too esoteric to be relevant to his case.

A Climate of Mutual Respect

I don’t usually post reviews of books when I am so ambivalent about them and have such strong reservations. The reason why I have gone public in this case is because the book is a laudable attempt to deal with a very difficult issue from an unusual and fruitful angle. I just wish he had placed the last chapter first and gone just a step further in acknowledging that religion can potentially, at its highest and best, shed light on the nature of our reality even if, at its most routine, it is no better than lay or retail science.

In the end though, by flagging up the recency and vulnerability of the great achievement which science constitutes as currently practised, he is issuing a useful warning (page 286):

Science’s radical counterintuitiveness makes it cognitively unnatural in the extreme. Humans have produced science so infrequently in their history because not only does it not come to them naturally but because it is incredibly difficult to do and the doing of it is incredibly difficult to sustain. . . . . Historians and philosophers of science, who point to two critical episodes in history of Western thought, namely, the science of the ancient Greeks and modern science born at the turn of the 17th century, hold, in effect, that science was once lost and had to be reinvented. One consequence of the position that I have been defending is that nothing about human nature would ever prevent the loss of science again.

As I believe that both religion and science are essential to our survival as a species and the creation of a better civilisation, I welcome this wake up call. Evangelical atheists, in his view, have been fruitlessly attacking what is so central to human understanding that it will never die, while at the same time, in my opinion, doing a disservice to science, which is already vulnerable, by giving ammunition to its enemies with their arrogant and ill-informed attacks. And I’m not the only one to have profound reservations about their approach. Alvin Platinga, in his excellent book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, writes (page 54):

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

It is undoubtedly time we created a climate of mutual respect.

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Given my current pre-occupation with meditation this second post from April 2011 seemed worth republishing.

The title Bible’s Buried Secrets drew me to watch the first programme in the series on BBC2 in the middle of last month. Initially, in spite of the youth and charm of Francesca Stavrakopoulou, I found myself waiting on a bland platform of only mild interest until I found myself boarding a train of thought that carried me through intriguing terrain to a fascinating destination.

Her argument, in brief, was that the archaeological evidence for the existence of the biblical King David, Goliath notwithstanding, was so sparse as to call into question his reality. Bells in a distant steeple of my memory began pealing as though an invasion or a coronation was imminent. I recalled reading David Rohl‘s book A Test of Time many years earlier (1995 judging by the publication date). It was turned into a television series on Channel 4 which I never saw. He argued, in a way that seemed quite plausible, that this lack of corroboration for the Bible from the historical and archaeological record is a common problem and stems from the fact that the conventionally accepted Egyptian chronology is displaced in time.

For complex reasons that it would take too long to rehearse here, Rohl feels that (page 135):

There are . . . no safe fixed points in the chronology of Egypt earlier than 664 BC.

Caravaggio, David and Goliath 1599

David & Goliath: Caravaggio

He develops a new chronology which he summarises on page 143:

The New Chronology has determined that Ramesses II should be dated to the tenth century BC – some three hundred and fifty years later than the date which had been assigned to him in the orthodox chronology. As a consequence, the archaeology of Palestine associated with the late 18th and early 19th Dynasties – Late Bronze II – now represents the historical period known as the Early Israelite Monarchy, the era of David and Solomon.

It would be hard to find a blogger in the world with less knowledge of archaeology than me (I haven’t even seen all the episodes of Time Team), so I’m not going to claim I have the faintest idea who is really right here. What intrigues me is the divergence of view on a complex issue where the evidence appears not to be conclusive.

We’ve been here before, of course, on this blog with the issue of climate change and Peter Taylor’s detailed doubts about the theory of man-made global warming.

I love these examples of maverick experts challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. It has the same appeal as the tale of David and Goliath, in fact. Both Taylor and Rohl quote meticulously from a wide range of complex data, so wide in fact that they make the supporters of the mainstream consensus look as though the orthodox are the ones who are cherry picking data to use in evidence to support their case.

In these debates reality comes to seem as ambiguous as a Gestalt picture – you know the ones I mean. Is it Francesca Stavrakopoulou or Mother Teresa? It’s probably not a permanent state of affairs like the wave- particle situation with light, but it led me to wondering whether some other complex and ambiguous issues are eternally irresolvable.

Gazing through this window of my train of thought I had no desire to alight yet.

One perennial problem has become more acute since the rise of scientific empiricism. Religious people have sought to claim that myth is literally true, as though that will shift the debate in their favour, and the scientifically minded have been moved to dismiss anything that smacks of myth as utter fantasy. We either find the account in Genesis of the creation of the world implausibly defended as a realistic rendering of exactly what happened, or mystic experience, grounded in decades of disciplined practice, dismissed as irrational drivel.

Because I accept John Hick‘s position that the universe is such that there is just enough evidence to convince the predisposed that the spiritual realm is real while there is simply not enough to persuade the sceptical, it seems to me that the polarised debate described above is utterly fruitless. Reitan’s position is far more constructive: it is just as reasonable to believe in God as it is to doubt His existence.

If we could enact these mutually respectful positions, what would the world of ideas look like?

Not the bombed out war zone it resembles at the moment, that’s for sure. Can we find a picture of the likely scenario anywhere? Is a ‘marriage of sense and soul‘ of this kind really possible? I believe the green shoots of a different kind of landscape are pushing through the rubble of the battlefield and what was originally only the faint possibility of this marriage is already in the process of becoming a reality.

For example, Margaret Donaldson‘s brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, addresses a closely related question (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

For Baha’is, believing as we do that religion and science are both wings to the bird of true human understanding and progress, this is a crucial and exciting question, a long way further down the tracks of this particular train of thought than whether David did or did not really exist, but distantly related nonetheless.

Why do I think that this kind of mutual respect is possible, apart from a blind faith in my own particular spiritual tradition?

atom-electrons

Electron (for source of image see link)

My sense that we are moving in that direction derives from my reading, in the main. McGilchrist, a psychiatrist steeped in the literature of his tradition, pleads eloquently, and on the back of a mountain of evidence, for the need to achieve a better balance between the two halves of our brain, between analytic reason and holistic intuition. On the religious side you have books such as Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion?. I have referred to his carefully balanced and utterly non-dogmatic position already in this post with a link to my review. On the scientific side, even if we ignore quasi-mystic physicists such as Amit Goswami, whose quantum spirituality is fascinating but some way beyond the reach of my full understanding, you have evolutionary thinkers such as Robert Wright, whose writing I’ve quoted more fully elsewhere in this blog. He states, for example, with a respect that echoes Reitan’s (The Evolution of God: pages 458-459):

. . . . natural selection’s invention of love . . . . was a prerequisite for the moral imagination whose expansion, here and now, could help keep the world on track . . . . . .

Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons.

This idea of God as being beyond our understanding, though we can grasp some of His properties, resonates with the Bahá’í position:

As to the attributes and perfections such as will, knowledge, power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality, these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the absolute perfections of the Divine Essence that cannot be comprehended.

(Bahá’í World Faith: page 342)

Wright continues (page 459):

One of the more plausible properties [of God] is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth – by the fact, indeed, that at times these two properties almost blend into one. You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.

[Since this post was originally published I have, of course, blogged at length about Alvin Plantinga’s sterling defence of the proposition that religion and science are deeply compatible.]

For those who want to get a feel for quantum spirituality, and for just how closely related scientific language and ineffable spirituality can become, have a look at the video below. If you can cope with the video you’ll almost certainly enjoy having a look at a challenging article on biocentrism (see link). Mystics are not mad it seems nor science untouched by hints of the divine.

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brian-cox

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to our take on reality, to where our society is heading and to what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This sequence of four posts was first published in 2013 and falls nicely into place after my attempt to convey Medina’s take on reductionist science yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbolic logic

A Deep Concord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Conflict

religion & Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Among other principles of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings was the harmony of science and religion. Religion must stand the analysis of reason. It must agree with scientific fact and proof so that science will sanction religion and religion fortify science. Both are indissolubly welded and joined in reality.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá   – Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 175)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to our idea of reality, to where our society is heading and to what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This article was originally posted in 2012 but fits neatly into place here after my repetition of the consciousness posts last week. 

You may wonder why this post follows so closely on from two very long recent ones on consciousness. Well, beyond the fact that I’m obsessed with the topic anyway, that is. ‘Why now?’ is the issue really, I suppose.

The answer is that, on the Bahá’í New Year 21st March 2012, I had to go to the Birmingham medical school to run a seminar on consciousness and some aspects of the experience stuck with me.

The building was not reassuring. I was already feeling slightly apprehensive as the topic sprawls way outside my area of expertise. Yes, I know I’m a psychologist but that’s less than a tenth of it. Consciousness has a finger in the pie, mathematically speaking, of physics. It has vexed philosophers into paroxysms of confusion and special pleading. Doctors have to grapple with its practical manifestations when coma strikes. And here I was walking into a lion’s den of different kinds of experts to teach my grandmothers to suck eggs. At least that’s how it felt.

And the modernist feel of the building’s interior was quite unsettling in a Kafkaesque sort of way. A massive entrance hall with off-putting security and gleaming surfaces (the picture below is of the library, but it has the same feel) led me up the stairs into a grid of intersecting corridors running in parallels at right angles and all very much the same apart from the identifying codes on doors that read like WAP passwords.

After hanging around stairwells, dithering for what seemed an eternity uncertain which direction to take, I managed to find an Ariadne to guide me through the labyrinth to the seminar room we were due to be in at 5 o’clock.

I was half an hour early and the room was occupied (not by the Minotaur, I hasten to add) so I moved through to a seated area within sight of the library. It was a hot day and the building was warm. I was sweating rather a lot after my walk from the station. Nerves? What makes you think anxiety had anything to do with it?

A psychologist in denial, I sat down in a leather-upholstered chair at a shining table, with an impressive phalanx of academic heavyweights gazing down on me from their imposing portraits, and got out my notes for the umpteenth time, desperately trying to convince myself I had internalised them.

Then the hour of judgement arrived. The seminar room had no outside windows and was uncomfortably warm. No refreshments were allowed to cross its sacred threshold. It was going to be a throat-testing experience, as if mine wasn’t dry enough already.

We were about 16 people – men, women, young, old, atheist, agnostic, religious, culturally diverse. I began to feel more comfortable. People are just people after all. I checked out the audience for experts. Any qualified psychologists? One tentative possible. Relief! Any doctors? Just a small handful. I could cope with that. I’d thought I’d have a roomful. Any ‘real’ scientists? Just one man with a 30-year old physics degree. Things were getting better and better.

My plan was to cover challenging issues such as the improbability of consciousness, caveats about its reality, doubts about the materialist position and aspects of the nature of consciousness as we currently understand its workings.

Not overly ambitious then for a two hour exploration.

It would be too complicated to give a blow-by-blow account of what transpired though it will inform any future attempts I make to explore the topic. I’ll just pick up on a couple of the more intriguing points.

One of the most striking things was the lack of consensus across all shades of opinion about the free will issue. There were those who found the implications of determinism for a just and responsible society too destructive to make that hypothesis acceptable. Other people by contrast were quite comfortable with the idea that what we do is determined in advance by processes of which we are completely unaware and over which we have no control. This last position is bewildering to me, it’s so counterintuitive. ‘But what’s so reliable about intuition?’ you might ask.

Another aspect was that even the agnostics, who felt that theirs was the only rational approach to the issues of free will and determinism and of mind-brain independence, veered towards feeling the reductionist approach was somehow more plausible on both counts.

It’s as though the materialistic dogma of our times biases reason in favour of its assumptions even though they are no more reasonable than spiritual explanations. Materialism is a factoid that doesn’t know it yet. It is as much an act of faith as a belief in God and both creeds should seem equally reasonable or unreasonable, depending on the biases of the observer. And agnostics are supposed to be unbiased.

When the seminar was over the building did not release me easily from its grip. It was even harder to pass through security to get out than it had been to get in. It felt as though the building was finding its own way to express its modernist disapproval of all this flaky spiritual stuff. ‘Only matter matters after all,’ it seemed to say. ‘Agree and I’ll let you out.’ Thanks to a rebel on the inside with a passkey I managed to escape alive to tell this tale.

This clash of values is a serious issue though.

If we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in oblivion.

Sometimes it feels as though we are well on the way already, but that’s in my darker moments. Most of the time I believe that the tipping point can be reached where a critical mass of humanity gets the right idea in time. If Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance has any truth in it, the more people change their minds the easier it will become for the rest of us. Can we have more Blondins to balance on this tightrope please?

Charles Blondin

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