What Is? The Question of Life & Mind, Meaning & Truth in the Age of Science

what is_

“What is?” It is the first elemental question, along with other questions such as what can we know about what is? How can we know it? What is nature? What is a human being? How ought we to live? How ought we to relate to others? What is the good society? And for what can we hope? These are the great questions of life. It would be a sad thing for these questions to go out of the world, as indeed they have for those who are entirely preoccupied with the questions survival, safety, security, pleasure, power, belonging, achievement, status, wealth and success.

What is? What is real? What is true? Can we know, and if so how? And how might this knowledge influence the way we choose to live? Is the ultimate reality of “what is” friendly, hostile or indifferent? Is our human existence meaningful or absurd? What, if anything, is worth caring about and striving for? Is our future bright or bleak, or is the future ambiguous and inscrutable?

I’ve been asking these kinds of questions my entire life, as I indicated in a previous blog. I’ve figured out that one of the reasons I read books is to see what others have to say about the elemental question of “What is.”

Here are the titles of several books – point & counterpoint – that attempt to answer the question of “what is” in very different ways:

The God Delusion: Why There Almost Certainly Is Not a God, by Richard Dawkins

Why There Is Almost Certainly a God: Doubting Dawkins, by Keith Ward

Nature Is Enough: Religious Naturalism and the Meaning of Life, by Loyal Rue

Is Nature Enough: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science, by John Haught

The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays, by Albert Camus

The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, by Ilia Delio

Beyond Good and Evil; Also Spoke Zarathustra, by Frederick Nietzsche

Way of Wisdom, An Encompassing Approach, by Karl Jaspers

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett

Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, by Carter Phipps

Of course the list of books that present different and opposing views on “what is” can go on indefinitely.  A “full spectrum analysis” of possible relationships between points of view would include thesis, antithesis, dialectical tension, integrative synthesis, pragmatic pluralism, post-modern eclecticism. It would also include various ways of  complexifying the issues, obscuring the terms, dismissing the question, or changing the subject: “What’s for lunch?” “What do our cats think about us?” “Who’s gonna win the Superbowl?”

Or sometimes the elemental question is set forth so starkly and in such a provocative manner that almost everyone will feel compelled to respond to it in one way or another. Here are three quotes regarding “what is” (and what is NOT) that will surely provoke a debate among those who think about the perennial questions of life:

“The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.” –Jacques Monod

“There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.” -William B. Provine, Stanford University debate, 1994.

“That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocation of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins. . . . Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built” –Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship.

It is precisely this bleak assessment of “what is” that has led many people, including some scientists, to question the adequacy and completeness of scientific naturalism (especially scientistic reductionism) as a worldview.

Critics of this worldview claim that scientific naturalism leaves man as man, with his critical intelligence, out of the picture. Ramon Panikkar writes, “The traditional criticism of the scientific paradigm is that it leaves no place for God, to which the scientific naturalist responds that there is no need of one. But in truth, the scientific naturalist paradigm left no place for the human person. The great absentee in the scientific description of nature to this day is the human person. Gods there are aplenty, the form of black holes, galaxies, and infinities, etc….Matter and energy are all pervasive, as are time and space. Only man does not come into the picture. Man cannot be located among the data. Man is in a certain way the obstacle to pure information.”

John Haught observes that when man does come into the picture of scientific naturalism he is reduced to sociological, psychological, biological and finally physical mechanisms and processes in which both life and mind are explained (or eliminated) as “illusions of folk psychology.” This reductive approach assumes that there is only investigative method and only one explanatory level for all of reality. Haught maintains that we humans are an essential part of nature and that we have evolved a critical intelligence that includes affective, intersubjective, metaphorical, and aesthetic as well as theoretical and scientific ways of perceiving and experiencing the depths of what is.

We who are a part of nature’s unfolding have evolved the use of symbols, archetypes, analogies, music, arts, poetry and parables as ways of expressing what it is like to be an existential human being dwelling within the contingency of the  world “from the inside out.” Science only looks “from the outside in.” It sees the explicit order but entirely overlooks or marginalizes the implicit order, reducing it to the explicit order, to only that which can be explicitly and quantifiably weighted, counted and measured. Surely this is a limited and partial assessment of “what is.” It is an impersonal and objectivizing approach to “life” and “mind”, looking only from “the outside in.” By taking “critical intelligence” seriously rather than reducing “life” and “mind” to the inorganic matter and mindless neuro-chemical processes we begin to perceive the possibility of an alternative to the existential absurdity and nihilistic despair implied by any sober non-sentimental approach to scientific naturalism.

It may be helpful to summarize the ways in which scientific naturalism reduces the later-and-more-complex in our evolutionary history to the earlier-and-simplier. It “explains” the mental in terms of the physical; the organic in terms of the mechanical; the qualitative in terms of the quantitative; the tacit in terms of the explicit (Michael Polaniyi’s epistemological framework); the affective, intersubjective, narrative and aesthetic in terms of objectifying quantification; the radiance of Being in terms of the abyss of Nothingness; creative freedom in terms of causal determinism; and anticipatory purpose in terms of accidental contingency. When scientific naturalism shifts from being an empirical method to becoming a comprehensive worldview (a theory of everything), the transcendental ideas of Being, Beauty, Goodness, Truth and Love which anchor our practical existence in a tacit knowledge of meaning, purpose, anticipation and hope are dismissed as mere illusions or reduced to mathematical-physical, bio-chemical and psycho-social mechanisms. Man becomes “the ghost in the machine.”

Scientific materialism asks us to believe that a dead and mindless universe eons ago accidentally, inexplicably and improbably gave  rise to “organic life” and “conscious mind”, and to amazing beings such as ourselves who are naturally endowed with the subtleties of “tacit knowledge” and “critical intelligence” as well as scientific powers to observe natural phenomena “from the outside.” Haught writes, “Design is the outcome of an evolutionary recipe consisting of three unintelligent ingredients: random genetic mutations along with other accidents in nature, aimless natural selection, and eons of cosmic duration. This simple formula has apparently banished purpose once and for all from the cosmos (pg. 101).”

What if there are, indeed, multiple dimensions and levels (all quadrants, all levels) to the unfolding Mystery of reality (as Ken Wilber and others propose) that has given rise over vast amounts of time and space to the marvels of organic life, conscious mind, critical intelligence, social relationships, abstract thinking and scientific inquiry? What if a scientific understanding of the external behavior of material substances and the external processes of complex systems is part of “what is” but not the whole story? What if internal individual consciousness and affective subjectivity along with internal collective intersubjectivity, metaphors and aesthetics give us a more comprehensive picture of “what is?” What if the Mystery of “what is” can we perceived and experienced on multiple levels, what the ancient wisdom traditions have called the material, somatic, mental, soulful and spiritual levels of reality?

If this is so then the dualistic debate between Creationists and Evolutionist, and between the primacy of Purposeful Mind versus Purposeless Matter becomes unnecessary since the Mystery of “what is” appears to irreducibly possess both mental and physical properties. What if the Mystery of “what is” possesses a “surplus of meaning” rather than a “deficiency of meaning?” What if the “last word” is not one of “unyielding despair” or “the horror, the horror,” as Kurtz cries out at the end of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Our “tacit knowledge” and “critical intelligence” may come to the aid of our one-dimensional “outside view” of scientific naturalism. We may come to see the Mystery of “what is” and “what may yet be” from a wider angle.

Here’s where I take a stand. Ultimately I bow in reverent silence before the ineffable and unnamable Mystery. But at the level of existential choice and moral commitment I’m wagering that something strong and undefeated in all of us longs to cry out against the ultimate meaninglessness, mechanistic mindlessness and unyielding despair that is the crippling offspring of scientific reductionism. Something in me yearns to remember the forgotten truth of all the great wisdom traditions. Something older than time desires to be seized by the “divine energies” and “transcendental powers” of Being, Wholeness, Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love. This is the quiet voice of Sophia. This is where Wisdom begins.

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