Tag Archives: Emergence

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.

On Scientific Method Without “Reductive Scientism”

Multi-Functional Mind

Today there are many excellent introductions to the nature and methods of science available to read on the Web, and of course in textbooks. For our purposes it is sufficient to reference the beginning of the Wikipedia article on scientific method:

The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

What, then, is “reductive scientism” as distinct from “scientific method?” Allow me once more to reference the Wikipedia article on that topic:

Scientism is a term used to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. It has been defined as “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.” An individual who subscribes to scientism is referred to as a scientismist. The term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Tzvetan Todorov to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable. ‘Scientism’ has also been taken over as a name for the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge by philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg.

Scientism may refer to science applied “in excess”. The term scientism can apply in either of two senses:

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply,such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counter argument to appeals to scientific authority.
  2. To refer to “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

The term is also used by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge.

Obviously one may have great appreciation and respect for “scientific method” without falling prey to the excesses of “scientism,” that is: (1) excessive deference to claims made by scientists and an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific; and (2) the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in them, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry;” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

My discussion of “tacit and explicit knowledge” in the last two blogs makes evident the tacit if not explicit presence of the philosophical, ethical, psychological and social dimensions of experience, regardless of whether one is engaging the humanities, arts, or sciences.  It has been a myth of modern scientism (not science as such) that empirical truth-claims presented as “scientific” are objectively true, and that measurable and quantifiable “explicit knowledge” eliminates the subjective and inter-subjective personal and cultural influence of the tacit dimension. Philosophers and scientists like Michael Polanyi have come to realize that this assumption is intellectually simplistic and naive. Even scientists are human beings first (with tacit assumptions, perceptions, judgment, beliefs, values and commitments) before they are scientists, during their scientific experiments, and after they are done with their scientific work. There is no way to entirely remove the tacit dimension. All knowledge is embodied human knowledge and human knowledge is not “value neutral.”

Like anyone who has long been interested in various scientific as well as philosophical, religious, historical, literary and artistic accounts of the world, I’ve encountered countless physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists who have set forth different Theories of Everything. Sometimes these “grand theorists” cross over quite unknowingly from scientific method to reductive scientism. Many popular theories within the physical, biological, cognitive and social sciences have have attempted to elevate themselves — through scientistic reductionism — to universal explanatory principles or Theories of Everything. These have included Neo-Darwinian survival of the fittest, Dawkins’s selfish genes, Freud’s projection theory, Jung’s archetype fixation, Marx’s class struggle, Feminist’s oppressive patriarchy, Skinner’s operant conditioning, physicist’s Quantum Everything, Santayana’s animal faith, and Frans de Waal’s animal empathy. There are countless others. As partial accounts of the world they may be useful. As totalizing accounts they become ideology. If reality is more than we know, and if what we know is always more than we can tell, and if what we can tell is what we can effectively communicate to the understanding of others, then we will recognize that there is always “a surplus of meaning” that our language never fully encompasses. We never communicate the “totality of reality,” without remainder.

Of course not all physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists present their questions, hypotheses, predictions, tests, analyses and conclusions as Theories of Everything, but only as partial and probably explanations with limited rather than universal extension. But the hubristic temptation is to assume that one has “finally discovered” the Rosetta Stone, is key to all knowledge and understanding of the fundamental nature of reality.

There are several aspects to reductionism. One involves explaining (or explaining away) all religious, philosophical, ethical, historical, literary, artistic and aesthetic phenomena as “really reducible to” sociological, psychological, biological, neurological, physiological and/or computational, algorithmic and mathematical. Another aspect of reductionism involves fierce competition between the various reductive scientistic explanations within physics, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology and economics that have all generated multiple and competing Theories of Everything.

Each of these reductive scientistic theories plays the game of King of the Mountain, seeking to be the interpretative key to all fundamental phenomena. As one listens for years to the exaggerated and grandiose claims of these various  and competing grand theories it is not surprising that some people have developed a post-modern allergy and suspicion toward Grand Narratives and Theories of Everything, including those that claim the imprimatur of science, god of the modern age.

The shift from scientific method to reductive scientism coincides with the tacit or explicit adoption of a materialistic, physicalist, mechanistic and deterministic worldview, as if it were the only show in town. Those who adopt dualist, theist, realist-idealist, neutral monist and pan-psychist worldviews may also engage the scientific enterprise with rigor and intelligence but perceive the world differently.

The tacit/explicit (softer/harder, autopoietic/representational, participation/reification) model of Michael Polanyi and others offers a way to temper the polarizing impulses toward post-modern relativistic subjectivism and ironism on the one hand and modern scientistic objectivism and reductionism on the other.

What is needed today is a recovery of the wisdom of the middle way. What is needed is a “third culture” that mediates between the humanities and the arts on one side and the sciences and technologies on the other. We can have reason without hyper-rationalism, science without scientism, psychology without psychologism, economics without economism, ethics without moralism, spirituality without fundamentalism, history without historicism, literature without escapism, and art without effetism. Liberal arts and cultural literacy are not our problem. Our problem is entrenched ideologies and totalizing dogmas, and they are never more pernicious than when they mask their agendas behind one or more of the liberal arts, including the great and liberating human enterprise we call science.