Tag Archives: Theories of Everything

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.

 

F.R. Leavis: The Literary Critic As Anti-Philosopher

F.R. Leavis

Thesis: The various academic disciplines of the university world are each “jealous gods” who proclaim, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This is true whether we are speaking of philosophy, history, literature, arts or sciences. Each would be the Master Discipline, the organizing center of intellectual and cultural life. Each one may develop a natural antipathy to its competitors. Each one may create a vortex of knowledge that becomes a silo of power. But there are better options.

I hold in my hands a collection of essays and papers by the great English literary critic F.R. Leavis entitled “The Critic as Anti-Philosopher.” The companions to this book include Dickens the Novelist, Nor Shall My Sword, The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought, and Thought, Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in D.H. Lawrence. Leavis was invited to deliver the prestigious Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1965 that was later published as “English Literature in Our Time and the University (1967). Leavis’ subjects of literary criticism included Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Conrad, Coleridge, Arnold, James, Hopkins, Hardy, Joyce, and Dickens, among others. Leavis did admire the philosophical writings of Michael Polanyi, author of “Knowing and Being,” and so his “anti-philosopher” stance was selective rather than universal.

Leavis was a friend of the philosopher Wittgenstein who also taught at Cambridge and on one occasion playfully (but seriously) urged him to “give up philosophy.” This is ironic because in fact Wittgenstein did give up teaching philosophy for a while to go teach school children, something for which he was singularly unsuited. Leavis describes Wittgenstein as an intellectual genius of remarkable intensity who was fascinating to watch at he wrestled in a sustained spontaneous effort to resolve self-imposed problems of his intellectual discipline. Leavis writes, “Wittgenstein has an intensity of a concentration that impressed itself on one as disinterestedness.” But the same could be said of Leavis. There is something obsessive in each of these men’s intellectual passion. Maybe there is something “obsessive” in the temperament of all intellectuals who enjoy working tirelessly on various thought-problems they assign themselves to work on.

And yet it must also be said that there was an intellectual incompatibility, “an antipathy of temperament” between these two men of genius. Leavis puts it this way, “Wittgenstein couldn’t in any case imagine that literary criticism might matter intellectually. Even at that time I had the opposing conviction: it was, as it is, that the fullest use of language is to be found in creative literature, and that a great creative work is a work of original exploratory thought.”

Another literary critic who shares Leavis’ sensibility is Michael Wood, author of “Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.” Wood is the Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and from 1995 to 2001 he was the Director of Gauss Seminars in Criticism at Princeton. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. But here’s his difference from Leavis. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society. His works include books on Stendhal, Garcia Marquez, Nabokov, Kafka, and films. In addition, he is a widely published essayist and book reviewer. And so we can deduce that Michael Wood is a secular henotheist who is able to render some limited devotion to the god of Philosophy but his supreme devotion belongs to the god of Literature.

Several blogs ago I wrote about the binary nature of intellectual discourse within the various intellectual disciplines of the university world. But it is also true that there is a binary fixation between the liberal disciplines as well. For some that binary tension between Literature and Philosophy. For others it will be a binary tension between Philosophy and Science, or say philosophy and Religion. Any combination of intellectual disciplines can become a binary fixation and focus of dialogue, discourse, dialectic and debate.

What happens rather spontaneously in the complex mental lives of intellectually inclined individuals in general and of professional academics in particular is a gradual concentration and intensification of knowledge and reflection that consolidates principally around one “master discipline.” Its scholarly body of knowledge, assumptions, methods and styles become normative. The deeper one goes into that intellectual discipline and critical domain the more it becomes a creative vortex that gathers up and organizes one’s thought until we see the world almost entirely through its lens. Of course this same process is what creates academic silos from which the intellectual partisans come to view each other across disciplines with growing suspicion.

Occasionally something surprising will happen. A few “organic free-range” intellectuals and “home-grown polymaths” will adopt a radically pluralistic and pragmatic approach to intellectual and cultural inquiry. Such a pluralistic and diversified approach is characterized by “interdisciplinary complementarity” in which no single academic discipline or ideology of any discipline “captures the flag” or “gets to have the last word.” It is a continuing and open dialogue between multiple modes, methods and styles of discourse, like learning to fluently speak multiple languages and dialects. This, of course, is extremely rare. Most domesticated and sequestered academics believe, whether they will publicly admit it or not, that only one intellectual discipline can serve as the master discipline that explains (at the most fundamental level) what is really going on, and it just happens to be the one they have devoted their lives to studying with almost religiously passionate intensity of sustained devotion.

Occasionally something perhaps even curious will happen. An intellectual who had devoted his life to the primary study of one academic discipline, for example natural science, decides that his time would be better spent in the study of philosophy or literature, music or art, and so he switches horses. One can become disillusioned or weary of one’s own intellectual discipline. It may lose its magical luster and persuasive power. And of course this switching of horses may happen in any direction.

In addition, let us admit that we are each naturally influenced by the people around us and by the interests of others. Academic types figure out what seems to have intellectual pizzaz and cultural cache. Let us say one is studying and teaching the humanistic disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history, literature or the arts in an academic community that is overwhelming dominated by the prestigious and well-funded disciplines of science, technology, business and economics. In such an institution professors of the humanities and the arts are likely to feel marginalized and irrelevant to the serious business of the increasingly corporate university, which is, well, business. Colleges and universities that can’t generate income, compensate their faculty, staff the administration and pay their bills go out of business. Let’s be realists here.

One “realist” approach to teaching follows the principle: “If you can’t beat them join them.” Let’s say one is teaching philosophy, an intellectual discipline that some utilitarian cynics question as being relevant, since it is unlikely that one will ever be able to use it to make a living or become a success in the world. The sensible way for a politically astute professor of philosophy to attain at least a measure of status, relevance and respect in a science and technology-driven institution is to teach courses in “Philosophy of Science” and “Ethics of Technology.” Likewise, if theoretical and practical studies in “Economics, Finance, Business and Management” have become the academic center of university  then one hones his liberal academic discipline to address the philosophical and ethical problems of those domains. The ways in which the liberal disciplines of history, linguistic, literature and the arts justify their existence in such a utilitarian academic institution remain deeply problematic.

In any case, it is not only the specialized literary critic like Leavis who is the anti-philosopher. Every intellectual specialization will breed disciplinary elitists who can at best tolerate the distracting presence of the competing intellectual disciplines. They will assume that what is “explained” or left “unexplained” by other disciplines is “fully explained” by their discipline. After all, we only have so much physical and mental energy to spread out and use up.

Here’s my pitch: The great benefit of a true liberal arts education is that we “learn how to learn” through broad and in-depth encounters with multiple disciplines and perspectives that continuously engage each other in critically reflective and constructive dialogue. We learn how to question, compare, contrast, communicatecooperate and collaborate. We learn from others who have “casts of mind” and “styles of temperament” that are quite different from our own. We learn that philosophers, theologians, historians, scientists, literati and artists, among others, can be friends and colleagues without succumbing to suspicion, contempt, alienation or reproach. And this knowledge is precious in any progressive society that values the importance of cultural literacy, intellectual discourse, human solidarity and civil society.