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Saturday, June 23, 2012
Philosophy ... Religion ... Science ...

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, my little digital homestead within the greater “social network” of cyberspace, I really like science. As a kid, my parents gave me chemistry sets and How-And-Why Wonder books and electrical training boards that you could make into a low-power radio transmitter (and I did, but only under my father’s close supervision; pirate radio stations would not be condoned in his house!). I had a telescope to watch the heavens, and I was glued to the TV whenever a manned rocket was launched (back in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo days; the Space Shuttle got boring quite quickly). I went to Newark College of Engineering after high school and learned a lot of math, chemistry, physics and material sciences before turning to management courses.

And so, even though my career direction eventually veered away from science (which I sometimes regret), I never lost my interest in it. I still read Scientific American from cover to cover each month, I have a poster explaining the Standard Particle Model on the wall of my office (which no one else there understands), and I watch Teaching Company videos on things like dark matter and dark energy (which I’ve been going through lately, after finishing other courses on Chaos Theory and Einstein’s Relativity). I definitely think that science is one of the best things that the human race has come up with.

And yet . . . I know that science is not the whole story. There’s a lot more to our lives and to our existence than science can define and understand. But science is a seductive mistress, and many who have devoted their lives to serving her now seem to be asserting that perhaps science CAN define and understand “the whole story”, i.e. all of reality. I personally think this is nuts. But instead of writing a long piece discussing why I feel this way, I’m going to refer you to a well-written article that I read the other day that skillfully explains what is troubling me about this notion that “science knows it all” (or, in the alternative, if it’s not known by science, it’s not worth discussing and dealing with).

The article is simply entitled “What Is Scientism?”, by science writer Thomas Burnett. And it gives a pretty good answer to its title. Scientism is the word for the attitude amidst many scientists today that would direct us entirely away from religion, spirituality and mysticism and focus our minds using the philosophical techniques of materialism / physicalism, empiricism, and positivism. In a nutshell, this article points out that for science to do that, it has to break its own rules and skate out onto the thin ice of metaphysical speculation. The hubris factor can be seen when you realize that the promoters of scientism use “trans-logical, trans-empirical” speculation to argue that the empirical observations and logical facilities available to the institution of science necessarily exclude any other metaphysical theories, especially those embracing “God” or rooting our consciousness and artistic inspiration in something beyond the known laws and observations of science.

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of “trans-scientific” metaphysical speculation is NOT very edifying to anyone with a solid sense of what science is about (like myself, even if my scientific sense is not as “solid” as I’d like). I honestly do believe that scientific thought and awareness must be considered by anyone interested in “big thinking” about “all that there is”. We cannot imagine that lightening is a direct expression of divine power, as the ancients could once postulate. Science certainly has given God fewer and fewer places to hide, as atheists like to point out.

And yet, in studying particle physics and cosmology on the most abstract and detailed levels, science increasingly admits that the more that it learns and resolves, the more unknown issues and conceptual mysteries arise. So, God is certainly NOT out of “hiding space”. Ever since science became a serious institution in the 16th Century, it seems to have created just as much “mystery territory” as it conquered with empirical and theoretical precision. Todays work in cosmological history, quantum physics, black holes, vacuum energy and the unification of forces (just for example) are rapidly making scientists realize that “it’s stranger than we thought”.

Well, I won’t go on right now about this. I will just leave behind a few examples of scientific people who I feel have gone beyond their commission in recommending against any notion of a God that subsumes and envelops the physical world that we know, and yet maintains separation and relationship with all within it (including us). Of course, there is Stephen Hawking. Despite his scientific genius, he has gone way out of bounds in declaring God to be dead (or not even dead — not even qualified to be dead, having never been a living reality in any fashion). I have joined thousands of other bloggers and commentators in pointing out Dr. Hawkings sins.

But let me add two others on the short list of offenders. One is cosmologist and TV show host Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He comes on like a nice, smart and reasonable fellow on his PBS shows, but when he talks or writes about God (i.e., the lack thereof), the hubris meter goes off the scale. Well, the man does seem a bit too sure about himself for my liking . . .

One more man of hubris: Michael Shermer, who has a monthly column in Scientific American entitled “Skeptic”. One of his latest writings claims that science is “closing in” on why there is something rather than nothing. And thus, God is unnecessary to our lives and our beings. Does science really explain the necessity of somethingness versus nothingness? Mr. Shermer focuses on the multiverse model implied by string theory (which is still unproven but looking stronger over time), and on the fact that even an otherwise undisturbed vacuum is known to manifest energy events.

So, even nothing is something in our observed universe, and this universe may be part of a bigger picture; it may have arisen by a trial and error process akin (in a limited way) to how humans and the process of life itself arose through a trial and error process operating over millions and billions of years (i.e., the process of evolution). It’s like the billions of monkeys banging randomly on billions of typewriters for billions of years; eventually, one is going to re-create the works of Shakespeare. Nice, but all this does not prevent anyone from asking a higher-level question, i.e. where did all the monkeys and typewriters come from? And if all those monkeys and typewriters themselves evolved through an unguided evolutionary process, again, where did that process originate? It seems that an infinite regress of trial and error processes is needed.

So what would this “infinity” be? (No closed-loop theories are allowed to get out of this quandary, as the loop itself then needs an origin.) Can science relate the infinite nature of these processes to all else that is known through its theories, and find irrefutable evidence for infinity’s existence? And if science can embrace an infinity that subsumes the trial and error processes that it needs, then why can’t I have an infinity that subsumes the subjective realities of consciousness that I need in order to be? Descartes wasn’t entirely wrong when he said “I think, therefore I am” (although it really should have been “I feel, therefore I am”).

Sorry, Mr. Shermer. All the skepticism in the universe ends on the boundaries of our conscious being, as Rene pointed out way back in the 17th Century. Scientism and the unbridled skepticism that powers it is interesting, but . . . as Mr. Burnett points out, it is ultimately unscientific. As Prof. Daniel Robinson pointed out in a Teaching Company lecture on consciousness, we are becoming skeptical of skepticism itself. We are losing reason to believe in most anything . . . but in this moment (as the Buddhists and Zen masters point out, the only reality IS this moment), we should never lose reason to believe in our own being.

(But yes . . . by all that I’ve said, asserting that God DEFINITELY DOES exist is also HUBRIS. Our “own being” exists in hope and faith and not in SURETY, not in the HUBRIS of either too much scientific or religious fervor.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:14 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, Well, you’ve hit upon a subject that I am woefully ignorant of–science–and even more especially math. I sometimes think I’ve got a kind of dyslexia when it comes to numbers. So, me and math: Not compatible.

    However, I certainly do understand the ideas of science–and I’m with you 100% when you say that science has a bad habit of overstepping its bounds, particularly when it comes to anything mystical, intangible, person-like, to say nothing of “God-like”. As I read about the ideas scientists put forth (the math is gibberish to me–a language I simply will never be capable of understanding), I find myself amazed at the ability of scientists to deceive themselves, coming so close to the intangible, mystical, unknowable (call it what one will) yet unable to see that there is such a thin line between some of their most interesting ideas and the “unknownable”. Interesting how people can use denial in so many ways in life.

    Then too, yet I think on a kind of “switch of topics”, what particularly caught my attention was your comment that Descartes’ saying should be I “feel”; therefore, I am. I like your idea very much. Yet I tend to think that the “I am” of the person is much more complex than just knowing or feeling; yet both, of course, are part of even the intangible that we can know.

    To comment a little on this “switch of topics”: I recently read something by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that might apply here. He was speaking of consciousness and said that consciousness “is the peculiar and specific property of organized states of matter”—emphasis on “organized states”. And here I am going to quote something that, strangely enough, I DO understand (probably because there is no math) and that I think, however tangentially, might have some bearing on the topic. He states: “the behavior of every cosmic particle may be symbolically represented in our experience as an ellipse constructed with two foci of unequal and varying intensity: F1, the focus of material arrangement, and F2, the focus of psychism. F2 (consciousness) appears initially and increases as a function of F1 (complexity), but soon shows a persistent tendency to react constructively on F1 in such a way as to super-complexify it, and at the same time to become, itself, more individualized”. [He wrote this back on August 23, 1948. A footnote found in Toward the Future, published in 1973, one of several previously unpublished works written before his death in 1955.]

    I tend to think PTdC would have said that the “I am” requires much more complexity than only “knowing” and “feeling”; BUT “knowing” and “feeling” are a good start, I would say.

    And once more back to “Scientism”, let me put it this way: I couldn’t agree with you more. Stephen Hawking annoys me particularly when he pronounces on the non-ness of an “unknowable” being; he simply out of his league on that subject. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 24, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

  2. Jim, Just have to add this: Another thing I read by PTdC: He says, science only talks about “expanding immensity”. Why not consider ALSO the equally scientific concept of a “universe involuting in complexity”? He further says that this 2nd one would go further, and have more possibilities, than the 1st. How about a “correlative rise of interiorization”? (And here I find myself thinking of whales, for one…)

    I would say that doesn’t it seem when science gets just to the line where it SHOULD cross over into the intangible that the place for it to “go” would be PTdC’s “involuting complexity”? I have to say I like it. A tho’t to consider, I say; and a good one. MCS

    [Mary — Good one! Spot on, bringing Teilhard de Chardin into the discussion! Jim G]

    Comment by Mary S. — June 26, 2012 @ 11:09 am

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