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Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Science ... Spirituality ...

A few days ago, I talked about my current approach to spirituality. Which is to avoid committing myself entirely to any one popular tradition or esoteric approach, and instead to study and digest a wide variety of different writings and doctrines regarding wisdom and faith from throughout the inhabited portions of our planet. I discussed Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. I should have thrown in Native American spirituality, as I have a few books on that too. However, I forgot to add a very important wisdom tradition that I follow from the modern western world. And that is the faith system called science.

Yes, science is a system of faith and belief. It believes in the regularity, reproducibility and observability of physical phenomenon. It attributes truth to propositions that can be observed, measured and regularly reproduced. It allows “meta-theories” that relate such propositions and phenomenon to other measurable/repetitive propositions and phenomenon. Such “meta-theories” can be falsified by identifying a particular predicted result from the theory, and showing that the actual result from the phenomenon at issue is not the one predicted.

Can these key propositions in and of themselves be proven by their own methods? No. But they are accepted and embraced because they are so darned useful. Science has given humankind countless economic and life-quality blessings, and promises still more. I just happen to have gained an interest in science in my youth, and I’ve never really lost it. So, I keep science topics on my reading list. Science is a wisdom tradition, even if it might not be considered by most to be a spiritual tradition. But there certainly is a spirit to it.

Science has become so successful and predominant in modern life that many of its practitioners have taken to the belief (i.e., an expansion from within science’s belief-system) that science provides the most valuable way to grasp even the deepest metaphysical and ontological questions, to the exclusion of all other “spiritual” systems (especially organized religions). This point of view, espoused by an increasing number of physicists including the acclaimed Steven Hawking, is called “scientism“. The biggest claim of the scientism-ists is that God is a useless, unnecessary and irrational concept. No one should entertain any thoughts of a reality behind the various notions of God that civilized humankind has pondered over its 10,000 year history.

I have commented several times on my own objection and distaste for scientism and its “God is irrelevant” claim. My biggest objection is that the tenants of scientism are beliefs, not empirically verified claims. They basically extend the underlying belief system of science, which is not empirical but does seem to have provided humankind with much bounty. Do these new beliefs similarly help the human race? I gather that may of the boffins feel that they do; but I’m not sure that the rest of the world is going to buy it.

There’s a long but worth-reading article on the New Atlantis web site about scientism, written by a biological sciences professor named Austin Hughes. I.e., about the folly of scientism. The author meticulously takes apart the logic and methods of those who preach the positivist doctrine of science against any spiritual wisdom system (except perhaps the modern, hybridized, watered-down version of Buddhism that has become popular in the west; old-school Buddhism had plenty of mystical forces that science could never explain). His article addresses, most interestingly, the notion that evolution and genetics can explain humankind’s development of the God concept, and the world’s on-going and still widely-popular interest in God. But the part of this article that interests me the most regards scientism and Metaphysics, i.e. the scientist notion that God is no longer needed in any way to explain the existence of life, the universe, and everything. Yes, all because of string theory and the supposed multiverse process, which relies on a Darwin-like situation whereby organized universes that are fit for conscious life emerge “naturally” because of random variation.

Back in August, I wrote a criticism of this line of thought. I said that it leads to an absurd reduction, an infinite regress of “meta-universes” that emerge through trial-and-error procedures through which a “just so” universe, one fit for the kind of life that we humans know, can evolve somewhere within the boundless expanses of time. Interestingly enough, Mr. Hughes himself raises this problem. But he explains the underlying dilemma more elegantly than I do, recruiting the philosophical concept of “contingent versus necessary”. I knew vaguely what this dichotomy entailed, but never really wrapped my head around it. But now I have, with the help of Professor Hughes. Contingent objects and events are things that didn’t really have to happen, they could have been otherwise. When you look at the universe and the known creation on the biggest levels, you realize that just about everything we know is “contingent”. We can find no reason why the universe should not have had different factors governing its forces, components and interactions. And just tiny shifts in its parameters would hypothetically throw the universe out of wack in terms of sustaining life.

The question then becomes, is anything in or about the universe considered “necessary”? Well, at some point, the fact that anything exists at all requires some necessary factor or assumption. And even further, but on more shaky ground: for the universe to make any sort of sense according to human ways of thinking, conscious life must also be necessary. Without some form of consciousness, the Universe is an ultimate wasteland. It’s a movie being played to an empty theater. We can’t nail this idea down beyond a doubt, but it sure seems like consciousness itself is necessary, even though our individual consciousnesses are certainly contingent (consider when someone goes under deep anesthesia; or the period of deep sleep every night when we basically are the same as dead, in terms of mental perceptive life).

The problem with the random-process multiverse is that the scientists promote it to necessary status. It certainly IS necessary for the picture they try to create when they say that God is not needed for a universe to exist. But beyond liking this picture, why should their particular multiverse process exist? Why couldn’t the process behind the multiverse ALSO be subject to possible variable shift? Why couldn’t different systems have different “fertility rates” and ranges of outcomes, such as in biology where an island environment has a different evolution process than an inland jungle?

Mr. Hughes makes this point. If scientists can postulate that the Big Bang was not necessary but was a contingent outcome of a universal creation process (without any solid proof), why couldn’t the universe’s creation process have potential variants, some (or many) that perhaps wouldn’t create any life-sustaining universes at all? Where would the process stop at a necessary step? And why would that step be necessary? And yet, how could there be anything if somewhere along the line, something necessarily does not exist? Just because the scientists don’t necessarily like such Scholastic reasoning doesn’t necessarily mean that Aquinas was philosophically wrong in postulating it.

As I said, I myself speculate that the “necessary” grounding of creation has something to do with the “weak necessity” factor, i.e. the speculative necessity of conscious awareness. I.e., the observer inherently giving a reason to exist to the thing being observed (some call it subject-object dualism; I call it the metaphysics of relationship, akin to quantum complementarity and superposition). At that point, you are starting to conceptualize an entity sounding quite a bit like the many ancient notions of God. So, my thanks to Professor Hughes for having my thoughts, but putting them in the powerful philosophical framework of “necessary versus contingent”.

Oh, but for now, the scientism people are still gaining ground in the battle of ideas. There was recently a staged intellectual debate in New York City between two teams, one pro-scientism and the other pro-God. The scientism team included a theoretical physicist and the smug, cynical (but intelligent and interesting) Michael Shermer, who writes extensively about science’s superiority to any possible spiritual notions involving any sort of supreme consciousness (I read his monthly column in Scientific American). On the other side were a policy analyst and scientist who both still see an open door for God. Before and after the debate, the audience was polled regarding their sympathy for each side’s position. The atheist team went from 37 to 50 percent, whereas the God squad only increased from 34 to 38 percent.

Oh well. Perhaps the 50 percent who think that the atheists nailed it, and the 12 percent on the fence, need to read Mr. Hughes’ article. Maybe the kind of people who would spend an evening at such a debate are likewise highly intelligent and trained, and are so proud of their achievements as to be subject to a hubris-based denial as to what they might not know. It has been known to happen!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:00 pm      

  1. Jim, I found this topic to have 2 sides to it. One side reminded me of Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory”, and I had to smile at how perfectly the writers of that program grasp the hubris of some scientists and their sense that some scientists consider themselves to have all the answers and who bask in the glory of how wonderful their own brains are.

    But then there is the serious side to your topic. And I certainly can see that science for you can be a way of searching for what will ultimately become your version of spirituality (if I understand you correctly here). Can’t help but admire that.

    Your discussion of what is “considered necessary” “in or about the universe” intrigues me, so here I’m going off on my own tangent (once again). You mention that “Without some form of consciousness the Universe is an ultimate wasteland”.

    I’m not really disagreeing with you here, but I’m wondering if you include in that only human consciousness. Lately, I’ve become aware of animals’ communications-—both with each other and other animals. My dog, for instance, has a serious and definite way of communicating non-verbally with us. If a person tells him to do something that he doesn’t want to do or (sometimes I think most especially) gives him something he doesn’t want to eat (he’s very picky), he has a way of simply turning his head 90 degrees away from the person speaking to him. It’s as if (and having seen him do this quite often I’m beginning to think that he seriously is communicating with the person), “saying” by his actions: “I just don’t hear you because I don’t even see you; you aren’t even *there*.” Jon Katz on his website, if one reads it carefully and for a while, begins to realize that Mr. Katz himself sees the communication between animals like themselves, other animals, and humans and respects that communication.

    So, maybe the consciousness that’s a necessary part of the Universe is more widespread than humans normally think it is. Communication between animals and other levels of life that humans consider “beneath” them may be non-verbal but just as real and valid as human communications. And here I’m not even addressing the communications scientists are studying that exists between such beings as elephants, dolphins, whales, etc. This concept of non-verbal communication between beings other than humans is just something that’s caught my attention lately and has intrigued me.

    Then too, I wonder: Have you ever had a tree “talk” to you? More than one tree has talked to me. (OK, maybe I’m imagining things; but then again, maybe not.) Perhaps one has to get into a particular altered state of consciousness, somehow in tune with nature, to be aware of this communication; but I’ve experienced it more than once. Trees especially seem to have a personality that, when they “feel like it”, they can communicate with a person. I’m not talking about deep, serious conversations. But, for instance, one time when I was watering the plants near a tree, it “said” to me: “Will you give me a drink too?” And, of course, I made sure the tree got some water. Another example: I saw 2 squirrels today in the middle of the street, so busy “communicating” with each other that I had to stop my car or I’d have run over them. OK, not smart on the part of the squirrels; yet, it was clear *something* was going on between those 2 squirrels that kept them from noticing my car. It was not *our* type of communication; yet there was some type of communication going on between them.

    So, maybe the “consciousness” that is “necessary” goes deeper (is that the word?) in nature than we think. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m not even willing to argue the point. It’s something that I just notice and that intrigues me and that I think we have become so separated from nature that we don’t see it any more; it was clear, though, that the Native Americans were well aware of such communications.

    It does make me think that we miss a LOT of consciousness in the universe that’s *there*; we completely miss it. And it may be that the communication is about food. But so what. Even a lot of human communication is about food. Take note of all the food programs on TV, even more than one network devoted entirely to food. So, I’d say we are the last ones to look down on communication about food.

    And then there’s the point about the intellectual debate between the pro-scientism and pro-God teams. The word “intellectual” is what “bothers” me; but then again, any debate MUST be “intellectual”. I still don’t think an intellectual approach to trying to convince anyone about anything when it comes to God makes sense as the entire concept of God encompasses so many more areas than simply the intellectual. There’s the “belief” part (often gives an individual structure in his/her life); there’s the emotional, the psychological, the “communicative” (as above), the altered state of consciousness that sometimes is necessary to enter into before one can glimpse God, etc. Limiting a pro-God/pro-science debate will for sure have the pro-science part win as that is almost 100% intellectual.

    I must also say that I particularly agree with your point about “hubris-based denial” that has not clue about what it does not know. I’ve learned over the years that one only begins to learn something when he/she realizes all he/she does not know.

    Anyway, each person pursues his/her search for God, communication with God, etc., in his/her own way. If that individual is serious, most certainly he/she will find the God. Who was it said about God (I paraphrase here as I don’t remember 100%), I searched you down the days and nights until I found you. Is it God searching for us? Or is our search for God really God’s search for us (?) which then makes me wonder if in the end we ourselves are not the creators. OR as some religions believe about the “spark” of God in us—maybe it’s that spark that is enlightening. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 15, 2012 @ 11:43 am

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