Heightened Senses

Hello. I'm Imraan. This is the only thing I own outright; I write from time to time, in the hopes that free-association might save a trip to a sanatorium.

Tag: Scientism

On the Soul

Dear friends, 

I have, for the last few days, been dipping into a wonderful collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson, called When I Was a Child I Read Books. I’ve managed to steal a computer for a short time from relatives – who have grown perhaps as dependent upon them as have I! So here is what I could produce in a short amount of time:

If indeed you’re looking for a read that will draw your attention merely to the state of ‘marvel,’ or ‘wonder’ at the glory of the very fact that you ‘are,’ then there are very few books I might recommend more highly than this one, for it is exquisite. Robinson has a way of lovingly crafting her sentences, and drawing the reader’s internal eye to a state of reflection that I feel few modern writers can do comparably well. 

Here is a stunningly beautiful passage from her first essay, Freedom of Thought, on modern discourse and the soul: (I hope I have not breached any copyrights – though dear readers feel free to inform me and I will edit the passage as necessary; my hope is just that you get a decent and tantalising spoonful of her work that would draw you in to purchase her books):

“Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered som set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations. 

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain that there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely. Perhaps I should pause here to clarify my meaning, since there are those who feel that the spiritual is diminished or denied when it is associated with the physical. I am not among them. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy? At this point of dynamic convergence, call it self or call it soul, questions of right and wrong are weighed, love is felt, guilt and loss are suffered. And, over time, formation occurs, for weal or woe, governed in large part by that unaccountable capacity for self-awareness. 

The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art. I like Calvin’s metaphor – nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed. As we perceive we interpret, and we make hypotheses. Something is happening, it has a certain character or meaning which we usually feel we understand tentatively, though experience is almost always available to reinterpretation based on subsequent experience or reflection. Here occurs the weighing of moral and ethical choice. Behavior proceeds from all this, and is interesting, to my mind, in the degree that it can be understood to proceed from it. 

We are very much afflicted now by tedious, fruitless controversy. Very often, perhaps typically, the most important aspect of a controversy is not the area of disagreement but the hardening of agreement, the tacit granting on all sides of assumptions that ought not to be granted on any side. The treatment of the physical as a distinct category antithetical to the spiritual is one example. There is a deeply rooted notion that the material exists in opposition to the spiritual, precludes or repels or trumps the sacred as an idea.This dichotomy goes back at least to the dualism of the Manichees, who believed the physical world was the creation of an evil god in perpetual conflict with a good god, and to related teachings within Christianity that encouraged mortification of the flesh, renunciation of the world, and so on.

For almost as long as there has been science in the West there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, vociforous as ever, that if a thing can be “explained,” associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial.We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected “physical” world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word “miraculous.” Knowing what we know now, and earlier generation might see divine providence in the fact of a world coherent enough to be experienced by us as complete in itself, and as a basis upon which all claims to reality can be tested. A truly theological age would see this divine Providence intent on making a human habitation within the wild roar of the cosmos.”

 

Faith and ‘Reason’

If we are to defend Reason, we must be inspired by more than Reason to do so.

Terry Eagleton

Here’s a fascinating talk in which the dear Dr Eagleton, esteemed literary theorist, furious Marxist and ‘Believer’ (as well as pop-culture savant!) sets about to try to deconstruct grand-narratives that exist outside of the meta-narratives of religion/’Faith’. That said, his analysis in particular about seeing the world as more than its agonising, groaning, self, despite it being empirically so, is an excellent analogy about what a religious worldview might appear to do. Please look out for it!

And then, if you have the time, watch his Gifford Lecture – particularly 43:00-48:00 where he speaks about a religious believer as being in love – is love reducible to ‘reasons’. Reason doesn’t “go all the way down,” he might put it.

Good ol’ Frothy Hitchens

This about made my week. I have recently taken to reading David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions and read this early on, and just had to share:

Because atheism is said to follow from various scientific doctrines, literary atheists, while they are eager to speak their minds, must often express themselves in other men’s voices. Christopher Hitchens is an example. With forthcoming modesty, he has affirmed his willingness to defer to the world’s “smart scientists” on any matter more exigent than finger-counting. Were smart scientists to report that a strain of yeast supported the invasion of Iraq, Hitchens would, no doubt, conceive an increased respect for yeast.*

No, I am not in any way related to the Discovery Institute, nor do I have a personal stake in the books’ sales (and if all three of you buy it, we probably won’t be able to start that literary revolution) – nonetheless, it is worth a read despite the fact that my pockets won’t feel heavier. How’s that for self-effacing…?

*(David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions; New York, NY: Basic Books; 2008; 4-5).

Free-Thought is Underrated: David Berlinski – Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions

Though I understand that the likes of Dennett and others aren’t fans, here is a rather thought-provoking interview by a man who I have come to respect rather a lot lately, David Berlinski, a mathematician, philosopher…a thinker. The fact that he seems rooted within the analytic tradition makes his case far more ‘rational’ in the face of science…or dare I say…scientism.

Despite all my qualms with the Hoover Institution and the Discovery Institute, and other ‘think-tanks’ (which often don’t really do much thinking) etc., nonetheless I must give credit to a man who has the guts to attack the scientific consensus on all sorts of things…particularly when it comes to that unquestionable orthodoxy of Darwinian Evolution (which, to be fair, is increasingly anti-Utopian category of modern ‘faith’ with rather apocalyptic visions and with already evident catastrophic consequences).

Worth a watch. Even if you don’t find yourself agreeing with much of it. Broaden your minds, won’t you? 

Though I understand that he makes no claims to ‘knowledge’ of the Sacred or is a bit hesitant with the term ‘proof’ (or so I gather from this interview), I will cheekily add the following quote from Solzhenitsyn (borrowed from Wikipedia):

“Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

Evolving Education….the Insidious Tyranny of Science?

I’m intrigued by this piece reported by the BBC; we’re living in a rapidly moving postmodern world where the likes of ‘scientists’ or ‘naturalists’ (or however else they style themselves) seem to be dominating the discourse in the area of pedagogy, science, natural history, politics…

So when you read that schools might lose their funding from the Government because those at the helm do not necessarily favour Evolution by Natural Selection as the sole model for determining how complex biological life came into being (obviously without invoking a higher power/God), is it just me or is this where science gets dangerous?

For the past couple of centuries the ‘secular’ model of governing a state seems to have been the preferred one, especially after the Enlightenment, as it was deemed then that religion would  and already had become rather tyrannical and be inept at governing various groups of people fairly and without prejudice.

Yet I find myself living in a world now where the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection seems to have become the basic currency with which any discourse might be exchanged; now I have no problem per se with the theory of Evolution as a process for explaining to some degree of coherence the explanation for how life came to ‘be’ in the world – what troubles me is that Creationism is now being deemed as part of myth – i.e. religion.

(I must add here, of course, that it makes no sense to deem Creationism a mere folly – at its most basic level this lens suggests that there is a cause beyond this universe that at the very least, set our universe in motion. It does not necessarily mean that the world is some six-thousand years old as the Young Earth Creationists believe. I am happy to say that I am a Creationist who thinks life emerged, at least on the physical plane, out of a process of Evolution – remember of course, the gene-centered theory is now a minority position – but does that mean that I think that this is a necessary contradiction? I like the term Intelligent Design to sum this position up – what assumptions you make about my beliefs without questioning them, or by consigning them to mere myth  shouldn’t be a fault in me – rather it is the judgemental nature of science that we should take issue with (which ironically prides itself on being objective – something which modern studies in hermeneutics suggests is incredibly fallacious).

Moreover, I firmly believe that what defines ‘us’ as sentient beings has roots in something inexplicable by science – our ability to reflect on our own existence rather than be merely dominated by essentialist biological assumptions to me indicates that exists what Islam has always deemed the ‘fitrah’, that innate sense of the sacred essentially.

Is it just me or is science, of Scientism going to be come the new tyranny? I don’t buy that Science can be necessarily a moral agent for world, nor necessarily the prioritised objective lens through which we view it; historically it was the view of science and scientists that the world was created by a God which drove further explorations into His Mystery (forget the whole Galileo episode for a little while). Religion, or a God-oriented view of nature, as Professor Steve Fuller of Warwick University says, has been an instrumental driver of science – I am convinced that the meaning we ascribe to science was hermeneutically born out of the belief in God (just look at the science that came out of the Islamic world or in Europe); if we forget where science actually came from, and to how much it owes to religion, then science fails to have any significant meaning, nay, purpose, which scientists and apologists for Scientism suggest is a necessary agent for their work.

But science – more specifically the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection – shouldn’t have to be the modern meta-narrative of our world – the fact that we one day might be able to explain the physical processes that constitute our existence and the world that we observe around us does nothing to help us actualise in the world. Our purpose to understand or to know, or to create (all things that are certainly valuable things  -and as yet science cannot explain the need for our aesthetic agency) did nothing to stop the catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example; except to tell us that those that are weak (and now I mean this in a sociological sense) are doomed to perish, either at the hands of the strong or out of the actions of the strong.

Proponents of science today that are trying to systematically reject the normative narrative that religions have to offer fail to see that their commitment to pure, objective science that might some day explain the world is becoming a force that can be just as tyrannical. It is because of philosophy and religion that we endeavour to feed and clothe and heal the hungry, the homeless that exist far enough outside of our communities to have no impact on our own worlds and our abilities to thrive in them; according to science, altruism is merely a biological function and not a end-good, moreover Evolution by Natural Selection has its own normative process and agency – that the strong survive and that the weak shall perish. Though we see it happen in the animal kingdom we do not see it as a moral problem – yet when we see injustices and such cruel realities in our own, we find them morally and normatively abhorrent. Why? As Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr says – if indeed we are merely composed of atoms banging against one-another then our attempts at being ‘moral agents’ is pure ‘sentimentality’. So far I cannot think of an adequate argument against this.

Somehow it has come in vogue that invoking a deity seems to be something that is unscientific – as if to say that by invoking God one has just filled an empty space with an explanation, which in itself cannot be explained; yet the trouble is that within the philosophy of science, no-one can seriously claim that all explanations require further explanations for them to become true – in our cause and effect universe within which we find ourselves, that is tantamount to invoking an infinite regress.

Remember, Newton didn’t know what gravity actually was, rather, he was able to explain the effects of gravity were – does that mean that gravity itself doesn’t exist or is an inadequate explanation for what he observed? Of course not.

If indeed we emerged out of a slow process of biological evolution which by some miraculous chance allowed us to exist despite tremendous odds against that chance, does that mean that because we cannot explain the origins of the universe within which we are found, that same universe in which evolution could actually occur, does that mean necessarily that it is an unscientific explanation? Certainly not on this account too.

Now whether you favour a ‘naturalistic’ explanation to the cause of our universe, or whether you think that it is better explained by an uncaused cause – surely you should be allowed to offer both, or other explanations, as part of a scientific education. Moreover, surely educators should be allowed to express which of those theories they actually believe in.

In my experience it was those teachers that expressed their opinions in the classroom that had the most profound impact on my education, those who spoke out, who weren’t afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom (recall, this is constantly being redefined – not a hundred years ago were women considered cattle or the expendable commodities of men, not a few centuries was it certain that the world was flat, not a month ago was it believed that a supermassive black hole could ‘exist’ at the centre of a small galaxy etc). Today, science tells us that biological life for a given individual begins at the point when two gametes meet, yet that same science cannot tell us whether it is actually ethical to terminate that life, even though it increasingly provides us the means to do it.

As a student of history and politics at university, or as someone who has an interest in religion and philosophy – the theory of Evolution has done very little to change my approach to these disciplines; the notion of the survival of the fittest as a model for perpetuating life has very little to do with my studies of the past, or my ability to grasp theological positions. Moreover, having studied both the theories of Evolution and the case for ‘Creationism’ (argh I hate that term), I have come to a conclusion for myself. I do not think that scientists have the right to tell me what to believe  – knowledge has to come from a perspective of reflection. The obsession with purity or an arrogance of superiority is/are what were traditionally ascribed to organised religion; today as religion is increasingly dying in our society we see science filling that space. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, after all. But scientists cannot agree to it because they refuse to recognise their own fallacies.

We have thrived for millennia without understanding Evolution in the way science explains it –  I do not see it as the theory that will be our Saving Grace. For that, we need to look within ourselves, not merely at ourselves.

————————-

Finally – it’s worth watching Steve Fullers short interview on Intelligent Design – it’s about 7 minutes long and worth every second, in my humble opinion.

%d bloggers like this: