Monday, 5 July 2010

Life, the universe and everything - an update

Explanations of life, the universe and everything have been dominated in recent years, at least in the West, by the neo-Darwinists and the militant atheists: the Dawkins, Dennetts, the Hitchens, Graylings, etc. Naturally, they've found themselves opposed by those we might describe as the straightforwardly religious, most loudly by America's Christians.

But more interestingly (at least to me) a counter-argument is being sounded more and more resonantly by the not-so-straightforwardly religious - those who may believe deeply but not dogmatically - and also by those who feel more-or-less agnostic about the whole thing. They argue that the scientists are claiming to have solved mysteries that they're not equipped to solve, that they're claiming to have tidied up questions with answers that are insufficient or misdirected.

By way of example, B. Appleyard had this to say last month about Evolutionary Psychology (which, according to Wikipedia, 'attempts to explain psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, that is, as the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection'):
[Evolutionary Psychology] assumes we can account for human behaviour and culture on the basis of Darwinism. Unfortunately, since we have no idea how the mind – the creator of behaviour and culture – works, this cannot be science. The mind may have developed according to some non-Darwinian process. It certainly leads us to do things that are unaccountable in Darwinian terms. E[volutionary] P[sychologists] tell stories about how these may be so accountable. They do this because they feel it must be so. This is an act of faith. The stories are only coherent and, maybe, plausible, if the missing link of the mind is somehow included. That cannot currently be done. For the moment they are just stories that generate superstitions.

The most compelling account I've come across of what it is that science hasn't comprehended is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson's very favourably reviewed recent book of essays 'Absence of Mind'. It ends with a rather beautiful passage:
The universe passed through its unimaginable first moment, first year, first billion years, wresting itself from whatever state of nonexistence, inflating, contorting, resolving into space and matter, bursting into light. Matter condenses, stars live out their generations. Then, very late, there is added to the universe of being a shaped stick or stone, a jug, a cuneiform tablet. They appear on a tiny, teetering, lopsided planet, and they demand wholly new vocabularies of description for reality at every scale. What but the energies of the universe could be expressed in the Great Wall of China, the St Matthew Passion? For our purposes, there is nothing else. Yet language that would have been fully adequate to describe the ages before the appearance of the first artifact would have had to be enlarged by concepts like agency and intention, words like creation, that would query the great universe itself. Might not the human brain, that most complex object known to exist in the universe, have undergone a qualitative change as well? If my metaphor only suggests the possibility that our species is more than an optimised ape, that something terrible and glorious befell us, a change gradualism could not predict – if this is merely another fable, it might at least encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are.

One of her messages is that we can't exclude 'felt experience' in our assessment of mind. I recalled this as I was re-reading a couple of favourite Tony Harrison poems (which I did having referenced one of them here) from 'The School of Eloquence' collection.

They are concerned with bereavement but are witty, even playful. They seem to delight in the creative spark and this - perhaps inadvertently - suggests an expansiveness about the possibilities of creation more generally. He recounts two experiences in relation to his dead father:

James Cagney was the one up both our streets.
his was the only art we ever shared.
A gangster film and choc ice were the treats
that showed about as much love as he dared.

He'd be my own age now in '49
The hand that glinted with the ring he wore,
his father's, tipped the cold bar into mine
just as the organist dropped through the floor.

He's on the platform lowered out of sight
to organ music, this time on looped tape,
into a furnace with a blinding light
where only his father's ring will keep its shape.

I wear it now to Cagneys on my own
and sense my father's hands cupped around my treat --

they feel as though they've been chilled to the bone
from holding my ice cream all through White Heat.

White Heat: a popular Hollywood movie, starring James Cagney.

Marked with D.

When the chilled dough of his flesh went in an oven
not unlike those he fuelled all his life,
I thought of his cataracts ablaze with Heaven
and radiant with the sight of his dead wife,
light streaming from his mouth to shape her name,
'not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie'.
I thought how his cold tongue burst into flame
but only literally, which makes me sorry,
sorry for his sake there's no Heaven to reach.
I get it all from Earth my daily bread
but he hungered for release from mortal speech
that kept him down, the tongue that weighed like lead.

The baker's man that no one will see rise
and England made to feel like some dull oaf
is smoke, enough to sting one person's eyes
and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf.

What I think is rather peculiar in these poems is how someone who's an atheist provides such powerful indications of some sort of continuation after death, albeit in places implicitly. The second poem is explicitly atheistic ('there's no Heaven to reach'). But it imagines a bodily resurrection (in the course of denying it) with a vividness I can't recall coming across before. His father's ashes are sufficient for 'one small loaf', a measure that can't help but make us think of the Last Supper and the transubstantiation of the Mass. It's as if his art is subtly subverting his rationalism.

These two poems make me recall the sentiment expressed by Larkin, a near-contemporary and also an atheist poet, that 'what will remain of us is love'. Larkin described this insight (from 'Arundel Tomb') as produced by an 'almost-instinct', which I take to be an awareness, sensed irrationally, peripherally and involuntarily, that the material world might just not be everything.

Another 'spiritual atheist' James Joyce described such moments of awareness as 'epiphanies', taking what was originally a religious form of experience and filling it with a more open-ended appreciation of the ineffable: 'A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused' as Wordsworth put it in 'Tintern Abbey'.

These three modern writers - Harrison, Larkin, Joyce - are (or were) atheists; clear-eyed and self-aware strugglers against false impressions, reassuring sentimentalities and idle comforts. And yet their work, perhaps despite themselves, contains reflections of 'felt experience' that trace the immaterial, transcendental, otherworldly.

Human consciousness remains mysterious. Science has no good account of the human mind. But that doesn't mean there are no other ways to explain and explore it as Robinson relates in arguing an alternative to the reductionism of science:
The gifts we bring to the problem of making an account of the mind are overwhelmingly rich, severally and together. This is not an excuse for excluding them from consideration. History and civilisation are an authoritative record the mind has left, is leaving, and will leave...

This approach limits the authority and application of science. And surely its inevitable corollary is to re-legitimise literature and the other arts as means to approach a form of transcendent truth, a deeply unfashionable approach for a couple of generations now. If so, if Robinson and her allies are successful in their refutations, forms of creative writing may be looking at a more confident and influential future than the recent past might indicate.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Fascinating. And superb poetry - I must revist Tony Harrison. I'd have to class myself as 'not-so-straightforwardly religious' and going by 'felt experience', and, for what it's worth, I personally don't give a monkey's about how the universe was created. I suppose I should be happy that I am not in the country to be bored by all the atheist debating, but best of luck to them.

Mark English said...

Yes the human world is something remarkable in the context of cosmic history - but why the anti-science attitude? It looks a lot like the remnants of an old religious culture (and its associated arts culture) futilely trying to cling to whatever authority and status it once had. Science is a wonderful - and a human - project ill-served perhaps by certain abrasive defenders of what they see as science and its 'message'. I see the narrowness of Dawkins. I love the work of Larkin, even Wordsworth. But I love knowledge also and find little of value in the current anti-science movement (which looks a lot like similar movements of a hundred years ago).

Brit said...

I'm sceptical of the Marylinnee Robinson approach for the same reasons I'm sceptical of Evolutionary Psychology and the excesses of scientism, and also the ID project. Darwinism is silent on the human mind after it has said all it has to say about the physical evolution of the brain. That seems to me enough: we can therefore discuss the St Matthew Passion and the Great Wall of China on their own terms, we don't need science and religion to fight over them or use them as tools in a theism vs atheism debate. Robinson is right to say that "neo-Darwinists" greatly overreach themselves, but this could have been said in a few paragprahs, as Bryan A has done. So what is the rest of her argument? A very long-winded way of trying to find some room to 'win' the (non)debate for religion.

This is heresy in my corner of the blogscape but I'm also not wild about the Robinson prose style. There are some gems in there but it's like wading through sticky toffee pudding most of the time; I wish she'd put a few jokes in. Also you should never say "whence" unironically in this day and age. Also she makes a logical error at the top of her article about the 'improbability' of life meaning anything.

Anonymous said...

The only consistent attitude, i believe, is some form of agnosticism - because all knowledge is provisional. We do not, however, live as if, e.g. the train MAY not exist, or our boss MAY be an illusion, or we MAY actually be in a totally different country, etc. And it would be absurd to expect people to live with absolute agnosticism, knowingly unknowing.

i´m more interested in the middle territory, where things are uncertain but where one can make some useful deductions, useful for life, i mean.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: Now you mention it, I don't really care how the universe was created. But I am suspicious of people who seem very confident that they do know.

[Trust life is good over there - I miss your despatches.]

Mark: I'm not sure there is a single anti-science movement - or at least there isn't one that would comprise America's Christians and the Appleyardians. The latter are more concerned about an ideology called scientism than science.

Brit: I think you're being a bit hard on her. Just because you (and all sensible people) have decided the debate should be over doesn't mean it is over. She also seems rather modest in her claims, very open to doubt and not at all dogmatic. And I like a bit of lushness in me prose on occasion. Whence this puritanism?

Elberry: I agree and I think the Robinson piece does a good job of justifying agnosticism. However, I do like Robinson's defence of 'felt experience'. It may be a carte blanche to all sorts of wild speculation. But it might also be very liberating and give some of the arts a bit of a shot in the arm.

worm said...

damn good read, and v.interesting comments from the gallery too. I've always been an atheist. So, whilst this marks me out as an arrogant heathen, I see love, attraction, art, music, laughter and all that good stuff as being rather unfortunately marshalled by our genetic perogative, and not some higher mystical spacedude

Gaw said...

Worm: I can't imagine being an atheist as I don't understand how you could possibly know for sure (for the same reason I couldn't describe myself as a believer).

Anonymous said...

i often consider if there is any ground for religion, as it seems to me that my own experiences, of gods, are essentially incommunicable. i mean that i cannot point to something objective, that other people can observe. And yet my own experiences are valid to me; that is, they are too urgent and prominent to be ignored - it is entirely possible that i am insane or deluded, but i cannot subject my experiences to any final test, because they do not refer to anything measurable, observable by others.

And this holds true of other matters - there could be no empirical proof, of that which is ultimately metaphysical (even if it leaves physical traces). So no point trying to persuade anyone of anything.

It seems to me analogous to trying to persuade someone of your love; what proof could you possibly offer, what could you do or say that could not be explained without love? - there are no final explanations. But there are working hypotheses.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Gaw, thank you kindly for your encouragement :) I suppose I should take a more hard-line scientific interest in these matters - and I am wholly with you on the fear of fundamentalism - but Elberry now seems to have summed it up for me. Maybe there is simply a spiritual dimension but can be experienced but not conclusively explained. I may also be insane/deluded, but it feels OK.

Mark English said...

Gaw, "America's Christians" (as you call them) don't count. I am talking about Appleyard et al., and I am suggesting that they are really attacking not just scientism but science. They are defending a specifically transcendental view. Agnosticism need not be transcendental.

Mark English said...

"Attacking ... science" (as I put it) is not quite right. What I mean to draw attention to is the defensive attitude, the desire to limit science. And it is often inspired by some kind of religious or transcendental intuition. Maybe I'm just cross because I can't summon up such an intuition!

Gaw said...

Limiting science to its proper place as a practice rather than an all-explaining ideology seems quite right to me.

Sir Watkin said...

Peter Berger's A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural remains interesting even tho' it's over forty years since it was written.

Hey Skipper said...


Explanations of life, the universe and everything have been dominated in recent years, at least in the West, by the neo-Darwinists and the militant atheists: the Dawkins, Dennetts, the Hitchens, Graylings, etc.

You seem to be making a category mistake here — understandable, because it is common. Dawkins et al are not atheists, they are anti-theists. They have concluded, solely from material considerations that religions are both objectively and subjectively wrong, but that says nothing at all about whether some such thing as a prime mover exists.

It may well be they put the anti-theist argument too stridently and antagonistically, but it is incorrect to say they are insisting upon disbelief in some non-specific supreme being.

The poems you include at the end prove the distinction: an anti-theist (one who thinks all religions are morally wrong) or an atheist (one believes all religions are false) could still believe that there is another plane of existence that offers continuity beyond this one.

Hey Skipper said...

I am amazed by how far B. Appleyard continues to miss the point on science in general, and evolution in particular. His first sentence gets everything completely backwards:

EP assumes we can account for human behaviour and culture on the basis of Darwinism. Unfortunately, since we have no idea how the mind – the creator of behaviour and culture – works, this cannot be science.

No. EP assumes that if naturalistic evolution is correct then the capacity for behaviour and culture must be explainable within that context.

Similarly, astrophysicists assume there is such a thing as “dark matter” because if physics is correct, the behavior of galaxies must be explained by something unobservable except by the effects of its mass.

Then he goes on to make what is perhaps an even more fundamental mistake: that “the mind” is something that exists only in humans, and that, therefore, its sui generis status means it must have some non-materialistic explanation. I know from first-hand, in the wild, experience that dolphins have minds, and it is a flight of excessive self regard to conclude that dolphin brains are in any particular much less complex than ours.

Never mind that, though. I’ll accept his argument as given. That means, then, that all such sui generis examples are similarly explicable. The elephant’s trunk, for instance.

Finally, he relies upon the God of the Gaps: The stories are only coherent and, maybe, plausible, if the missing link of the mind is somehow included. That cannot currently be done.

Broadly defined, he is right. Surely, though, one of the aspects of mind is vision. A fair amount of how the visual system works is known, and none of it escapes naturalistic explanation. Presuming such a significant portion of “the mind” is explainable in this way, does it make sense that any part of the rest is, in principle, outside the realm of naturalistic causes, even if we may never be able to know them specifically?

Gaw said...

Thanks Skipper for pointing out that distinction. Out of interest, which of the people I might think of - wrongly, it seems - as atheists are actually anti-theists (or, even deists)?

With regard to your second point, I would remark that we know how eyes and trunks work but not the mind. To pick up your astrophysics metaphor, isn't EP rather like thinking that because we feel confident the laws of physics are valid, everything that happens in any new and currently unknown branch of science must be wholly explicable by their application as well?

Hey Skipper said...

Out of interest, which of the people I might think of - wrongly, it seems - as atheists are actually anti-theists (or, even deists)?

I can’t think of another subject about which English seems to lack the right word, or, more correctly, doesn’t correctly use the words it does have. Theism refers to in a specific set of statements about a specific notion of god. Deism, in contrast, refers to the belief that some sort of creator or supreme being exists.

Dawkins et al are atheists (without belief in any religion) and anti-theists (antagonistic towards religion).

With respect to the existence of god — taken as some plane of existence outside our own — Sam Harris is probably a deist; Hitchens has scarcely touched the subject, and Dawkins is an adeist. (In this regard, I am an agnostic: I think the question is unanswerable.)

(I think it is also worth noting that, under the cloth, a fair number of Christian theologians have been atheists and pro-theist at the same time. They didn’t really believe in theological assertions, but felt, nonetheless, that they are essential to society.)

Nearly every straightforwardly religious criticism of the “militant atheists” I have read attacks them for their (purported) certainty that there is no such thing as god, when in reality they are railing against commands made on behalf of Gods. I don’t know if this because the religious are inveighing against books they have not read, or are shifting the ground because the real terrain is untenable.

Hey Skipper said...

To pick up your astrophysics metaphor, isn't EP rather like thinking that everything that happens in any new and currently unknown branch of science must be wholly explicable by their application as well?

Yes, I think that is fair to say, with this clarification. EP takes it as given that the core assumption of Darwinism is true: all aspects of all life have come about solely within the plane of material existence.

This, rather than specific descriptions, is what comprehensively contradicts at least the Abrahamic religions. If true, it means Man is risen, not fallen.