Religion in a scientific and secular culture (part 2)

posted: 3842 days ago, on Wednesday, 2007 May 16 at 10:45
tags: atheism, events, science and religion.

Fundamentalism or Atheism: The possibility of religion in a scientific and secular culture

Presented by Dr Augustine Shutte

Part 2: 2007 May 13

Dr. Carel Anthonissen (Centre for Christian Spirituality) opened the meeting shortly after 11:00, welcoming the course attendees (including several new ones) and the speaker, Dr. Augustine Shutte (Honorary Research Associate, Department of Philosophy, UCT).

Shutte gave an overview of last week's talk, which was mainly his presentation of the present, well-founded, scientific view of the Universe. He also recalled the function of philosophy: "remember those three C's last time, philosophy is really trying to make you more conscious, more consistent, and more critical about what believe, in particular, about what you believe is real, and what you believe is good."

"... and I tried to explain the sense in which scientific knowledge is always limited, and particularly, if you take the whole range of sciences, the one thing they have to leave out, is precisely the person of the scientist, as a thinker, as a chooser, as somebody who is creating science. Every science presupposes that we know how to think or choose, because that's what create the science, and we judge science. So there is that, not just those activities of producing science, thinking and choosing, but that part of us that is able to do that; and of course its this part of us that really does all the interesting things like science, and religion, and morality, and religion, and art, and this is the part that philosophy has to deal with. So there is a different sphere of knowledge, and in a way we're going to be looking at that especially today."

He then briefly gave an overview of the five lectures, after which he touched again on the theme of evolution:

"The idea of the Universe, not just biological species, but the idea of evolution as applied to the Universe, the whole cosmos, and also to human beings. And when I say human beings, I don't just mean the emergence of human beings from pre-human life, but once human beings have emerged, evolution doesn't stop, but now it goes on as a form of evolution of consciousness, culture, and community. It's still going on."

"That's the general, I would say, fundamental, picture of contemporary cosmology; this evolutionary idea. And at the end of last week's lecture I listed a number of aspects of this which I think are so important. The way, for instance, each new level of existence, of reality, emerges from what has gone before – but is not produced by it. What's gone before, let's say the physical Universe, is not sufficient in itself to produce biological, living, things. At every stage, the same energy that begins the Universe is still operative. This was the tricky idea of the quantum vacuum, that's the physicists way of talking about it. ..."

"Today I'm going to be talking about a crucial event in human evolution, evolution of consciousness, and culture, and community, which, I've called it an event, is more a process, which brought what we know as the modern world into being, and also the existence of modern science. It took place in Europe, and that's why I'm talking about European culture, because this particular change of consciousness, and of many other things as well, happened in Europe.

"However, before I get into that, I just want to point out that a previous big leap forward, if you like, a development of human consciousness, had taken place not just in the European culture, but in the six main centres of civilization, with their different cultures and religious traditions, in others parts of the world. This is what's referred to as the Axial Period ... in recognition that it was an extremely important development in humanity's understanding of itself. This is one of the strands that we follow in the history of humanity, from the earliest cave dwellers living in Africa, as they spread across the world. This is an essential thing, I think, if we're going to live in the real world, the world that science has shown us now, we've got to become familiar with, that there have been huge changes in human self-understanding. And at the Axial period, basically, what you get is a move away from a mythical picture of the Universe. Look, human nature hasn't changed, its not as though these primal civilizations weren't properly human, they were, in essence, everything that we are. And yet, their way of understanding was still very very basic, things hadn't been opened up and developed to the extent to which they have since then. But this one big leap forward, and I'm only going to be looking at the European one because its like a fore-runner to ours, occurred in Greece. And the other occurred in the Biblical lands.

And what it was, in essence, was a sudden deepening of understanding of who we are. The philosopher Kant said there are three fundamental questions a human being can ask: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? The first is the one answered by science, philosophy, and so on; the second one is the question about morality, how ought I to live, and the third one, he says, is the religious question – what is it reasonable for me to desire? What kind of fulfilment can I hope for? And he said, actually, those three questions are different forms of an even more fundamental question which, if you can answer, the you'll have a way of dealing with those three questions. A more fundamental question – what am I? You can see that "I" appears in each of those basic questions and he thinks that if you can actually get to grips with what you are, that the way that your conception of yourself, your capacities, your deep needs, your desires, what is possible for you as a human being, colours everything else.

"And what happened in this Axial Period? You can illustrate it very well in the figure of a Greek thinker called Thales. He is credited with having said: "All things are full of Gods." And in fact, this is a very good description of the primal world view, where everything is explained in terms of stories which relate to one or other of the gods. And of f course, there are many gods, and each of the gods has powers which are able to do certain things. This is a world of magic and myth, and ritual. And the powers that are spoken of, are the Gods. And Thales was quite right in saying, and one can see this also very clearly in contemporary African society, where it still retains roots with a more primal stage, this kind of myth-making society.

"But then Thales is also famous for saying that everything actually is a form of water, that water is the most fundamental thing in the Universe ... Now you can see at once, that, if you say that that's really what makes things what they are, is something like water, then you're giving a different kind of explanation than if you're saying look, its the god Oceanus which causes the storms, which give water to the gods of the sky, who fertilize the earth – its a different kind of way of going about it. In fact, what you're seeing at this time, about six or seven hundred years BCE in Greece is the beginning of science, and also the beginning of philosophy, because in those times, philosophy and science weren't distinguished, they were simply distinguished from myth, a mythical way of talking.

"Oddly enough, a similar kind of thing was going on in the Biblical world ... that tradition, that culture, that is documented in the various books that we refer to as the Bible. There's an interesting remark which you find in the letter of the apostle Paul .. to the Galatians, where he tells the Galatians .. he's scolding them:

"When we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world."

"And that's another description of what a mythical primal culture is like.

"You were enslaved to beings (these elemental spirits) who are by nature not gods."

"Now this was a huge insight, this is part of the Axial insight. The reason he says that is because his conception of what we are, has changed, has deepened, and he thinks that these elemental spirits (I mean, he believes there are elemental spirits running everything), but they're not worth being gods. Somehow, he judges them as not having something that makes them worthy of being a god. In other words, they're not going to be able to answer the kind of things that we have gods for.

"How can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, how can you want to be enslaved to them again?"

"And he uses the word 'slavery' because he thinks that people who think they are gods, are in a way enslaved to these spirits, who treat these spirits as gods are enslaved to them, because somehow they have lost something of their own power. In fact, they would use the notion of idol or idolatry to explain what happens when you take spirits and demons and angels and things like that as being somehow gods. (I'll explain the notion of God in a moment.)

"Secularisation – we're now jumping right forward, and remember, all these steps forward, these developments in consciousness, always occur with a few people, sometimes with only one person, and then spread, its never that everybody changes their understanding of what it is to be human all at once, its a sort of break-through, a break-through which then spreads like wild-fire. And the break-through in secularisation, the process I'm going to be talking about now, that's created the modern world and of which modern science is a part of, was the discovery that there are no gods. There are no supernatural spirits. That these are figments of people's imagination, but there aren't any supernatural powers. We projected these things into the world. That's the key insight of the secularisation process. Its a rejection – and I'm going to argue its not a rejection of religion as such – its a rejection of what is called the sacral world view. Its a change in world view. A very radical change, in which instead of being somehow subject to the world of the gods, these supernatural powers, these spirits, these devils, these angels, and living in a world in which miracles happen and magic is possible, and all these things, suddenly we recognize that all these powers are simply our own powers, that we've somehow projected into beings other than ourselves. And in fact were going to see a thinker like Feurbach actually uses the word projection. But I'm jumping ahead.

"So, that's the key, negative, side of the secularisation process – the rejection of this whole area, this way of looking at the world. Of course, in a sacral world view, they wouldn't use the word supernatural, because everything is supernatural and there wasn't this distinction; I'm just using the word to give you an idea of what is being rejected.

"It's interesting to note that the process had already begun in Ancient Greece, and this involved the rejection of all the Greek gods, and it had also begun in the actual Biblical tradition too, which involved the rejection of all the spiritual things. Of course, people continued to believe, most people did, virtually all people, throughout the Middle Ages, in spite of what people like Paul say, religious people continued to believe in this kind of sacral world view, and expressed their own religion in those terms, although there is this fundamental lack in coherence about it. But anyway, we'll get back to that when we talk about religion later on. But what I want to do know is give you a deeper idea of what's really going on in this secularisation process.

"The crucial thing is to see is that there's an idea of, instead of human beings somehow being subject to these spiritual powers that run the rule of nature and world processes, the power is somehow within us. Its not out there, its in us. Its not difficult to see the development of science as part of this, because science of course first of all gives one real concrete knowledge of these processes of nature. Even when Thales, a very primitive scientist, says 'everything is water', and another pre-Socratic philosopher comes along and says 'No, no, its not water, its earth', and then, 'no, no, its not earth, earth's too dead, its fire, everything is made of fire', and then another says, 'no, no, its not, everything is made of air', you can see that they're trying to find what rock-bottom reality is, what causes things to be the way they are, why is there anything at all, what explains the existence of the Universe. That's the sort of question they're wrestling with. And the great philosophers in Greece, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, were doing the same thing.

"But here, you have a very much more concrete way of doing that, trying to find out, increase their knowledge, of the Universe and of ourselves. Its no longer enough just to take the authority of some famous person. I mean, throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, philosophy was developing much more than science, science was still in its infancy, in fact, philosophy and science, metaphysics and physics, was still just seen as one thing. But real knowledge was always referred to some authority, for instance, Aristotle; Aristotle said this, therefore it must be true. Aristotle taught that heavy bodies will fall faster than light bodies. And of course, any common sense person will see that if you drop a feather and if you drop a piece of stone, the stone will hit the ground first. But of course when Galileo comes along and does his experiments (and I don't know if this is true) dropping things off the leaning tower of Pizza, he realized that the reason why the feather goes down like that is because there is a resistance of the air, and actually everything falls at the same rate. But to question the authority of Aristotle was a terrible thing. But he did. And modern science was the decision to find out for yourself. Copernicus, who said, yes, its true, the Sun doesn't go around the Earth, the Earth goes around the Sun. Now, all these people were actually condemned by religious authorities for these opinions, because it was such a revolutionary effect on one's whole world view. If the Earth's not the centre of the cosmos, then somehow humanity is not the most important thing in the world and therefore everything that we feel about our world view and our religious life, is somehow mistaken.

"But the notion that the authority can be rejected, is a crucial one, because one after another, at the time, not just in science, but in the realm of knowledge, authority counts for nothing. In morality, in politics, in religion, there is a movement away from authority, an external authority. This is what the church's Reformation... this is why they are rejecting the authority of the Pope. This is why the nations are rejecting the authority of the Holy Roman Empire, who had to be crowned by the Pope in order to have his real authority. So you find a huge political change, which is the beginning of the democratic movement, which ultimately ends up in the 19th century with the idea that people should only be subject to rules, to laws, that they have participated in making. And that gives you the clue to what's driving this whole process of secularisation. Its an epoch-making discovery in our own self-knowledge. Its the discovery that human beings have the capacity for free choice, for self-determination. That's the essence of secularisation: that we make ourselves, we are self-determining beings.

"I've got such a nice expression of this insight, that I'm going to read it to you, taken from a book which one day will eventually emerge from these sessions (I find, each time I give this course, I develop my ideas a little bit). Its from a Renaissance philosopher and poet, Pico della Mirandola, because the secularisation phenomena didn't only effect science and knowledge, it was in religion, it was in politics, it was in art. He wrote a little booklet called The Oration on the Dignity of Man[c.1486], and in this quote, God is speaking to Adam:

"Neither a fixed abode, nor form that is yours alone, nor any function peculiar to yourself, have We given you, Adam, to the end, that according to your longing and according to your judgement, you may have and possess what abode, what form, what functions, you yourself shall desire. The nature of all other beings, is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will, in whose hand we have placed you, shall ordain for yourself the limits of your nature. We have set you at the world's centre, that you may, from there, more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice, and with honour, as though the maker and moulder of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever shape you shall prefer.

"I can't think of a better expression of the spirit of the age, it captures perfectly the secularisation process.

I just want to put up a time map... it will give you an idea of what was going on and who was involved ... the fathers of this process (they're all men, I'm afraid, that was life in those days!) ... The spine of the modern world (Copernicus, Galileo, Newton), in those three names, you see the development of the original scientific world view. But it wasn't only science. Other names which are important here are Leonardo da Vinci (art and science), Martin Luther, and Machiavelli. In all these different spheres of life, certain individuals and groups have made the same discovery, it was a discovery of something about humanity, which is where the word humanism comes from. Often people think that its a rediscovery of something that was discovered in Greece, but no, its a development of that. And its also, as we're going to see, a development of what was discovered in the Biblical tradition of thought as well.

"We can also add Kant, who died about when Marx was born, who died about when Freud was born. And Freud died in 1939, and in 1938, I was born! So, you get from the Middle Ages to me, in six [steps]! It's very much part of what's going on now; history collapses itself when you look at it in terms of people's life-spans.

"Now, I want to make two points about the secularisation process, that are quite crucial, for where we're going next. You have to see that, at this time, what occurs in the realm of thought, is the separation of what we now call science (which is basically me looking out at the world, and every aspect of the world, each science dealing with one aspect, that's why science has this inherent limitation) and philosophy (which is, from now on, looking at the human subject, the one who creates science and religion, and judges these things, and morality, and politics, is looking in), at this discovery, that there is a difference, and that there's an area inside to be explored. Its part of the change, it's the self-awareness that is one side of the self-determination; self-consciousness, self-awareness, self-determination, are two sides of the coin.

"But first of all, in the early part of the period, its science that carries all before it, because science, mainly the natural and physical sciences, give a new picture of the Universe as a great machine-like thing, working according to these laws, which these scientists discover, the law-like regularities, and the Universe appears as a great machine, composed of little inert atoms that are combined in everything that exists. The atomic theory, which applies as much to microscopic things, as it does to the skies, or stars, and the laws of motion, Newton's laws of motion, apply just as much to the movements of the subatomic particles in my body, as they do to the movement of the stars in the sky. So you gradually get this mechanistic view of the Universe, that everything is working like a great machine, all parts are somehow interlocked, and this is what nature is.

"Modern science wasn't just a change in the way you looked at things; this new way of looking at the Universe enabled you to actually manipulate the Universe in ways that had never done before. The laws of motion enabled you to make different kinds of canons, and also different machinery, which could move things around. And of course this is the beginning of that huge burgeoning of technology that took place in Europe and outstripped every other culture, every other civilization, culminating in the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.

"This was useful knowledge. It helped you not just know the Universe, but change it, make it a home for humanity. This sense of power was very much attached to being able to control the forces of nature. Its no longer these spirits of nature who control us, we have the power to control nature. And that was crucial. And that was why this notion of the Universe became so popular.

"But you realize, it is a deterministic picture of the Universe. If everything is like a machine, and we're part of it, because we're no different, we're made of the same atoms as everything else, working according to the same laws which the scientists picture, then somehow we are not free. We are determined like anything else. And for most people this picture was a threat, in the sense that it saw reality, science was seen now as the only form of knowledge, and therefore anything science couldn't know, wasn't real. Now the only thing that science can know, are things that are observable and measurable. And this was the beginning of an attitude known as materialism, or physicalism, that everything real, is ultimately physical or material. And that means us, as well. So what about life after death? How can there be such a thing? We know that our bodies corrupt. If that's all we are, then that's it.

"So human freedom, life after death, and actually, the Christian, or the Islamic or the Jewish idea of the God, was also foreign to the whole new world view, because the only things that are real are the things that science can show are real, and we cant show that this transcendent creator is real in any way.

"So this was quite problematic, this world view, for the normal people who thought about it, because it was materialistic, because it was determinist, because science was the only kind of knowledge.

"And the philosopher Kant, he's probably the best representative, but right from the beginning there were philosophers who reacted against this. And so, as I said, from the beginning, the scientists go one way, like David Hume, Locke, Hobbes, they all tended to support the scientific world view, because it made such good sense.

"But there were other philosophers who saw that, if this really was the whole truth about everything, then such a thing as human freedom was impossible. Now, I've just explained that a belief in human freedom was really part of the driving force behind science. So the philosopher Kant said this can't be true. And his solution was to say, a desperate solution, look, science and the scientific world view, is fine as far as it goes. And in so far as it talks about the human body, it is accurate too. We are part of this deterministic nature that Newton has laid bare for us. But there's another part of us, the part of us that reasons, that produces science, that's not material, in any way at all. It couldn't be material, because then, how would freedom be possible? And how would even thought be possible? Because if all our thoughts are produced by external causes, the laws of nature, why should be believe that they are true? I mean, normally, when you can show that somebody's thoughts are being produced by some kind of scientific cause, like being drunk, you're seeing snaked under your bed, or hallucinating because you've taken some drug, you say, oh well, he's under the influence of another kind of force, you don't him seriously. So genuine thought, and genuine choice, are impossible, unless you can really escape these deterministic laws of nature. So Kant said no, there are two parts to us. There's the phenomenal self, which is part of nature, but there's also the numinal self, which is the free self, which transcends these laws of nature, and in fact, because it is immaterial, is not destroyed by death. So, that was the other side the modern development, what is called dualism.

"Now, there are strong arguments against both materialism and dualism. In other words, there's something inadequate about materialism and materialistic view of what a human being is, and a dualistic of what a human being is. But on the other hand, each of these two views, that developed side-by-side in the modern period, contains a fundamental truth about us. The fundamental truth in materialism is yes, we are connected, we are part of the Universe, inextricably intertwined, by all the causal connections that physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, sociology – all the sciences, basically what the sciences do is discover things that cause us to be and behave as what we are. These are all there. So there's no hope of escape from this inextricable connection. That's true. And I think that as the sciences progress, it becomes even more and more obvious how much we are determined by those kind of laws, how much we are connected by these causal links to everything, to our natural and our social environment.

"But, not totally. The truth of dualism is the fact that there is something in us that transcends. When we believe, or do something for a reason, then we are acting freely. In other words, we are acting in a way that can't be explained by any conceivable set of scientific laws, however much science will develop in the future.

"I normally illustrate this point by talking about a football match, and the winger crossing the ball into the middle and the centre-forward getting it first time, the ball eluding the goalie's outstretched arms and entering the corner of the net – its a goal! Now every single science could give an account of the causes that brought about that goal: the physical scientist could talk about the angle ... the coefficient of friction between ball and boot ... the elasticity of the ball (that would be chemistry)... biology could talk about the blood sugar in the goalie's muscles ... psychologists could talk about the intentions of the goalie, he was having problems with his love-life... the pep talk that the coach had given... sociologists could give a story... all the sciences could talk about it... brain surgeons could talk about what went on in the brain, the sudden surge of adrenalin which got all those neurons firing... but can you see, that however many sciences there are, and however much they develop, they can't give a complete explanation – why not? Because no explanation is complete that doesn't refer to the rules of football! See, the rules of football also cause the fact that the ball went in that direction rather than in that direction. Not by pushing the ball, but because the player understood the rules of football, and knows that in order to win a match, the ball has to enter the net of the opposing team. But the rules of football cause the goal in a totally different way from the kind of laws and causes the sciences discover.

"Of course, life is not a football game, but what stands for the rules of football are the rules of logic. And I don't mean what's written down in textbooks, but what's actually going on in the human mind. So dualism has got something to say, we are free, in the sense that we transcend the whole area of reality that science can deal with.

"We knew that in the beginning, because we create science. But know we see it in a deeper way, that there really is something in us that is absolutely transcendent of the realities which science can show us.

"But where dualism makes a mistake is to say that there are somehow two parts to us. And the reason that Kant had to say that was because he had this primitive account of science, this mechanistic account of science. But if you look at the account of science and the scientific world view that I gave you last week, you'll see that there's no need to try and save human transcendence by dualism, because we see that at every stage in the process of cosmic evolution there is transcendence occurring of one level beyond the other. And its just clearest in us because its so absolute. And its because we have inner knowledge of it, and we know it happens, but we don't have to be dualists,. we don't have to invent a separate soul or mind that exists on its own. All we have to say is that the picture that the sciences give us it's abstract, its partial, its not the whole picture.

"And what I want to do next time is try and combine the truths of materialism and the truths of dualism in a way that fits in with contemporary science and which can provide a far better understanding of human religion than was possible before.

"Last thing, it was very interesting to see what a philosopher like Kant, who was a very devout Protestant Christian, made of the phenomenon of religion. Remember, he is absolutely at one in rejecting the sacral view of the Universe – there are no supernatural spirits, miracles, and all this stuff, he sees that as simply the way in which people imagine the world in a pre-modern culture. And he's pretty radical in his demythologisation, he was the first philosopher to do it. He took religion very seriously, and the dominant religion in Europe was Christianity, and philosophers of the time all thought that Christianity was by far the most impressive religion, and following Kant, they also thought that Christianity had somehow got hold of an absolute truth, but it was a truth not about a being other than us, called God, it was a truth about us. It was precisely the discovery, Kant thought, that Christianity, especially in its doctrine of incarnation, that somehow in Jesus, humanity and divinity were one, that Kant, this was simply saying in a mythical way, what he believed – that there was something about human beings that was really transcendent. And therefore we were free, and therefore he also thought there was the possibility, at least, of a life transcending death.

"But what he wanted to get rid of were all the other bits of Christianity, the story form in which Christian faith was presented, the story about Adam and Eve and the Fall, and the Devil, and Jesus dying on the cross in order to save us from the Devil, and God taking this is as somehow paying the debts we had, this whole dramatic story about what went on, which was the way in which Christianity was traditionally presented. He said, that's the story. Its like the parable of the Good Samaritan, there wasn't really a good Samaritan, or the prodigal son, Jesus wasn't talking about a particular prodigal son, he was trying to illustrate a truth by talking about this prodigal son. So, Kant said, the whole Bible's like that, it's trying to illustrate this fundamental truth about our human existence, and so he wrote a book called Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone [1793], and he was all for this kind of religion. In fact, he even allowed that there was some sense in which there really was a God, but not a God out there, but a God somehow inside, which was the source of our reason, and our freedom, and our morality, which made human beings capable of that. Its almost as though we became God, as Jesus was somehow, in the language of the time, said to be God; so we were. Jesus was just a model of what everybody was.

"So although he had this positive idea of religion, he was intensely critical of actual religion, the way religion was actually explained and practised, because he saw it as the enemy of human freedom; one had to believe that this was true, one had to believe stories that one was told, one couldn't work them out for oneself. One had to submit to some external authority. You can see why traditional religion appeared as somehow very opposite to human freedom, especially when it was understood in terms of a sacral world view, you've got to be subject not only to God and Jesus, but also to the Pope and religious authorities, and you've got to believe in the Bible: all external sources of authority. Kant would have nothing of that. And he was followed by Feurbach, by Hegel, and each of them delivered even more subtle and devastating critiques of the way people were actually religious, which they saw as the enemy of freedom.

"And the notion of religion as a projection is invented by Feurbach, and Feurbach's pupil was Karl Marx, and you can see his idea of religion as an alienating thing, and as the opium of the people, derives from this critique. And even more recently, Freud; Freud's idea that religion is a universal, obsessional neurosis, where we try to form a wish-fulfilment, the same sort of thing. But you must remember they are targeting a form of religion, and I'm going to argue that religion needn't be like that – there is such a thing as authentic religion, which isn't the enemy of human freedom. But in order to argue like that, I've just got to lay a basis in talking about what we really are, and in what sense we really do have this transcendent side to us. And, that's what I'm going to do next Sunday."

After taking a question from the audience, Shutte reviewed the answers to the two questions he had posed last week:

"It was interesting because you were different from the 200 who answered these questions in Cape Town. ... When it came to what you thought the apparent conflict between religion and science was, the overwhelming majority went for evolution vs. creationism. That was, in a way, perhaps, a little dull :-) The really interesting part is the second question, the things which you felt were really important. Now, there were some specific issues, for instance, whether God exists, whether there's life after death, which had also appeared in Cape Town, the question of evolution also appeared here. But most of you raised the issue of how religion (which tends to be a matter of faith and dogma, you believe or else, which is therefore irrational or matter of feeling) and science (which is rational, or matter of truth, of proof), could be compatible. But many of you actually felt that the compatibility of science and religion is both desirable and possible. And there you were at one with the people of Cape Town.

"There were one or two specifically Christian issues, likes the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, the Bible being literally true, or not literally true. So those were specific Christian things which we didn't really get in Cape Town. But then there was a rather interesting feeling on a part of a couple of people that there was an organized rejection of Christianity, that somehow Christianity was being thrown out, in a way that Islam or Eastern religion wasn't. And that secularism, understood as no religion, was being promoted. Secularism, understood as atheism I suppose, but a special kind of atheism that allows for Islam and Eastern religions, but not Christianity.

"The other one, was that the scientific world view was somehow an inhuman and dehumanising one, and that it was impossible to live in that kind of world view. And I find that a very challenging thing, because, I suppose, in the past four or five years, I've been becoming more and more familiar in making my own contemporary scientific world view, so I feel quite at home there now."

Anthonissen then remarked, "And Dawkins would say, it's full of poetics and ecstatic things, the scientific world view."

"I don't want to claim Dawkins as an authority on this," Shutte replied, "he and I don't see eye to eye on anything, but no, he's right about that."

Asked to repeat the comment, Anthonissen noted: "People tend to say that poets experience ecstasy and things, but [Dawkins] would say that the scientist would experience the same. It's not just clinical and cold, it's very exciting."

"I misunderstood you slightly," Shutte added, "I think the scientific world view that I gave you last week is a million times more human than the mechanistic world view that I've been talking about today. I mean, it positively brims with life, and if you can get hold of a book like Brian Swimme's 'Universe Story' then you'll really see this."

The meeting ended at 12:16; part three is on Sunday, May 20, 11:00-12:00, in the chapel of the US Dept. of Theology.

Off-the-cuff response

There's much in Shutte's two talks so far that is incredibly fascinating and engaging. Some of it I don't understand. I have a healthy respect for philosophers, because they have acquired a certain skill and depth of thinking which far exceeds my own, so in part, my inability to agree is because of ignorance. Also, there are very subtle things afoot – such as complex ideas, and the cleverness & inventiveness of the human mind.

For example, I don't understand the great significance of stressing, as Shutte does, that "scientific knowledge is always limited". I assume that all kind of knowledge is limited, that all observations are based on theory. I start out believing something, and continuously test the interpretation of what I observe, and perhaps revise my theory. But for the life of me, I cannot figure out what it is that makes one, with intellectual honesty, wish to include in their theoretical framework, the supernatural.

That a thinking species (such as human beings) will naturally discover supernaturalism is, I think, obvious. Once abstract ideas can be formed, a certain class will arise dealing with limits. As physical entities, we are limited, or bound: I am here, and not over there; we are talking now, but weren't just-now. From this physical experience, abstract ideas such as beyond, future, omnipotent, and so on, seem unavoidable. The sense we have of being somehow located in our bodies, rather than elsewhere, also leads to limit-crossing abstractions. The imminent and the transcendent are thus inevitable concepts. But merely conceiving something does not guarantee it exists in any way outside of the thinker's mind.

To my way of thinking, supernatural knowledge is a false kind of knowledge, insofar as it studies that which doesn't exist. By which I mean, the subject of, say, theology is a construct, a fiction; one may as well write a discourse about the politics and sociology of Middle Earth's hobbits.

Having brashly revealed my philosophical naivetι and bias, I still cannot help but ask, why do you think the supernatural exists in any non-fictional kind of way?

Shutte points out at length that science is constructed by people and as such is limited. For sure. And science has mechanisms in place for self-correction, that allow for an ever-closer match between our explanation (and prediction) of events and what is observed, in both the physical and the mental world. While limited, science appears to me to be the best tool – by a long shot – that we have. Of course, to my thinking, science is the only tool for understanding the world.

Neither do I understand precisely why Shutte needs to say, when discussing the evolutionary account of the Universe, that "each new level of existence ... emerges from what has gone before – but is not produced by it", and why "the physical Universe is not sufficient in itself to produce biological, living, things." Mind-blank. To me it is self-evident, almost, that complex structure and behaviour should emerge from simpler units. Certain elementary building-blocks, interacting in simple (locally linear) ways, can lead to combinations that interact with others in ways that none of the basic components are able to. Such emergence requires exactly nothing more than the physical Universe interacting with itself.

The other thing that strikes me time and again in Shutte's discussion is the ongoing struggle with (simple) determinism. "If everything is like a machine, and we're part of it, working according to the same laws, then somehow we are not free. We are determined like anything else."

I don't actually have much of a problem with this – it certainly doesn't appear to me as alarming as others make it out to be. I get the impression that "free will is an illusion" is likely to generate a knee-jerk reaction. This "free will at all costs" attitude seems to be a response to the view of man as a (simple) machine. I don't see man as a simple machine – we are complex machines, built of simple parts, exhibiting both simple and complicated (emergent) behaviours. In the long run, our behaviour is unpredictable in principle; but in practice, our behaviour is fully predictable moment-to-moment in simple situations. There are laws dictating our behaviour, but these laws combine in ways that surprise us, which we then label as "free will".

What completely surprised me in Shutte's talk was the question, then, "So what about life after death?" This, too, has never greatly exercised my mind, because I assume there is no life after death. This is it. It is unpleasant to contemplate one's own mortality, but that is how it has to be. If we didn't fear death, at least to a certain degree, our species would never have made it up that first slimy slope. But to me, to "cope" with the reality of death by conjuring up a convoluted metaphysics, is a costly and wasteful exercise, and a terrible way to live. You die. Get over it, and start living. Trite-sounding, yes, but a bridge that is better crossed than to stay put dreaming of wings.

I also don't grasp the problem that Kant wrestles with when, in Shutte's words, he says: "genuine thought, and genuine choice, are impossible, unless you can really escape these deterministic laws of nature." Thought, the mind, the self, the soul – the psyche of psychology – is a process. It's what brains (mostly the grey squishy kind, but I believe also the electronic kind eventually) do. The engine of my motorbike has moving bits arranged in a particular way, and a supply of fuel, and the result is internal combustion. I would look foolish trying to disassemble it, looking for a handful of 'internal combustion'.

Shutte gave an example of how "we are acting in a way that can't be explained by any conceivable set of scientific laws, however much science will develop in the future" by using a football match, using the various sciences to explain facets of scoring a goal. What I didn't understand, is why the internalisation of the rules of football, a communicable social convention, was not included as part of the psychological description of the player's behaviour. Without the players understanding the rules (and being properly motivated etc) there is no reason for a particular behaviour.

Link

  1. Part 1, delivered on May 06.

nothing more to see. please move along.