Thursday, 4 November 2010

Morning Scepticism: Natural

Far from removing humanity from the natural world, scientific inquiry has made humanity more a part of nature than ever. Not only are we of the same origin as all other life, but we are made of the same stuff as non-living material. Far be it from life being somehow distinct from the universe, it's an expression of it! Yet it seems that this notion is undesirable to some, wanting the universe to be an expression of us rather than us being an expression of the universe. The natural it seems is not enough for those who crave it.


Anonymous said...

It is my first message here, so I would like to say hallo to all of you! It is uncommonly comfort to meet your community!

matthewdsegall said...

Hey Kel,

So I'd much rather enter a dialogue with you here than on Pharyngula. I hope that is ok.

You wrote "What I worry about Matthew is that this [my comment that a scientific cosmology could still be sacred] could be taken two ways. There's the fallacy of taking an intuitive sense about the world and expecting science to hold that sacred - vitalism, dualism, the soul, gods, etc. - trying to impose these ideas into science just makes for bad science. But to celebrate science in the way Carl Sagan did or in the way Michael Dowd is doing, there's already that now.
From my interaction with you on here, I think you fall into the first category. You've repeatedly talked about the negative implications of materialism, so I have to wonder just why you would be trying to argue for celebrating scientific knowledge? You reject its implications!"

So far as I am aware, Michael Dowd is not a materialist. He does, however, take the revelations of the scientific method very seriously. I see him in the same lineage as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. The mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme is another for whom scientific knowledge is fundamental to his worldview, but who is also not a materialist. Vitalism, dualism, etc. not the only metaphysical options available aside from materialism that remain live options when considered alongside modern scientific facts. The most well-articulated metaphysical alternative to materialism that I've yet come across is that of physicist, mathematician, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. It is not a matter of expecting science to hold certain values sacred, but of holding our knowledge about the world to certain common sense tests of adequacy. If materialism, as a metaphysical system, is true, then all of our common sense notions about responsibility and freedom are wrong and our entire legal system and pretenses to civilized democracy are a sham. To me, this invalidates materialism as a possible metaphysical system, not for consequentialist reasons, but for empirical reasons. It is a a matter of hard-core common sense that human persons can behave intentionally. There is nothing more plainly evident to me than that "I think," and that this thinking is about material objects and not a material object itself. We cannot reject this assumption (in the way that materialism does) without a performative self-contradiction. The point isn't that, as Descartes was lead to believe based upon his deductions from the cogito ("I think"), reality is composed of two different substances, mind and matter. The point is that material processes are also experiential processes, that intelligence is built into matter and not an extra, supernatural addition. The evolutionary cosmology produced by modern science has all the necessary psychological features to serve as a new sacred story for a new civilization. Check out Brian Swimme's approach: