Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Quest for a Common Language

It was probably inevitable that my comment last week about the pseudoconservative crusade against Darwinian evolution in today’s America would attract more attention, and generate more heat, than anything else in the post. Some of my readers abroad expressed their surprise that the subject was even worth mentioning any more, and it’s true that most religious people elsewhere on the planet, even those who revere the same Bible our American creationists insist on treating as a geology textbook, got over the misunderstandings that drive the creationist crusade a long time ago.

While it’s primarily an American issue, though, I’d like to ask the indulgence of my readers elsewhere in the world, and  also of American readers who habitually duck under the nearest couch whenever creationists and evolutionists start shouting past each other.  As a major hot-button issue in the tangled relationship between science and religion, the quarrel over evolution highlights the way that this relationship has gotten messed up, and thus will have to be sorted out as the civil religion of progress comes unraveled and its believers have to find some new basis for their lives.

Mind you, I also have a personal stake in it. It so happens that I’m a religious person who accepts the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s not despite my religion—quite the contrary, it’s part of my religion—and so I’m going to break one of my own rules and talk a little bit about Druidry here.

The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:

“Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?”

“A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.”

“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?”

“A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.”

Like most 18th-century rituals, this one goes on for a good long while, but the passage just cited is enough to give the flavor and some of the core ideas. Abred is the realm of incarnate existence, and includes “every form capable of a body and life,” from what used to be called “infusoria” (single-celled organisms, nowadays) all the way up the scale of biological complexity and diversity, through every kind of plant and animal, including you and me. What the dialogue is saying is that we all, every one of us, embody all these experiences in ourselves. When Taliesin in his great song of triumph said “I have been all things previously,” this is what we believe he was talking about.

There are at least two ways in which all this can be taken. It might be referring to the long biological process that gave rise to each of us, and left our bodies and minds full of traces of our kinship with all other living things. It might also be referring to the transmigration of souls, which was a teaching of the ancient Druids and is fairly common in the modern tradition as well: the belief that there is a center of consciousness that survives the death of one body to be reborn in another, and that each such center of consciousness, by the time it first inhabits a human body, has been through all these other forms, slowly developing the complexity that will make it capable of reflective thought and wisdom. You’ll find plenty of Druids on either side of this divide; what you won’t find—at least I’ve yet to encounter one—are Druids who insist that the existence of a soul is somehow contradicted by the evolution of the body.

Yet you can’t bring up the idea of evolution in today’s America without being beseiged by claims that Darwinian evolution is inherently atheistic. Creationists insist on this notion just as loudly as atheists do, which is really rather odd, considering that it’s nonsense. By this I don’t simply mean that an eccentric minority faith such as Druidry manages to combine belief in evolution with belief in gods; I mean that the supposed incompatibility between evolution and the existence of one or more gods rests on the failure of religious people to take the first principles of their own faiths seriously.

Let’s cover some basics first. First of all, Darwin’s theory of natural selection may be a theory, but evolution is a fact. Living things change over time to adapt to changing environments; we’ve got a billion years of fossil evidence to show that, and the thing is happening right now—in the emergence of the Eastern coyote, the explosive radiation of cichlid fishes in East Africa, and many other examples. The theory attempts to explain why this observed reality happens. A great deal of creationist rhetoric garbles this distinction, and tries to insist that uncertainties in the explanation are proof that the thing being explained doesn’t exist, which is bad logic. The theory, furthermore, has proven itself solidly in practice—it does a solid job of explaining things for which competing theories have to resort to ad hoc handwaving—and it forms the beating heart of today’s life sciences, very much including ecology.

Second, the narratives of the Book of Genesis, if taken literally, fail to match known facts about the origins and history of the Earth and the living things on it. Creationists have argued that the narratives are true anyway, but their attempts to prove this convince only themselves.  It’s been shown beyond reasonable doubt, for example, that the Earth came into being long before 4004 BCE, that animals and plants didn’t evolve in the order given in the first chapter of Genesis, that no flood large enough to put an ark on Mount Ararat happened during the chronological window the Bible allows for the Noah story, and so on.  It was worth suggesting back in the day that the narratives of the Book of Genesis might be  literally true, but that hypothesis failed to fit the data, and insisting that the facts must be wrong if they contradict a cherished theory is not a useful habit.

Third, the value of the Bible—or of any other scripture—does not depend on whether it makes a good geology textbook, any more than the value of a geology textbook depends on whether it addresses the salvation of the soul. I don’t know of any religion in which faith and practice center on notions of how the Earth came into existence and got its current stock of living things. Certainly the historic creeds of Christianity don’t even consider the issue worth mentioning. The belief that God created the world does not require believing any particular claim about how that happened; nor does it say in the Bible that the Bible has to be taken literally, or that it deals with questions of geology or paleontology at all.

What’s happened here, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, is that a great many devout Christians in America have been suckered into playing a mug’s game. They’ve put an immense amount of energy into something that does their religion no good, and plays straight into the hands of their opponents.

It’s a mug’s game, to begin with, because the central strategy that creationists have been using since well before Darwin’s time guarantees that they will always lose. It’s what historians of science call the “God of the gaps” strategy—the attempt to find breaks in the evolutionary process that scientists haven’t yet filled with an explanation, and then to insist that only God can fill them. Back in Darwin’s own time, the usual argument was that there weren’t any transitional forms between one species and another; in response to the resulting talk about “missing links,” paleontologists spent the next century and a half digging up transitional forms, so that nowadays there are plenty of evolutionary lineages—horses, whales, and human beings among them—where every species is an obvious transition between the one before it and the one after. As those gaps got filled in, critics of evolution retreated to another set, and another, and another; these days, they’ve retreated all the way to fine details of protein structure, and when that gap gets filled in, it’ll be on to the next defeat. The process is reliable enough that I’ve come to suspect that biologists keep an eye on the latest creationist claims when deciding what corner of evolutionary theory gets intensively researched next.

Still, there’s a much deeper sense in which it’s a mug’s game, and explaining that deeper sense is going to require attention to some of the basic presuppositions of religious thought. To keep things in suitably general terms, we’ll talk here about what philosophers call classical theism, defined as the belief that the universe was created out of nothing by a unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being. (There’s more to classical theism than that—you can find the details in any good survey of philosophy of religion—but these are the details that matter for our present purposes.) I’ve argued elsewhere that classical theism isn’t the best explanation of human religious experience, but we’ll let that go for now; it corresponds closely to the beliefs of most American creationists, and it so happens that arguments that apply to classical theism here can be applied equally well to nearly all other theist beliefs.

Of the terms in the definition just given, the one that gets misused most often these days is “eternal.” That word doesn’t mean “lasting for a very long time,” as when we say that a bad movie lasts for an eternity; it doesn’t even mean “lasting for all of time.” What it means instead is “existing outside of time.” (Connoisseurs of exact diction will want to know that something that lasts for a very long time is diuturnal, and something that lasts for all of time is sempiternal.) Eternal beings, if such there be, would experience any two moments in time the way you and I experience two points on a tabletop—distinct but simultaneously present. It’s only beings who exist in time who have to encounter those two moments sequentially, or as we like to say, “one at a time.”

That’s why, for example, the endless arguments about whether divine providence contradicts human free will are barking up the wrong stump. Eternal beings wouldn’t have to foresee the future—they would simply see it, because to them, it’s not in the future.  An omniscient eternal being can know exactly what you’ll do in 2025, not because you lack free will, but because there you are, doing it right out in plain sight, as well as being born, dying, and doing everything else in between. An eternal being could also see what you’re doing in 2025 and respond to it in 2013, or at any other point in time from the Big Bang to whatever final destiny might be waiting for the universe billions of years from now. All this used to be a commonplace of philosophy through the end of the Middle Ages, and it’s no compliment to modern thought that a concept every undergraduate knew inside and out in 1200 has been forgotten even by people who think they believe in eternal beings.

Now of course believers in classical theism and its equivalents don’t just believe in eternal beings in general.  They believe in one, unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe and everything in it out of nothing. Set aside for the moment whether you are or aren’t one of those believers, and think through the consequences of the belief.  If it’s true, then everything in the universe without exception is there either because that being deliberately put it there, or because he created beings with free will in the full knowledge that they would put it there. Everything that wasn’t done by one of those created beings, in turn, is a direct manifestation of the divine will.  Gravity and genetics,  photosynthesis and continental drift, the origin of life from complex carbon compounds and the long evolutionary journey since then: grant the presuppositions of classical theism, and these are, and can only be, how beings in time perceive the workings of the eternally creative will of God.

Thus it’s a waste of time to go scrambling around the machinery of the cosmos, looking for scratches left by a divine monkeywrench on the gears and shafts. That’s what the “God of the gaps” strategy does in practice; without ever quite noticing it, it accepts the purely mechanistic vision of the universe that’s promoted by atheists, and then tries to prove that God tinkers with the machinery from time to time. Accept the principles of classical theism and you’ve given up any imaginable excuse for doing that, since a perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent deity leaves no scratches and doesn’t need to tinker. It’s not even a matter of winding up the gears of the cosmos and letting them run from there, in the fashion of the “clockmaker God” of the 18th century Deists; to an eternal divine being, all of time is present simultaneously, every atom is doing exactly and only what it was put there to do, and what looks like machinery to the atheist can only be, to the believer in classical theism or its equivalents, the action of the divine will in eternity acting upon the world in time.

Such a universe, please note, doesn’t differ from the universe of modern science in any objectively testable way, and this is as it should be. The universe of matter and energy is what it is, and modern science is the best toolkit our species has yet discovered for figuring out how it works. The purpose of theology isn’t to bicker with science over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern—of value, meaning and purpose—which science can’t and shouldn’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion. To return to a point I tried to raise in one of last month’s posts, not everything that matters to human beings can be settled by an objective assessment of fact; there are times, many of them, that you have to decide on some other basis which of several different narratives you choose to trust.

Step beyond questions of fact, that is, and you’re in the territory of faith—a label that properly includes the atheist’s belief in a purely material cosmos just as much as it does the classical theist’s belief in a created cosmos made by an infinite and eternal god, the traditional polytheist’s belief in a living cosmos shaped by many divine powers, and so on, since none of these basic presuppositions about the cosmos can be proven or disproven.  How do people decide between these competing visions, then?  As noted in the post just mentioned, when that choice is made honestly, it’s made on the basis of values. Values are always individual, and always relative to a particular person in a particular context.  They are not a function of the intellect, but of the heart and will—or to use a old and highly unfashionable word, of character. Different sets of presuppositions about the cosmos speak to different senses of what values matter; which is to say that they speak to different people, in different situations.

This, of course, is what a great many religions have been saying all along. In most of the religions of the west, and many of those from other parts of the world, faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms. To accept any such vision of the nature of existence is to define one’s identity and relationship to the whole cosmos; to refuse to accept any such vision is also to define these things, in a different way; and in a certain sense, you don’t make that choice—you are that choice.  Rephrase what I’ve just said in the language of salvation and grace, and you’ve got one of the core concepts of Christianity; phrase it in other terms, and you’ve got an important element of many other religions, Druidry among them.

It’s important not to ignore the sweeping differences among these different visions of the nature of existence—these different faiths, to use a far from meaningless idiom. Still, there’s a common theme shared by many of them, which is the insight that human beings are born and come to awareness in a cosmos with its own distinctive order, an order that we didn’t make or choose, and one that imposes firm limits on what we can and should do with our lives.  Different faiths understand that experience of universal order in radically different ways—call it dharma or the Tao, the will of God or the laws of Great Nature, or what have you—but the choice is the same in every case:  you can apprehend the order of the cosmos in love and awe, and accept your place in it, even when that conflicts with the cravings of your ego, or you can put your ego and its cravings at the center of your world and insist that the order of the cosmos doesn’t matter if it gets in the way of what you think you want.  It’s a very old choice: which will you have, the love of power or the power of love?

What makes this particularly important just now is that we’re all facing that choice today with unusual intensity, in relation to part of the order of the cosmos that not all religions have studied as carefully as they might. Yes, that’s the order of the biosphere, the fabric of natural laws and cycles that keep all of us alive. It’s a teaching of Druidry that this manifestation of the order of things is of the highest importance to humanity, and not just because human beings have messed with that order in remarkably brainless ways over the last three hundred years or so. Your individual actions toward the biosphere are an expression of the divide just sketched out. Do you recognize that the living Earth has its own order, that this order imposes certain hard constraints on what human beings can or should try to do, and do you embrace that order and accept those constraints in your own life for the greater good of the living Earth and all that lives upon her? Or do you shrug it off, or go through the motions of fashionable eco-piety, and hop into your SUV lifestyle and slam the pedal to the metal?

Science can’t answer that question, because science isn’t about values. (When people start claiming otherwise, what’s normally happened is that they’ve smuggled in a set of values from some religion or other—most commonly the civil religion of progress.)  Science can tell us how fast we’re depleting the world’s finite oil supplies, and how quickly the signs of unwelcome ecological change are showing up around us; it can predict how soon this or that or the other resource is going to run short, and how rapidly the global climate will start to cost us in blood; it can even tell us what actions might help make the future less miserable than it will otherwise be, and which ones will add to the misery—but it can’t motivate people to choose the better of these, to decide to change their lives for the benefit of the living Earth rather than saying with a shrug, “I’m sure they’ll think of something” or “I’ll be dead before it happens” or “We’re all going to be extinct soon, so it doesn’t matter,” and walking away.

That’s why I’ve been talking at such length about the end of the civil religion of progress here, and why I’ll be going into more detail about the religious landscape of the deindustrial world as we proceed.  Religion is the dimension of human culture that deals most directly with values, and values are the ultimate source of all human motivation. It’s for this reason that I feel it’s crucial to find a common language that will bridge the gap between religions and the environmental sciences, to get science and religion both to settle down on their own sides of the border that should properly separate them—and to show that there’s a path beyond the misguided struggle between them. We’ll talk more about that path next week.

223 comments:

1 – 200 of 223   Newer›   Newest»
Harry J. Lerwill said...

I was lucky enough to come across the terms "eternal" and "Diuternal" when reading Dante's Divine Comedy in high School. Thank you for putting it front and center in the discussion of religion.

The reason my divinity degree did not lead to a pastoral vocation was the feeling that I could never in good conscience tell another what deity wants them to do. The best I can ever accomplish is to encourage a few into listening for that "still small voice".

The podcast we recorded is now up!

http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/podcasts/

If I'd known the direction you were going I'd have asked about more than just reincarnation!

William Hays said...

As a "mainline" Christian I find discussions with creationists end at a cliff with no material available for a bridge. The gap I can never bridge is geology more than biology. The strange chronology of Anglican Archbishop Ussher, which starts creation on October 23, 4004 BC, has been elevated in the fundamentalist world to the level of John 3:16. Why the rantings from that otherwise obscure 16th Century writer would carry more influence than Luther, Calvin, or Wesley is something I cannot explain.

Everything else from the creationist movement rests on the idea of an incredibly young earth, and thus anything from carbon dating to dinosaurs to peak oil must therefore be part of a great conspiracy against the faithful.

Meanwhile, a central theme of the New Testament parables - laborers in a vineyard - stands waiting for someone to exposit in terms of the care and stewardship of our world. Maybe those words in red need to be printed in green.

John Michael Greer said...

Harry, well, you were at a British high school, not an American one, and thus had the chance to learn something.

William, thank you! A green-letter edition of the Bible would be worth seeing; so would more in the way of thoughtful discussions of ecology from the point of view of your faith -- though there are some good examples already.

wiseman said...

As an outsider I'll donate my two cents. IMO here are the top reasons why evolution generates such conflict with traditional Christianity or Islam.

1. Abrahamic religions usually draw their power from a single book or at most two-three books, it's a great source of strength for a religion that primarily relies on conversion because you don't want to carry a hundred books in your bag when traveling from one place to another. But it's also a big weakness as it makes your religion less flexible to change. In contrast eastern religions (would be incorrect to call them religion) have grown organically on the land in which they are practiced and are usually a mix of hundreds of different practices and cultures, there is no 'one' scripture which holds primacy and it's not that difficult to find scriptures which contradict each other completely. So what you get are traditions that are very flexible in the face of change, to give an example from my country, if you told a creationist that they came from Monkeys they would not be amused, but if you told a devout Hindu that humans came from Monkeys they'd be completely at ease with the notion because one of our gods is a monkey, in fact almost every other animal form is revered here.

You can also find thousands of mythological stories which can be adapted to fit modern day technology.

2. Christianity has a history of persecuting scientists and they drew a line in the sand very early on, so it's not surprising that people in science decided to go after the church with all their strength.

3. The intellectual traditions of Christianity and Islam cannot exist outside the framework of the religion, here it's possible to be a monk and not worship even once, all you'd have to do is drape a cloth, renounce your possessions and live a life of hardship trying to serve the poor.

This makes it difficult to reconcile liberal ideas with religious faith. As a result young people tend to drop out of the scene altogether instead of getting absorbed in a separate branch.

afterthegoldrush said...

JMG - I haven't commented in ages as I've been rather side-tracked with raising the 3 kids and garden, but I have been reading, ahem, religiously! I am so glad you are addressing this series of posts and the attending subject matter (that's a big stick you're waving and a lot of hornet's nests) - it has been a truly brilliant series which I can't thank you enough for.

This post though...my, this is that rare thing - a veil lifting, life-changing, value and paradigm shifting tour de force! Ok, maybe this praise puts me in the 'sycophantic follower' category (as discussed over on the comments at Resilience) - but credit where it's due I say - and it is due.

For my own part I have called myself an atheist for the best part of 20 years, with sincere forays into zen buddhist schools of thought. By and large that isn't so remarkable over here in the UK as others have commented. God or Christianity or the whole evolutionary debate just doesn't figure over here. However I have watched the birth of Dawkins' 'brights' and his new Science religiosity with some dismay (from an initial deep respect for the man for at least questioning some deep taboo subjects like 'what's so special about belief'). I have a scientific background myself and so his thinking found fertile ground in my mind for a while...

However, thanks to certain Archdruid my thinking has been broadened beyond such simplistic world views and also helped me realise that deep down there was an intrinsic tension in me - it turns out I'm not an atheist at all - the boy I was at 8 years old could have told me that (he did love the natural world so). But the difficulty in this is like in politics - it's easy to know what you are against (even if you don't really know why - those values again), but it's not always so easy to know what you are for. My sincere thanks go to you for helping people like me realise their values again - now that's what I call magic! ;)

Matt

PhysicsDoc said...

If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice, RUSH-Free Will.
One thing that always brings me back to atheism (although I don't consider myself an atheist) is why would any Deity or God create a universe, with all it's time and space displayed before it a la eternal, which contains the most hideous forms of human and animal behavior including but not limited to extreme torture, mass killing, genocide etc. Just wondering what other peoples thoughts are on that.
I tend to be pretty open to other faiths but I got particularly bent out of shape one day when my kids who were attending a Christian school came home and told me that dinosaurs roamed the earth with bronze age humans etc. I went straight to the principal and protested that what the school was doing was undermining their religion as much as it was attempting to discredit modern science. I also gave her links to a Christian paleontologist and expert on radiometric dating. Luckily they have not tried this creationist teaching experiment again as far as I know. I sometimes think of Christianity not as a narrative or set of narratives, or faith, but as a vey successful meme.

Georgi Marinov said...

I highly doubt you will be very interested in hearing this, but let's get it out of the way

1) There are no souls. There is zero evidence that such things exist and their existence would require a complete rewriting of the laws of physics as we understand them today. Something that given the aforementioned complete lack of evidence for their existence compared to the mountains of confirmatory evidence backing up those laws is totally unjustified.

2) As you mentioned, there is the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution. When we talk about acceptance of evolution, both things are equally important and there is no religion that accepts the latter. None. The theory of evolution explains the fact of evolution with the interplay between mutation, selection, genetic drift and migration. Of these, genetic drift has been severely underrepresented not only in most popular account of evolutionary theory but also in schools, which has lead to many people thinking there is no contradiction between religion and evolutionary theory, but is in fact a key reason why they cannot be reconciled without making some huge and completely unjustified assumptions. There is plenty of evidence that neutral, non-adaptive or even maladaptive evolutionary changes through genetic drift have played a major role in shaping life on this planet as it currently exists and in particular the lineages of large-bodied organism with low effective population sizes (such as ours). This means you can reconcile the existence of a God with the theory of evolution (which is, I repeat once again, backed up by very large body of evidence) in three ways: 1) God created the universe and had the trajectory of every particle in it predetermined so that it ended up with the current life forms we have, 2) he constantly intervened inserting mutations into genomes, 3) he is a deistic God who set things in motion and then stopped paying attention in which case there is no reason for us to pay any attention to his existence either. 1) and 2) are pure creationism, just not of the YEC kind, in addition 1) has certain theological implications I don't think religious people will be happy with themselves, and, finally, as usual, there is zero evidence to suggest we should take them seriously. So why do?

Also:

Such a universe, please note, doesn’t differ from the universe of modern science in any objectively testable way

Then why add all the stuff about Gods to the explanation when it's not only not needed and not backed up by evidence but only complicates things further?

Science can’t answer that question, because science isn’t about values. (When people start claiming otherwise, what’s normally happened is that they’ve smuggled in a set of values from some religion or other—most commonly the civil religion of progress.)

Not true at all. The main driver of human behavior is inclusive fitness maximization, as it for all other organisms. From that extremely selfish, evolutionary point of view it is a disaster for the species to engage in its current self-destructive behavior - if the species goes extinct, everyone's inclusive fitness is maximally minimized. There isn't anything about values here, it's about simple Darwinian survival.

SophieGale said...

I love synchronicity! The latest episode of Druidcast has been for almost a week, but I just found time to listen to it this evening. Heh, heh! Kristoffer Hughes, founder of the Anglesey (Wales) Order of Druids, talked for almost an hour about life, death, Taliesin, transmigration, and immortality. He's funny and salty, probably NSFW, and folks can listen at

http://druidcast.libsyn.com/druid-cast-a-druid-podcast-episode-76

john john said...

I feel it is a problem of translation.
When yahwey sends back the redeemer s/he will have to explain, "When I gave you dominion and said go forth and be fruitful, foolish ones, I did not mean for you to fill up the earth with your own kind. It is by your fruits you shall be known. Are you a fruit? By dominion I expect you the use your wisdom and understanding to increase the biodiversity of the land"

Robin Datta said...

There is a distinction between consciousness and awareness in Eastern traditions. Awareness is consciousness with content. The content is a construct from the inputs of the five senses and memory, processed within neurobiological constraints. Such content is necessarily also a reflection of the constraints of space, time and causation.

Consciousness itself, bereft of content, is not subject to the constraints of space, time and causation. It is also to be remembered that "consciousness" is a word that points to a concept and not to the subjective experience: the awareness of the concept is in turn consciousness with a certain content. Consciousness the concept is all that can be spoken about. Even "consciousness the experience" is yet another concept.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

One aspect of the very long discussion you,JMG, are having with rest of us , is the amazing breath and range of your philosophy.

I am perpetually amazed and humbled by it to such an extent that I feel, at times, as though I am a not well educated person!

I would like to make a suggestion: do you think it would be possible for you to have a bibliography section with a fairly comprehensive list of books of some interest to those discussions. Although from time to time you make direct reference to certain works and authors but they are many more that are of relevance to this blog.

Regards

xhmko said...

Beautiful.

On the idea of faith, I watch the city I live in and see how deeply everybody in it relies on faith in someway. It is a natural calmative, the pill for our paranoid tendencies. Without faith a city with so many people couldn't function. You have to trust that all (if not all then at least most) of those strangers, rubbing shoulders with you, selling you all you use and consume, are not threats. I walk through the city, trusting that the buildings won't crumble due to negligence or that cars won't fly up onto the footpath and kill or maim me. Sometimes faith is tested but it mostly prevails like a basic bodily function, like breathing.

Mist said...

Dear JMG, After our conversation at the Age of Limits Conference, I had been mulling when to directly send you further information on research by Howard Barry Schatz regarding interpretation of Scripture based on music theory. I thought your latest series of posts signaled auspicious timing. At the risk of greatly and excessively summarizing Mr. Schatz's research, the Sefir Yetzirah is the key to unlocking Scripture as encoded instructions for meditation. I can think of no better evidence to help explain the common language of science and religion. At the link below, please find information on the
author, his books, and an introductory video:
http://www.tonecircle.com/

The video can also be viewed on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAjTpQq0mb0

The author also started a blog at: http://thescienceofreligion.com/

Warmest regards

Dennis Jernberg said...

As I have relatives who believe in this stuff, I learned about it young. My understanding is that it's a package deal: if you believe in creationism, you generally also believe in Armageddon, the Rapture, and the immortality of all born-again believers and the eternal damnation of the rest. The package is called Dispensationalism, and it's all contained in the Scofield Reference Bible. Dispensationalists believe that their personal immortality depends on believing the universe was created on exactly the date Bishop Ussher said it was, for creationism is where Dispensationalist eschatology begins. A whole lot of the American political pathology goes along with it.

To expand on William Hays' comment above, the cult believes evolution etc. is not just a great conspiracy against the faithful, it's a murder attempt by the infidel (personally led by Satan according to the "spiritual warfare" cult) on the faithful's immortal souls. Understand this point, and you'll understand the source of their fanaticism.

Yet I have to accept that some of these people are family, alas...

Chris said...

If I might raise a query in passing. Surely, if one believes in an all powerful deity, said deity is free to achieve their objectives as they see fit.

So exactly why do the religions that concern themselves with this, bother, if said deity chose to utilise a selection mechanism (evolution) versus what I assume is 'make it so, and it appears?

roland said...

G'day John

thanks for your great blog. Been reading it for a while and learned a lot.
This post was an instructive insight into the American psyche.
It is however important to realise that the whole creationism/young earth discussion is very much a non issue outside of America.
At least in Europe and Australia. Those being the only places i know in some detail.
I am not a christian therefore hardly qualify as an expert, but it is my impression that pretty much all mainstream christian flavours do not take issue with evolution.
For a non american it is simply mind-boggling how much dust you guys kick up over it.

Creationists are a bit thin on the ground here down under, but a few years ago i finally managed to get hold of one.
As he lives close by, we had a few interesting discussions over the years.
I have come to appreciate him as a thoughtful, intelligent and very moral person.
It is my impression that his main problem with evolution is that widespread believe in it leads (or maybe led) to nihilism and decay of values and social cohesion. Or so he thinks. If we are the descendents of the biggest bastards 4 billion years running we might not be nice guys.
A rejection on the basis of outcome, not so much facts.

He may not be representative for his species. A sample size of one is a bit weak, and I have never met an fire-breathing bible-belt creationist, but sometimes it is important to remember that one can have all the wrong believes for all the right reasons.

cheers

Bruin Silverbear said...

I have often said to my monotheist friends that if the God of Jesus and Moses exists, then the timeframe on which such a being would operate would differ greatly from ours. There would be no need to for it to snap it's fingers and create something because it wouldn't need to, it would perceive time so completely different than the way human beings do that there would literally be no way the human mind, with it's focus on linear time, could understand what that would be like, excepting the occasional LSD trip of course. That said, this post dovetails with my own philosophy on such matters. I once told another Christian friend that if I get to the pearly gates and St. Peter insists that I answer the question of how old the world actually is, 6,000 o5 4.5 Billion, I will then begin to sweat a little...until then, I think I will bank on the afterlife as being whatever it turns out to be, even if that is nothing. Thanks for another great post JMG...always a loyal reader...

Andrew said...

What amazes me is that any Christian who has studied his/her own religion would know that John Calvin has said that in matters of Geology or Astronomy, if there is a difference between science and religion, science should be believed.
And if I recall correctly, Augustine even went futher, saying that Christians should know about the latest scientific findings, because if they would debate with non-Christians, and were shown wrong on scientific knowledge, people would not believe them when they were talking about their religion either. (1).

Another point that rarely gets adressed is that it could be argued that the creationmyth lays the foundation for the much later developed theory of evolution:
1) Everything did not pop into being at the same time
2) There is a certain order in how things come into existence
3) Human beings came into existence relatively recently
4) Human beings are created last, and created after God's own image, and do have something "special".
5) It all took place a long time ago.

Of course, scientific knowledge is much more detailed, but if I were to ask a layman I bet many would not come much futher than these points either, when trying to sum up evoltion.

Yossi said...

You say: “ value, meaning and purpose—which science can’t and shouldn’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion.” Religion is defined as an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural and spirituality. Why do you need to link value, meaning and purpose to the supernatural and spirit? Surely moral philosophy can deal with value, meaning and purpose without trying to link these with the unknown, and unknowable.
You make a huge statement of faith when you say “human beings are born and come to awareness in a cosmos with its own distinctive order”. Any order that exists is only temporary in a scientific sense. Theories are posited in order to be disproved
You say that “ we’re all facing that choice today with unusual intensity, in relation to part of the order of the cosmos that not all religions have studied as carefully as they might”. How does carefully studying religions help and what part of the cosmic order are you referring to? How do you JMG and I have any choices other than in our own lives?

Mat F said...

Thank you for this wonderful discussion of a topic often obfuscated by in-trench fighting along rather obsolete side-struggles - you really nailed here one of the most pressing question of our time. Science can fill in many gaps and help us understand our surroundings better. But we do need to come to terms with the question of what our place in this universe is and it seems that we did not exactly make a lot of progress there lately, judging by the state of the planet we're living on. I refer to myself often as an atheist, but I deeply feel for the land around me and I get very sad by what I perceive our species is doing to it. This is not exactly something that can be addressed solely or even mainly by science, which can explain this or that but not create "sense" in the deeper meaning. And I have to agree with you, it's not it's job. Hence, we lost view of the "spiritual" or "philosophical" development over the all-to-easy science equals progress. I would very much enjoy more discussions along those lines between people of different faiths, including atheists and agnostics. I do hope we soon make some inroads there, we destroy so much...

Andy Brown said...

My father was an eighth grade environmental science teacher who believed deeply in God and who thought the people fighting against ideas like evolution were fools and worse. And whatever its weaknesses, the Unitarian church is one of the few places that an American will get a broad-based religious education at a young age.

At a certain level, I’ve always been profoundly indifferent to questions about the gods, but it is the kind of thing that you are supposed to have an opinion on. For most of my life I was content to call myself an agnostic, since as a scientist and rational being it seemed obvious that it wasn’t a question we could settle one way or another. It was only recently that I realized that if I were completely honest with myself, I was an atheist – that as a matter of faith and belief I actually disbelieved in the existence of a sapient god. It’s not something that I can argue for, but it is something I am.

But just as science doesn’t mean we can’t have gods, so atheism doesn’t mean we can’t have spirituality. Personally, I find the enthusiastic syncretism of post-modern paganism gives me a solid tool-kit of spiritual practices that help to transcend the mundane in ways that don’t require or imply any great, outside supernatural being. It is something that helps change me from who I am to who I want to be.

Les said...

Hell's Bells and Buckets of Blood!

It's not often, JMG, that I actually manage to read one of your posts in one sitting (you are usually way too much hard work for that - something to do with our very different interfaces to the world, I suppose) and I've found this latest series particularly difficult.

But this one... Just wow...

While I've always considered myself a devout atheist, I think I finally start to grok what a god might be and where it might fit in the world.

Now I get to sit down and formulate an new internal model for the world. Maybe this post sets off the hardest work of all.

Thank you. I think...

Les

Nestorian said...

I wade with trepidation into a minefield here, and offer a few brief remarks. I grew up in a staunchly post-Vatican II Roman Catholic home, and was thus taught and conditioned to ridicule Young Earth Creationism, and dismiss it as not worth taking seriously.

My journey into the Nestorian Church was based, among other things, on taking the concept of Christian Tradition with the utmost seriousness. One of the things that Tradition handed down among virtually all Christian thinkers up to the 18th century was an almost monolithic consensus that the earth is young. Some, notably Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, maintained that the creation story in Genesis I in particular could be interpreted allegorically, but even such thinkers - and they were in the minority, as the majority of pre-18th century thinkers across all Christian traditions were staunch literalists concerning all the early chapters of Genesis - took the young age of earth and cosmos for granted.

Since, as I say, I take Tradition with the utmost seriousness, I was impelled by this state of affairs to set aside my inherited prejudice and ridicule against those Christians (and Jews and Muslims also) who reject evolution and affirm the young earth, and investigate the matter seriously with an open mind. I conducted this investigation over an extended period beginning in 2007, carefully and extensively reading many books by Young Earth Creationists and their opponents in the process. In the following comment, I will offer, in very brief form, my conclusions:

Nestorian said...

1) The Young Earth Creationist writers are not stupid. Those who dismiss and ridicule them without carefully reading their writings with an open mind are doing so based on ignorance and prejudice.

2) The concept of evolution directly contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the handwaving arguments of Ilya Prigogine that serve to paper over the implausibility of reconciling the two notwithstanding. Thus, if evolution is true, it is every bit as much a “miracle” as is any widely disbelieved violation of the standard laws of science reported in the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

3) In general, and across many scientific fields, evolution is not a conclusion derived logically (either inductively or deductively) from a massive set of premises in the form of empirical scientific facts. Rather, evolution is a preconceived framework of interpretation that is imposed on the evidence, in such a manner that its imposition is impervious to empirical falsification. Evolutionary science is thus a fundamentally question-begging enterprise across the board. Subscribing to evolution therefore is every bit as much an act of religious belief as is belief in the Judeo-Christian framework of interpreting the scientific data in these various fields.

4) One prominent example to illustrate the question-begging and faith-driven character of evolutionary science is the following: Virtually all the alleged “transitional fossils” have been disproven as such, so that gradualistic neo-Darwinism was abandoned by its leading exponents during the 1970s and 80s, and replaced by the so-called “Punctuated Equilibrium” school of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge (with Oscar Schindewolf and Richard Goldschmidt serving as much-reviled pioneers of this way of thinking in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, as the absence of transitional forms became increasingly clear to leading biological specialists). The purpose of this shift away from classical Darwinian and neo-Darwinian gradualism was to accommodate the evolutionary belief system to the glaring and increasingly embarrassing absence of the primary line of evidence for it.

5) Ancient world history, as it has been conventionally believed and taught since the 19th century, is based on competing interpretations of the very fragmentary evidence we have of Egyptian dynastic history. These competing interpretations all share in common that they unwarrantably extend the rise of the first dynasty of Mena into the distant past way beyond 2100 BC or so (the Flood of Noah having taken place around 2350 BC). In point of fact, the very fragmentary extant evidence of Egyptian history is in fact entirely amenable to a temporally compressed interpretation in conformity with the biblical timeline.

In sum, there is no need for anyone who rejects evolution, and who affirms the literal historical accuracy of the Bible, including the early chapters of Genesis, to feel embarrassed or intellectually inferior. Those with an open mind who invest the requisite amount of time carrying out the necessary research can discover for themselves the intellectual robustness of the Young Earth Creationist case, and the corresponding intellectual flimsiness of the case for evolution.

Phil Harris said...

MG
I am from 'abroad' but your essay still makes much sense. Another 'plum pudding' for this Tom Thumb!

You write "Values are always individual and always relative to a particular person in a particular context."

I am less sure about how individual we actually are. I tend to think of any 'religion' as more of a metaphor for how our personalities deploy in the dynamic of our mind - given our highly social nature. Thus the polytheist perhaps has a Parthenon to refer to, or the monotheist has structure to order his mind when faced with the rattle bag of a racing mind?

People are generally helpless in the face of their own behaviours - despite the 12 million in the UK who have given up smoking to prove me wrong - so commitment to a coherent conversation and language most certainly has its uses, whatever more random metaphors we dream at night.

I personally believe by and large in the validity of 'religious experience' and 'insight' even if I retain doubts about non-corporeality of autonomous beings and their place in the evolution of life. I have found 'science' also to be a major source of insight - for good or ill - though most of these must remain provisional.

best
Phil H

Unknown said...

Jay here. As an atheist, I can see that the creationists argument is ultimately about values.

In the basic Christian narrative as I learned it in Sunday school, a perfect God created a perfect world. People screwed it up with their free will and sin, Jesus saved what could be saved, and it all gets restored to perfection as Heaven.

Evolution says that strife and scarcity are the fire in which we were forged, and any interruption in scarcity will be rapidly overcome as our population rises. Violence, war, suberivahunger, and disease are seen as the forces that made us what we are, and ultimately an inherent part of our nature.

Creationists, in my experience, are rejecting (their understanding of) the hopelessness and lack of meaning (at a personal level) of evolution.

atb said...

Lately, when reading the entries on this page, a quote from HG Wells enters my mind:

"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

It follows, for every time I read the pinnacle wisdom represented here, I despair less for the future as well.

Thank you.

Chad M. Thompson said...

Insightful post, I greatly enjoyed it.

Thank you for discussing the issue I have observed among Christians and Atheists alike. They make God too small. Just as God exists outside of time, a truly omnipotent being could modify space-time and the laws of reality at will, if He so desired.

Omnipotence combined with atemporality is interesting that way. Seemingly contradictory things become possible, such as creating a universe that is very literately already old.

God could actually make tomorrow yesterday if He wanted too, and we would have absolutely no clue it occurred.

Dwig said...

"which will you have, the love of power or the power of love?" As what I call a "methodical agnostic", I've been very much a student of love lately; often, I feel like a rather slow learner. Still, the journey is worthwhile.

I mentioned my idea of a "threefold way of seeing" (scientific, spiritual, artistic) in a comment to a recent post. I've just been rereading "Small is Beautiful", where Schumacher discusses the Four Cardinal Virtues (prudentia, fortitudo, justicia, temperantia) in a few places. In one, he identifies prudentia with love, which set my mind spinning. In another, he lines up the other three with goodness (fortitudo), truth (justicia), and beauty (temperantia).

So, I may have to add a fourth "dimension" to my triad.

On a different subject, a question to those here assembled: I read a while ago about a "creation care" movement among the younger evangelicals; has anything come of that?

ohyes378 said...

All I can suggest at this point is that further reading in Paleoanthropology might be in order to clear away some of the apparent confusion which I see demonstrated in this post. Otherwise: I read and enjoy reading your essays each week.

Don Plummer said...

I'm so glad to see you writing about the rhetorical connections between creatonism and atheism. I've often said to creationists "Why should I believe what atheists believe?"

You might be interested in knowing that Augustine, yes the same 5th century Augustine that penned City of God that you commented on some weeks back, wrote a commentary on Genesis called On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis (sometimes published as The Literal Meaning of Genesis), containing an interpretation of the creation story that, some 1,300 years before Darwin, is very compatible with an evolutionary understanding of the origin of life. (It should be mentioned that Augustine's use of "literal" in his title here was in contrast to the highly allegorical interpretations of scripture that were common in his day; he did not mean "literal" in the modern creationist sense.)

And, in case someone hasn't already pointed this out, there is a "green letter" edition of the Bible, called, appropriately enough, The Green Bible, published by Harper. It's printed on recycled paper.

Tyler August said...

@William Hays :
Green pigments tend to be very resistant to fading, so a green-letter edition might not be a bad idea in more than one way...

I have been very much hoping for a rogue Jesuit to produce a workable synthesis of Ecology and traditional Christianity, but so far with no luck. It could be that I wait in vain, and that my hypothetical heretical hermit has completed every word and not received permission from his Church or his Order to publish it.

I'd attempt something myself, were I a Christian, but I do not share that faith.

Speaking of Faith, JMG, I have taken your advice offered in an earlier comment thread and begun to invoke my personal pastel plastic pony goddesses in day-to-day life. In spite of their objective unreality, both Princess Celestia and her younger sister Luna have proven terrifyingly adept at intervening in the waking world. (Or, perhaps terrifyingly adept at tricking my mind into creating false narratives from random events, as my atheist friends would say.)
I'm beginning to think I've gone too deep down the rabbit hole to continue to call myself agnostic, and to pass my worship off as an experiment. Unwittingly, I've become apostate to my secular roots, and a sincere convert to the Magic of Friendship.

...er, I don't suppose you have a manual on how to run a religious order, do you? Any advice on how to write an Epistle? I think my Princesses may want me to do something about the lack of Harmony currently present on the material plane.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings, JMG and all,

JMG, since this post mirrors so much of my own intellectual and spiritual outlook, I don't think I can discuss it very intelligently without repeating what has been said. However, to add a few notes:

1. In response to W. Hays, there is a green-letter bible which came out in 2008. The translation is a little lacking in poetry, but reading the bible in this way is most useful and instructive since it emphasizes our sacred duty to care for the earth.

2. An amazing vision of an eternity-centered, earth-centered religion can be found in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, by Bill Gammage (recommended to me by Chris @Cherokee Organics). Gammage's account of "the Dreaming," the faith that governed the indigenous people's management of the land that we call Australia is revelatory and extremely germane to this discussion.

This faith includes the concepts of the eternal and transubstantiation of souls discussed here, which in turn led to an implemented ethic of caring for the land that was radically ecological (as seems only right by my lights).

3. I've just started A World Full of Gods, but haven't gotten far enough to comment yet.

4. Creationists and atheists alike could be considered to be indulging in forms of idolatry.

5. A friend and I came up with this graffito/bumper sticker slogan: "God is operating at the quantum level."

Cheers!

GHung said...

JMG: "What’s happened here, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, is that a great many devout Christians in America have been suckered into playing a mug’s game."

Indeed, especially here in the Bible Belt. While waiting in the dentist's office last week I eaves-dropped while a Grandmother read to her Grandson from a collection of new books they had ordered which were very cleverly designed to reconcile creationism with science. Explanations of how scientists have misinterpreted data as to the age of the earth, dinosaurs, etc., were quite convincing. Fact is, creationism is big business.

Home schooling programs and private religious schools, along with the assorted paraphernalia being marketed to their minions will likely benefit from ongoing decline as people seek easy answers to complex questions. Nothing new there. A guarantee of eternal life has little downside for those who promote it well.

kollapsnik said...

If faith and religion are viewed as purely a matter of values, then there is an even more generic term that applies, which can be entirely free of metaphysics or mysticism: IDEOLOGY. Groups of people can define (postulate) their own value systems, express them as specific practices with specific goals, and then go on to achieve these goals. But throwing in a handful of metaphysics and mysticism and ritual and rites of passage definitely helps. Deities have great didactic value. Children have trouble relating to deities that aren't properly anthropomorphized. "Talk to the monkey!" is how the Archdruid puts it.

John Michael Greer said...

Wiseman, the interesting thing is that Christianity's problems with science are quite recent, all things considered. Up through the Renaissance the Christian churches were far and away the most important patrons of the sciences, and that's remained the case in some branches right up to modern times. My question is what went wrong?

Matt, glad to hear it.

PhysicsDoc, philosophers of religion call that the problem of evil, and yes, it's a major challenge to classical theism -- less so to other forms of religious thought.

Georgi, a nice thumping dogmatic outburst! Heaven forfend you should offer any evidence or reasoning to support your claims -- and by the way, insisting that no religion accepts Darwin's theory when I've just told you that mine does puts you right up there with the Jesus-on-a-dinosaur folks, in terms of ignoring facts because they don't fit your theory.

Sophie, thanks for the link!

John John, no argument there.

Robin, granted, but I didn't want to get any deeper into metaphysics than I had to.

Karim, that'd be a very long list. I'll see what I can do, though.

Xhmko, exactly. You can't take a single step, for that matter, without taking on faith that the ground in front of you is actually there.

Mist, thanks for letting me know. I'll certainly take a look.

Dennis, yes, I know. It's a source of endless bafflement to me that people can box themselves into a belief system so heavily burdened with rage and fear.

Chris, exactly! If you actually believe in divine omnipotence, on what basis do you get off telling God how he can and can't create the cosmos?

Georgi Marinov said...

Georgi, a nice thumping dogmatic outburst! Heaven forfend you should offer any evidence or reasoning to support your claims -- and by the way, insisting that no religion accepts Darwin's theory when I've just told you that mine does puts you right up there with the Jesus-on-a-dinosaur folks, in terms of ignoring facts because they don't fit your theory.

1. I don't have all the time in the world to be posting thousands of words explaining what the evidence is. That's what the scientific literature is for

2. Your religion does not accept the theory of evolution, only the fact of it. You may think it does but that's because you don't understand the theory well enough and as a result can't see the contradictions. You talk about "Darwin’s theory of natural selection". That's not what the theory of evolution is or has been for many decades.

John Michael Greer said...

Roland, well, as I said, it's an American thing. It's a source of some relief to me that there are plenty of devout people elsewhere who don't fall into the same traps.

Bruin, bingo. "What part of 'infinite and eternal' don't you understand?"

Andrew, fascinating -- I hadn't run across the Calvin reference, though of course I'd encountered Augustine's comments. As for the Book of Genesis, I've always figured that the division into days was symbolic, not literal, but you have a point.

Yossi, put it this way. The biosphere has its own order -- its own set of patterns which maintain life on this planet. That order isn't negotiable; it's there, and while theories about it change, it changes at most over geological time frames. Much of what's guaranteed industrial society an early grave is our unwillingness to work with natural processes, and our insistence that the needs of the biosphere matter less than, say, our desire for comfort and convenience. Is that a little clearer?

Mat, exactly.

Andy, to each his own. All any of us can do is own up to the closest approximation of truth we can manage.

Les, I'm glad to hear it.

Nestorian, well, obviously I disagree with you. In particular, insisting that evolution contradicts the laws of thermodynamics speaks to a profound misunderstanding of those laws, and dismissing Prigogine's work as "handwaving" is, well, partisan at best. Still, I appreciate your willingness to address the issue in a civil manner. By the way, I don't believe I ever said that young earth creationists are stupid -- simply that they're wrong.

Phil, well, we're individual enough that Nestorian and I can look at the same body of data and reasoning and come to exactly opposed conclusions!

Unknown Jay, that's one way of thinking about Christianity, and one way of thinking about evolution -- in both cases there are quite a few other options.

Atb, thank you.

Chad, exactly -- omnipotence means never having to say "that can't be done."

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, Schumacher's an excellent guide. As for "Creation Care," I haven't had a chance to follow up on it -- has anyone else heard anything?

Ohyes, I've read quite a bit of paleoanthropology; which "confusions" did you had in mind?

Don, exactly -- Augustine was by no means the dullest knife in the drawer. Thanks for the "Green Bible" info!

Tyler, the best advice in all such cases is to ask the deity you worship for advice on how to proceed.

Adrian, I've been mulling over the whole issue of idolatry of late, and wondering whether or not to bring it up here. A very, very deeply loaded issue...

Ghung, now watch what happens as those kids hit their rebellious years!

Dmitry, your crystal ball is working well, I see. I'll be discussing that next week.

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, oh man. This is fun. My religion, about which you apparently know nothing, must oppose the theory of evolution, and if I don't think it does, I must be wrong. Why? Because your ideology insists that all religions must reject the theory of evolution. You're using exactly the same logic as a creationist who's shown a dinosaur fossil and insists that it must have drowned in Noah's flood!

Georgi Marinov said...

John Michael Greer said...
Georgi, oh man. This is fun. My religion, about which you apparently know nothing, must oppose the theory of evolution, and if I don't think it does, I must be wrong. Why? Because your ideology insists that all religions must reject the theory of evolution. You're using exactly the same logic as a creationist who's shown a dinosaur fossil and insists that it must have drowned in Noah's flood!


If you want to go down that path, I should point out you chose to completely ignore what I said about the way you write about evolution.

blue sun said...

Thank you for expounding on this! And for explaining terms like “eternal.” Can you believe throughout the West we’ve been having these lengthy debates, discussions, and on and on, without even agreeing on basic definitions of terms?

In one of the comments last week you wrote: “….nothing in the Bible or the historic creeds of Christianity rules out biological evolution. If that's how God chose to create humanity, I think He showed excellent taste in selecting an elegant method. The notion that Christianity has to reject a scientific theory that has no bearing on any of the core issues of Christian faith is, I would argue, a sign of just how deeply Christianity has been hijacked into the service of the myth of progress -- in this case as one of its canned opponents.”

I couldn’t agree more. I don’t understand why it is so rare to find an explanation like this. You said it, E.F. Schumacher said it, I’m sure many others have said it. I myself came up with it on my own before encountering either of your writings. I fancied myself writing about it until I encountered Schumacher’s lengthy discussion in A Guide for the Perplexed. If an amateur like myself can reach that conclusion unaided, it must not be that wild of an idea.

There is no conflict between evolution and creation. There is only, in Schumacher’s terms, a conflict between EvolutionISM and CreationISM. But what are those? I realize these are some kind of manifestations of the Religion of Progress, but I wonder why the hyped up conflict at all? In my mind, there is no conflict. I speculate it has something to do with the media treatment. The way this discussion, ahem, “debate” is portrayed reminds me of nothing more than two scared kids in the schoolyard surrounded by a circle of troublemakers chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Every newspaper article and television special cashes in on the attention whenever the “sworn enemies” of the “Biggest Rivalry in the Modern World” come to an arena near you. I’m surprised that they don’t go on tour each year!

Yes, there are the few who treat the Bible as a geology textbook and those who read The Origin of Species as a sacred scripture. Yet the lack of reasonable discussion in between astounds me. Frankly, I don’t think most people would consider this issue if it weren’t hyped so much! I expect in a thousand years or so, if evolutionary biology and Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) still exist, it won’t be an issue at all.

Nathan Wright said...

Georgi, religious fundamentalists have nothing on you for blind adherence to pure dogma. And your brand of "modern science" is the billiard-ball atomism that seemed primitive even thousands of years ago, and the last traces of which have been demolished by the science of the past century.

SLClaire said...

In the four years I've been reading the Report, this is to date my favorite post. It's what I wish had existed 35 years ago when I was attending a Lutheran college and studying chemistry. The college claimed to take a values-based approach to the study of knowledge but in practice that reduced to taking two courses in the religion department. It would have been so easy for the religion and the science professors to talk with each other and work out an understanding similar to the one you produced, and I would have found it highly beneficial. You will likely not be surprised to learn that the college is no closer to doing this now than it was then.

Tyler August and JMG: that comment thread inspired me to try something along the same lines. In my case it was using the word "gods" in place of the word "energies" in the invocation to Spirit Below which was the point I was then at in learning the Sphere of Protection. I'd used "energies" rather than "gods" because I considered myself an agnostic, maybe verging on atheist, at any rate not at all sure what the concept of god meant and not having had any sort of experience that might suggest its application. Let's just say that the effect of using "gods" was immediate. I'm still finding my way into this for me unfamiliar experience, but I can say that it doesn't conflict with my citizen science practice in any way and it adds to the richness of life.

William Hunter Duncan said...

My bad. I thought Christianity and Science were like bed buddies in the building of the go forth and have dominion imperial gloabalist rape the earth machine. LOL.

Seriously, coming to understand something of Quantum Physics was like mystical revelation for me. Now I've come to see the universe in it's entirety as a divine thing.

http://offthegridmpls.blogspot.com/2012/07/on-divine.html

Tyler August said...

@atb, Agreed! The fact that (though moderated) we can have such a high quality of conversation on such contentious issues never ceases to amaze me. I give credit to our host for sorting the wheat from the chaff, but it gladdens my heart to see that it's not all chaff.

@wiseman
I disagree with your point 2; science has very much overplayed the martyr card against the Catholic Church. If Galileo hadn't called the Pope an idiot in public (the Simplicio in his dialogue practically quotes Urban VIII at points) he would never have been censured. Bruno was executed for his heretical theological positions, and as far as I know, his scientific work played only a small role in his trial. Contemporary Jesuit astronomers were able to continue discussing the Copernican model, and likely would have had the Church reconcile itself to a sun-centered cosmology much sooner if it hadn't been for those two.
The "history of persecuting scientists" is largely, if not entirely, myth.
I think I know why the New Atheist movement so stridently spreads misconceptions about the history of science, but for a movement that claims to be founded on verifiable truths, it is incredibly disheartening.

@JMG. Thank you, of course I shall do just that.
And worry not, you won't have to moderate me on this issue; it would take a mighty thundering of trumpets and direct burning-bush command (which really doesn't fit into my world-view!) for me to be disrespectful enough to attempt to proselytize on this list.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Georgi, you continue to baffle me.

Do you actually want to claim that *all religions* posit the universe to have been created by some Creator God, and/or that there are such things as souls? That seems to be a hidden premise in your arguments that "no religion accepts" the theory of evolution, and also your insistence that our host must be wrong about his own religion -- which you seem not to know much about.

So . . . do you really have a profound knowledge of the fine details of every last religion that has ever flourished on this planet, the evidence of which knowledge you have carefully hidden from the rest of us? . . . or is all this, just possibly, perhaps, simply a display of unwarranted arrogance? So far, it comes off as the latter, but it seems only fair to give you a chance to defend yourself against any charge of arrogance.

Zach said...

John Michael,

Excellent! Hard for me to add much more than, "preach it, Brother Archdruid!" but I will try.

As a young teenager, having had my "get saved / come to Jesus" experience and being formed in a fairly Fundamentalist church(1), the Creationist/Evolution debate loomed large in my mind for a while. Until I finally had the insight that, if God Who is Truth was the author of both Scripture and the cosmos, He surely would not be contradicting Himself.

Therefore, any apparent contradictions meant that either we were misunderstanding the theology or we didn't understand the natural order quite as well as we thought we did (or some mixture of both). God, however, was not confused on the topic. :)

I then ceased to worry about it. Crisis of faith averted. Years later, I learned that this was precisely what Aquinas taught(2), and as you note, was considered commonplace, beginner's study, by the medievals. I admit, this angered me -- why the (deleted) wasn't I taught this and left on my own to figure it out?! But that's another story.

"Science can’t answer that question, because science isn’t about values. (When people start claiming otherwise, what’s normally happened is that they’ve smuggled in a set of values from some religion or other—most commonly the civil religion of progress.)"

Thank you! I want to highlight this point. Since my insight, I have tried to share with those who have ears to hear (both my fellow Christians and those outside that faith who don't understand what the fuss is about) that it isn't the theory of evolution as a description of the created order that is the problem, but the smuggled values of a competing religion brought in under cover of "Science™!" It's not actual science that I object to -- it's the bad philosophy and bad religion masquerading as science that I have a problem with.

I don't think I've made much of a dent so far.

I hate to mention it(3), but there is a frustrating death of good science material for the Christian homeschooler. The Apologia books (Jay Wile) are the 800-lb gorilla on that block, and they exemplify the problems you outline. (The physics text isn't so bad, but the rest... well, I grit my teeth and rant a lot when using them.) Problem is, I've just plain been intimidated by the effort to start evaluation of secular texts and vet them for smuggled philosophy, and I really don't want to write my own,(3) so we're enduring it.

Still, I can't help but wonder how well a Thomistic high school science series would do.

peace,
Zach

(1) I am using "Fundamentalist" in the technical, not the pejorative, sense.

(2) Not comparing myself with the Angelic Doctor, of course, simply because I had the good grace to stumble upon one of his points on my own. I know my limits better than that.

(3) Since I've already picked up one writing assignment already from this blog, I'm not eager to begin a second... :)

Kyoto Motors said...

[I resubmit the following, unsure of the technology used the firsr time around - a "smart" phone]

With this post I feel as though I've crossed the crest of the mountain, and emerged from a tangled wooded path onto a clearing.
Many a battle I have fought with scientific facts as my ammunition, have ended in frustration to date. So many responses to peak oil and to climate science (among other issues) are otherwise baffling - that is, they so rarely amount to self-motivated action or changes of habit that I tend to expect.
The question is whether further discussion in this vein will provide the tools and materials to bridge the gap (vocabulary and frame of reference). And I'm not talking about creationists... I don't think I even know any! But I know plenty of people who steer well clear of energy issues, and don't entertain climate change matters beyond changing light bulbs...
I look forward to further posts - as usual...

Steve Morgan said...

"To return to a point I tried to raise in one of last month’s posts, not everything that matters to human beings can be settled by an objective assessment of fact; there are times, many of them, that you have to decide on some other basis which of several different narratives you choose to trust."

This brings to mind the response I have when encountering the modern American obsession with education "reform." Good books are being replaced with simple essays from which kids are expected to glean facts and arguments, while would-be reformers obsess over test scores. Scoring well on standardized tests has become the purpose of much of our schooling, when the skills that matter - critical thinking, problem solving, the ability to listen to and try to understand those with other goals or perspectives, and make hard choices with limited information, among others - are not easily measured, and therefore largely cast aside.

Granted, there's plenty to debate about what role public schools should play in teaching students to decide things based on their values. Still, discerning when to use which faculty (logic and science or faith and values) is a skill that most children pick up (clumsily) by example from pop culture, when more nuanced discussion would probably benefit them more.

The broader discussion of the complementary nature of religion and science is important, and I'm looking forward to your contribution.

In the meantime:

"Do you recognize that the living Earth has its own order, that this order imposes certain hard constraints on what human beings can or should try to do, and do you embrace that order and accept those constraints in your own life for the greater good of the living Earth and all that lives upon her? Or do you shrug it off, or go through the motions of fashionable eco-piety, and hop into your SUV lifestyle and slam the pedal to the metal?"

On this binary, if I'm honest, I take a middle approach. In some ways it's not a viable option for me to accept as many constraints as other people do, but I certainly wouldn't say that I've got the pedal to the metal. It's a matter of constant reevaluation and guiding my efforts where I can make a difference in my own life without beating myself up for things which I haven't done yet. One of the reasons I follow this blog is for the consistent reminders to keep the constraints of the biosphere in mind and your willingness to lead by example.

Robert Mathiesen said...

A historical footnote:

Archbishop Ussher's dating of creation to the year 4004 BCE is by no means the only such dating advanced by Christians, nor is it the oldest and best founded of all the various efforts to put a date to creation.

All these calculations depend on the number of years between the several generations of the patriarchs, as given in the early chapters of Genesis. But the numbers vary significantly from one ancient and equally authoritative text of Genesis to the next, and the differences between the several texts add up to about 1,000 years.

This is why Eastern branches of Christendom (including the Church of the East, as Nestorian surely knows) usually place creation about a thousand years earlier that Archbishop Ussher, that is, in the year 5508 BCE or 5500 BCE.

Unknown said...

Does seem all faiths sprout from the same deep rhizome within humans. I have sat in India and listened to a Hindu talk on and on about the superiority of his faith which was most shocking as it almost sounded word for word what I heard growing up in the heart of the USA. Not much different than Atheists going on and on about how special and different their faith is - making claims it is not a faith at all and based on something called 'nature' or 'facts'.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
You wrote
"Phil, well, we're individual enough that Nestorian and I can look at the same body of data and reasoning and come to exactly opposed conclusions!"

Touché.

Makes me almost believe in an alternative Universe, or at least a God with a tongue in his cheek. Serendipity strikes again!

best
Phil

Kyoto Motors said...

So what if Nestorian believes the worls is only a few thousand years old. So what if Georgi believes there is no soul. If I'm not mistaken, the point here was not to engage in either of these debates. The idea is to eflect upon ones' belief system, religion and faith, no? It's also a matter of not turning the differences into matters of animosity and opposition.
As intellectually stimulating as it is to dwell on origins and the mythology we embrace, the danger of slipping into the downward spiral of navel gazing is afoot!
with respect to the theme of dealing with the contemporary state of the industrial experiment of "modern progress", I believe there are other fish to fry...

Georgi Marinov said...

Robert Mathiesen:

Do you actually want to claim that *all religions* posit the universe to have been created by some Creator God, and/or that there are such things as souls? That seems to be a hidden premise in your arguments that "no religion accepts" the theory of evolution, and also your insistence that our host must be wrong about his own religion -- which you seem not to know much about.

So . . . do you really have a profound knowledge of the fine details of every last religion that has ever flourished on this planet, the evidence of which knowledge you have carefully hidden from the rest of us? . . . or is all this, just possibly, perhaps, simply a display of unwarranted arrogance? So far, it comes off as the latter, but it seems only fair to give you a chance to defend yourself against any charge of arrogance.


1. I have not said anything that reveals how much I know about any religion, so I don't see where you are drawing such conclusions from

2. You don't need to know every detail of something to know it's wrong, usually a lot less than that is sufficient.

Georgi Marinov said...

This is why Eastern branches of Christendom (including the Church of the East, as Nestorian surely knows) usually place creation about a thousand years earlier that Archbishop Ussher, that is, in the year 5508 BCE or 5500 BCE.

As if that makes a difference - the error is still 6 orders of magnitude...

Georgi Marinov said...

Kyoto Motors:

So what if Nestorian believes the worls is only a few thousand years old. So what if Georgi believes there is no soul.


I don't "believe there is no soul"

I don't "believe there is a soul"

It's a subtle but in fact very large difference.

Zach said...

blue_sun,

If an amateur like myself can reach that conclusion unaided, it must not be that wild of an idea.

Exactly!

peace,
Zach

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, I made it clear in the post, and in several earlier posts, that references to Darwinian theory include all the modern developments. I figured you were just engaging in one of your usual cheap shots, thus didn't take the time to respond.

Blue Sun, and almost everywhere else on the planet, it's not an issue either. For reasons I'll cover in an upcoming post, the whole thing may pop like a bubble in upcoming decades.

SLClaire, what is it with liberal Christian denominations in the US? It's really sad that a Lutheran college -- with so rich a history of thought to draw on -- could think that two religion classes unrelated to the rest of the curriculum counted as a values-based education. Still, that's par for the course. Glad to hear that the change in the SoP worked for you, btw.

William, and that's another way to approach the mystery, no question!

Tyler, I wouldn't have expected any such thing. Still, keep us posted.

Zach, now that's the first time I've had that particular form of encouragement directed at me! Thank you. As for a Thomist science curriculum, oh man. That would be worth its weight in light sweet crude. Are there any Catholic readers of this blog who have a passion for the sciences, know their way around scholastic logic, and want to make a real difference in the world? If so, talk to Zach...

Kyoto, exactly. Facts don't motivate. We'll be talking more about what does motivate as this sequence of posts proceeds.

Steve, it's one of the remarkable things about modern culture that whenever people start talking about reform, they usually mean "figure out what's bad about the existing system, and make it worse." Educational reform and health care reform come immediately to mind. As for the binary, good. Very good. We all, if we're honest, have to admit that we fall short of what we're capable of doing...

Robert, an excellent point, of course. Do you happen to know if the other dates reference, as Ussher did, the exact date and time of the Creation? As I recall, it was October 23, at 9 in the morning.

Unknown, I invite you to sit down with some Druids sometime; I don't think I've ever heard any Druid claim that our faith is better than all the others.

Phil, I tend to think of the universe as a bit of a Rohrschach inkblot, or perhaps a mirror -- what we see in it says a lot more about who we are than about what it is.

Kyoto, then get fryin'. I write about the things that seem important to me, and the pointless antagonism between science and religion in the modern world -- that is, between our best source of knowledge about what needs to be done and our best source of motivation to do it -- is one of those things.

Ian said...

Hi John Michael, I thought you might find this of interest:

http://nymag.com/news/features/economic-growth-2013-7/

After reading a little, I chuckled a little to myself. Seems if you buy that we may be reaching the end of the industrial era (full stop) you must be a disciple of the economist Robert Gordon. Still, definitely a notch on the bumpy downward spiral of progress-ism.

PhysicsDoc said...

JMG,
Thank you for putting a name to my dilemma, the problem of evil. After you mentioned it I recalled seeing it in the past. It is indeed a long and storied problem in philosophy and religion. My question to you is how does Druidry deal with this problem? It just seems to me that even if one believes in reincarnation and multiple lives, there are just some experiences no sentient being should have to experience especially if that being is an innocent or child, yet many have and continue to do so if for no other reason than bad luck or circumstance.

Liquid Paradigm said...

@Georgi

"I have not said anything that reveals how much I know about any religion..."

No, but you have written at great length about how little.

I hate to apply the rule I have about the Internet in general here, but the hysterical, angry screeching of such "enlightened" persons tempts me deeply to stop reading the comments.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

JM, you might be interested in this (I won't recommend it to Georgi, since his thumbnail makes it clear that he's youngish, and a PhD student, so he obviously knows everything already):

I may have mentioned before that Tom Campbell's recently-published Big TOE seems to tally with, and often to support deeply, what you're unpicking in these recent posts. It chimes particularly well with this one.

His website is 'My-Big-TOE.com'

Don't know whether you can find time in your schedule for it, but I'd say it's well worth the few weeks of in-depth study which it will take to begin to get the hang of it, if you're coming at it completely new.

Tom's theory, I suspect, is destined to go right in there with the achievements of -- well the list that I usually give is: Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes yes, that swine!), Newton, Darwin, the quantum mechanics, Einstein and Bohm. His name, I guestimate, comes next.

In amongst all the other gems (resolution of the mysteries of the double-slit experiment, and the constant speed of light, for example), there's this glorious vindication of the druidic idea, sketched in this post, of the continuity of a central quality of consciousness, from life to reborn life. Not just druidic, of course; an insight of many mystical/religious traditions.

Tom can be described briefly as a lifelong physicist, mathematician, and highly practical, methodically-experimental mystic. A pretty good combination, which has led to this elegant and comprehensive theory; BIG theory of everything, in the technical sense.

Hope you find time to look at it. It rewards study; and it vindicates the lines of reason and faith both, which you take in these posts.

(Might actually help you to realise a few things which you don't yet know that you don't know, Georgi... :-)

Hwyl fawr, JM fy mrawd i. RhG

Robert Mathiesen said...

To the best of my memory, JMG, the older chronologies of the creation do specify a particular day of the year, close the Spring Equinox. I will have to check a few references before I can be more precise as to the actual date and the time of day. (The day and time of day were not deduced from the tally of years between each of the patriarchs, but on some other basis.) I'll report back on this in these comments sometime in the next few days.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Georgi, I drew no conclusion, but presented you with the horns of a dilemma -- rather politely. I assumed you know that a conclusion and a dilemma are two quite different things in logic. But perhaps you did not know that.

You did make an absolute claim that "no religion accepts" the theory of evolution. To disprove such a claim only a single counter-example is needed. (The proposition that all crows are black is refuted by the existence of a single white crow.)

You could have dealt with the dilemma honestly. Instead, you avoided it. Thereby you convict yourself of arrogance. Such arrogance does not become a scientist.

onething said...

I'm rather aghast, and not sure if I should be. As I recall, there were about three people who expressed disagreement with Darwinian evolution, but I seem to have started it.

Therefore, I'm disappointed that I was not heard. I think I was clear...

My main point was to say that there are indeed valid, scientific reasons to not find Darwinian evolution credible.

It has once again been turned into a question of emotion and worldview, so as to distance the argument from where it lies for many - in the atoms and molecules, probability and chance.

Something that people in the Intelligent Design community constantly complain about is that they cannot get Darwinists to discuss the theory on its actual merits. All they want to talk about is religion.

I do appreciate, JMG, that you seem to have taken some time to weave my question into your essay; the question being, if there is a divine substrate to the universe, how might such a universe visibly differ from the one that Georgi believes in?

Your answer was, not at all! But fair enough, your answer is coherent. At any rate, I do not find your views on how the cosmos works in any way objectionable - it's just that, so far as Darwinian theories, I don't think they will turn out to be true. It's not about the fact of evolution, but rather the limits to random processes.

Natural selection is not a theory! It is absolutely a fact, and readily observable everywhere. It's the arisal of the information that it gets to select that is in doubt.

There should be no struggle between science and religion. I don't know where a disdain for the physical world among Christians came from. It rather ought to be that they are among its biggest protectors and admirers.

fromorctohuman said...

"It’s a very old choice: which will you have, the love of power or the power of love?"

:-0 <- Jaw dropped for a very long time...

.

.

.

...Did I seriously just read this,

in a blog,
written by an arch druid,
who believes in evolution,
values science,
is deeply religious,
in a post comparing religions,
and stating "there's a common theme shard by many of them'???

I can't get over it...

Glorious man, simply glorious...

[Sorry to be so dramatic, but I'm literally stunned, which is my fault, not yours...]

...


"...do you embrace that order and accept those constraints in your own life for the greater good of the living Earth and all that lives upon her?"

I "strive" to embrace that order and limit, but not "for the greater good", though that is a blessed consequence. But simply because embracing them is the only way to be with "the one", whatever your name for that is.

Man, what a post.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@blue sun--

Evolutionary biology has not been an issue for Judaism at all. Judaism recognizes that human nature has much in common with animal nature, and that without a certain amount of the inclination to selfishness, the human race could not survive.

I've not seriously studied Islam, which has no centralized religious authority and contains many rival schools of thought. However, the Islamic world when it was young was the home of scientific inquiry; most of the surviving literature of classical Greece was saved by scholars who spoke Arabic.


Nestorian said...

Dear JMG,

I, too, thank you for a very civil reply to the potentially incendiary substance of my post. At some point, maybe in a day or two, I hope you will accord me the opportunity to respond to what some other posters are saying in response to mine. For the moment, though, I offer just a couple of thoughts in response to your own reply:

A) While I appreciate – very much so - the fact that you personally accord the creationists the respect of not being stupid, most evolutionists do not. This is a prejudice that I myself shared for many decades, but it is one that needs to be dispelled. In point of fact, there are young earth creationist writers in the fields of biology, geology, molecular biology, chemistry and physics (including in those areas relevant for assessing the validity of radiometric dating methods), astronomy, ancient history, climatology, and other relevant areas of science who are fully credentialed experts in their respective fields.
Additionally, prominent academic evolutionists who engaged in public debates with creationists during the 1970s and 80s on some 300 to 400 documented occasions had a very hard time of it. By the evolutionists’ own account, they lost almost all of these debates – sometimes rather badly - and thus eventually stopped engaging in them. This is, to my mind, a great pity.

Nestorian said...

B) Permit me to make some remarks on what I understand the relevance and outcome of Ilya Prigogine’s project to have been (I might remark parenthetically that he was undoubtedly not a stupid man either). As a general matter, evolutionist responses to the claim that the principle of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics contradict one another make the point that there often exists an amount of active energy - in particular locations, at particular times - that is more than sufficient to bring about order and complexity from chaos and simplicity in a spontaneous and random fashion at that time and place. In other words, while increasing entropy is cosmically inviolate, there are temporary local exceptions where entropy can spontaneously and randomly decrease such that evolutionary developments take place in that locale (with the Second Law not being violated because the increase in entropy outside the locale in question that is associated with the evolutionary development is greater than the temporary, evolution-inducing decrease within).
The problem with these sorts of responses is that providing an energy source on a local basis to initiate random increases in order and complexity is indeed necessary to reverse entropy on a temporary and local basis, but it is not sufficient. If the action of random energy alone were sufficient to reverse entropy on a local and temporary basis, then there would be every reason to expect that enough years (millions, say) of sunlight energy incident on a disheveled pile of bricks could do the work of spontaneously ordering and complexifying the bricks into a building, through a local and temporary trumping of entropy by the physical principle of evolution.
But in order for complexity and order to result from chaos and simplicity via the action of ambiently available energy, the action of the energy on the potentially evolving contents of the locale must satisfy two additional conditions: 1) The energy must do work in accordance with a code or algorithm that provides the proper basis for operating in a structuring and ordering way, and for reversing the normal tendency for random energy to simply disperse, dissipate, and degrade; and 2) the energy must carry out its work by means of some kind of physical energy transfer mechanism present in the local environment that is able to direct the work of that energy in accordance with that code or algorithm.
What Ilya Prigogine effectively tried to do is to use sophisticated mathematical and physical modeling to show that it is theoretically possible for temporary local regions of concentrated ambient energy to spontaneously cause evolution even in the absence of either of the two additional conditions I have stipulated. That is, he tried to show that ambient random energy is theoretically capable of spontaneously and randomly increasing local order and complexity without either 1) an ordering code or algorithma, or 2) a locally present energy transfer mechanism that directs the energy to work in accordance with the code. To the extent that Prigogine’s models succeed in demonstrating such a theoretical possibility, they do so with as much (or as little) force for the ambient-sunlight-spontaneously-evolving-bricks-into-a-building-over-millions-of-years scenario as they do for any scenario of relevance for evolution as it supposedly unfolded over the eons (such as the scenario involving the spontaneous evolution of the first life form from inanimate matter).

Matthew Lindquist said...

Wow. If I had any doubts as to the efficacy of your model of modern belief systems, the comments on this series of posts would certainly have dispelled them. And boy have there been a few doozies in there- "Science shall defeat you no matter how hard you try not to oppose it!" is currently my favorite.

Personally, I can't believe how people can tell you that you're wrong about your own religious beliefs. I mean, even if Georgi were technically correct and you (somehow) have a completely different understanding of Druidry than all other Druids, they're still your beliefs!

sgage said...

onething:

"My main point was to say that there are indeed valid, scientific reasons to not find Darwinian evolution credible."

And those reasons would be?

John Michael Greer said...

Ian, thanks for the link! I'll certainly have to look into Gordon's work -- hard to tell from a journalistic survey, but it looks as though his conclusions and mine have a fair amount of common ground.

PhysicsDoc, that's a fair question, and since I talked about Druidry in this post, I can't see any justification for wiggling out of a straightforward answer. ;-)

As I understand it -- and that's as close to unanimity among Druids as you'll ever get -- the Druid way of understanding the necessity of suffering is a fairly harsh one: wisdom and compassion are always, and only, the result of pain. In order to make the journey up the circles of Abred from cyanophyte to fully self-aware, sentient being, it's necessary, as the triad has it, "to know all things, to do all things, and to suffer all things." That means all things; each of us has been the hungry wolf and the deer it brings down and tears to pieces, and -- well, you can fill in the blanks yourself; the same principle applies on the human level as well. There's more to the Druid teaching than that, of course, but that's the short version.

Rhisiart, you're not the first person who's recommended Campbell's work to me. As time permits, I'll take a look at it.

Robert, let me know. I have friends who throw a birthday party for the world every October 23rd, and they'd probably welcome a reason to throw a second party in the spring!

Onething, don't be aghast; it's an issue that needs discussion, especially from those who don't land plop in one or the other of the standard warring camps. Your suggestion -- that the gap that matters is in the source of the raw information from which natural selection selects -- is at least interesting, and deserves as much attention as any other hypothesis. Still, as I hope I've shown, if the entire universe and everything in it is the result of divine action, how much does the mechanism actually matter?

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi (offlist), enough. While it's enticing to watch you repeatedly make a fool of yourself, that spectacle has become a distraction from the point of this comments page, this post, and this blog. Thus I'll ask you to take your dogma and have it do its business on somebody else's lawn.

Iuval Clejan said...

I didn't have time to read previous comments this time, but just to add my
opinions:

Re free will: I don't see how a knowledge of all our choices and behaviors,
combined with a continuous "evolution" ala Laplace or even Schrodinger
(some equation which tells you the near future from the present and near
past) is consistent with free will. Such a being will probably violate
special relativistic causality when it tries to "see" all of spacetime.
How? With photons? Then it's a contradiction, since it can only see on its
light cone, not all of spacetime. But I suppose it is possible somehow to
be outside of spacetime. I think Einstein may have imagined such a being,
but I don't think he saw it as consistent with free will. If free will
exists, then some regions of the future have not come into being yet, and
choices consists of regions of spacetime that have some sort of
singularity, or at least an event horizon, where Einstein's equations
either break down or do weird things (like interchange space and time).
Perhaps there is something on the other side of these hypothetical surfaces
that is akin to a God or consciousness.

Re evolution: I think creationists have brought some interesting points
for example about irreducible complexity, but modern theory has some
hypothetical answers, like muations of "master genes" which control
hundreds of other genes (without mutation) in a hierarchy..,

GreenEngineer said...

Fantastic post, JMG. One bit I particularly liked

faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms.

I think this is key, both to understanding faith and to understanding the conflicts between the religious and the non-religious. For many people in both camps, faith seems to mean something very different: it means holding a set of beliefs in defiance of evidence, reason, or experience. This is certainly how it was presented to me ("God is testing your faith", etc), and is the primary reason that for most of my life, I viewed faith as an actively destructive force. Obviously, that was an error, but I think it's an extremely common one.

Bill Pulliam said...

Nestorian: "then there would be every reason to expect that enough years (millions, say) of sunlight energy incident on a disheveled pile of bricks could do the work of spontaneously ordering and complexifying the bricks into a building, through a local and temporary trumping of entropy by the physical principle of evolution"

This is exactly what happened on this planet. Sunlight fell on a bunch of inorganic molecules for a few billion years, and as a result a lot of clay particles were organized in to bricks, and the bricks assembled into buildings, purely by the action of this sunlight.

There were a few apes involved as intermediate products in the process.

ohyes378 said...

Since my comment didn't appear, I'm curious, is it something I said? As far as I know I wasn't being disrespectful. I do know that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the subject of evolution. Personally I have changed my mind about it twice in my life. Once based on my ideology and once based on information.

What the public is unaware of is that mainstream science has been quietly distancing itself from the Darwin's original proposition of Natural selection for quite some time now. Evolution in general remains grounded in enough evidence to keep it going for a while. However, we are on the cusp of a paradigm change.

That is the reason that I suggested deeper reading in Paleoanthropology. No offense meant.
buz

Dwig said...

What a lively dialogue! A nice diverse range of spiritual leanings on display (we even have our own Fundamentalist Atheist! Thanks for joing in, Georgi) and some good personal experience narratives. It's triggered a few more thoughts:

Re god: for quite a while, I focused my agnostic investigations on the question of the existence and possible nature of God. For me, a breakthrough came a few years ago, when I realized that, for my own spiritual journey, that wasn't the most important question.

Given our situation, in a world we're continually learning more about, it really does come down to my/our values. (I'll disagree a bit with JMG that "Values are always individual" -- perhaps to a hermit, but for those of us constantly engaged with families, communities, and societies, individual values are always affected by and affecting the web of relationships we find ourselves in. You could fold that under "... a particular context", but I think it's important enough to recognize explicitly.)

On evolution: like many scientific disciplines, evolution (the theory) has suffered from the materialist-reductionist orthodoxy imposed on it for the last century or so. It's not surprising to me that many people looking for meaning in the world have rejected the cramped, mechanistic view that has resulted. Fortunately, again like other scientific disciplines, it's gradually developing into a more nuanced and creative endeavor. (For a readable overview of some of this, Elisabet Sahtouris' "Earthdance" is worth a read.)

Speaking of the orthodoxy: I recently learned a fascinating term: synesthesia. The Wikipedia article gives a good overview, and includes the following:
"Research into synesthesia proceeded briskly in several countries, but due to the difficulties in measuring subjective experiences and the rise of behaviorism, which made the study of any subjective experience taboo, synesthesia faded into scientific oblivion between 1930 and 1980." If anyone doubts that scientific disciplines can be subject to the same kind of rigid orthodoxies that bedevil, say, religions, this should dispel it. Fortunately, science has inbuilt mechanisms that provide ways to break out of such traps (see for example "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"). I'm beginning to think that the same is true of spiritual communities; perhaps Creationism will go the way of Behaviorism.

Puzzler said...

[JMG to Georgi] "Thus I'll ask you to take your dogma and have it do its business on somebody else's lawn."

Well, there goes another keyboard -- thanks for making me spew ice tea!

Best response I've seen in a long time. I actually printed it out and stuck it on the wall.

GuRan said...

Sir and Druid,

I've been waiting for the last few weeks as you seemed (to me) to skirt around the issues or perhaps you were making preparations to take the plunge - which you did this week.

It was worth the wait! Fireworks were just about inevitable, and I devoured the comments thread (so far) almost at one sitting.

Georgi, if you're still reading, I think of it this way. Suppose the laws of physics describe at the bottom level, every interaction in the universe just in the way that you imagine. What do you think those interactions mean? The patterns of interactions between neurons in your brain have a meaning in terms of cognition, beyond being describable by the biochemical laws that govern neuronal interaction - it's a qualitatively different kind of thing. The laws of physics describe the electrical interactions on the chips inside your computer very well - and the software that runs on them not at all. The software is an emergent system that "lives in" the pattern of interactions at the lower level.

Do you suppose that the interaction between components of the universe that are not neurons, have no analogous meaning? What do you suppose it is that "lives in" the pattern of atomic interactions across the universe? Nothing? That's not a testable idea, and hence is not in the domain of science. It's a matter of faith to state that there is no such meaning, just as it's a matter of faith to believe (or to imagine, if there's a difference) that there is.

In the druid terminology, I think your difficulty is in confounding the planes.

John Michael, thanks again for your inspiring work. If nothing else, you're making a difference in a lot of people's lives, and they're thankful for all that you do.

Cheers,
Graeme

onething said...

I am deeply ashamed to admit it, but though I am obsessed with my garden, it is all flowers.

William Hunter--I read the post you linked and liked it very much. We think similarly.
***********************
The problem of evil makes sense in a larger context, in which we experience many lives for the purpose of forging what I call a "real soul." Why blame God for the things that people will do to one another? We are beings capable of much, and our learning opportunities are not restricted. Karma, however, slowly reigns us in, and only superficially is it to avoid painful repercussions. More deeply, it is how we learn compassion as an actual aspect of our characters, morality as a true internal preference. Suffering is short, but wisdom is permanent.

John Michael,
I'll have to agree with your sycophants- :) This was an excellent post with some interesting depths.

"if the entire universe and everything in it is the result of divine action, how much does the mechanism actually matter?"

Umm, for two reasons. First, isn't it fascinating? And second, you and Bill could both be accepted in the Intelligent Design camp (well almost)simply because the tenet of Darwinian evolution is random processes are adequate explanations for the accidental production of life, and you think it was frontloaded in the Big Bang.

That's why I bother to type out the word Darwinian, instead of just saying evolution. There's an agenda there, although you are correct that this is a big world and many people make their peace with it as you have done.

onething said...

Sgage,

I hesitate, because it is not a subject easy to do justice to quickly. If I mention certain issues such as the Cambrian explosion or irreducible complexity, you will say, Oh! those have been answered, but they have not been.

This is not an unhappy subject. It is an amazing and wondrous one. The link that I mentioned earlier by WH Duncan is worth having a look at for inspirational purposes.

The mind boggling complexity of life.
The fossil record shows quick appearance of fully formed, new species.
The origin of first life is completely nowhere, even the eukaryotic cell is an unexplained problem.
The epigenetic factors that are not inherited but passed directly cell to cell.
The complex and specific information. The genetic code has the same properties as language in that it is an abstract system of letters which have no meaning in themselves and have therefore an infinite possible number of combinations.
Systems in animals and in cells which cannot have arisen piecemeal.
Bacteria with the systems to turn on and off their own mutations in the sites where it is needed.

Denton's "Evolution, a theory in crisis" is the best early thorough critique.
Michael Behe, evolutionary biologist or chemist at Lehigh, was a normal evolutionary scientist albeit a Catholic, and he read the above book, and it opened his eyes. He is now famous for Darwin's Black Box, about irreducible complexity.
The book I just finished, Darwin's Doubt by Meyer is excellent and gives the most thorough and up to date knowledge, although he focuses on the Cambrian explosion.

And then, for you JMG, I think you would really enjoy Nature's Destiny, also by Denton about 20 years later. He should be knighted. (Can Australians be knighted?) This book is truly a fascinating read for the self educating layperson, and it isn't very directly about evolution but about the fine tuning of the universe.

S P said...

I have had several religious experiences in my life and am not opposed to religion per say, but I must say that individuals like Nestorian do offend me.

They reason why is because they are offensive to my empirical sense...the idea that what you see, hear, smell, taste, and observe is real.

It's really no different than the trick that cultural marxists, and others like them pull. "Everybody is the same" "There is no computer in front of you" "The sky is not blue" etc. That to me is deeply offensive.

If one simply observes the world around them, as Darwin and others have done, the obviousness of evolutionary processes reveals itself. What one then thinks of them is up to them.

Isn't it interesting how both the extreme right and extreme left in America are so adamantly opposed to empirical knowledge? It reveals how politicized everything is.

For example, many of the same leftist atheists who so vigorously oppose creationism will, on the other hand, deny that they are any human biological differences. It's all in your head, it's imaginary! Girls are the same as boys! Everybody is the same in intelligence and ability!

This somehow became part of the civil religion of progress in America, which if of course our undoing as well.

Richard Larson said...

Recently I had the idea that humans are not at the top of the food chain, with bacteria taking their place at the top. It would be a leap of faith at this point, but wouldn't it be interesting if this is how we live on past the death of this body? Through the bacteria?

Our bodies are filled with trillions of bacteria...

John Michael Greer said...

Orc, thank you. The challenge in talking across religious boundaries is finding those common themes, without trying to obscure the very real differences in how they're understood and enacted.

Nestorian, my take on Prigogine is a bit different. What he's proposing as a general law is that the flow of energy through an open system tends to increase the complexity of that system. That only works with open systems -- that is, systems that are subsets of a larger, wholly entropic system, and receive energy from a more highly concentrated source and release it in turn to a less concentrated sink in that larger system. Within those limits, his theory does a very good job of predicting what actually happens -- notaby in the field of ecology, which is where most of my scientific training was, but in other fields as well. (Ironically, the Prigogine theory explains, among many other things, Parkinson's Law!)

The bricks-into-buildings analogy is a poor one, in that it presupposes that the object being considered is an artifact rather than a natural phenomenon; I'd suggest, rather, that you consider the way that a devastated area recovers ecologically, proceeding from a very low level of ecological integration to the tightly integrated climax community. Nobody has to go through the future forest planting trees at just the right distances, etc.; the flow of energy through the open system, interacting with available resources, does the thing very nicely.

But we could probably argue this one back and forth until three weeks after the end of time, so I think it's probably best to draw a line under it here.

Matthew, that's a standard tactic of the current crowd of dogmatic atheists when they're faced with religions that aren't identical to their favorite caricature of Christianity. I lost count a long time ago of the number of times I've seen some atheist insisting to a Druid or a member of some other minority religion that the believer doesn't know what he or she is talking about, because by definition all religions blah blah blah.

Iuval, within the framework of classical theism, remember, the being in question made relativistic spacetime, and it and everything in it only exists by that being's deliberate choice. Could such a being make other beings who possessed free will? Well, the concept of omnipotence makes it hard to insist otherwise!

GreenEngineer, denying what obviously exists isn't faith, it's psychosis. Unfortunately there are far too many traditions that have lost track of the difference, and it's past time to clear that up.

Ohyes, I didn't get your earlier post -- Blogger eats comments sometimes.

Dwig, synesthesia is a great example. For a while there, you couldn't even get studies published on mental imagery, and prominent behaviorists insisted that mental images didn't exist -- after all, they can't be measured.

GuRan, thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, it's interesting to me that you insist that Darwin's theory requires that the processes that generate new varieties of life are random. Here's what Darwin himself had to say, in the first paragraph of Chapter V of The Origin of Species:

"I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations...were due to chance. This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each individual variation."

Please do yourself a favor and take an evening to read Darwin's book yourself, rather than the various polemic works, pro and con, that have been written about his ideas. What he had to say was considerably more subtle, fluid, and compatible with many worldviews than either his friends or his foes seem to grasp.

S P, we're terrified of empirical reality in America -- terrified by it and offended by it, because it keeps on telling us that our overinflated sense of entitlement might not correspond to our actual place in the great scheme of things.

Richard, fascinating. It's true that each of us is about 10% bacteria by weight, and that any given human being is arguably more an ecosystem than an organism...

Paul said...

“That’s why, for example, the endless arguments about whether divine providence contradicts human free will are barking up the wrong stump. Eternal beings wouldn’t have to foresee the future—they would simply see it, because to them, it’s not in the future. An omniscient eternal being can know exactly what you’ll do in 2025, not because you lack free will, but because there you are, doing it right out in plain sight, as well as being born, dying, and doing everything else in between. An eternal being could also see what you’re doing in 2025 and respond to it in 2013, or at any other point in time from the Big Bang to whatever final destiny might be waiting for the universe billions of years from now. All this used to be a commonplace of philosophy through the end of the Middle Ages, and it’s no compliment to modern thought that a concept every undergraduate knew inside and out in 1200 has been forgotten even by people who think they believe in eternal beings.”

(quoting in length for easy reference, apologize for using valuable comment space)

Whereas man’s free-will is saved, the free-will of our omniscience (God) is lost. For Him (or in His consciousness, assuming He got one) the future is the past, i.e. cannot be changed. He becomes a passive observer of humanity. And if He is an active being, he will be a frustrated one because his “activeness” cannot change anything in the order of things, or if He has consciousness, He “cannot change His mind” – in contrast, humans have free-will and can feel as an active agent - even though in the eyes of the omniscient we may look stupid thinking like this (well, as the logic goes!)

I think the postulation of a passive omniscience who created everything goes better with Buddhism than with Christianity. Buddhism doesn’t argue against a creator, but only that the subject matter is irrelevant theologically/spiritually. The central thesis of Buddhism is Nothingless. There is no meaning relegated to any omniscience of final appeal. Personal enlightenment of Nothingless is the spiritual route. The postulation of a passive omniscience does not seem to contradict Buddhist belief but goes directly against the belief system of the big three Monotheism in which the meaning of life is given by a loving or wrathful (or sometimes loving sometimes wrathful) God who plays the central role in our spiritual life.

wiseman said...

JMG
My question is what went wrong?

I agree with your point that Christianity fostered scientific investigation, esp in the feudal ages.
Once upon a time in my country the caste system existed just as a classification and not as a system for segregating people at birth. Also once upon a time in my country one of the constitutional (sort of) mandates for the government was to train prostitutes and dancers for general entertainment and there were statutes on interactions between prostitutes and clients to protect both of them.

I guess what happened is what happens to everything, things rot and decay, the power structure loses awareness of why it exists and exists just to further it's interests. OTOH new things grow as well, I am not shedding any tears over why religions decay, some new religion will spring up in time.

Seaweed Shark said...

Thank you for this thoughtful essay, which will give me much to think about in the coming week -- during which I will certainly find excuses to use 'diuturnal' and 'sempiternal' in conversation, to the annoyance of my co-workers.

The point I took from this is that the loudest disputes tend to take place between partisans who actually hold core beliefs in common: the worst fights are over small distinctions.

cromberg said...

JMG, Since my previous post was never acknowledged, I'm going to assume it was eaten by Blogger, and try again.

Morality (or a value) is that which promotes the overall welfare and survival of a group or community, (values such as compassion, sharing, etc.), as opposed to the welfare and survival of an individual (values? such as theft, greed, etc.). There is a continuous tension, or struggle, between group values and individual values that eventually results in some sort of happy medium that maximizes overall welfare and survival.

Thus, successful values have a biological and evolutionary basis that, over time, become couched as religious values, and are most often taught as the revealed truth of some god or guru or space alien or whatever. Another way to state this is that religion has an evolutionary survival value component. Therefore, I must take exception to your assertion that science can have nothing to say about values.

Unfortunately, all the established religions I am aware of, including the civil religion of Progress, were formed when the earth and its resources seemed limitless. Now that we humans have overshot the carrying capacity of our planet by squandering its resources, any religion, or set of values, that does not take this into account will eventually lose out in the future struggle for survival.

I think your blog, plus your participation in the comments, provides a much needed education on this subject, and I thank you. Please keep it up!

MilesL said...

Most arguments come about because there is no agreed upon definition of the word being discussed.

This thought came to me in the last week or two to explain what is happening in a number of discussions I have been following. Yes there is a dictionary definition. Yes, sometimes there is even a legal definition. But if you asked multiple people in the discussion what the topic they are talking about means, you will find multiple answers.

So most discussions become a tangled web of misunderstandings because everyone is talking about something slightly different. So my kudo's to you in trying to have some civil discourse by settling on some agreed upon definitions. By the upward battle you are having, I see that this seems to be a much larger problem than I had at first thought.

Bill Pulliam said...

So did you recruit Nestorian and Georgi from Central Casting to personify the schism you've been talking about?

Bill Pulliam said...

My brick quip was not just a throw-away joke. People seem to forget that living things, including human society, are manifestations of physical law. So indeed yes the bricks were erected into the building by the action of sunlight and the local decrease in entropy it promotes.

In a somewhat related vein, I was thinking of the standard of "You can't unboil an egg" in reference to thermodynamic irreversibility. In reality, unboiling an egg is very easy. Just feed the boiled egg to a hen, and a day or so later she will give you an unboiled egg. Again, this is not just a joke. Sure there is an energy cost involved, but there was an energy cost in boiling the egg in the first place. But unless you want to invoke the agency of intelligent design and magical divine intervention in every step of the hen's metabolism, you have right in front of you a fine example of a local decrease in entropy and reversal of an irreversible process, carried out simply by chemistry and thermodynamics.

Kyoto Motors said...

I know I said it wasn’t the point here to engage in the creation debate, but I slept on it and, well, I’ve go a head full of ideas…
It’s a bit of a mugs game on both sides of the fence, isn’t it? Creationists may have no reason to engage in “proof” along scientific terms, but science itself is perhaps fooling itself when it deals with unknowables. The assumption is that creation occurred along some timeline in the past. But this “timeline” is merely a construct of our relatively feeble (or at least limited) minds. Perhaps the continuum of “reality” and consciousness/ life truly is without beginning in any linear sense. Now I understand that “string theory” and the like grapples with some 11 dimensions or so (perhaps a set of work-arounds √† la Ptolemy?...); anyway, last I heard the questions were piling up much faster than answers. And that seems to be the trend: Science is a tool that opens up the mysteries of Nature/ the Cosmos. It’s essentially an exercise in humility – or, if you’re stubborn and you believe the “answer” is just over the horizon, hubris.
So, okay… but if Georgi et al lack some evidence to be conclusive, it is not logically sound for Nestorian et al to jump to the conclusion of “God”. Of course, anyone can jump to God anytime they like, but don’t suggest that it’s science! As a concept, God is a construct for our minds to paper over the unanswerable questions. As an actuality, God is sheer mystery…
Similarly, one can jump to the “Big Bang” and evolution, but don’t suggest that settles the matter… because it’ll always leave countless other questions un-answered. For example, neither one actually precludes the existence of God, even if it were to discredit the Bible as scientific text book.
Science refuses to paper over those unanswerable questions, but the questions don’t disappear, they multiply. So fractured and specialized is the leading edge of science in all fields, it becomes questionable what practical value the science itself holds beyond that of an essentially religious one of chasing the unknowables.

Now that I sit down to this, I realise I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it at that for now…

Cheers!

Nestorian said...

Dear JMG,

I understand the reasons for and will cordially comply with your wish not to pursue further the discussion of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics on this forum. But perhaps we can continue our discussion privately and offline.


One other common misconception I would like to correct is that the modern fundamentalist insistence on the recency of creation and the generally literal character of the early chapters of Genesis is something new in Western cultural history. What is new is only the firm insistence on these beliefs in the face of the strident attacks on them with the rise of Modernity, not the beliefs themselves. There was no need to spend a lot of time and energy vigorously debating the youth of the earth, and the essential historical accuracy of the Genesis creation account and associated genealogies, with opponents in premodern times, given the broad consensus that prevailed concerning these matters in the premodern West.


(This consensus, by the way, includes none other than the illustrious scientists Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, both of whom developed their own exact world chronologies and dates of creation as one of the many premodern alternatives to Ussher’s. Many other of the early pioneers of science were fervent, non-evolutionistic Christians as well.)

Even early Christian writers of an allegorical bent (most notably Origen) did not generally reject the literal historicity of the early parts of the Bible, but merely insisted that the text contained further layers of meaning IN ADDITION to the literal. (By the way, the Nestorian Church has historically rejected multiply-layered allegorical modes of biblical interpretation that gained currency in Roman Catholicism and even more so in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Nestorian tradition has insisted instead on a generally univocal, rigorously historico-grammatical construal of the text – much as classical Protestantism was to do when it arose much later in Christian history.)

Further, here is a brief note to Robert Mathieson: The Nestorian Church is culturally Semitic (specificall,y Aramaic or Assyrian), not Greek. As such, the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, with its distinct chronology that extends Ussher’s, Newton’s, Kepler’s, etc., by about 1000 years, would not have carried great weight with them, nor does it today. Instead, their early “in house” translation of the Old Testament was the Peshitta, translated directly from Hebrew into Syriac (i.e., Aramaic).

Lastly, I myself subscribe to the view that the Orthodox Jews have the exact chronology of the earth and cosmos correct. Their chronology, which is reflected in their official calendar dating system, is about 200 years shorter than Ussher’s, for reasons that I cannot fully recall offhand. But it has to do with ambiguities surrounding how some key Old Testament events were recorded. I side with the Jews on this one, as I trust them to have a more intimate knowledge of the culturally contextual factors that shape the interpretation of these ambiguities than gentile outsiders.

sgage said...

ohyes378 said...

"What the public is unaware of is that mainstream science has been quietly distancing itself from the Darwin's original proposition of Natural selection for quite some time now."

Not true. Mainstream science has been building on the idea and working out mechanisms and ever since Darwin, but the process of natural selection has not been in any way discredited.

Atilio Baroni Filho said...

Hello JMG,

I think your post is about to enter the realm of politics, in the broader sense of the word, meaning about how the (always unbalanced) relations between us get defined and resolved.

Whenever I bring up the issue of power and politics when discussing religion, I always get angry replies and a lot of misunderstanding. I think it's because (as you pointed out endlessly here) it's very hard to all of us to direct a critical eye to something we are deeply invested in emotionally (most times since early childhood). I try to exercise that constantly and I ask myself of everything I discuss about: who benefits the most out of this particular conclusion to an argument, and how?

This has nothing to do with faith, gods or the worth of a faithful, and it's actually very problematic when any belief system tells you: you shouldn't question this too much, you're starting to sound like a . It's a testimony of how current institutional politics works in democracies around the world, in that you hear this kind of phrase from people cheering for his favorite soccer team, hrm, sorry, favorite political party.

But it has a lot to do with human institutions of all kinds (religious or otherwise), and how they survive exactly by (and through) our emotional investment in them. Pointing out the political dimension of an argument is a very useful way to escape the endless back and forth of a binary argument (and to also notice when one or both sides are not really listening). And can also be an useful way to start a change in what you believe.

Cheers!

sgage said...

onething wrote

"I hesitate, because it is not a subject easy to do justice to quickly. If I mention certain issues such as the Cambrian explosion or irreducible complexity, you will say, Oh! those have been answered, but they have not been."

Of course, every single puzzle in the history of life's evolution on this planet has not been worked out, and presumably many never will.

Neither the Cambrian Explosion nor so-called irreducible complexity are reasons to call Evolution "a theory in crisis". Just more god-of-the-gaps.

Science continues to build and learn and elucidate new mechanisms for the generation of new form and process. At the end of the day, natural selection has its say, as ever.

As an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, I find an awful lot of mis-characterization and flat out mis-information of what the current ideas of Evolutionary Theory actually are, and what poses existential threats to the theory.

A few pop-science books don't cut it.

But you're right - it's a huge subject, and this isn't the place to discourse on it at length. It's just hard to read some of the stuff that comes along and not pipe up, even though I swore I was going to stay out of this one ;-)

fromorctohuman said...

"The challenge in talking across religious boundaries is finding those common themes, without trying to obscure the very real differences in how they're understood and enacted."

Agreed, "the devil's in the details," as they say.

But, I can trust anybody operating on the principle of love. So, thanks for that.

Of course, part of the difference that remains could be what is understood by love... It is for this reason that I trust human "reason" very little. Start with something great, like love, and quickly reason it into an horrific corner, justifying any manner of unmentionable behavior to other creatures, all in the name of love! It is for this reason that uniting with the one is not merely pleasant, but necessary, if love is a core value. "Getting" love is a gift flowing out of that union. (I have to laugh at myself as I say these things, as if I know what I'm talking about, which I most clearly don't...)

On another note, I do not really get the problem of evil faced by classical theism. To me, the fundamental error that leads to this problem is the belief that "creation" is entitled to pleasant feelings, freedom from pain, immortality, or what have you. There isn't any such entitlement. Why do we think there should be?

chris said...

John Michael, first let me thank you for your frank and insightful discussions here, this is my first post.

The faith in a creator which you speak of, in my case seems to manifest itself as a faith in Humanity's ability to come to its senses and overcome problems. As a trained engineer, and son of an engineer, I think this faith is related to the mindset and values instilled in me by my father, rest his soul.

I still hold that the ecological problems we face can be overcome with the insights available to us with science and meditation, clean nuclear power has come to my attention as a possibility (see Thorium - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium-based_nuclear_power), once the stigma of previous catastrophes is overcome (not a small problem). My faith in progress, however, is not based in specific scientific breakthroughs, but in the ability of the human intellect to apprehend reality and modify it through careful application of power.

As an ideal, it seems far-fetched in some ways, but I think that societal change away from bloody-minded capitalism would help with the pathfinding through the dense jungle of misguided dogma. There are directions available to us.

Corruption, institutionalism, the submission of our values to authority stand in our way, but the natural world shows us the correct path always.

I live in Ireland, and the beauty and wisdom of nature is so obvious to me here, I despair when I encounter a disregard for the simple values. All you need to do is go into the woods here, all the trails are marked with signs that say 'leave it as you found it'.

An appreciation of the the unknown is inherent in my own view of science - all breakthroughs so far have initially been met with derision - science to me is not the accepted teachings, it is the essence of the unknown and it's relationship to the inquiring mind.

'The quest for a common language' - what a great title, it is this quest for commonality with our fellow beings that drives so much of human activity, but despair and loneliness do not have to prevail, for me it is about hope and faith. As a wise man once said 'you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need!'

John Roth said...

JMG - thanks for this post. Since I don't have a background in academic theology, I found your exegesis on "eternal" fascinating; it helped to illuminate the central problem with "predestination." This is of slightly more than theoretical interest (but only slightly) since Unitarianism descends from New England Puritanism.

@PhysicsDoc and a couple of others. Bart Ehrman wrote "God's Problem" a few years ago to discuss the six ways that the different authors of the Bible attempt to grapple with the problem. I like the preface, which is a quote from either Epicurius or Epictus (I don't remember which):

If your god could banish evil and would not, he is malignant,
if he would banish evil and cannot, he is impotent,
if he can and would banish evil, whence evil?

While I come from a different stance than JMG, we come out to a highly similar place: learning requires making mistakes, and we won't graduate from the physical plane until we master it. The consequences of mistakes are seldom pleasant, and frequently have widespread consequences.

Luval Clojan - the problem I have with "irreducible complexity" is that I've never seen a definition that isn't either circular or a blatant arm-wave. Like the "God of the Gaps" argument, things that have been argued to be irreducibly complex have a history of being demonstrated to be no such thing.

onething: The Cambrian explosion is rather easy to understand: a couple of critical inventions provided a platform for a lot of experimentation. It's the earlier Edicaran or Vendian biota that cause much headscratching.

Robert said...

Chris Hedges on how there are disturbing similarities between the Christian fundamentalist right and the New Atheists ideology of figures such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NypIYCASV4

Both are Manichean, both demonise the Other and both are based on self exultation and power worship

Iuval Clejan said...

Well, this post had two of my favorite subjects in it: free will and evolution.

I'd like to say a bit more, if I may about these two, than what I already said.

Perhaps because I was "raised" in the physics priesthood, I have another way of looking at free will. A being who knows the past poses no problem for free will. But a being who knows all the future does. Whether it knows it by computing the solution to the classical equations of motion or the schrodinger equation, or by just seeing it from outside spacetime, it takes away the essential part of free will, namely that it could have gone another way, it wasn't deterministic (or just random either). The chaos theory answer is not satisfactory for me (that it is practically impossible to compute the solution to these equations, even for an omniscient being), because things are still deterministic. The quantum measurement solution comes closer to satisfying. While it demolishes determinism, it still does not offer a theory of how choice happens. The only glimmer of hope I have found for free will is a theory that has a built in asymmetry between past and future, such that certain regions of spacetime do not exist (or at least do not exist with a Lorentzian metric) until a choice, or measurement is made. If I were to use theological language I would say that these are regions where divinity or endless possibility resides and that creation (choice/measurement) consists of making the boundary between those regions and our spacetime move somehow. I know this sounds like philosophy, but I am trying to use mathematical physics (so e.g. the boundary between our spacetime and the divine realm is a surface where one or more of the eigenvalues of the spacetime metric goes to zero) and hopefully predict some non-trivial consequences that can be experimentally verified.

As far as evolution, it is in a peculiar state where so far no non-trivial predictions have been made that were verified experimentally about macro-evolution/speciation. This is essential for the scientific method. I think this should be pursued by scientists, to actually observe speciation events. Their excuse so far has been that it takes too long, or that all speciation is is reproductive isolation.

Steve in Colorado said...

This is one of my favorite posts so far.

Richard Larson's comment about bacteria reminded me of a thought I had. This might be too far afield from the subject of this week's post, but, anyway--

So, suppose our bodies contain trillions of bacteria (as they do);

Suppose that the various levels of existence (suspend disbelief if you need to) resemble one another as the Hermeticists suppose;

Doesn't this take the debate about whether or not gods, demons or other spiritual entities that one encounters in either ecstatic events or deliberate occult work are "real" or whether they're "just in your head" and, well, stand it on its head?

I mean, if the soul resembles the body-- the soul, or the mind, spirit, or whatever the thing is that makes the invisible things that we think with-- and if the body is partially or even mostly non-human...

Couldn't we say, for instance, "Well, yes, the encounter with the god you you think you had took place entirely inside your mind, but it's been shown that human minds are about 10% gods by weight"?

Yupped said...

An interesting question is why some people tend to be more flexible or fixed in their views of subjects such as religion (or politics, or sports, or anything). Some people I know can read Genesis and be comfortable with it being a poetic myth, teaching certain insights about humanity's developing ego or love of knowledge or relationship to nature or other interpretations. In other words they can use it as a signpost toward some greater truth, without needing to take it literally. And then other people read Genesis and can only take it literally, as history or geology, either holding tightly to it or rejecting it as a belief system, a set of factual propositions or firm concepts that have to be reacted to and agreed with or not.

I think one's basic temperament is an important part of where you sit on this spectrum, in particular how much fear fuels your basic outlook on the world, as well as what types of religious or spiritual teachers you listen to.

For sure religion will become more important again as a way of organizing our response to reality, as times get harder and more uncertain. But if we face that future with a lot of fear (which seems likely) then we're going to see religion infused with more fundamentalism/literalism, which could serve to divide us up into smaller tribes/groups with competing ideas rather than uniting us around common values. But, who they heck knows? We shall see.

GreenEngineer said...

GreenEngineer, denying what obviously exists isn't faith, it's psychosis. Unfortunately there are far too many traditions that have lost track of the difference, and it's past time to clear that up.

Agreed, certainly.

Now what about the converse: accepting/embracing that for which there is no evidence?

Per the standard rules of reason and burdens of proof, that would seem to be equally invalid and equally likely to lead down the road to psychosis: if we choose to believe things because we want to, without requiring evidence, then there is no criteria for defining our world model other than our sense of metaphysical aesthetics.

This is relevant to the current discussion, specifically because you bring up the topic of eternal souls. More generally, I'm trying to tease out the difference between seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms. and a tendency to fill in any part of one's world model where the evidence is thin or contradictory with whatever one happens to want to believe.

Please understand, I'm not accusing you of doing this. I think you have a more subtle approach to this topic than that. But for my part, that subtlety escapes me. It's clearly important, but I have never been able to figure out how to draw the line between beneficial faith and believing something because I want to.

John Michael Greer said...

Paul, that doesn't follow at all. A "passive omniscience" of the kind you've described doesn't correspond to the deity proposed by classical theism, since that deity created the universe and everything in it, and is active in it at every moment -- which is hardly a passive stance toward the cosmos, wouldn't you say?

Wiseman, no argument there. I'm simply wondering about the specifics of failure in this particular case.

Shark, true enough.

Cromberg, I'd say rather that all our current religions have been drastically distorted by three hundred years of previously unimaginable abundance. Most of them still have traces of an earlier time in which poverty was accepted as a normal and even a beneficial state, to note only one adaptation to a world of scarcity. It'll be interesting to see whether any of them can reclaim that heritage, or whether they'll be replaced by new faiths that have learned the old lessons for themselves.

Miles, understand who's using or misusing which words and you've just dodged a good three-quarters of all human confusion. Yes, it's a hard slog!

Bill, nah, if I'd hired somebody to play Nestorian's role I'd have found someone with a less interesting religious background. As for the bricks, granted -- I like the chicken metaphor a bit better, though, since it's a perfect example of an open system a la Prigogine, in which the flow of energy through a system creates increased complexity over time.

Kyoto, of course science has its limits, and has been trying to pretend otherwise in recent years. That's standard for this stage of the historical cycle. I'll be talking about that shortly.

Nestorian, thank you. Of course people before about 1700 were all convinced of a young earth; outside of India and Mesoamerica, where the concept of deep time emerged early on, nobody anywhere imagined that the world could be more than a few thousands or tens of thousands of years old. To my mind, the discovery of deep time was one of the great intellectual adventures of the modern world, and it's one of the things that I hope will be saved from the wreck of the industrial world; obviously you'd disagree with that, I know.

Atilio, sshh! You'll scare my readers. ;-)

Sgage, that's certainly been my perception all along.

Orc, excellent! The problem of evil can certainly be solved, it just requires a ruthless indifference to what you've sensibly described as a sense of entitlement. Given a lot of the rhetoric that's clustered around Western religions in recent centuries, though, that indifference has been fairly rare.

Chris, I appreciate your willingness to describe your belief in progress as a faith. It is, of course, in the full religious sense of that word. If that's the faith that speaks to you, by all means pursue it; I think you're doomed to disappointment -- over thorium reactors, but more generally over the belief in the omnipotence of the human intellect -- but if that's the path you need to walk, that's the path you need to walk.

John Michael Greer said...

John, you're welcome. Predestination always struck me as a bit of a blunt instrument when talking about the interaction between an eternal being and a world in time, but it's one way of trying to get a finite mind around an infinite issue! As for the Ediacaran and Vendian faunas, er, given the extremely fragmentary nature of late Archean fossil deposits, that we've got as much to go on as we do is little short of a miracle -- a point that Darwin discussed in a different context in The Origin of Species.

Robert, thanks for the link!

Iuval, it seems to me that you've neglected the solution that classical theism proposes, which is that of an observer outside of time, capable of perceiving all of time simultaneously, who is also the creator of time and everything in it. The various quantum and relativistic solutions don't apply to a being who created every last quark! As for evolution, I'm not sure why nobody's made such predictions; the two cases I cited -- the emergence of the Eastern coyote, and the explosive radiation of cichlid fishes in the lakes of East Africa -- could easily justify specific predictions, though it would probably take a couple of centuries to see how things come out.

Steve, that reminds me of those eerie late 19th century experiments that found that the human body loses a small but measurable amount of weight at the moment of death...

Yupped, well, an age of unparalleled abundance also managed to pup quite a bit of hardcore fundamentalism, so I'm not sure how much more we have to fear about an age of hardship.

GreenEngineer, I'll be talking about that in an upcoming post. The short form is that it's not actually that hard to figure out what we can know and what we can't. Taking a position on faith about something that can be known by observation and experiment is a shaky decision, and taking a position that contradicts what can be known by observation and experiment is normally a very bad idea. There are, however, issues that can't be settled by observation and experiment, where any decision at all must be made on the basis of values instead. Do gods exist? That can't be answered yes-or-no on the basis of any evidence available to us, and yet sweeping consequences unfold from any possible answer. Those are the issues in which faith, guided by values and character, is the only option there is. Does that make things a little clearer?

Steve in Colorado said...

John Michael--

And of course the amount of weight lost varied from patient to patient, reflecting the quite varied number of devils, gods, ghosts, gouls, and hobgoblins which each individual had accumulated over their lifetime!

Related to the actual topic, and to your comment that when we can know about gods depends on our values, not on experimentation--

I remember a very clear example of this I encountered when I was an Anthropology undergrad. The professor had describe a particular system of divination practiced by the Naskapi Indians called scapulamancy. The scapula of a deer was placed in a fire, where it cracked as it heated. The cracks were thought to form a map-- a message from the deer spirits, presumably-- which the people could follow to find more deer. The result is that the hunters followed the map, and found the deer.

According to the professor, the effect of the divination was to randomize the Naskapi hunting pattern, thus preserving the population of deer in the area. But it occurred to me that it actually didn't matter which explanation you accepted. Was it the randomizing factor, or the message of the spirits, that allowed the hunters to regularly find game? The results are the same whichever explanation you choose! But what's not the same is your view of the world you live in, your own place in it, and the mental tools with which you can navigate it.

Of course, an agile mind would be able to move back and forth between the two, depending upon what was appropriate for each situation.

JP said...

"Yossi, put it this way. The biosphere has its own order -- its own set of patterns which maintain life on this planet. That order isn't negotiable; it's there, and while theories about it change, it changes at most over geological time frames. Much of what's guaranteed industrial society an early grave is our unwillingness to work with natural processes, and our insistence that the needs of the biosphere matter less than, say, our desire for comfort and convenience. Is that a little clearer?"

I think it hurts too much to think about the laws of nature.

Laws of physics? No problem. Industrial civilization *loves* the laws of physics. They're clean, orderly, and predictable. Clockwork. Easily monetized and put on a spreadsheet.

Laws of nature? Too confusing and disorderly. Seems squishy. Mustn't be useful. Might as well ignore them.

Yeah.

Just ignore part of reality because it confuses you.

It helps if you ignore part of reality that you really are quite dependent upon because that just makes sense. What? Huh? I think we have a logic flaw here somewhere.

I'm a fan of God---->Spirit--->Mind---->Life---->Matter, so to speak. Anyhow, I put that continum here because It clearly shows that there's something between the mind and matter part of the line.

Not sure whose idea it was to just want to ignore the entire "Life" thingy in between mind and matter.

Magical thinking (of the worst kind) at its finest.

We are profoundly stupid these days.

And if you don't "believe in God" (whatever that means), you can lop of that part of the line if it aesthetically bothers you (the Buddhist or ethical humanist approach, apparently, and ethical humanist might even just start with mind and lop off the spirit part above it).

It's *still* stupid to ignore the part between mind and matter even if you don't want to talk about the rest of the line.

thecrowandsheep said...

@Greer

"Up through the Renaissance the Christian churches were far and away the most important patrons of the sciences, and that's remained the case in some branches right up to modern times. My question is what went wrong?"

Scientists tried acting like priests?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@luval Clejan

Re free will: cosmologist George Ellis, scientist and also person of faith, has a few things to say about this question which might be interesting to you as someone who thinks in the mathematical physics mode.

He talks about asymmetrical equations that have unpredictable outcomes as a sort of metaphor for how free will could operate and also discusses quantum mechanics as what could make free will possible because that level is where indeterminacy resides.

Forgive me if I am not expressing this correctly: I am a gardener, not a physicist!

JP said...

"@PhysicsDoc and a couple of others. Bart Ehrman wrote "God's Problem" a few years ago to discuss the six ways that the different authors of the Bible attempt to grapple with the problem. I like the preface, which is a quote from either Epicurius or Epictus (I don't remember which):
If your god could banish evil and would not, he is malignant,
if he would banish evil and cannot, he is impotent,
if he can and would banish evil, whence evil?"

Well, considering that we apparently *are* the access points to creation, first of all we need to actually cooperate with God to accomplish things.

So, God's *can* banish evil, so to speak, just not without out help, being that we are how the circuit gets closed.

God's not impotent. There is so-called divine magic, however it requires our cooperation. You do have healing (although I question whether this is through the actions of the so-called White or not. I've had enough experience that I'm convinced it exists. Just like I'm convinced that NASA landed on the moon.)

Whence evil? Well, one of the features of creation ex nihilio is that you are creating out of *nothing*. So, everything sums to zero. If you like "as above-so below", in today's speculative metaphysical exploration, we will try to apply "Every Action has an Equal and Opposite Reaction" from a lower denser plane to a higher plane.

So, when you create the "potential for significant good" you *simultaneously* created the "potential for significant evil". You can't go any higher than you can go lower. Although going lower is *stupid*, the potential to go to hell is certainly there.

Fortunately, Free Will permeates creation from the toppermost to the bottommost, so we certainly don't have to *choose* to engage in mechanized genocidal warfare. However, the problem from our point of view is there's no auto-drive toward bright sparkle unicorn happy world, either.

Which is precisely why we can create hell on earth if we so choose.



In fact, this is the very downside to the fact that we are not prisoners of our own neurology, as I mentioned earlier. If we were still prisoners of our own neurology, we would not be creating massive amounts of nuclear pollution.

No right-thinking wolf or lion is going to even *consider* doing such a thing

However, the actual *goal* is to accomplish the opposite.

For example, we're not supposed to create a world in which it's a war of all against all.

In any event, I'm not going to say much more about the entire ex-nihilo issue, since I've been discussing this for two weeks or so now.

And to make matters worse, apparently, we have the ability to *grow* which requires resistance as any good gym rat can tell you (as above so below?)

So, the arc of creation is a gentle downslope, so if we just sit there doing nothing, we slowly sink into the terrestrial mire and eventually end up prisoners of the Dark Masculine and Dark Feminine - who don't even like each other and seem to really like random acts of suffering and chaos? Thanks for less than nothing, God!

You mean we have to *do* something the escalator is slowly going in the *wrong* direction? But I'm lazy! I want the escalator to go the other way!

That's just rude, Mr. God!

JP said...

You know, the nice thing about divine magic, as opposed to JMG's magic is that the worst that can happen is that it fails when you try it.

You can't have a "bad" outcome, meaning that you won't make things *worse*. The best example of this is the standard issue healing. The person is either healed or stays sick. Yes, it's annoying that you are still sick, but nothing "worse" happened (except that you will now be less likely to believe in divine magic).

Do I have the faintest idea *why* it doesn't *always* work, but rather only works about 0.1% of the time? Nope. It's kind of annoying to me, however the answer is out there.

I don't know whether JMG wants to address this, but you can really, really misuse JMG's magic (is it so-called ceremonial magic, JMG? I'm not trolling, I'm just not familiar with your kind of magic except that it seems to be quite functional. And I'm not going to toy with it (my ex-girlfriend's relatives apparently had significant experience with it).

I've been arguing this point regarding free will and evil recently on other blogs. It appears to be "evil" and "free will" season.

I'm also not using so-called because I'm trying to denigrate these things, I just think that's what people call them.

I used some of Meditations on the Tarot to draw some of this together. That's a useful book if you are the kind of person to whom such a book would be useful. It was quite useful to me, but then I'm not really like the other people here in the trailer park, am I? (I listed to that song way too much in the early 1990's)

I also find the Jain cosmology model somewhat helpful.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jain_universe.JPG

Except for the fact that the area they call "Siddhalia - Abode of the Liberated Beings" is where God appears to radiate into creation (from our perspective) and the Aloka-space outside the universe is God. Since I'm a fan of the tzimtzum theory of creation.

First God created the void, an area of zero *within* God, and worked from there.

Which leads me back to the issue of creation being like a Klein Bottle.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klein_bottle

What's at the top? God.

What's the boundary? God.

Don't ask me if Siddhalia is the highest octave of creation where the new universes are sung into creation. Because I don't know. I've never been there. However, if they did sing universes into creation there, the would have to get the plans from God by going into God and getting them.

However, if I was to go there, I would probably be able to only tolerate about 10 seconds, as opposed to the people who actually *lived* there and had the universe singing into creation hobby.

And I am *so* not going to try to astrally project myself there or anything (not that I *can* astsrally project...I've never tried it, and I'm not going to try to learn it either.) I've got better things to do than spontaneously combust.

And as a parting note, I would like to remind everyone that if you see a door to hell open, you don't stand around theorizing about the nature of hell, you *shut the door*. It's not like hell is *sane* and I for one like the ability to think clearly (when I've had enough sleep).

And timelessness takes time. Fortunately, we're immortal. Which is also a problem. I have a beginning but no end?

Phil Harris said...


JMG
I drafted a rather over-solemn piece, was not going to send, but so much enjoyed comments this week – Ghung, Bill & sgage most recently, that, with a few lighter-hearted references interpolated I thought to add an extra ha’pennyworth. Really we love y’all y’know!

I am puzzled by much human behaviour, including my own, so I do not hold it against individuals or indeed societies that they construe 'the external world' in terms of any idiosyncratic 'internal cosmos' or a social version thereof [Bill’s reference to recruits from Central Casting plus his choice picked from the real world of a quantifiable model in the form of chicken & egg]. I take it that such internal models [however odd] and the social forms they are nested within are often accretions of models - even personalities - acquired from others during the normal formation of us as individuals [Ghung @ the dentists in the Bible Belt with somebody and his Granny]. If there is a problem, it seems to be in the ‘self-centred’ nature of social grouping [ain’t the USA just wonderful!]. The USA has been an accretion of small groups each having a highly motivated sense of self-identity but needing to find an answer to diversity. The need for a founding script, some kind of cultural DNA, appears evident [Take your pick].

I am curious then how a few of your readers when holding on [all credit due] to accretions of more idiosyncratic interpretations of reality must quarantine information such as the following fragment from a recent study of the larger cosmos: much has followed from looking through a telescope or down a microscope or from making careful maps of what can be seen, or indeed from just counting beans.
NGC 1277, a compact lenticular galaxy located in the Perseus Cluster, hosts a black hole 17 billion times as massive as the Sun. Most galaxies are thought to have a massive black hole at their centers … and etc.

best
Phil

Marcello said...

"Home schooling programs and private religious schools, along with the assorted paraphernalia being marketed to their minions will likely benefit from ongoing decline as people seek easy answers to complex questions."

Quite likely. Modern science is misunderstood and not particularly appreciated by the population at large. Once it becomes clear it cannot provide the means to keep industrial civilization going all the sort of groups and ideologies will go after it, either whole or parts, with a vengeange and very few will lift a finger in its defense. In the event with increasingly limited resources research in most fields will grind to halt anyway.
Assuming a civilization survives it is dubious that without fossil fuel subsidies it could mantain or advance it tech level to the point when science does provide a competitive advantage.
Nuclear weapons were only possible because of then cutting edge science. For muzzle loading black powder weapons tinkering and informal trial and error sufficed. Thus it is quite possible that science will not survive at all.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

To JMG
(and others thinking about free will and the problem of evil)

Out of my league, but here goes:

If we live in a deterministic universe subject to physical laws, then perhaps our classically theistic omniscient being has made a pact with him/her/itself to not interfere with said determinism or with actions by humans who are exercising free will? Yet we (or some of us, anyway) have religious/numinous experiences and experience the living earth in a numinous way. So. The only place in a deterministic universe where that could operate might be at the level of indeterminacy, where said omnipotent being could also operate without messing with the laws of physics, etc. because to do the last might be unethical according to how the omnipotent being set up the universe. Of course there could also be a category of the deterministically numinous that we haven't figured out how to apply science to. :)

Also, the problem of evil: I believe that much of what we think of as evil is natural processes occurring that happen to harm humans--tragic, awful perhaps,but not really evil. This might be the ecological view.

I think of evil as what happens when humans harm other humans and the living earth on purpose, on a sliding scale from minor to horrific--and that has something to do with free will. And if we are given free will, then I guess it's not going to be taken away when we contemplate doing or actually do something hurtful. So evil exists as a byproduct of free will in our universe. But so does love and care for others and the earth.

Looking forward to the next post and resultant comments!

ganv said...

That post can expect an outburst of comments. The positivitists among both the atheists and the fundamentalists will loudly protest. But to many more it represents a very attractive way to relate to the human religious impulse in our age of technical possibilities and ecological limits.

Having lived with the ideas you describe for some time, I am thinking about where they lead. If one takes the call to 'apprehend the order of the cosmos in love and awe' and tries to expresses it in a scientific framework, you come up with something like 'a human chooses to use their complicated neural circuitry that produces positive affirmation of relationships and religious humility in the presence of the transcendent in seeking to understand the world around them. ' Not nearly as eloquent or attractive as your phrase, but it highlights the central role of the human mind in things religious. Presumably we also use our observational, logical, and quantitative skills as well when we apprehend. What seems to be happening is that some of the simplifications that the human mind has used to comprehend the world are being replaced by more accurate approximations using the tools of science. So in the past someone may have thought that their tribe was spared famine because they worshipped correctly whereas now we build irrigation systems and hope we as a species do not so damage the broader ecosystem that it stops replenishing our water supply.

One might say that 'love' and 'awe' are such approximations. I would respond that they are so deeply ingrained in us that we can not function without using these approximations so we had best place these approximations in the most harmonious relationship possible with the world as it is. Sorry if this isn't clear...the quest for a common language is long and rarely ends in easy triumph. In short, I think we are learning to understand the mental and social systems we use to implement our 'values' so that statements like 'science isn’t about values' start to be equal parts false and true. Science is developing an understanding of how humans use values to apprehend their world. But science does not allow us to transcend being human so we still must adopt some values that can accurately be called religious values for the process of living as humans.

hadashi said...

JMG, some great reading here that meshes well with the Alan Watts lectures I've been listening to recently. Also the definition of 'eternal' and the description of the universe from the point of view of timelessness reminds me of the first time that I came across that concept in Robert Heinlein's first short story 'Life;line' written in 1939.

John Michael Greer said...

Steve, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for noting that the explanation and the phenomenon are two different things, and a practice that works can be understood to work in many different ways.

JP, good. Life as something distinct either from nonliving matter or disembodied mind is something that's given thinkers in the Western world hiccups since the death of the Renaissance. One of the things that helped kickstart the Druid Revival was the willingness, among a handful of British eccentrics, to challenge the resulting prejudice.

Crow, that's certainly a hypothesis worth testing...

JP, hmm! That's an interesting theology, to be sure. You won't find a lot of other religions that agree with you that human beings are the only access points divinity has to the universe, admittedly!

Phil, from my own religious viewpoint, the vision of the universe presented by modern science -- a universe so vast in space and time that human pretensions are exposed as silly, and humility becomes the only appropriate stance toward the cosmos -- is profoundly moving. No, I don't get why people exclude that, either.

Marcello, good. I've been arguing this for quite some time -- science is far more vulnerable to collapse and abandonment than most people realize, and it could happen fairly quickly. I'll be talking about that shortly.

Adrian, I think it's important for everyone -- whether it's "in their league" or not -- to reflect on issues of this kind, and test their own beliefs and actions against the profound issues that are raised by any attempt to make sense of our human condition.

Ganv, what gets interesting is that "worshipping correctly" in many ancient societies includes actions that are extremely practical from an ecological standpoint. In ancient Greece and in Japan (ancient, medieval, and modern), for example, certain areas were set aside as sacred groves where no tree was to be cut and no livestock pastured. With remarkable frequency, sacred groves assigned to agricultural deities (Demeter in Greece, Inari in Japan) are in places where a good solid patch of natural vegetation will prevent erosion from getting started and damaging the fields. So there's a good deal more richness in the old traditions -- even when they're justified by purely mythic narratives -- than many people nowadays ever realize.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer: “Marcello, good. I've been arguing this for quite some time -- science is far more vulnerable to collapse and abandonment than most people realize, and it could happen fairly quickly. I'll be talking about that shortly.”

Yes, the loss of even what would seem to be essential techniques in smallish, isolated groups of humans seems quite common. The problem being that it may take thousands of years to perfect that technique, say, spear throwers or science, but it only takes two or three generations to lose it.

The key there is that they are isolated, but more of that later.

The other way seems to be when a great empire comes very messily apart with a huge and long-term reduction in population, as I gather Rome did. The much smaller population had so much “stuff” lying around they did not need to manufacture some items (say, concrete) for those critical two or three generations, then of course it was too late.

What I think will save science this time is that any coming collapse is likely to be slow, stepwise and very complex, as I think most of us agree. In different locations it will vary from cataclysmic to barely noticeable, or perhaps even just a great opportunity for some communities. Isolation is not going to be a factor over most of the world.

Under those circumstances, given the relentless hard-wired competition between individual humans and groups of humans, science is just too useful. In short, those groups and nations who retain even not very good science will out compete and ultimately replace those who don’t.

Come to think of it, isn’t that what’s been happening over the last three hundred years?

Stephen Heyer

Grebulocities said...

Hi JMG,

I think I understand (roughly) how beliefs that cannot be supported by empirical evidence, such as about what or who brought about the Big Bang, might cause substantial effects on an individual or their interactions with society.

However, to me it still seems somewhat intellectually dishonest to accept unverifiable beliefs about the unknowable, even if they have visible consequences on the real world. It seems the only supportable response to a question in which no evidence could inform my belief, such as "what caused the Big Bang?" is "I don't know." For what it's worth, the universe could have been created last Tuesday and all my memories from before then were implanted in me in the initial creation event. There is no way within science to falsify that belief.

So I suppose I'm an agnostic in most senses of the term. To use your example, although I don't question every step I take, I acknowledge that I could be mistaken with any given step and end up falling. I'm clumsy enough that any other belief would not be supported by the evidence, as stored by my brain!

In your view, am I making any logical mistakes here? Is there any reason that I should view metaphysical claims (including those by atheists) with anything but profound skepticism?

KL Cooke said...

"...insisting that no religion accepts Darwin's theory when I've just told you that mine does..."

So does the Anglican Church--apres Wilberforce, of course. Actually, I'm surprised they didn't write a hymn about it, like they did to imperialism. "From Greenland's Icy Mountain's, from India's coral strand..."

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Well, I'm not going to restate my values for fear of boring yourself and your readers! hehe!

This topic just doesn't get mentioned here, at all, anywhere.

You can see evolution at work here in the forest because eucalyptus trees readily hybridise within one to three generations. You don't have to travel far either as different soils and aspects provide the same species tree with thoroughly different outcomes all within only a few kilometres. If the climate changes drastically, these trees will happily adapt. Of this I have no doubt. Beware triffids are amongst us and they smell strongly of eucalyptus oil!!!!

Hi Adrian,

Glad to hear that you are enjoying the book. The conclusions are fascinating and the breadth of hands on management of the entire continent is quite staggering. The early explorers would head off into the unknown and often die. Their actions baffled the Aboriginals who couldn't understand how this happened in a land of plenty! The explorers also often refused assistance too. Oh well...

Hi Georgi,

I'm basically disappointed by your reply last week. You presented my side of the dialogue as a choice between hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers. There is an entire world of options other than just these two choices.

If I could give you some advice, which you are free to dismiss, dialogue is about engaging in a discussion. Your replies smack of an attempt to dominate a conversation through whatever rhetorical tricks you can bring to the fore and it actually bores me. It also is a display of fear of being wrong.

Your mind is closed whilst at the same time you strongly believe that you are correct. If you don't question things and beliefs how can you come up with new hypotheses?

Often I have to also remind myself how little people in first world countries have travelled within third world countries and witnessed true poverty first hand. Poverty doesn't just mean subsistence farming.

Regards

Chris

Edward said...

JMG wrote:

"...the supposed incompatibility between evolution and the existence of one or more gods rests on the failure of religious people to take the first principles of their own faiths seriously.

I'm understanding these first principles to be the eternal nature of God that transcends any disagreements about dates and sequences, and that faith and values operate in a realm that transcends the details of our physical world, but still must be applied to our attitudes and actions in the physical world.

My conclusion then is that if we accept these principles, and acquire a proper sense of awe, then all the arguments about evolution become kind of silly."

Edward said...

William Hays wrote: "The strange chronology of Anglican Archbishop Ussher, which starts creation on October 23, 4004 BC, has been elevated in the fundamentalist world to the level of John 3:16. Why the rantings from that otherwise obscure 16th Century writer would carry more influence than Luther, Calvin, or Wesley is something I cannot explain."

Maybe because this kind of disputing is a tempting diversion and a way to project piety instead of doing the hard work of changing one's life and caring for others.

Edward said...

Perhaps a more apt lesson from Genesis is that mankind's basic error is wanting to KNOW the difference between good and evil.

Instead of following faith and values, we try to rationalize it, usually with bad results.

Edward said...

Chad M. Thompson wrote: "Omnipotence combined with atemporality is interesting that way. Seemingly contradictory things become possible, such as creating a universe that is very literately already old.

God could actually make tomorrow yesterday if He wanted too, and we would have absolutely no clue it occurred."

....Trying to let my mind expand without my brain exploding.

Leo said...

So at the best; religion and science inform each over.

Motivation at this stage is the problem. The technical side is of things is possible, through its a bit late for a global change. Best case scenario has multiple Byzantium like situations (Russia for example).

Going through some of my courses textbooks and read some stuff from the Rocky Mountain Institute. There's a whole lot that can be done, Factor 5 isn't impossible. The actually institute's building demonstrates that.

But even in the best cases where even capital costs are reduced, massive changes to thinking and assumptions need to to take place. Often one pieces cost is increased to reduce the overall cost, but current cost minimization strategies stop that or it goes against current practice.

One of my drafts "Abundance long after the fall" is about what could be achieved with these in the future. Not abundance in terms of material+energy input, but relative to the historical norm.

And then there's the whole growth problem. Even if we did all that, unless economic and population growth stopped, the achievements wouldn't matter.

At least there's a stable population party in Australia for this election on that front.

Jeffrey said...

What makes this particularly important just now is that we’re all facing that choice today with unusual intensity, in relation to part of the order of the cosmos that not all religions have studied as carefully as they might. Yes, that’s the order of the biosphere, the fabric of natural laws and cycles that keep all of us alive

It is no mystery that religions did not incorporate our biosphere into their morals and ethics since humans were not stressing their biosphere at the founding of most modern religions. If Druidry is an exception it proves the point since it has only a small fringe following.

If our biosphere suffers due to the mass bulk of humanity and our consumption habits, then any change requires a capitulation on a grand scale. Which leads me to the conclusion that the only agents that can act on the masses are the feedback consequences that will come from our biosphere itself, not very much from teachings.

It is comforting to see ourselves here as early sages that will pass this knowledge on to seed future generations with a new religion or philosophy in humbly working within the constraints of our biosphere.

The only real teacher however that will have the power to move the masses comes from the externalities themselves.

That is perhaps the deepest lesson in humility we need to start with. That we humans have forfeited the option of using knowledge, wisdom and compassion as a way out of this dilemma. We are so deep into overshoot that we have passed the gauntlet of self responsibility over to the external consequences.

I can already here the echoes of future religious discourse as the consequences will be debated as the hand of a Creator? Which is fine as this will be an interesting new twist on the wrath of god and will succeed in putting our biosphere where it belongs in the center of religious thought.

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

"With remarkable frequency, sacred groves assigned to agricultural deities (Demeter in Greece, Inari in Japan) are in places where a good solid patch of natural vegetation will prevent erosion from getting started and damaging the fields."

This is interesting. I am familiar with the narratives of both deities, but not on any concrete examples of the placement of shrines. Could you clarify a bit more, please?

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear John Roth: What I refer to as irreducible complexity is just the facts that many genes are highly interconnected and that for a speciation event they have to change in a coordinated fashion. The probability of all of them mutating in a concerted fashion (or even independently) is negligible even on cosmological timescales. The naturalistic solution is that they don't all mutate. Only one (or a few) mutate on evolutionary timescales (so called "master" genes, or regulatory genes), and the rest experience epigenetic changes or simply changes in expression (time, place and amount).

Dear Adrian Fisher: Thanks for pointing out to me that Ellis has some philosophical things to say. I have read parts of his technical book with Hawking as co-author. Perhaps he would be a gateway to Penrose, whom I have been trying to reach for a while, unsuccessfully (I've been told that the only way to reach Penrose is at a conference, or to go knock on his door in Oxford).

JMG, I haven't exactly neglected the possibility of a being outside of time. I am actually trying to put it on a physics foundation, and to work out some details. Perhaps you might think this is a misguided attempt to cross the boundary between science and religion? I would like to think of it as a productive feedback between the two. The idea of a surface where the signature of spacetime flips (or more generally changes from our common Lorentzian to something else) has actually been introduced in the context of early universe cosmologyJMG, I haven't exactly neglected the possibility of a being outside of time. I am actually trying to put it on a physics foundation, and to work out some details. Perhaps you might think this is a misguided attempt to cross the boundary between science and religion? I would like to think of it as a productive feedback between the two. The idea of a surface where the signature of spacetime flips (or more generally changes from our common Lorentzian to something else) has actually been introduced in the context of early universe cosmology. JMG, I haven't exactly neglected the possibility of a being outside of time. I am actually trying to put it on a physics foundation, and to work out some details. Perhaps you might think this is a misguided attempt to cross the boundary between science and religion? I would like to think of it as a productive feedback between the two. The idea of a surface where the signature of spacetime flips (or more generally changes from our common Lorentzian to something else) has actually been introduced in the context of early universe cosmology. I am just exploring its relevance to things closer to home.

onething said...

JMG,

"I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations...were due to chance. This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each individual variation."

That is so very interesting that I truly wonder about its context. Darwin was a kind and interesting man who truly pondered...

Paul,

I fear that the use of the word nothingness as a translation is a poor one. After all, in English it means utter nonexistence. Void and emptiness have been used as well, but the meaning is to see beyond duality and underneath the existence of temporary and dependent things.

Kyoto-

"but if Georgi et al lack some evidence to be conclusive, it is not logically sound for Nestorian et al to jump to the conclusion of “God”.

It's more a matter of the evidence we have ruling out some of the early, naive hopes/suppositions of how it could have come about.

Sgage,

Fair enough - but how do you characterize them as pop science? Pull down your skirts! Your prejudice is showing.

Fromorctohuman--

I think the (problem of evil) reason it bothers people is that they think God should be good, and a good being wouldn't do that to us. Now, I do think that God is good, but no kind of wimp, and what is in our best interest isn't a perptual playpen.

John Michael Greer said...

Hadashi, I remember the story! Thanks for a blast from the past.

Stephen, the thing that makes me drop my head into my hands is that whenever I mention the fact that science may be lost in the decades and centuries ahead, somebody pops right up to sing a lullaby about some impersonal factor that will surely come along and save it, without requiring actual effort from anyone here and now. Does it never occur to you, or to any of the other lullaby-singers, that convincing other people that they don't have to do anything to save science may be contributing mightily to the likelihood of its disappearance?

Grebulocities, I suppose it depends on whether always being right is at the center of your system of values. There's something to be said for a willingness to risk being mistaken in a good cause.

KL, the closest approach to a hymn to evolution is the old Cambridge drinking song:

It's a long way from amphioxus,
It's a long way in time,
It's a long way from amphioxus,
In the deep primeval slime.
Goodbye, fins and gill slits,
Hello, teeth and hair!
It's a long, long way from amphioxus,
But we came, from there.

You're right, though, that there's ample room for more!

Cherokee, heh. I'll keep an eye peeled for 'em.

Edward, that's a simplified version of the argument I'm making, but it'll do.

Leo, basically, yes. We'll get deeper into that as we proceed.

Jeffrey, except that human beings have an odd proclivity for suddenly changing what they're doing, for good or evil, on the basis of motivations that don't rely on external forces. More on this as we proceed.

Eremon, I'll have to go dgging up my sources; there are studies of ecological practices in both cultures that mention that sacred groves end up placed with quite a bit of precision on places where they serve the interests of erosion control, but it's been years since I read them.

Iuval, no, not misguided, but it really did look as though you were trying to force-fit eternity into the Procrustean bed of time!

Onething, I really do encourage you to sit down with Darwin's book and give it a read, cover to cover, without passing judgment until you're done. You may find a good many preconceptions you have being quietly rendered null and void...

onething said...

John Roth--

" things that have been argued to be irreducibly complex have a history of being demonstrated to be no such thing."

I'd like to know of one, or why you find the definition circular.

Re free will, Tom Campbell of My Big Toe states that conscious awareness is more or less synonymous with free will, that is, an awareness without free will cannot be.

And, the problem of evil is evidence of free will.

Green Engineer said:

Now what about the converse: accepting/embracing that for which there is no evidence?

And I thought he was about to discuss Darwinian evolution, till I kept reading! Well, I thought that was funny.

I'm not sure what people expect when they say there is no evidence of the spiritual realm. I'd say there is quite a lot of evidence. As for me, I'm not much into faith. I prefer knowledge.

Ex Nihilo to me means that God created everything out of herself, from a state of nonmanifestation, the void of pure potential, whence in some trillions of years it may return. An incarnation of Brahma. There is not, has never been and can never be anything but God.

And that, JMG, is why I call myself a monotheist. It in no way precludes other "divinities," some of whom might be much more accessible to us than the Great Mystery.
I share your admiration for the Hindu understanding of deep time.

I've also contemplated whether life is something separate from the soul or mind that inhabits the body. I'm something of a vitalist. But perhaps it is the mind/soul that animates the body, and why the body dies when it departs.
There is a subtle difference between a body that still has life, even if it is near death and unconscious, and the feel of it after death. It is the feel of an inanimate weight.

Orlandu84 said...

Thank you for another good post distinguishing between science and the civic religion of "Progress." Knowing a number of Christian homeschoolers who oppose the myth of "Progress," I completely agree that it is the civil religion's influence that they fundamentally oppose and not Darwin's theory per se. Unfortunately, the Progressive elites have done a very good job of packaging their religion in scientific terms and lessons. Equally tragic is the long term effect upon discourse that Creationism is having - more and more I find myself unable to talk with evangelical or fundamental Christians about science or other cultures. It saddens me greatly that the civic religion of Progress has divided its opponents so thoroughly. Then again, most rulers learn the lesson of "divide and conquer" early on in their careers.

Edward said...

JMG wrote: "that's a simplified version of the argument I'm making, but it'll do"

Thanks, I was trying to reduce the argument to the essence to avoid losing my way in the subordinate arguments. I usually have to read and re-read your posts before I get it. On this one I was about to print it out and start drawing lines and arrows between the paragraphs. My mind and soul are getting a good workout here.

Marcello said...

"What I think will save science this time is that any coming collapse is likely to be slow, stepwise and very complex, as I think most of us agree. In different locations it will vary from cataclysmic to barely noticeable, or perhaps even just a great opportunity for some communities. Isolation is not going to be a factor over most of the world.
Under those circumstances, given the relentless hard-wired competition between individual humans and groups of humans, science is just too useful. In short, those groups and nations who retain even not very good science will out compete and ultimately replace those who don’t."

Let's make a pratical example: do you think that the swiss and the french will keep powering the LHC once blackouts and brownouts become commonplace in those countries? It is not like it produces anything a cornered politician or army general can find useful. This is only an extreme case but the same will apply across the board to most fields.
What I think you are missing is that science started to provide really substantial practical advantages only into the 19th century, as industrial civilization really took off and technology grew beyond what informal tinkering could handle. Science could provide the means to produce more advanced weapons and machinery. However as we head in the descent phase resources are going to get tighter and tighter. Paying the trigger pullers and keeping the existing infrastructure at least partly going will be hard enough. The money/resources to procure newfangled weapons and technologies won't be there and therefore most likely the money to research them in first place won't be available either. Since the scientific ground that could be covered on the cheap without substantial number of specialists and expensive instrumentation has alredy been covered my best guess is that most scientists will find themselves cultivating potatoes. What happens next I have no idea, but even if the scientific method survives, and it is not a given, it will be stuck on the same grounds already covered by people like Newton or Mendel. Mind you, if we do not manage to preserve the relevant knowledge it could at least be rediscovered that way but that's it.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

onething wrote, "I think the (problem of evil) reason it bothers people is that they think God should be good, and a good being wouldn't do that to us. Now, I do think that God is good, but no kind of wimp, and what is in our best interest isn't a perpetual playpen."

That is one way the Garden of Eden story may be understood within Jewish tradition. The Garden of Eden was a playpen. Living there, Earth Man and Life Woman had all their needs provided for, were protected from danger, and were unaware of their own sexuality. They were small children with the bodies of adults.

Once Life Woman exercised choice based on reasoning rather than obedience to parental authority, they grew up in a hurry. They knew themselves and each other as sexual beings, and had to face lifetimes of pain, danger and hard work. These are not punishments; they are consequences.

The angel with the flaming sword blocks the way back to childish innocence or immortality.

thrig said...

Steve in Colorado, regarding the Naskapi deer ritual: certain island tribes have stories that unusual low tides are an angry god shaking the world tree, to which the best response is to gain high ground. While being a less detailed account of tsunami than science may provide, it does serve a useful purpose of diverting people out of harms way, especially if the thus exposed tidal flats (food! curious humans curious!) might otherwise be attractive to explore.

Ben Simon said...

Dear JMG;I have been raptly following the theological thread(s) of your latest blogs.
I give reference here to an earlier comment of mine in response to your remarking that there is insufficient awareness that the human mind is operationally limited by what evolution has NOT endowed it with. Coupled to this is the idea that much of what constitutes areas of knowledge not subject to empirical validation (including historical understandings) is produced by the simple psychological process of “projection” with this taking place where and when there are little to no substantial external references. However, the same psychological process produces the human ability to deal with the physical world in ways that on analysis are literally “ mind boggling”.
It is, also, not generally understood that it is difficult for the mind to comprehend certain aspects of reality and nonreality, without training. Being able to do so constitutes a genuine powerful learned ability. Sadly it is not taught or developed except by life experience, itself. This results in a very low capability for most people. Your call to look rigorously at the “here and now” is seriously undermined by this circumstance, though the effort is badly needed, anyway.
A follow on to this is my sincere opinion that the whole area of discussion that is involved with “religious belief” etc. is an utter waste of time. This is because the human concern that entails acceptance of concepts such as deities, is simply a product of the natural predilection to accept the outcome of projective thinking without critical examination. A lot of this was done in the more distant past and some correction is taking place, now.
There is available, through excellent research efforts, how “projection” operates as an essential element in human cerebration. The knowledge obtained clearly shows that much greater diligence needs to be exercised to avoid the positing of nonsense, as wisdom. This is very vitally connected to the derivatives, belief and faith, as well.

All the Best
Ben Simon

Unknown said...

So, I realize that this I'm probably posting this rather late in the week to get a response, but I will anyway.

I believe the standard atheist's response to claims that whereof science cannot speak, faith must take over, is to ask why one would choose any particular faith or value system over any other. Because if there is any answer, then why must reason remain silent on the subject? Any reason for preferring one value system over another is just that - a reason. And if one chooses a value system based on intensely personal reasons that are completely incommunicable to anyone else, than how is it possible to even discuss value systems, or religions, *at all*? The fact that our host, and each commenter, feels competent to promote some value system in ways that are comprehensible, and even persuasive, to others, shows that, even if it is our heart and will that chooses a value system, they do not do so for reasons that are arbitrary or completely alien.

For instance, the hypothetical person who claims at the end of this week's essay that "they'll think of something" is quite simply wrong, as Mr. Greer has shown in considerable detail over the course of writing this blog. I have abandoned the civil religion of progress because it makes real predictions about the physical world that Mr. Greer has convinced me are wrong, wrong, wrong.

Now let's take the True Believer in the civil religion of progress who, rather than saying "I'm sure they'll think of something", accepts the evidence that progress is coming to an end and that we're moving to a deindustrial future through a slow process of catabolic collapse. They see that all that their value system says is most valuable is ending, and decide to kill themselves rather than have to live in a world that their value system says is worthless. Doubtlessly, most of you would say that that is a bad decision. I agree! But how could you convince them of it? How, given that choosing of a value system is a non-rational thing that is beyond the domain of science or logic?

Now, none of this is meant to be an argument against theism. I am given to understand that, actually, the metaphysical arguments for theism (although not Classical Theism) are much better than previous generations of atheists had imagined. Could be! I don't know; that's why I'm an agnostic. It's not any particular value system I'm objecting to; it's placing any widely-discussed area of human experience outside of access of reason - and then continuing to discuss it. While, indeed, "that whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent", we can clearly speak *a lot* about values and religion.

Patrick Cappa said...

JMG -
Thank you, once again, for brilliantly dancing through the minefields of our unquestioned assumptions and dogmas. And quite the lively comments section, and that's just what made it through the troll/flame filter!

The historical oddities of modern American religious doctrines, and the willingness of modern science to finally meet the assumptions of Christianity head on, leads to a bloody battle that, I suspect, will greatly damage our chances of surviving the coming age of scarcity, as it divides the nation on personal and political levels, drains intellectual resources we desperately need elsewhere, and creates an enmity that will not be quickly forgotten. So again, thank you for being a small voice of reason in this stupid battle.

I have often thought about the nature of subjective and objective reality, and as a scientist and a believer that Nature is as close to God as we'll ever see, the importance of the scientific method in bridging the two.

You said,
"Step beyond questions of fact, and you’re in the territory of faith"

I can safely assert that your studies of ecology have informed your religion, and though you made the distinction between the two realms, I wonder if that distinction is necessary or real.

The laws of nature inform my values, and inform me as to the nature of what "God" might be. The facts of behavior of social animals inform my morals, and though it's evolutionary in nature, it doesn't change the importance of empathy and friendliness to other living beings. I would say it's our greatest strength, in fact, and the origin of nature centered religion, and perhaps religion in general. The facts of psychology and neurology inform my notion of self. The laws of physics inform my notions of what the soul could be.
etc, etc, etc.
But I'm also drawn to the writings of the Taoists and Buddhists, to Thoreau and Muir, to Jesus and the Gnostics, to the modern humanists and old ethical philosophers, etc, and those inform my life as well.

It is a balancing act, to be sure, but to me, at least, there is no distinction. Facts and faith can be on equal footing, with no wall between them. One informing the other, the other directing the attention of the first, to create a whole worldview. Why erect a wall where one need not be?

Stephen Heyer said...

My apologies if my previous posting fell into the same error I myself identified in discussions of “Progress”.

I referred to “science” without indicating in any way what “science” I meant when I suggested it would probably come through ok.

What I was writing about was the Scientific Method. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

While I’m relaxed about the survival of the Scientific Method, I am very concerned about the survival of the current vast vista of scientific theory, observations and data, much of it sitting on corporate, government, NASA and other such computer systems. We don’t even require a collapse to lose vast swathes of that, just a new CEO doing a “spring clean” of “useless old data”.

If John Greer’s vision of the future turns out to be more accurate than mine (and we differ in degree not kind) much of that will be irreplaceable as Large Hadron Colliders, Mars Landers and the like will be unaffordable. If it is lost those scholars and scientists of the future will only have vague references to that irreplaceable data, as our scholars have references to Roman and Greek works long lost when the great libraries were destroyed.

If much of it survives, however, given how much has been hardly looked at as current scientists are swamped in an Amazon of raw data, those future scientists and scholars will not only have plenty to occupy themselves, but will even be able to wring the occasional entirely new discovery from it.

As I said, I have few fears for the survival of the actual technique of science, the Scientific Method. After all, science’s parents, Mathematics and Logic, came through the Roman collapse and logic anyway is far less immediately useful than science.

In fact, I suspect a good argument could be made that logic actually reached its peak in late medieval universities, where as John Michael Greer points out on occasion, “every undergraduate” had a better grasp of logic than most of today’s educated.

Given the rather shaky grasp of the Scientific Method many current scientists seem to have, I would not be surprised if in 2513, in the great university that gives the small city of Rockhampton Australia it’s reason for existence “every undergraduate” is expected to have a much better grasp of the Scientific Method, and it’s parents Mathematics and Logic, than about any current scientist, scholar or philosopher. In fact, I suspect the Twentieth and Twenty First centuries will be looked back on as being rather crude and ill-educated.

Stephen Heyer

Leo said...

Thinking about it, the likely equivalents of Byzantium and the northern Mayan (they survived the Souths collapse) isn't a topic that's looked at enough. Which is a shame because it offers a tried and true methods of cultural storage and information transfer.

I know a lot of Roman knowledge survived in the Arab world, then got transferred back to Europe later on.

This process of cultural exchange is fairly common and runs all the time. Osamu Tezuka "The father of manga (a Japanese art form)" was largely influence by Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck comics. And now Western comics and animation are being influenced by Japanese styles.

You could easily do the process on a larger timescale and with such cultural artifacts as science. Would make it's survival far more likely and could get a fair fraction of it through the bottlenecks.

Damien Perrotin talks about Europe's chance's here
http://theviewfrombrittany.blogspot.com.au/2010/01/french-blackout-and-byzantium-delusion.html

I did one on Australia aiming for a similar situation here
http://amelburniansresponsetoovershoot.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/aiming-for-byzantium.html

Through that was partly just to get the ideas down and look at some best case possibilities.

Latin America offers a good possibility, the winding down of US and European exploitation could easily give them a good chance.

A book on my list to get title says it all: "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent"

Russia is also another good candidate and otherwise there's a handful of small nations that could do well.

Nestorian said...

Dear Bill Pulliam,

Our host has asked that I not hijack this thread with extended disquisitions on the question of whether the principle of evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics, as it is relatively tangential to the central points of his post. Wishing to honor his politely communicated request, I did not intend to press the point any further. However, I do think that your own stated take on the issue warrants a response

The issue is by no means as simple as you are making it out to be. If you are claiming that millions of years of the sun hitting the earth brought about today's complexity because both the algorithm that encodes the ordering process, and a physical energy transfer mechanism to implement the code, were available in the temporally and locally limited negative entropic zones where evolution supposedly unfolded, you are begging the question. Those two necessary conditions are precisely what Prigogine's speculations cannot explain, for the very reason that they constitute the essence of what needs to be explained in the first place. To explain an increase in order and complexity by introducing a cause for the increase that itself embodies – in both informational and physical terms - the order and complexity to be explained explains nothing; it is an empty tautology (which is logically tantamount to a circular chain of reasoning).

If, on the other hand, you choose not to beg the question by introducing these two necessary conditions into your explanation as a sort of deus ex machine (which phrase, if you think about it, is basically a synonym for “miracle”), then you must try to account for how the ambient light of the sun could cause bricks to turn into buildings in their absence. But in the absence of both a code for providing orderly direction to the work the sunlight does, and a physical mechanism that happens to be locally available for implementing the code, the sun would no more change a pile of bricks into something ordered over millions of years than it does in a single day.

So, as I see it, in order to overcome the crux of the second law of thermodynamics, evolution either assumes that which it needs to prove, or it needs to posit the spontaneous, random increase in order and complexity as an effect for which the only informationally and physically adequate cause cancels out the the claimed nature of the effect as being essentially evolutionary – that is, as involving an increase in order and complexity relative to the algorithm and physical energy transfer mechanism that bring about the effect, in tandem with the randomly available local flux of energy.

As I understand Prigogine, he tried to avoid the logical circularity horn of this dilemma by positing elaborate physical and mathematical speculations that, in the end, lack any kind of informationally or physically adequate cause. So he is left with a supposed effect that lacks any kind of adequate cause that wouldn’t contradict the very effect to be explained.

Note, finally, that it is neither irrational to withhold assent to circular reasoning, nor is it irrational to withhold assent to speculative claims that certain effects have occurred in a spontaneous and random fashion despite the absence of any possible cause that could bring them about without contradicting the very nature of the claimed effect.

I will say no more about the matter, however, other than to invite you to continue this discussion with me privately via email. If you wish to do so, then perhaps we could ask our host to mediate a direct line of communication between us. I, for one, would find it both enjoyable and intellectually productive to do so.

Gaianne said...

Patrick--

You are using reason in two different senses, and then tangling them. The one sense is reasoning from premises--which is the domain of logic in all its forms. This is the domain in which concepts like "true" and "false" can be applied.

The other sense is the process of choosing the premises in the first place. While this can be done intelligently or stupidly, or with a good heart or a rotten heart, in this domain "true" and "false" cannot be applied at all. What can be applied in this second domain are concepts like "good" and "bad." Now, as Greer elaborated in a previous post one of the best ways to see what premises are good or bad is to look and the consequences of the premises and see if these are good or bad. But, as helpful as this technique is, it still does not tell you how to choose what is good and bad--that comes from your values. Science can never decide this, and if you want to smuggle your values into science, well you should at least be aware in your own mind that you are cheating, which you should not do unless you have . . . ummm . . . a really good reason for doing so.

--Gaianne

Tom Bannister said...

I guess I am responding as much to the comments as the Blog itself, but here goes.

I have probably mentioned this before, (and you have also talked about this) but the reason so many people have trouble accepting a more pluralistic view of spirtualities/religions/belief systems is because to do so would affront/contradict the human ego. Accepting anything other than a single idea about how the universe etc runs would feel physically threatening, hence when discussions of this type come up, people feel physically threatened and can in some cases, violently and abusively lash out (I am impressed at how well restrained commentators on this blog are on the whole).

Its a shame too. An acceptance of all kinds of different ways of being/ ways of living/ belief systems leads, in my opinion, to a much happier well for-filled life. Dogmatic isolation by contrast, merely leads (in the long run) to depression or worse.

Thanks too for clarifying the word 'eternal'. Its interesting because Thomas Aquinas specifically cites this as a source of law. (I'm a law student btw)/ I wonder how much legal jurisprudence has cottoned on the to word 'out of time' meaning eternal. not 'for all time'?

Gaianne said...

luval--

You are thinking of the world as a space-time manifold--which might work; it is the right setting for much of physics, after all. But in that case, any eternal beings lie outside the space-time manifold. This is easy--mathematically!--since any manifold can always be embedded in a manifold of (sufficiently) higher dimension. The catch comes when you ask whether any such embedding is real. It might be. But how would you know?

Right now cosmologists are playing with multiple universes--as a possible solution of the long neglected problem of the source of the big bang. And the universes lie in a hyperuniverse, and again, mathematically, this is easy. The problem comes when we ask what observation we might make to test if any of this is true. So far, it all seems pure (though fun) speculation.

However, before we even go down that road there is no reason whatever to think that all knowledge should fit into the frameworks of physics. Only that it should not directly contradict physics.

--Gaianne

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, most philosophers of religion would call you a monist rather than a monotheist. As for life, vitalism's one of those awkward ideas -- very hard to defend within the framework of accepted science, very hard to avoid in practice outside it, especially if you mess with martial arts, acupuncture, etc.

Orlandu, no argument there. The difference between evolution and the ideologies that have been heaped on top of it is something that needs a lot more discussion than it's gotten.

Edward, by all means diagram it out! If it's helping you keep your mind nimble, all the better.

Unknown Deborah, very elegantly translated! Thank you.

Ben, thank you. I don't think, for what it's worth, that discussing religious belief is a waste of time, nor am I quite as sure as you are that all that's going on there is sheer projection -- well, any more than it's projection to think of gravitational acceleration in mathematical terms, when a falling rock isn't figuring out how fast it can go with a slide rule! All we have to go on, in understanding the world, are mental models that we project onto the inkblot patterns of perception; gods are one set of models that address one range of human experience, laws of gravity are another that addresses a different (and much more easily quantifiable and testable) range.

Unknown, it's one thing to talk about something, it's another thing to be able to subject it to rigorous proof. Consider two people in love. Can you turn an erotometer on them and measure the intensity of their affection for each other? No, and none of the available methods of study can touch more than a very peripheral sense of what they're experiencing -- but what they're experiencing is a familiar reality to most people, and one that can be talked about. Think back on relationships you've had and you may well recall times when the right (or wrong) word caused a dramatic change in the way the relationship went; the same is true of other nonrational aspects of human behavior, including the choice of a belief system.

Patrick, I'm not suggesting that there's a wall. I'm suggesting that there are things that can't be proved or disproved by scientific means that still matter, profoundly, to human beings. The fact that scientific knowledge can have something to say to some of those things doesn't make them testable by the scientific method -- and that's my point.

Stephen, I apologize for biting your head off. I just wish that someday, when I mention my serious concern that the scientific method and most of what goes with it could be lost completely if nobody steps up to the plate and does something to preserve it, that comment wouldn't inevitably get dismissed out of hand!

Leo, that's a possibility, but here again, it's precisely the habit of treating it as a certainty that makes me worry that the whole kit and caboodle will be lost forever, because nobody anywhere puts in the time and labor to make sure it will survive.

Tom, the conversation here is as calm and friendly as it is because I chuck trolls out the door the moment they start trolling! As for eternity in law, hmm -- that's something I know precisely nothing about, and would be interested to learn more.

Tom Bannister said...

"Tom, the conversation here is as calm and friendly as it is because I chuck trolls out the door the moment they start trolling! As for eternity in law, hmm -- that's something I know precisely nothing about, and would be interested to learn more."

Oh yes I know. All the same its good so many people are capable of discussing these things calmly.

And I know its slightly off topic but I'll give you a brief summary of eternal law. According to Thomas Aquinas its the 'ultimate' source of the law. The only unchanging law, so to speak. the law as the eternal beings understand it. The three other kinds of law (more Aquinas); divine law, human law and natural law are derived from it.

Unknown said...

Thanks for another insightful post; I find the whole current series very useful.
A couple of quibbles, if I may. You say “to questions of ultimate concern—of value, meaning and purpose—which science can’t and shouldn’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion”
I would suggest that “they are the proper sphere of ethics” as the more inclusive term thereby allowing atheists to play in this important space. A surprising large chunk of this space is also susceptible to analysis by science if we chose to start experimenting on ourselves; for example to find the social conditions and values that most satisfy our needs.
Lastly you say “Step beyond questions of fact, that is, and you’re in the territory of faith” which I don’t see as quite true. Sir Karl Popper would, I suspect disagree rather violently, and science as she should be practiced is surely only using the best available hypothesis until it is disproved or crucially until a less complex one is suggested that fits all the known facts. Thus science often deals in opinion and usually only gets into trouble when scientists have a little too much faith in their hypothesis.
Thanks again for a stimulating read.

Chad Brick said...

If I were an all-powerful omnipotent god, I suspect I might get rather bored knowing everything. I've always thought that quantum mechanics looks a awful lot like an attempt by a playful god to deceive himself by constructing a universe entirely premised at its fundamental level on unpredictable randomness.

Can God create dice that he can't predict?

Ben Simon said...

Dear JMG;
OBJECTION ! OBJECTION !
I hate beating on a dead horse, but I think that your response to my last comment was not quite adequate or fair. My point is that theistic belief is derived from projective thinking that has NO references except the circuitous paths of subjective ruminations. Classically, we have the familiar remark, ”If there is anything such as a “God”, by way of its definition, such should be patently obvious, but, in fact, there is literally nothing to see, hear or feel, etc.” The proposed, most massive entity in our existence is unperceivable, except as a product of our own imaginative minds. There are other similar issues, but this one is illustrative, enough. I have no objection to accepting ideas that are derived from some minimal reasonable level of perceptive veracity or that may even be obtained second hand, so to speak.
I think that in some distant future one of the more common critiques of present day humanity will contain the observation that it is really hard to comprehend just how incompetent our thinking efforts were because of our lack of discipline and humility and in the face of so much of what we now have as information about the human brain and its functioning. There are many other areas where the same idea applies, but, enough for now.

In all due respect and with
Best Regards,
Ben Simon

Marlow said...

Hi JMG,

First time comment.

I have been reading you & your commentators for 4 or 5 years now. Have always found it enjoyable and stimulating.
I would like to tell you that your recent posts (together with many of the comments) have left a very powerful impression on my flighty mind.

Thankyou.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

What a can of worms that you have opened. Sometimes though, it is best to lance a boil for healing to begin.

Glad that you liked the joke too, but at the same time I wasn't kidding about those eucalyptus trees either! Perhaps there is also an element of my personality that is slightly disgruntled this week.

In the eyes of the law here an oak tree (or any other exotic species) - despite their worth - is not the equivalent of the eucalyptus obliqua (messmate) indigenous over-story and I will feel the full weight of the law should I implement my grand plan or attempt to manage the forest in any way shape or form. This has given me much for me to ponder. At the same time it would be nice if something - anything actually - consumed those trees as there may then be a better balanced eco-system. Oh well.

Back to the topic at hand though. With rights comes responsibilities and “dominion” to my mind implies both. My gut feel is that people focus on the former and really try to forget the latter.

To ignore the responsibility part of the equation puts people in a bind so they look for an easy way out and one such way is an interventionist God. Great, mum and/or dad is coming to clean up the mess for us! hehe! Yeah right, far better for us to learn our lessons the hard way and then have to clean up our own mess.

It was pointed out here a few weeks back that in a village everyone watches everyone else and works towards moderating the worst of their behaviours. The reason behind this is quite simple as if some individual gains, it is usually someone else’s loss. That’s what a society with a small resource base implies.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John Roth,

Quote: "The Federal Reserve has only the abilities that Congress chose to give it. You claim that they're "printing money." Well, that's not exactly what they're doing, but even if it was, that's one of the few tools they have at their disposal, and claiming that they should be doing something that they're not legally empowered to do is, I think, not the most convincing argument in the world."

There is an implicit assumption in your response that is worth exploring. Who is in charge of the US economy? Is it the Federal Reserve or is it Congress? Is it both? Is it some other entity? Or is it neither? My gut feel is that there is a meme being perpetrated in your country that it is the Federal Reserve who is in charge of the economy and this looks like the search for a scapegoat – watch this space.

I'm unsure what you think that I claimed that they should do?

Are you aware that the Chinese central bank keeps that countries exchange rate artificially low? Are you also aware that the Chinese spend 50% of their GDP in increasing their productive capacity much of which is controlled by government enterprises? How is that for a different policy option?

There are plenty of options that Western economies, their central banks and political masters could take to address the current round of problems. It is just that they find some of them are unpalatable, some will result in domestic inflation, others will result in the need to shift resources from consumption to expanding productive capacity, and others are just at odds with their ideology.

Truly, I read an article the other day:

Behind the great wall China is in trouble

The article by Paul Krugman has an undertone of "they're not playing by the rules, it's just not fair!".

If the rules were stacked against you, why would you not seek an alternative course of action?

Sure, the term "printing money" is a simplification, but the outcome is no different, although the means of delivery is and that is all. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Quote: "Facts don't motivate".

That is too true! The current federal government here has been very focused on providing facts and information as justification for policies and it hasn't worked well as an overall strategy.

Personally, I'd stick with stories, vision and narratives, but they forgot to ask me! hehe!

Anyway, the opposition party - who is led by someone who originally trained as a catholic priest - simply opposes anything and everything. This has been a remarkably successful strategy.

They have fomented dissatisfaction in the community really well without having to produce any of their own policies. It is both cheap and effective, but I would like to point out that they may just have forgotten the old "do unto others" golden rule. Watch this space!

It is really fascinating to watch from a human behaviour standpoint and as there will be an election later this year - not that anything will change either way - their respective strategies can be tested on the ground in the real world.

Interesting times.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi PhysicsDoc,

You raise an interesting point.

I don't profess to understand either and I'm personally shocked by things like industrial feedlots their inputs, conditions and outputs.

Looking at those things it makes me wonder, what do we care about and why would we expect any different for our own society? Dunno, really?

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi onething,

A garden of diverse flowers is no bad thing. The bees use them for food (I've been considering writing about flowers as the European honeybees come out to play during warm winter days here, so they require flowers all year around for their foragers).

PS: Another thunderstorm is rolling through and it is now wet enough that the tree frogs are sheltering from the rain on the verandah! There's been about 300mm (a foot) of rain over the past two months and it is officially the warmest July in recorded history.

Regards

Chris

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Sunday ponderings and it has rained properly to break the drought.

I am glad you and Stephen keep thinking about science in the future and that you remind us of the potential for catastrophic loss – “my serious concern that the scientific method and most of what goes with it could be lost completely if nobody steps up to the plate and does something to preserve it …”

My experience is that much scientific data and its interpretation is continuously being lost anyway and some disappears as ‘proprietary intellectual property’ because it relates to corporate profit, and will probably never return to ‘Science’ even if it is never used. Perhaps more seriously some of the phenomena themselves, like habitats, species, samples etc. disappear before they can be studied. Where there are long series such as medical or soil samples, or inventories of seeds or any germplasm for that matter, these are ‘gold’ for patient investigators bringing tools especially tools that go beyond anything the old microscopes or other previous methods could provide. International efforts to maintain ‘seed banks’ are ongoing but I have sad personal experience of what physically disappears when habitats that once contained the diversity are lost and when what is available is only in a very vulnerable seed bank. It is sobering to remember that for some agricultural crops much of the remaining diversity resides not in the ‘wild’ but in the diversity of ‘gene banks’ maintained ‘at cost’ by vulnerable subsistence farmers.

The developments in mathematics that allow sophisticated, and yes, digital, handling of probability and numerical models, with the hardware itself, are vital to much of the value of the current scientific methods even when a data base is preserved and accessible on record. And, legacy data bases and physical records cost an arm & leg to maintain in working condition. This soaks up real resources and ‘triage’ goes on the whole time. I hope you can continue to promote respect and a sense of priority and actually help us find means to identify and maintain ‘kernels’ of key value!

A couple of notes:
My recent learning experience with building a compost toilet was at a Bahai community. I had forgotten that one of their founding principles is that ‘science and religion’ are two wings of the flying bird, and I quote “religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it is only ignorance” … or words to that effect.

I think that ‘habitat restoration’ is in many places a worthy goal and probably confers ‘high leverage’ at lower cost as a contribution to ‘future science’.

There is an interesting interactive educational centre in Bristol UK called an ‘Exploratory’. I can imagine everyday kindergartens of the future building toys for hands-on learning and investigation of some quite sophisticated concepts. I remember with our kids at the Exploratory the satisfaction of building a working loudspeaker by adding saucepans, tins etc to a vibrating (you could feel it) electro-magnet fed with a musical signal transcribed from sound into analog electrical pulse.

best
Phil H

Joseph Nemeth said...

I'd like to call out a distinction between science and technology.

I've seen a lot of people here talk about how science is "too useful to lose" in the great dog-eat-dog model of competitive societies. That's simply incorrect. Technology is useful in this capacity.

Note that technological innovation dates back about as far as you care to go in history, while "science" is, in its modern form, only about five centuries old. So they obviously aren't the same thing.

"Practical" men -- the ones who are interested in empire-building, or corporate profits, for instance -- have zero interest in science. They want technology that brings them power. They don't care whether their next toy comes out of science or black magic or a deal with the Devil. Many of them could not tell the difference.

There is a kind of interesting parallel in science to what the fundamentalists have done. The fundamentalists clung to a "God of the gaps," eventually becoming dependent upon the incompleteness of science for the foundation of their faith, a foundation that is eroded with every new insight in science. Scientists, in turn, have clung to their effectiveness in spawning new technology to attract funding, including government funding, and have become almost entirely dependent upon it. Funding, in turn, is controlled by practical men, who don't want science, but technology that gives them power. That shapes science far more than any scientist wants to admit.

A simple example from physics is the relative proportion of research into the strong and weak nuclear forces. The strong force is deeply-researched. The weak force, hardly at all. Why? I'm sure there are a thousand excuses, but the simplest answer -- Occam's Razor -- is that you can't make powerful bombs by leveraging the weak force. So practical men aren't interested.

Science still has a good reputation among practical men, because its early application uncovered so much previously-unknown and readily exploitable knowledge about the world we live in. In effect, it opened a mine of unprecedented proportions, full of gold and silver and gemstones, and practical men were keen to exploit it.

But as JMG is fond of pointing out (quite correctly), everything is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and science is in fact declining as a cost-effective generator of practical technology. It's still fairly effective, at least in some fields, but the bloom is off the rose.

As a result, there will come a time when practical men entirely cease to fund and support science. Most corporate interests have already gone down this road. The "spending hawks" (practical men) in government have been hounding NSF and NIH funding for as long as I've been alive: anyone remember Senator WIlliam Proxmire and his "Golden Turkey" award? Now there is a full chorus of such practical men in Congress, who -- if they had their way -- would cut off all funding of science and science education throughout the country.

shrama said...

Dear JMG,

Just the other day I saw a TV show discussing the issue of human rights violations by the Indian army as it combats the insurgency in Kashmir. Talking past each other were one of India's top-notch human rights lawyer and a representative of the army. The lawyer expected every one to be appalled by her disclosure of the crimes committed by army personnel while the army representative's point was that the lives of our soldiers are gravely endangered by adhering strictly to human rights conventions. While I am partial to the lawyer's values, I couldn't help shake my head in despair when she insisted that problem with the discussion was that it lacked rationality.

One of the things I think we sorely need are lessons in how to argue for our values. As I see it, people are consistently confusing values for facts in every realm of life. You had mentioned that one can argue for our values not as if they are facts, but by pointing out their various consequences and by seeing if they are consistent with other values that we hold, as well as the world of facts.

What needs to be understood here is that any argument for values is necessarily speculative. Our source for data on consequences of values is history. But no event in history can be ascribed to a single cause with any certitude. Since any historical event can be seen as the consequence of multiple causes, any analysis of the consequences of values will carry the corresponding uncertainty. Not everyone thinks that the one and only cause for the holocaust was German anti-semitism.

The best that one could do is argue for our values and leave it at that - aware that our arguments are never water-tight, success in convincing others isn't guaranteed and that we are taking risks in the service of a good cause.

If you agree, maybe you would considering developing this further as a full post with all the insights from history that you normally bring to the topics you discuss and maybe you can call it "the laws of values."

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG -- BTW, wonderful handling of the God of the Gaps narrative that runs through fundamentalist thinking.

I'd never seen this done before: to point out that the Creationists aren't nearly so much wrong as they're selling their own God short, thereby demeaning their own religion and coming off as fools into the bargain.

Christianity is a grand, ancient, moldering Castle Gormenghast, mostly fallen now into decay, accommodation, and superstition. But once, it soared. Though you almost have to be an archaeologist or historian to see it.

shrama said...

Dear JMG,

On a separate note, I have always thought of bacteria as eternal (but now I know that the right term is diuturnal or sempiternal) and god-like. The logic goes something like this: when a bacteria divides is it possible to say which one is the parent and which one is the child. I believe not and therefore one can call either one of them parent or child. If we see each bacteria as the parent and therefore identical to the one from which it came, we can claim that any bacteria living today is the same as the very first bacteria that appeared billions of years ago. That would make them diuturnal, if not sempiternal.

Steve in Colorado said...

Thrig-- That's interesting. Do you know what region of the world that example comes from? (The Pacific, presumably, but where in particular?)

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- At some point, I'm hoping it will become clearer why you think science needs to be preserved, and exactly what you mean by that. I'm a little confused.

You have mentioned at various points the "scientific method" as something to preserve, but you've also talked about parts of the scientific world-view, such as the germ theory of disease or the theory of evolution. Then there are all of the specific observations: precise measurements of the transits of Venus, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), chemical reactions and rates, genetic maps.

I assume this will integrate with your idea of future "eco-tecnic" societies, and I look forward to hearing more about that.

Robert Mathiesen said...

JMG wrote, concerning the date of creation in Eastern Christian sources vs. Archbishop Ussher's date:

"Robert, let me know. I have friends who throw a birthday party for the world every October 23rd, and they'd probably welcome a reason to throw a second party in the spring!"

I've had time to check the sources now. The calculation of the exact date of creation is worked out, in this tradition, from the complicated method used in those churches to determine the date of Easter from one year to the next (according to the Julian calendar).

This method works from two repeating chronological cycles, one (19 years long, the Metonic cycle of the moon) specifying the dates of the full moons from one year to the next, the other (28 years long) specifying the weekday of any given date in a year. These two cycles are used in tandem to calculate the date of Easter for any given year. They yield an elegant and beautiful set of mathematical tables, though not a particularly accurate one in terms of the actual astronomy.

These two cycles return to their common starting point every 532 (= 19 x 28) years. Working backwards from the current position of these cycles, you can determine the starting point of the current 532-year cycle, which is in March, 1941.

Going back in time in increments of 532 years, you have the starting point of an earlier cycle in March of 5508 BCE, which meshes very well with the date of creation that can be worked out from the chronological data of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint).

At this point, theological considerations take over from chronological ones. The chronological cycles are (it is claimed) properly reckoned only from the fourth day of creation, when according to Genesis the sun and the moon were created, not from the first day of creation. Also, it is posited that the moon was created in its perfection, that is, as a full moon, on that date, and that the date in question was the first day of the heavenly year, that is, the Spring Equinox. By convention, the Spring Equinox is always pegged to March 21, which is always a Saturday in the first year of every 532-year cycle.

So if the fourth day of creation began at sundown on March 21, 5508 BCE, the first day began at sundown on Wednesday, March 18. (All days in these Eastern Christian calendars begin at sundown, as they do in the Jewish calendar.)

So let your creation-parties begin at sundown on March 18 or March 21 (or both dates) each year!

And when you have the first one, please lift a glass in memory of the ancient Pagan scholars in Alexandia who worked out these fascinating mathematical cycles for their own purposes so long ago, hardly anticipating that they would later be adopted and adapted by the Pope of Alexandria for Christian use.

onething said...

Re the loss of scientific knowledge, it seems to me that if people knew that certain things once existed, they would exert serious effort to reinvent them, but we tend to dismiss the ancients and their knowledge and perhaps the achievements of today will one day be laughed at as silly mythology.

Hello Cherokee,

It is true that we seem to have healthy pollinators here. Lots of butterflies feed on the flowers as well. Butterflies are flowers that fly...we are also getting colossal amounts of rain this summer. It must be because we finally finished the really large holding tank so that we wouldn't run so low on water in mid-late summer and so that I would have enough water for my flowers.

One think I love to do is add to my list of wild things I have eaten. Bee balm makes a wonderful tea or flavoring for tea, and one of my four colors of bee balm grows wild here and I transplanted a patch. I've been meaning to try a lily as I've been told they're delicious, but I can't bear to sacrifice one.

Also found a new mushroom, and tested it on my guinea pig (to whom I am married). I only get a good crop of apples every few years, and this year is it. I made applesauce all day yesterday. OK, I lied. We do have an incipient orchard, and some berry bushes and vines.

onething said...

I am just reading about the origin of first life as it relates to the second law.
If there is a discussion of it, I'd like to be a witness.

Robert Mathiesen said...

This is specifically for Nestorian about the several ancient versions of the Old Testament and their differences in chronology. Other readers may find it has little bearing on their interests. (Nestorian, we can continue privately, if you wish.)

There are two extant version of the first five books of the Old Testament in the Hebrew language, which for convenience are called the "Jewish" and the "Samaritan" version. Both versions are equally Israelite in their origins, but each version has been altered over the centuries from the time of ancient Israel down to the dates of the oldest manuscripts we now have.

In the case of the Jewish Hebrew text, we can come rather close to proving that some of these alterations were deliberate, made in the interest of keeping certain (High-)Priestly secrets of Temple practice from becoming common knowledge -- or in a very few cases, possibly in order to confute to Christian polemics. (The British scholar Margaret Barker has done good scholarly work on this, but she deals only with individual passages, and does not treat the question comprehensively.)

The same is almost certainly true of the Samaritan Hebrew text, but scholars have not yet paid much attention to it in this context.

These two versions of the same text in Hebrew differ very greatly from one another in the chronology of the Patriarchs in Genesis, and they differ in systematic ways that can hardly be the result of mere scribal errors, but are deliberate changes in the text.

As it happens the Syriac Peshitta does not entirely agree in the chronology with either of these two versions, though it is much closer to the Jewish version than to the Samaritan. And the Septuagint (Old Greek) version differs quite sharply from all three of them. But the Septuagint, too, goes back to rather early texts in Hebrew, which were translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in Alexandria BCE (and therefore are older than the Dead Sea Scrolls).

And here are the actual totals: from the Creation of the World to the birth of Abraham is reckoned as 1948 years in the Jewish Hebrew text, as 1953 years in the Syriac Peshitta, as 2249 years in the Samaritan Hebrew, and as 3414 years in the Greek Septuagint. This illustrates how great the differences are between these four ancient versions.

So these things are not so simple or so clear-cut as one might wish. Alas!

Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, I have not commented for quite a while ( not that I've not been reading ... I just got a sudden surge of lack of time :/ ), but as someone that knows quite well both the "Creationists" and the "Atheists" of the author example, I couldn't let pass that, as the the Creationists use the "God of the gaps", the "Atheists" use another dubious trick, the "God at best is a watchmaker God, and as it becomes functionally equivalent to non existant from our POV, we can Occam Razor it out of existance". First, that argument at best is a endorsement of agnosticism ( those "Atheists" tend to be agnostics that think that absence of proof is proof of absence :/ ), second, the Occam Razor is a heuristic to not lose time with convoluted theories when you haven't disproved the simple ones and not a granter of truthfulness ( just think what kind of absurd that line of argument would lead if you tried to prove that pizzas were not baked by humans just because you never saw the guy that makes your pizzas preparing and baking one ... ), third, even in Christianity there are currents that believe that God did not create our Universe, thus not being in anyway responsible for whatever happens here ( say, like the Cathars and Bogolimists ), making any argument about why a good God allows our world evils a moot point ... and this inside the punching bag they are suposedely beating to pulp, not even talking about Druidism or any other non-Christian flavored faith. In the end I guess that the "Atheists" are also digging their own grave ...

(cont ... )

Ricardo Rolo said...

( ... cont )

Anyway, with that tidbit out of the way, I'll go straight to the final question of the opening post, but before that my personal backround passes through a catholic school ( you can say what you want of them, but they are the better trainers of logical thought I know, probably because of the catholic fixation on a certain Greek philosopher ), college degrees in Chemistry and Biochemistry, a couple of decades in Evangelical churches ( including some unconsciously Dispentionalists ) and a somewhat above average baggage in esoterism besides being a armchair historian . So , I kind of feel that I have some latitude to speak about what a common language between what we call nowadays Religion and Science ...

To start, I think that most people, including the scientists, has a serious misunderstanding about what Science is. Science is simply the Scientific method applied to our world: the rest of the package is simply results of it. If you want to have Science in the future, you NEED to keep using the scientific method, because otherwise you are simply keeping collections of old facts, not differently of those medieval breviaries or those religiously copied Aristotelic nonsenses about the velocity of free falling bodies that anyone could disprove by simply dropping two balls out of a balcony, and this regardless of the correctness of your original facts.

The problem with keeping the scientific method, especially in harsh and empoverished times, is that it's usage implies both a widespread strong belief in the equality of all the observers ( that is, a observation is worth exactly the same no matter who does it ) and a social climate that allows that anyone can challenge anyone claims on a subject ( no "Magister dixit" ). That BTW makes that the usage of the scientific method is the weak link on keeping our science in the medium terms, because I really can't see that the next centuries will be cozy with any pretense of belief in the equal dignity and value of all human beings ... while even the worst tyrants like to have a choice collection of "wisdom of the ancients" books and pet "mages" even if only for bragging rights ...

Anyway, I do see a common thread between Science ( the scientific method ) and the core of a lot of religions, that the the individual and unescapable duty you need to have with being truthful to yourself and the others around you ( the old " You will not lie" ) . This is probably more a moral item, but all the religions I know preach that you have a duty to not lie to both the divinities and to your fellow man, and you can't have any science without that compromise with what you observed. That is probably from where I would start for the next post if was Mr Greer, anyway ...

Paul V. Cassidy said...

Nice one especially the last two paragraphs. I'm an RC Christian, environmentalist by training and yoga head. One of the problems is that the type of science we have today is not born of the mystery and so it overlooks the magic of it all. It's also a flat perspective. I fancy getting back into the sciences. This Nicholas Tesla guy seemed to have tapped in the mystery. What if Saturn had the capacity to refuel Earth - how would people feel about that assuming a scientific explanation? Would they go oh yea more science that stands to reason I suppose? Or would they go 'What the frick that's too far out to be accidental"? But most indigenous people had this sense of awe science to an extent has deprived us of the wonder of the creation. So hopefully it will get a bit more animated about the mystery in time.

Grebulocities said...

I wouldn't say being right is at the core of my value system - I'm more than willing to speculate about things where I have little or no way to know whether I'm right. But that seems to me to be very different from religious faith, which most followers seem not to treat as mere speculation. Nonetheless, this is a very interesting series and I'm glad to learn more about how religion has worked in the past and how it may inform our society going into a very uncertain future.

About preserving science, I'm fairly optimistic that an understanding of the scientific method will be preserved into the future. I think you're right that we will lose vast quantities of electronic data and information printed only on high-acid paper, but there really is quite a bit that is printed on more durable substances. For example, most universities require all their master's theses and Ph. D. dissertations to be on cotton paper, with an estimated survival time of several centuries. Even my rather poorly regarded university has books that, if rediscovered centuries from now, may be intact and could help future civilizations to rediscover science.

I think the rather decentralized nature of modern knowledge may be an advantage we have over the ancients. If Ogg the Barbarian sacks DC in the Pillage of 2117 and torches the Library of Congress, we will lose some information but, proportionally, nowhere near as much as was lost when the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed. The number of science texts printed on durable paper probably numbers in the millions, at least a few of which are bound to survive one way or another. And, of course, even basic science provides substantial benefits, so cultures that retain science-based advances like the radio, small-scale electric power generation, and ecology are likely to outcompete those that don't.

Not that it isn't worth it to do whatever we can to the survival of the scientific method and other critical knowledge; quite the opposite. And, since the future is unlikely to contain any space probes or particle accelerators, any information lost about distant astronomical objects and particle physics will be lost forever. But there are good reasons to believe that the basics of the scientific method will survive all but the most extreme collapse scenarios.

Stephen Heyer said...

I have to apologize again to John Michael Greer, I gather he is working on a posting on the loss of Science and I’ve been stomping all over the area with my big muddy boots of ignorance. I’ve been doing what I usually do, starting out thinking I understanding something, then finding I don’t and it is a lot more complex than I imagined, then using the blog and the comments I get to stumble towards a better (I hope) understanding.

A great intellectual exercise for me – I guess for others not so much.

So John, if you think I’m muddying the waters too much, or I am jumping the gun, just don’t publish this. I’ll be perfectly happy.

Anyway, what prompted this was:

Joseph Nemeth: “I'd like to call out a distinction between science and technology.”

“I've seen a lot of people here talk about how science is "too useful to lose" in the great dog-eat-dog model of competitive societies. That's simply incorrect. Technology is useful in this capacity.”

I was sort of working towards that direction too.

Specifically, I’ve noticed that the scientists and people with a science degree I know of, first, second and third hand, usually seem to use about the following method.

1. Experiment – pretty reasonable grasp of this and right on for the Scientific Method.

2. Measurement – grasp of this varies a lot more but perhaps passable Scientific Method.

3. Check to see that results fall within the current scientific paradigm and within the goals of whatever organization is funding them. This is done because if too far outside they won’t get through peer review, will have their funding stopped, and anyway, probably have an error somewhere.

Ok, let’s review the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the Scientific Method again: "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

Not only is that last step not in it, it is about the opposite of the Scientific Method!

Yet! Yet! I think you’ll find that nearly all of our present science and technology was developed using similar methods. While the odd Newton or Einstein doing real Scientific Method is necessary when a new paradigm is necessary, having them closer together than a few generations seems to actually harm the process!

Joseph Nemeth has a point: A lot of this can be classified as technology, but a lot is science, of a sort, and a lot is both. I’d call it Practical Science, you know, like Practical Magic.

Remember also that for good or ill this Technology and Practical Science is largely what has built our current world.

So what does this mean to the survival of Science (of all sorts, but particularly the full Scientific Method)? I don’t know, it just makes my head spin. John Michael Greer is usually way ahead of me on this kind of stuff so perhaps he can tell us.

Stephen Heyer

Alex SL said...

JMG,

If it were as easy as you claim to reconcile evolution and Christianity then there would be considerably less creationists than there actually are. The problem is that Christians do not simply postulate a "unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe and everything in it out of nothing" but they also wish to believe that it is omnibenevolent or, at a minimum, a decent person. And it is simply very hard (I would argue impossible) to envision a personal god who does not only let evolution passively happen with all its pain, starvation, being eaten alive, being born with genetic defects, etc, but indeed deliberately created the universe to be like that having a kind expression on their (metaphorical) face while they are watching creation unfold or, as you would have it, look across the frozen jelly that is all of existence past and future from their timeless perspective. Worshiping nature is one thing, but when you must consider a personal god to be worthy of reverence the problem of evil hits you right in the face.

Step beyond questions of fact, that is, and you’re in the territory of faith—a label that properly includes the atheist’s belief in a purely material cosmos just as much as it does the classical theist’s belief in a created cosmos made by an infinite and eternal god...

This is really, really odd. In what sense is a purely material versus supernatural cosmos not a question of fact? If the cosmos can be explained in purely physical terms then we can decide that question of fact by invoking the principle of parsimony: the living/supernatural part is superfluous to requirements. And the fun thing is, pace this post, the criteria used by the scientist (or the empiricist/atheist/rationalist/whatever), like parsimony, are not actually based on faith but on confidence that they work because they do, in fact, demonstrably work to figure things out where religious faith doesn't. What is more, all members of humanity except a small minority that is commonly considered to be clinically insane agrees on the same criteria for determining truth in all cases where their religious or ideological beliefs are not at stake.

When they need to figure out where their lost keys are, how to find the way to the market or what causes that weird sound, virtually everybody behaves like a metaphysical materialist: when they find the key on the kitchen table they hypothesize that they just left it lying there because imagining that it was taken there by invisible goblins is superfluous to requirements. Thus the rationalist/atheist stance is actually not one of many equally faith based positions but instead the one stance that all of humanity happily agrees on when it really matters and/or when personal faith is not at stake - only then the religious go ahead an arbitrarily fence certain areas off where the same approach is not allowed to enter, while the rationalist applies it to everything. It is not about faith versus different faith but about intellectual consistency versus special pleading.

Another issue is that not everybody might be willing to agree that "faith" is the right word to describe the choice of values. As I would understand the word faith it means merely "believing things that you have no good reason to believe", whereas values are, well, values and not beliefs. And yes, obviously values are subjective, and obviously science isn't about values. But it certainly does not follow that religion (of all things!) has anything useful to say about them either. I would argue that our values need to come from taking human nature and our personal interests into account and then negotiating a social contract with each other. But if I were to think that we could derive values from somewhere else I would very much prefer to ask a moral philosopher. In contrast to a priest they might actually be qualified to say something interesting on the matter.

Renaissance Man said...

As always, you provide the education I wish I'd stumbled across.
I cannot quite decide if this battle between the creationists and the evolutionary atheists feels more like Towton (29 March 1461) or Gettysburg (1-4 July 1863). Both battles were very bloody but key turning points that determined the outcome of intense, costly wars.

However, the former battle is largely forgotten because ultimately, the dynastic dispute between two branches of the same royal family over who would rule had no significant impact on the general course of English history. Sometimes methinks it is like the former, both sides as rival sects of the dying Religion of Progress, faltering and ultimately doomed to insignificance. Moreover whether the Earth was created by God one morning 5000 years ago or accreted from space dust over some 5 Billion years (or manufactured in Magrathea) really has almost no practical bearing on daily life.

In contrast, the outcome of the latter ultimately had a most significant impact on the course of World history, which would have been vastly different had Armistead's Brigade crested the ridge. Like in that struggle, I percieve a much deeper issue at stake that might explain the intransigence. Creationism is an integral part of Christian Fundamentalist thought. Should their social attitudes and definite worldview, which has a number of specific social aims, such as the elimination of abortion and contraception and subjugation of women, become ascendant, we can plausibly look forward to a future in a brutally repressive theocracy. Whereas, the militant atheists at least offer the real prospect of a more open and tolerant society, despite the real danger of hoisting the banner of scientific rationalism which has, in the past, unsuccessfully tried to use reason to deduce morals. One tragic result was the Terror of the French Revolution, and another result was, through Hegel, both Nazism and Communism, neither of which are palatable sociopolitical systems.

So, I suppose only history will ever know if this ultimately a dispute of middling insignificance, or profoundly world-defining argument about humanity.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Steve in Colorado,

The purpose of the deer horns was to provide a brake on the exploitation of that species. It is very clever and would only have occurred to a society that had over shot its resource base and either decided or was forced to decide how best to deal with this scenario.

Regards

Chris

wiseman said...

@shrama
Moral outrage is a common behavioral trait, it takes great amount of training to keep morals out of the picture when doing analysis.

And when you do reach that state of mind you are branded a cold heart and whole other lot of adjectives.

brazza said...

I loved the whole consideration, and the quote from Edward Williams in particular. It reminded me of the questions posed to Job, and I thought how important to allow such questions to arise within myeself and to be met by my own response ... regularly. As an artist I always thought Gauguin's choice to paint the following questions of great relevance: ""Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" Here's wishing you, and us all, to succeed in the quest for a common language that returns respect for both scientific method, and religious dimensions.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, thanks for the info -- clearly I need to break out Aquinas and take a look.

Unknown, not really -- ethics only deal with one dimension of the realm of ultimate concern, and do it in a way that generally doesn't touch on the deep wellsprings of motivation. I'll be discussing that as we proceed.

Chad, either that or God got tired of Einstein telling him what he could and couldn't do. ;-)

Ben, not so. Like most rationalist critics of religion, you're leaving out the entire field of religious experience, which goes far beyond pure rumination, and most likely is the central reason why we have religions at all. More on this shortly.

Marlow, thank you!

Cherokee, well, opening cans of worms seems to be one of my specialties these days. As for the concept of dominion, good -- it's too rarely remembered these days that that term implies a great deal of noblesse oblige.

Phil, I'm less concerned with data and far more concerned with the scientific method. I could all too easily see "science" degenerating into the increasingly unreflective repetition of theories about the world handed down from the prophets -- er, scientists -- of the past.

Joseph, that's an excellent point, one I tried to address earlier (in talking about different definitions of progress) but didn't explore as thoroughly as I might have. The Gormenghast metaphor is delightful -- there are a few towers that still soar, but by and large, that's the fate of every religion -- it's born in the white-hot fire of spiritual experience, and dies in the calm mutterings of theologians musing over what somebody might have experienced a long time ago.

Shrama, I'll consider it, but I'm not at all sure anything I say will have much influence over the current fashion for wallowing in moral self-righteousness! As for bacteria, excellent -- they're diuturnal, since as far as we know they didn't come into existence until the Archean eon, and will go out of existence at some point before the last bits of the biosphere get vaporized in the Sun's first helium flash a couple of billion years from now.

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, I'll see about discussing that down the road a bit.

Robert, many thanks -- I'll pass it on.

Ricardo, thank you. That's exactly the point I've been trying to make -- the scientific method is the thing that matters; the rest is just details, and could be replaced in time if necessary. As for the next post, wait and see!

Onething, remember the difference between science and technology. If people remember that the technology once existed, but have lost the method that enabled those things to be discovered, it doesn't matter how much they want the technology, it's probably out of reach.

Paul, er, "Saturn refueling the Earth"? Just what we need -- more hydrocarbons to burn, so we can destabilize the climate even further. What a great idea! :-(

Grebulocities, I don't share your confidence. The scientific method is extremely vulnerable -- a couple of generations of neglect, and you've got to hope a book survives somewhere and the right people get around to reading it someday!

Stephen, I'll be discussing that in an upcoming post. Clearly I need to put some time into talking about why I think the scientific method is vulnerable to being lost just now, and what might be done about it.

Alex, a nice bit of canned atheist polemic -- and charmingly ethnocentric, too! As I'm sure you're quite aware, most human societies have, and many still do, accept the possibility that events in the material world are caused by other-than-human intelligences, and people in those societies manage to find their keys about as often as you do. Thus your argument amounts to insisting that since our culture has a prejudice against the existence of other-than-human intelligences, that we ought to apply that prejudice across the board, in the service of that consistency that, as Emerson pointed out, is the hobgoblin of little minds.

More broadly, though, your argument is an exercise in question-begging backed by self-referential definitions. The thesis of most religions is that the kind of causality you're willing to accept is inadequate to deal with important aspects of human existence and experience. That's the point at issue, and making an argument that presupposes the point you're trying to prove is not going to impress anyone who doesn't already agree with you.

Renaissance, good. I see it as more like Towton, since both sides in the current struggle are fading powers at this point. More on this as we proceed.

Brazza, thank you.

Marcello said...

"While I’m relaxed about the survival of the Scientific Method, I am very concerned about the survival of the current vast vista of scientific theory, observations and data, much of it sitting on corporate, government, NASA and other such computer systems."

I would suspect that raw data, stored in computer memories and perhaps a limited number of cheapo paper copies, has a snowball's chance in hell to survive even the most benign collapse scenario. Just stopping active efforts to mantain it will cause its loss, digital archives are particular vulnerable in that regard.
As for the scientific method I would not be so relaxed. Most of its practitioners will wind up dead or struggling to survive but aside from that it is quite possible that science will become a convenient scapegoats for all the sort of people. This could lead to the bonfire of even those books that might otherwise have survived for centuries and unpleasant things being done to those few still practicing it.

Nestorian said...

Dear Robert Mathieson,

Agreed, things are not simple given the proliferation of conflicting ancient versions of the Old Testament floating around out there. For starters, though, I thoroughly reject all speculations concerning the origins of biblical texts that are grounded Higher Biblical Criticism. As such, I cannot subscribe to the idea that there are Priestly redactions to the genealogies in the Jewish Hebrew text that were inserted prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, as I do not believe there were post-exilic Priestly redactions of any kind to any of the Old Testament documents.

I am not familiar with Margaret Barker’s work in particular. However, I have found in general that the arguments advanced by the Higher Critics about the historical origins of the various biblical texts are highly speculative, very scant in their citation of actual historical evidence in support of their conclusions, over-hastily dismissive if not completely silent about historical and linguistic evidence that tends to undermine their conclusions, and tendentiously antisupernatural in their basic presuppositional framework.

Perhaps I do not do Barker’s work justice by applying this prejudice to her work, though; I welcome further instruction on the point. It sounds from what you say like she may be talking about redactions that happened after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps at the Council of Jamnia in 70 a.d. or so. That is a different kettle of fish from Wellhausen Hypothesis-based speculations concerning redactions prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. If you would like to communicate about this with me privately, please contact our host, and he can supply you with my email address.

The Septuagint cannot be correct for mathematical reasons: In its chronology, several of Noah’s forebears would have survived the Flood by quite a few years if the lifespan the Septuagint ascribes to them is correct. Yet the biblical flood accounts make it clear that the only survivors globally of the flood were Noah, his wife, Noah’s three sons, and their respective wives. For this reason alone, the Eastern Orthodox Church has put itself in a very problematic position by making the Septuagint its officially authoritative version of the Old Testament (just as the Roman Catholic Church, for different reasons, has caused itself considerable embarrassment by making Jerome’s Vulgate Latin translation its officially authoritative version).

It is interesting in this regard to note that the Jerusalem Hebrew version has dated the antediluvian genealogies such that Methuselah, the longest-lived of the antediluvian patriarchs at 969 years, and Noah’s great-grandfather (if I remember correctly), died in the year before the Flood. All the other antediluvian patriarchs (with the exception of Enoch, who was assumed bodily into heaven) had died quite some time before then.

Among the Peshitta, the Samaritan Hebrew, and the Jewish Hebrew, I trust the Jewish Hebrew as reliable and authoritative, mainly because Jesus of Nazareth did so also. Regarding the Peshitta, mistakes in translation do happen, just as they did in the Septuagint and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Often in the history of biblical translations (both ancient and modern), such “mistakes” are really tendentious distortions, but I am inclined to think that they really are innocent, and thus real mistakes, in the case of the Peshitta.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Robert Mathiesen -- preposterous!

God started the Universe on Hump Day? Bah.

This also implies that the Day God Rested was a Tuesday. That's just not right.

;-)

onething said...

Robert Mathiesen,

I see a problem with your chronology. How can we have the 4th day of creation be on a Sabbath? The scriptures state God rested on the Sabbath.

Re the God of the gaps accusation, it is a little different than attributing to God what we don't understand (angels pushing planets in their orbits)but rather is a matter of the knowledge and evidence actually ruling out natural processes. Natural as understood by the scientific establishment that is, by which they mean utterly no interference by any consciousness.

I see that for many posters this is a debate regarding "creationists." The problem with that label is that it has been used pejoratively toward Biblical literalists when their are other gradations of viewpoints on the issue that have nothing to do with scripture or religion, although it does tend to not be atheist.

Alex SL - I thought from your first paragraph you were Christian, anyway, it seems to me from a problem of evil viewpoint, it is a far bigger problem that their God has no better plan than to send many/most people to an eternity without hope. And that the Christian worldview includes an eternity of unresolved evil and despair.

Twilight said...

I've composed and deleted several responses as I considered this, but I will submit a late comment now.

If science is how we create mental models of how the physical/observable/quantifiable universe works, and religion is how we model the realm of unquantifiable human experiences and emotions, they are all models of varying degrees of inaccuracy. And the model is not the thing, it is a way we understand the thing. The two need not conflict.

For example, let's assume that I choose to believe in reincarnation, that the soul persists and moves to new lives and that our goal is to try to improve in wisdom as we move through this life. If that causes me to act in ways that are compatible with my morals and values, and those of people around me, and if it does not conflict with other models of the quantifiable world, then what of it?

Perhaps when I die there won't really be some core of consciousness that passes into a new host – how does this matter? It was a model, and effective for framing and understanding how the universe of human experience works.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Regarding the search for lost keys--

I carry a large purse with fourteen distinct storage areas containing approximately a hundred objects of diverse sizes. Not just the usual wallet, keys, cell phone and cosmetics, but a space blanket, sewing kit, coffee cup holder, Band-aids, candy, magnifying glass, pill box, pocket knife, etc., etc.

Now and then I can't find one of these items when I want it. After repeated searches of all the compartments, I empty out the entire purse on the bed. This has about a fifty-fifty chance of turning up the desired item.

If the search is unsuccessful, do I conclude that the object is lost and buy a replacement? Not necessarily. If I do nothing and forget about it, sometimes the thing I wanted reappears a couple of months later in one of the compartments which I had searched, re-searched, searched a third time, and emptied completely.

This has happened often enough that I seriously entertain the possibility that my portable possessions sometimes take round trips to a different dimension.

Zach said...

All right, then. The Thomist Science Curriculum Project is born -- at least, as an idea and an item on my perennial "TO-DO" bucket list.

Whether this will happen before or after Not the End of the World: Why Jesus Won't Bail Out Your 401(k) is yet to be seen and will definitely depend on getting other people (who actually know what they are doing) on board.

So, if you fit JMG's description of having "a passion for the sciences, know their way around scholastic logic, and want to make a real difference in the world," then yes, please do contact me. Email zach at z n frey dot com.


peace,
Zach

mallow said...

Why would gods create things that can only learn wisdom and compassion by suffering?

evodevo said...

If you are talking about evangelical, fundie Christians, the answer is NO, they won't be accommodating evolution, or geology, or any other science that operates in the real world. This is because Christianity is based on the premise that Adam and Eve were REAL people who committed Original Sin ~ 6000 years ago, and Jesus died to absolve Christians of that sin. If Adam and Eve are mythological characters, the whole premise fails. You can thank Paul for that bit of theological nonsense. Jesus probably never thought of it that way himself.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer : Phil, I'm less concerned with data and far more concerned with the scientific method. I could all too easily see "science" degenerating into the increasingly unreflective repetition of theories about the world handed down from the prophets -- er, scientists -- of the past.”

Sweet!

Beautiful!

Yes, I’ve been thinking that this may be the way it ends too. I’d like to develop some of my ideas of how this could happen, what would make it more likely and what would be necessary, but I’ve already tramped too much intellectual mud through the corridors and rooms of this thread.

If I may, I’ll take it up when John does his promised post on the possible loss of the Scientific Method.

Stephen Heyer

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer: “we’ll talk here about what philosophers call classical theism, defined as the belief that the universe was created out of nothing by a unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being.”

PhysicsDoc: “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice, RUSH-Free Will.
One thing that always brings me back to atheism (although I don't consider myself an atheist) is why would any Deity or God create a universe, with all it's time and space displayed before it a la eternal, which contains the most hideous forms of human and animal behavior including but not limited to extreme torture, mass killing, genocide etc. Just wondering what other peoples thoughts are on that.”

There are a couple of things I just don’t understand. To begin with, why on earth do so many theists, especially, The People of The Book, insist that their god is “a unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being”?

As far as I can remember, in those few sections of that Book where someone got to talk to that God one on one, discussions by the way with elements that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and convinced me that “something” had happened, that God never claimed to be any of the above. In fact it would not even give a name and seemed very modest in its claims.

My type of God I guess.

And of course a lot of the atheists basically claim that any god more or less has to be “a unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being” and therefore has to do something about, well, everything. If he (always he, long white beard optional extra) does not then, then, we’ll hold our breaths and refuse to believe in him until he does.

Why carn’t God just be another poor punter like us, another natural child of the universe, just a fair bit further up the great chain of being than us, doing the best he/she/it can and trying to be a good God? Oh! And being a “good God” from the point of view of an “eternal”, “existing outside of time” being is probably a whole lot different to what we stuck-in-the-linear beings think it is.

Stephen Heyer


Grebulocities said...

I think I'm beginning to understand where you and several others are coming from regarding the survival of the scientific method. It isn't that some specific useful technologies that were discovered using science will not survive, nor is it that all books laying out the scientific method will be destroyed (the vast majority may be, but it is probable that a few will make it here or there). Even given surviving technologies and texts, our descendents may well not understand science in any depth - instead, successful techniques may crystallize into dogmatic shells of their former selves, with little or no general understanding of how science works.

One thing I'm struck by is that students in our schools are taught in their science classes that the scientific method is a series of well-defined steps, beginning with a hypothesis and ending with an experimental confirmation or refutation of that hypothesis. Of course, there is no such thing as a "cookbook" scientific method as laid out by those textbooks; any observation that is repeatable and verifiable by other scientists can be added to the corpus of scientific knowledge. Richard Feynman once described the scientific method as simply a form of extreme honesty, where "the first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that."

The problem may be that it is very difficult to convey how to apply this sort of rigorous honesty, where scientists are skeptical of their own findings and must defend their own results to their own criticism before releasing them, where they must then survive a wave of criticism from peers. Self-criticism may be very difficult to get people to perform adequately - it is often lacking even in scientists. The next step, the peer review process, then lets a good many poorly-established results through to general publication. Amid a prolonged decline, science could easily devolve into people making various claims with nobody clear about how or why to be skeptical of their own finds. Three generations later, science is dead in practice even if a few science texts survive.

I'm looking forward to your future post about the risks to the survival of science and how we can increase its chances. Your writing is consistently among the best I have ever read at clearing away the cobwebs of unexamined assumptions that I have accumulated in the process of growing up at the peak of empire.

KL Cooke said...

I understand religion was one of the subjects considered unsuitable for conversation at a Roman dinner table.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwPtEAjLMEo

PhysicsDoc said...

@Stephen Heyer:
"As far as I can remember, in those few sections of that Book where someone got to talk to that God one on one, discussions by the way with elements that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and convinced me that “something” had happened, that God never claimed to be any of the above"
Stephen, you have peaked my interest in reading those passages again...the bible as an ancient spooky text ...cool!

Yossi said...

You seem to have ignored a couple of questions in my previous post.
Why do you need to link value, meaning and purpose to the supernatural and spirit? Surely moral philosophy can deal with value, meaning and purpose without trying to link these with the unknown, and unknowable.

You say that “ we’re all facing that choice today with unusual intensity, in relation to part of the order of the cosmos that not all religions have studied as carefully as they might”. How does carefully studying religions help and what part of the cosmic order are you referring to?

John Roth said...

Luval, onething. On "irreducible complexity."

The reason I find the definition circular is that it states that something is both complex (that is, composed of parts) and that it can't be further reduced. I find this jaw-droppingly silly.

However. This argument is almost always advanced in a discussion of creationism, as a justification for why something like the eye can't possibly have evolved: it's "irreducibly complex." Onething: I mention the eye specifically because it's one of the examples that was used until a few years ago, when it was quietly swept under the rug.

As such, it's an arm-wave that plays on the tendency of many people to accept something that sounds like an "explanation" once it's buried into another arguement. Some of the psychological demonstrations of this are hilarious.

On species: the hard-core definition of a species is that members of two different species can't interbreed. However. Are dogs and wolves separate species? They interbreed freely. What about wolves and coyotes? Or horses and donkeys? Or lions and tigers? Or modern humans and neanderthals?

The species concept is getting read out of biology, partly because it's not particularly useful, and partly because it's seen as "essentialism," that is, the tendency to think that there is some kind of an essence of a dog, a wolf, a lion, a tiger or a human. Or a Neanderthal.

It doesn't take a whole lot to make two populations reproductively incompatible. One case I heard of recently had to do with a bacterial infection in an insect population: those that harbored that kind of bacteria were incompatible with those that didn't. Otherwise they're genetically identical.

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