Thursday, November 10, 2011

The world is not enough for supernaturalists

A 'murmuration' of starlings
I've a piece on the ABC today, 'The world is not enough for supernaturalists'.

I'm discussing the irreverence at the heart of the supernatural: the move from this world to another, and what this says about the 'spiritual' psyche.  A sample:
My point is not that the faithful are themselves irreverent. I have no interest in belittling their personal piety or worship. What concerns me is that their basic worldview is lacking. For me, a casual read of New Scientist is an exercise in awe or wonder: dormant suns that reignite with stolen gas; the delicate balance of quantum forces that keep water stable; the possibility that Earth's own water was delivered by a comet's chance impact. Watching a murmuration of starlings is spellbinding; the sweep and curl of a thousand birds, looping in fluttering clusters of silhouetted black. 
We speak of the 'miracle' of birth, as if it were contrary to nature. But this is precisely what our bodies do, and it is all the more wonderful for this. New life is exhausting, harrying and sometimes dangerous. But, like stars, water, comets and birds, it is mundane, in the original sense of the word: of this world. 
What surprises me about supernatural beliefs is that they need another. I am often astonished at the fact of existence; plain old 'becoming', as some philosophers call it. For me, this is a sublime world, all the more precious for its flux and fragilities. But for supernaturalists, the world is not enough.
(Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)


Daniel Keating said...

agree completely.

there is a video of a scientist who makes a great argument against the "science makes the world boring and takes the wonder out of the universe" but i can't remember who it is.

Melita said...

My husband was raised a Catholic and went to church every Sunday until he was 19. He now identifies as agnostic (I thought he was an athiest, but he corrected me the other day). Anyway, he is always saying what you are saying in this article - the world is amazing enough, why do people feel the need for more than this? I am still unsure about where I stand on this. I find myself longing for there to be something more, but I don't really believe there is. In any case, I think everybody would do well to spend more time appreciating the everyday mysteries and wonders of the earth, which you so beautifully describe.

Melita said...

A murmuration of starlings is nice. I recently learnt that a flock of goldfinches is known as a charm.

Damon Young said...

DK: I remember someone saying that understanding digestion doesn't take away the joy of a great sandwich.

M: I think we do have a sense of something 'more', but it's in us, not in the world. Iris Murdoch is good on this. And thanks for the 'charm', too. Very nice.

martine said...

thought provoking post of the day
thank you

Rachel Power said...

Great post Damon. I have always worried that my lack of 'spirituality' might be a limitation. But like you, I also find the need to seek something beyond reality perplexing. Certainly my lack of religious or spiritual beliefs in no way means a lack of wonder or curiosity. In fact, what blows me away more than anything is how precarious and precise the conditions are that allow life (as we know it) on earth to exist. Thanks for your poetic words on the matter.

Rachel Power said...

P.S. Have you done any writing about drugs? Not unrelated to this theme, I think. Or is it? I'd be interested to know your thoughts.

Danny said...

It seems to me that the tendency to sense intentionality and order behind the universe is innately human and intuitive. If not for it, we would all be solipsists and the scientific enterprise would be still-born.

To attack it as emerging from conceit leaves one with a suspicion that this is just a thinly-veiled exercise in bigotry, which ultimately serves to encourage demonisation and polarisation of humanity.

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Danny.

As I wrote in the column, parts of science certainly had religious origins, e.g. the 'laws' of nature. Early philosophy was also derived partly from myth, i.e. the idea of sentient forces at work in nature.

However, what marks many achievements in philosophy and science is the departure from common myth, e.g. Anaximander's 'apeiron'. It's a movement away from a personal god, or from a god at all, to a less anthropocentric description of the cosmos.

This doesn't mean it's not a conceit. It just means it's a common one, which needs to be overcome for a more realistic account of the universe. Contemporary supernaturalists have not done so, and it is not 'divisive' to recognise this. The divisions exist.

As for 'bigotry' and 'demonisation', I believe you're exaggerating.

Danny said...

Thanks, Damon.

I suppose what bothers me is the element of hubris involved in presuming where our inquiries will take us. When it comes to realms where the scientific method has proven itself to be effective - the "how"s of the physical world, it makes sense to eliminate appealing to the supernatural.

But when it comes to vast areas in which the scientific method has shown itself to be totally unsuited or ineffective to date, (the "why"s of the cosmos, and the qualitative subjective experience), how can our scientific achievements be a basis upon which do justify seeking to rule out the role of the supernatural?

After all, the primary role of religions is not really to explain the workings of the physical cosmos, but to address the purpose of existence. To highlight their failings in the former realm shouldn't disqualify them from relevance in the latter.

Surely we should proceed in this latter realm with an open mind, rather than assuming that we need to overcome these attitudes. To give one example, my sense is that thinkers like Dennett find the notion of qualia inconvenient, and will therefore go to remarkable extremes to try prove their non-existence, rather than trying to come to terms with their existence. That, to my mind, is not progress.

Regarding 'bigotry' and 'demonisation', I would agree that those terms are more suited to the pronouncements of Dawkins and his ilk. I apologise.

Danny said...

Oh. I don't think you addressed my point about solipsism, where the "conceit" seems to bring us closer to the truth.


Damon Young said...

I agree that religions address meaning rather than mechanics. (Although not for want of trying.) And I also agree that science is often ill-equipped to make sense of meaning, i.e. of human experience.

But I can recognise this without believing that the cosmos has some inherent meaning. I see no evidence that it does. It has pattern, order, 'temporary habits', but nothing like a human mind. (Hence the conceit.) We supply meaning.

Now, on solipsism, I'm not sure. The conceit of universe-as-mind might draw us out of extreme idealism or skepticism. But it might also complement it, e.g. Descartes and Berkeley (and not always convincingly). In the absence of historical evidence, don't see it as a particularly reliable remedy for solipsism. And even if it were, this would increase its value, but not its truth.

Danny said...

I don't quite follow you with the solipsism. What I was trying to say is that we intuitively see minds behind the bodies of others, which by your logic I assumed you would also label a conceit, yet it strikes me as the only path to truth (even if I can't prove it). We don't have to be overly rational and deny our intuitions on principle if there is no compelling reason to do so.

Regarding the cosmos, if we put the theory of natural selection to the side, it seems to me the experience of intelligent design (I'd rather call it that, than an argument), is a natural and sensible way to go. Debate about the evidence for natural selection has muddied the waters somewhat, but for me the existence of mind is the clincher: How is it that this apparently non-physical, subjective reality came about in the middle of an otherwise physical, objective universe? How can random chemical reactions create a subjective experience? What's more, the subjective experience is not merely a random experience, but it is one laden with multiple dimensions of quality - sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, emotion, reason...

Saying that we supply the meaning doesn't get to the bottom of it.

To say there is something wrong with ascribing this to a sentient cause when science is so deficient in being able to offer an alternative explanation seems, to me at least, a bit extreme.

Although perhaps we have to agree to disagree.

Damon Young said...

Science does not yet have an answer. But it does have a fine method. Religion has an answer, but no method. And over the centuries, science has successfully replaced many of religion's answers with its own, precisely because of its method.

The origin of mind may very well be no different: the science and philosophy of self-organisation is certainly promising. Of course, to say that science will find an answer would be unscientific. But I know its method has a much better chance than the 'experience' you write of.

As you said: agree to disagree.

Danny said...

It's not just an issue of whether science will find an answer, which it may well do, but what answer it finds if it finds one, one which negates religion or supports it.

I'm not suggesting that religious belief is a more reliable path to truth than science, as I think you are implying. We can have tremendous confidence in science, but we should not be confident that it will reach the conclusions we expect it to. The religious experience can be a helpful guide in the interim.