Category Archives: Religion

Excerpt: Awe and Presence

Another preview taken out of context from The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. All selections written by me since 2010. All remain in development, subject to change.

Most excerpts so far were not particularly representative of main themes, so as not to spoil their discovery. Today I make an exception, and present Part 3 (of 8) from Book I of Vol. I, a Book which introduces themes seminal for many Books to come. —CPB


banksy_no_future_1

artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

Our “reality” is habitually pared-down, less complex, less awe-inducing, less exciting, as an acclimation. We require experiences to open our eyes to the world around us and within us.

The experiences can always be found. In fact there are too many for our attention. But we must cease to be dead to our senses and our callings.

On one occasion we have reason to doubt. On another, we have reason to marvel. From one time to the other, it is, most significantly, we that have become different, whatever else has changed around us.

banksy_no_future_2

artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

It is not unusual that one who encounters pain or tedium lives through what seems like too much to bear, and closes. Another can observe this hardened attitude and see nothing but immaturity. They see a stuck, troubled, thoughtless child, crying “I am jaded, and there is nothing left to amaze and delight me.”

It is common to encounter hardening or dulling experiences that strip away the innocence of youth. It is rare to learn what to take from harsh or deficient experience—how to meet experiences, and not only receive them; how to remain sensitive through what could deaden, how to sublimate what could scar, and how to remain open instead of closing.

Disciplined learning about the world yields some resilience, though not the same that comes with practice. At least, learning can supply alternatives to a single way of seeing and experiencing things, or too few.

nelumno_nucifera_open_flower_-_botanic_garden_adelaide2

Nelumbo nucifera, sacred lotus; umbilical symbol of creation, rebirth, unfolding enlightenment, purity, and more; seat of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas; iconic in myths of Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi; identified with Buddha. In “On the Love of the Lotus,” Chinese sage Zhou Dun Yi observed in poetic allegory that the lotus, both open and straight, grows out of mud, but remains unsullied.

It is necessary to gather perspectives on our own experiences from the breadth and depth of other experiences across time and place. All our lives are local and limited. Greatness can blossom from opening up to just a little more.

Transcending our place to see more, and awakening to the transcendent in us is one purpose of religious mythology.

Scientific knowledge can act as myth just the same; if a child is told the story of how she is made of star-stuff, she learns that her own atoms were once forged within the nuclear cores of stars bright eons before the sun, and by vaster stars that exploded. She learns that life-giving atoms in her and all people were star-sown. The truth of that legend is both incidental to its transcendental power and majesty, and no detraction.

xlarge_web

Light from the edge of a blast wave from a star that exploded approximately 6000 BC, during Neolithic civilization on Earth. The visible supernova remnant is now called the Veil Nebula. This mosaic of Hubble telescope images shows a small section of the distant Nebula, with false colors assigned to emissions from hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.

An expansive revelation about our place, and our connections to some mystery we have to struggle to imagine, fills us with awe. Awe is a kind of restorative experience. Awe knocks ennui aside without a thought for the tedium that formerly seemed to pervade life.

In awe, one forgets doubts, and ever feeling that life is insignificant, unimportant, pointless—or miserable, consigned to suffering, or to guilt. One forgets feeling that life itself could be subjected to doubts. Awe induces doubt that life could be known, could be encompassed by our smaller experience.

Simple novelty of experience promotes a modest openness. To pursue novelty is certainly easier and much more common than an awesome, transcendent revelation. Even if novel experiences do not teach, they can achieve some restoration of feeling.

Otherwise, our familiar world seems too small and too usual. That familiar domain occludes the unseen remainder of the world. Life, too familiar, obstructs our participation in all else, diverse as we cannot imagine. Life seems cramped, repetitive, even hopeless. This is our feeling, unfairly attributed to other life without our constraint and beyond our limitations. Our impression of life portrays a distortion of life, conditioned or contained. Escape from noticing life only seems the credible alternative to neurosis and depression.

A routine travesty of living appears ridiculous in the face of further experiences discovered by spontaneity, or created by improvisation. Moments in which we experience different things—or even familiar things, differently—can then become extraordinary to us. These moments deliver us.

It is not too difficult to make extraordinary moments, for those who know they must seek them out. Ordinary moments are not ordinary at all to those who know how to transform them, with observance, into informal rituals. Sense phenomena that others take for granted can attain a phenomenal attention, a spiritual attention, suitable for sacrament.

[To feel] spiritual presence means and requires that you are present. All that becomes banal—an urban skyline view, an alcoholic high, a walk in the woods, rhythm or melody, a sexual touch, an idea written long ago—can be refreshed with spirit.

Spiritual experiences are restorative, as well as extraordinary experiences. They feel special, and make us feel special about ourselves or about living—eternal objects of human desire, taking infinite guises.

Feeling special about ourselves is indistinct from the impression of having purpose, or life having significance or meaning. A “relationship with God” communicates that one is special, that one has purpose, and life has meaning. But this is the same thing that people want most from romantic relationships with other people: the opportunity to feel special about themselves through a sense of connection-to-other. They want transcendence not only from changes in perspective, but manifested in experience made special—spiritual—through renewed attention to the senses, and ensuing intensification. The bond becomes sacred; the sexual rite becomes holy. A deep relationship with one’s work or calling can likewise become sanctified by devotion, attention, and presence.

A sacred or holy experience is not derived from a thing, place, or action called sacred or holy. We must supply preparation for a sense of the sacred or holy, which can be found in almost anything; it is the person who charges the encounter, not whatever seems sacred or holy.

a1the-lotus-temple-in-india

Lotus Temple, Bahá’í House of Worship, New Delhi

It is a great mystical, esoteric, and at times heretical teaching that the high experiences of religion are open to you. They are allowed. They are already implicit in the living human body, though not well-realized without practice. You can learn to recognize doors and need not depend on formal rituals to unlock them. You need not borrow a set of keys that dogma approves and intercessors must provide.

Even the grandest senses of divinity do not depend upon being seized by powers outside ourselves. The power to have transcendent experiences in the world unfolds from living, open to transcendent experiences.

You must ask yourself if you allow a sense of awe before the majesty of the world, intricate beyond your knowledge, beyond your time.

Can you hear, can you say: “Awake, awake! The world is new from this moment!” This feeling can begin a creation story for a new life.

 

Awe and other concepts that sound religious describe experiences to be realized in actual life. Grace and blessedness, transcendence and revelation, love, joy, passion, ecstasy and rapture are also called religious experiences, but they refer to real experiences of feeling nonetheless.

When religion is made regular, named, and organized, these experiences are exceedingly likely to remain concepts, drafted into rituals or doctrines that may be practiced and followed without those feelings; religion without spirit; religion left with dead metaphors, antique distractions; dogma now without corpus.

Life without the set of spiritual experiences is limited to a subset without sensations of “meaning.”

All the religious concepts—or rather, spiritual feelings behind religious concepts—can be naturalized, made part of our clearer understanding of natural, human life rooted in the body’s nervous system and the dispositions and needs of the mind. Spiritual experiences are special neural experiences, not supernatural or otherworldly experiences. The numinous can be integrated into natural life, and not cast out to the supernatural—nor dismissed along with superstition by the secular-minded.

Awe has become rarer than ever before. That few wonder at the rarity of the experience called awe could almost explain its rarity. The near absence of awe in adulthood seems to go virtually unnoticed and unremarked, though the experience is extraordinary. Awe has become an empty word out of fashion to modern people who cannot relate. Many identify awe with religious devotion, no longer valued, or practiced only as custom. But devotion is a road to awe, to pervasive holiness, to reverence and resonance, and if these things must be lost with secular deliverance from superstition, we should have cause to question whether that is deliverance at all. By all those numb and jaded, awe is missed, and the unshaken soul perceived, if not by words, then deep down instead.

But it is not necessary to lose awe without religion, just as it is not necessary to abandon spirit. Awe before God, or gods, represents awe before the epic of life in the world. It is simply that the origin of mighty experiences was mistaken to be might outside oneself.

Love, also, wells up and flows out from within, not to the credit of objects of fixation: idealized figures of divinity, or erotic attraction. We have in our brains the means for intense alterations of perception and participation. In a sense, as long as we are thus prepared, the triggers are almost incidental, if we know better than to attribute our electrified chemistry to them. We misbelieve in our dependency on others, and outside forces.

Religious experiences can be summoned up from within oneself. This is the “heresy” of personal divinity, that because I can summon up divine feelings, I am God—another untrue metaphor to express a truth.

 

Excerpt: spirit as metaphor for sex (and vice versa)

Continuing to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. Some compositions are unrepresentative in style, subject, or themes. All remain under development, subject to change. All selections were written by me since 2010. —CPB


It is too literal to believe that the cilice is worn no longer [by modern and secular people]. It is too literal to believe that penitence, or mortification to suppress the concupiscence to commit acts of sin, are obsoleted when these words are left to grow unfamiliar and antique.

klimt-die-jungfrau-1913

Die Jungfrauen by Gustav Klimt, 1913

Of all acts of desire formerly proscribed by religious authority, and forms of hedonism still censured in spirit, lust troubles most intimately. Even after the most diligent corruption of the youth to mistrust the body has passed from common instruction, the taboo body lingers, and puberty makes it a stranger. One generation passes shame, secrecy, and silence to another. The next passes awkwardness and avoidance to another. Overcoming schooled inhibition requires touching again and again, talking again and again, practicing again and again.

Some of the most immodest or promiscuous remain firmly in thrall. To want to prove that transgression of a taboo is possible proves also that the taboo holds—at least enough to tempt, and has not been thoroughly overcome. To transgress compulsively, to reduce sex to mere performance of acts, is to forget the tabu indicates sexual physicality is holy, not merely forbidden. Along this line, we can learn more than an error from those who still condemn lust as a sin.

The dangers of leaving desires to seethe unreleased, leading to unintended perversions of libido, have been extensively described. Indeed, religious modesty hides more than flesh. Suppression perpetuates undercurrents of fiendish attention to sexuality, as well as anticipating sin from such preoccupation. It forbids an appetite and fulfills an expectation, a guilty loop.

But more than cultivating obsessive attention, it also encourages another species of attention: a conscientiousness surrounding sexuality, hinted at by the concepts “purity” and “innocence,” an aura easily left behind when sexuality is rendered common and taken for granted. A purely utilitarian, matter-of-fact attitude toward sex would dispense with shame, anxiety, and bashfulness, and Eros too.

To actually encourage being present in the sexual act goes too far for those who worry about participation. Inhibited by shame, they are generally unable to obtain the fruits of such cultivation. These fruits are spiritual in a metaphorical sense of spirit, while the facilitating practice for present sensual, erotic, and ecstatic experience is—outwardly and physically—foreplay, sexual intercourse, and orgasm. They are too timid about that ritual to enter the temple’s Holy of Holies. No one can meet the god from a distance, performing self-conscious sex without abandon. No one honors Eros without fucking.

klimt-danae-1907

Danaë by Gustav Klimt, 1907

Yet religious sanctity is of a kind with presence in the act, and not in total opposition. Those who still identify sex with sin at least intensify attention to sex, even though—and partly because—they are not supposed to. They know at least to impart significance to sex, and not demote a potentially profound neurogenic experience to a material interaction, or a biological drive. Preoccupation or obsession does heighten experience, despite unfortunate condemnation of the means of fruition and deemphasis of method. So do the various, overlaid religious frames treating sex as a profound, spiritual matter and not a mundane one.

Whereas, the alternate error of those called licentious is always to harvest, never to cultivate; that is, not to impart a neurogenic halo to the sexual acts, but to expend these occasions without reverence, and without intent to “set the mood” for any meaning beyond the obvious. This potentially reduces pleasure to expending the heightened senses of physicality, without attuning the senses for a broader neurogenic significance while they are heightened. Opportunities for peak experiences are lost.

That would also be the cost of coming to see sex as “simply biological,” the urgent need which one simply discharges, and gets back to something more important. One forms utilitarian relationships for this purpose, without emotional or spiritual attachments. One is too rarely struck, as by a lightning bolt, by an orgasm with meaning. One is too rarely shocked. Perhaps not at all.

It might be better not to lose the long-taught memory of shame, if this must be the price. Fortunately the price is paid unnecessarily by those who do. The mystique of sexuality need not be lost because the shame is lost, and because the moralizing has been, in its turn, lectured at, judged, and rejected.

Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities

[via Open Culture on Facebook] Was amused by responses to an essay by Steven Pinker (“precious and facile as always,” as one put it) called “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” that misses its opportunity for the descriptive subtitle: “Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities” (among which he seems to include “soft,” humanized, or subjective social sciences and psychologies).

“Pinker is a a bildungsphilister and this is one of the most vulgar and foolish essays ever published in a leading magazine. A masterpiece of middlebrow kitsch, nearly all of it is wrong, and in a risible, contemptible way.”

So upon reading it, I must say I too am impressed. Pinker doesn’t just set up a straw man. He has an entire straw debate going on there. It’s remarkable because most of what is correct in it has nothing to do with any real argument that intelligent people would present. But Pinker still has a lecture! Err, that’s nice Pinker—tell us some of the neat things “science” has done (not scientists – monolithic “science”) and *do tell* how it banished superstition (yes, you’ve heard this one before). Why not put on a whole performance of “Inherit the Wind”? We’ll wait.

But then, maybe go look into some things you don’t already know, like what the term “scientism” properly means when intelligent people use it, instead of pretending it has no meaning, a move worthy of Daniel Dennett’s argumentative tactics. My favorite ignorance is found in the paragraph accusing others of being “historically illiterate” while demonstrating his own in the very next sentence.

He makes evident that his grasp of a great many diverse subjects (including those grouped under political science, arts, history, anthropology and economics) is sometimes no more sophisticated than the preliminary biases, cliches, naivete, and prejudices of the average college-level intellect obtained from an undergraduate class or (more likely) casual reading.

Such an unprepared debater has all the moral authority of a man with no pants. Those well-versed in “the humanities” will simply wonder why he blundered in, so to speak, seemingly determined to pick a daftly-collective argument.

Pinker couldn’t have supported Gould’s assertion of two spheres appropriate to humanities and science (reflecting the classic distinction between “is” and “ought”) any better if he’d argued for it, instead of against it. I don’t incidentally draw lines between subjects like academic specialists too often do, but one has to be clear about the differences between describing the way things work, and prescribing what to do about it—as well as differences in preparation, methods and mentalities each properly require.

The fact that public intellectuals no better than this have taken charge of current philosophy of mind (via cognitive science in most cases, although not exclusively—some from traditional philosophy) does inspire me to correct their many deficiencies, though. There are still tremendous opportunities to write great books about human nature, evolution, psychology, the brain and the mind that are not mostly farfetched, beside the point, silly, or parochial in outlook. And it’s the last point that may be the most important strike against these academics’ stabs at writing definitive books to unravel the enigma of Man. Whether it’s Steven Pinker or John Searle or whoever, the most important thing about human beings will always be: “the field I’ve studied” or “the focus of my background.”

Addendum:
I want to note, on the positive side, that Pinker’s stated desire for collaboration and synthesis towards the end of the piece points to a laudable project (one which I wrote about at great length in my essay Rising in Walls), though the way he has written this piece, and comports himself, makes a productive “truce” impossible. And, to parallel Dennett’s distinction between good and bad reductionism, there is good synthesis and there is bad. The examples of cross-fertilization Pinker gives are pretty bad, having for example not enough of the humility before the unknown and uncertain, or  appreciation for qualitative subtlety, that the best humanists in science or the humanities will call for. It would be wonderful for scientific techniques and rigorous epistemology to inform more of the subjective theory written about life on Earth, and vice versa. Pinker just doesn’t have a handle on what that would look like, because he is not enough of a generalist, either.

Addendum Two:
With an essay this bad, it would take more time than I have to unpack everything. Here’s a brief, eviscerating praeteritio that covers  points that I did not go through—including, that Pinker obviously ignores and doesn’t consider worthy of mention a number of aspects one would normally consider quite essential to “the humanities.” Some criticisms may be less obvious though, and perhaps it’s worth the exercise of going through them. In the above post, I took for granted that, meeting Pinker halfway, we were going to talk about the humanities as functional—focusing on purposes and purposeful thinking, which is certainly not the only way to look at things. But this is the teleology you have to expect from scientism; it doesn’t have time for a lot of meandering around and reading poetry so to speak but rather wants to talk about what poetry does for the human race. In short, I took some deficiencies for granted, and arrogance—this is Pinker, after all, the man who went up against Stephen Jay Gould on evolution, though to this day, he casually misunderstands (or misrepresents?) the basic Darwinian argument.

Aim higher, atheists

Modern people can be so weirdly literal. And by no means are they all fundamentalist religious types.

I have known many atheists and I have come across a great many atheists. The first rule of atheism is: talk about religion. The second rule: dispute the Bible. The third (possibly the second, actually): tease and argue with fundamentalists, mostly in absentia, especially they most objectionable and uncouth ones.

Yes, now that they don’t have to worry themselves anymore about the literal truths of the Bible that all the fundamentalists believe in—phew—I get the impression many self-congratulatory atheists like to spend a whole lot of their intellectual time insisting the Bible isn’t literally true and is in fact full of falsehoods and absurdities (and in doing this, feeling intelligent and perceptive).

Well, first of all: no kidding, the Bible is not literally true. Have you ever tried to read other mythology literally? Ovid makes a poor science or history textbook, but that’s a similarly insipid point.

We can rest assured that whoever refuses to accept such a painfully obtrusive lesson must have a personal attachment at stake, or simply won’t because a contrary painfully-obtrusive lesson was hammered into them already by their parents and church, and brainwashing works the first time.

Either way, if “freethinker” atheists have the opportunities to think about and discuss anything they like, it seems dopey to spend time telling the fundamentalists that material which millions of people have already come to view as allegorical since the Middle Ages is—*gasp*—not literally true.

Whether they’ve rediscovered how to be as concerned with literal meaning as fundamentalists, or how to keep pace with fundamentalists, or how to keep having a ‘conversation’ with fundamentalists instead of moving on, I’m not sure that congratulations for “free thought” are in order quite yet.

You’re simply not past religion and done with it until you regard reading the Bible as no more threatening and offensive to your own mind than reading ancient Greek, Norse, or Chinese myths. In fact, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that quite a few intellectuals got past their own religious instruction and obstruction by reading mythology and literature more widely, as Jung did, and realizing that not only is belief subjective, but there is more depth to be found in religious interpretation than Christian theology has to offer. In the process of graduation to move beyond religious obsession, agnosticism with less to prove and more to learn seems the freest stage, not (as some atheists think) some weakly-resistant intermediate stage.

If instead the atheists’ concern and reason for so much adversarial attention is merely and truly over what fundamentalists will do with their dogmatic beliefs (as many atheists would claim) , they should be spending some time telling the hundreds of millions of Hindus that their authoritative texts aren’t true; they should logically also be dispelling the doctrines of fundamentalists of all kinds, in the orthodoxies of science and politics as well as religion, wherever free and open thought is denied and the consequences are great.

Instead, the trending atheism today is yet another species of missionary fundamentalism by a Chosen People who are zealous to prove they are not at all like the believers.

Writing Great Philosophy for the Sake of the Future

Some of the most important written works neither profit a thinker, nor advance an academic or public career. At first, they offer only themselves. (Or, perhaps, some extraordinary adventures and experiences necessary to write them—yet the total labor required to see them through often dims this value for the author.)

Yet the expectation that compositions should soon yield profits, status, fame or advancement keeps many thinkers and writers away from achieving greater work.

This is one reason why academia is very nearly the death of philosophy, and the market for writing, little better. Most who somehow emerge from modern “education systems” and have philosophy to offer—ideas cultivated through study and appreciation of the sciences (the fields of human knowledge) and expressed as a creation of art—are obliged to bury their ideas in entertainment in order to sell their work and support themselves. This is valuable, but second-hand.

While philosophical works should not quite follow “art for art’s sake,” they must be undertaken without promise of rewards save important work of great meaning. Though it is no guarantee, great philosophy first requires appropriate ambition, and dedication of oneself.

And we all require more great philosophy. Without great works to develop new ideas for the future, there will be no future different from the consequences of the ideas inherited from the past.

There are too many old and misplaced ideas we are living with. If they were ever right, they are no longer right, for us, now. We are still counting on Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, and so many others to write our future—implicitly. Even Darwin has yet to sink in. We are still building upon ancient notions like foundations we almost never notice. Many of the newest sources are centuries old; many of those we call “modern” thinkers are unoriginal recyclers, copycats, and poor synthesists of the grab bag. Yet people who repeat echoes of Rousseau, Paine, and poor readings of Jesus wonder why they cannot change things. Utopian faiths, demanding abstractions, and political revolutions come up empty because they have been tried before without understanding, only to be repeated now as though new.

We wonder why we’re stuck in a present that still looks like the past—degraded, plus technology that—we like to hope—has something to say, because we don’t. No, we’ll only have a different future when enough of us commit to thinking and writing for one.

Anti-psychiatry; an example of polarized debate between anti-science fringe and orthodoxy

Reading on the internet has probably already introduced you to the anti-psychiatric movement, which appeals to the dislike people have for the “disease model” and fear of medication for mental illness, which relates to their fears of being out of control of their own minds. Although they will have already experienced this as human beings, if not also as sufferers of particular disorders, they may not have accepted it any more than people can accept the fact of their future death.

In short, the anti-psychiatric movement, and specifically its anti-psychopharmacological message, appeals to the folk rejection of the mind or “soul” people think of as their unitary self being in some way integrated or derived—to some debatable degree—without conscious control, and being subject instead to the evolution, development, oddities and dysfunctions of a physical electrochemical brain, a compound, complex adaptive system. Despite mountains of scientific evidence, folk beliefs about the brain prefer to believe it is merely the seat of consciousness. This is just as true of secularists, who won’t use the word “soul,” but still believe in a metaphysical notion about the mind, falsely distinguishing the experience from the brain from which it emerges.

Figureheads of the movement like Thomas Szasz also portray psychiatry almost exclusively as a soulless industry abusing and controlling patients and selling destructive “medicine” they don’t need for imaginary ailments, rather than as a non-monolithic medical field which is generally less problematic now than some of its earlier history, but still muddling through, like its patients, not without problems, errors, and differences of opinion. The evil-psychiatry portrayal is mixed with a lot of disprovable medical ignorance and some brazen lies, but as is well known on the internet, most readers are not diligent in their fact-checking and not particularly critical about sources.

If any of them know, I have never seen one of the many people who reference the anti-psychiatry quack Thomas Szasz ever mention that his group, the so-called “Citizens Commission on Human Rights,” is a front for the Church of Scientology.

Scientologists have to be wise to their need for fronts like this to promote their views, which will otherwise be received as if they come from a science fiction cult—because they do. They have an agenda to disparage medical science, psychopharmacology, all psychiatric and psychological theories and treatment options—effective and ineffective, appropriate and inappropriate alike—to promote their own brand of quackery instead. This isn’t news, but I imagine that it will be useful for some readers on the internet, who have been taken in by some of the false arguments figureheads like Szasz have promoted, to learn about their associations with Scientology.

That was enough reason to make this post, but I would also like to briefly connect it to a larger pattern I have repeatedly noticed in dialogues about contentious science.

One unfortunate effect of anti-scientific criticism you will see is the gradual elimination of other positions with sensible criticisms of the establishment, in the fight between two absolutes.

One analogy to the environment created between the pro-medication (many would say, over-medication) psychiatry and anti-psychiatry camps (the latter essentially dismissing the science behind psychopharmacology, the former exaggerating its precision and utility) can be found in the environment created by vaccine critics attacking the vaccine establishment. Advocates like Paul Offit end up claiming vaccines can virtually never do any harm just to counter baseless claims that vaccines never did any good (polio, anyone?), or caused autism, or poison people, or spread HIV. Meanwhile, the fact that different vaccines vary widely in their effectiveness and safety, and evidence that both a great deal of industry money and centralized regulatory and public health information systems do distort both approval of vaccines and public perceptions of vaccines, are largely ignored.

Scientists become more shrill, dogmatic, and devotional, and adopt more politically-calculated positions, in response to bizarre anti-scientific positions attacking them which are shrill, dogmatic, and devotional from the beginning.

This also reminds me of what happened between the anti-Darwin positions (Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates) and the establishment academic positions on evolution. Prominent evolutionary scientists and advocates were increasingly pushed not only into a reactionary atheism but a reactionary neo-Darwinism, with some even intolerant or dismissive of valuable gadfly Steven Jay Gould.

The extremity of the debate sets the tone for a shallower discussion and understanding of science in which there is a temptation to underplay, distort, or ignore facts on *both* sides, to refuse to yield ground and to refuse ammunition to “the other side”—for there erroneously will appear to be only two, to the combatants.

One conclusion I would draw is that the partisan involvement of the public in a scientific field makes science less scientific. It’s not only the lure of public funding that can corrupt scientists, as in the Climategate IPCC scandal. It’s also that the rancorous mentalities of public debate with non-scientists frequently erode the essential scientific mentalities of openness and impartiality that require careful construction and maintenance. Scientists are humans too, and they become defensive about their turf just as readily as others. The public is understandably concerned about the effects of applied science, but interference with the aim of altering scientific conclusions to become more acceptable to preconceptions (the true bane of science) seems to corrupt scientists reacting to it more than they realize.

Even more so, public dialogue and understanding about contentious scientific subjects becomes corrupted, and polarized.

UPDATE: Thanks to Evi Numen for this excellent supplementary exposé of Szasz, Scientology, and the destructiveness of applying mind-body dualism to medicine: Dr. Stephen Wiseman takes on Dr. Thomas Szasz and Scientology’s “Citizens Commission on Human Rights”

http://www.suppressiveperson.org/sp/archives/1371

Memetics, genetics, evolution and scientism

Chris Hedges is an intelligent man, but even an intelligent man must understand what he’s talking about. All very well to criticize scientism, but let’s get the science right. Example: he claims memetics is nonsense:

Ideas do not replicate like genes. Ideas are snuffed out or forgotten, often for centuries. Ideas that prevail are often not the best ideas but more often ideas backed by power.

If Hedges knew more about genetic evolution, he would know that genes are “snuffed out” (selected against, even to the point of elimination from the population) and “forgotten” (latent) in fairly direct analogies. And genes that prevail are not “best”; that is not what fitness properly means in modern evolutionary theory at all. He’s confusing it with assumptions behind eugenics and outdated evolutionary theory. “Fitness” actually means whatever is replicated and survives for any reason, and genes do not directly correspond to phenotypical expression, anyway. Genetic “success” is typically circumstantial based on environmental factors or chance and not in any overall sense “superior,” just like his point about power ‘cheating’ if you will to push ideas. That is remarkably analogous to natural selection.

Dawkins (inventor of the concept of “memes”) wins that one.

Hedges doesn’t seem to have a grasp on the fact that the smarter evolutionary-atheists, at least—like Dawkins and Dennett—understand that in science, evolution not only isn’t teleological, like Social Darwinism, the mechanisms aren’t deterministic (genetics isn’t, for one example). Thus, Hedges’ drawing a direct line from their supposed determinism in science to asserting false determinism in the complex social realm severely hampers what could have been a useful column on scientism. Many other criticisms are possible, but they certainly didn’t bring a habit of determinism from science into social thought, because they don’t believe in that kind of selection in the science.

Hedges’ understanding of the science is too primitive to do justice to the important points about scientism—that there are things for which science (or particular subsets of scientific methods or conceptualization) was not designed. These points have been more elegantly made by social scientists and social philosophers who believe in a different kind of science for complex, interconnected social realms. Hayek is one example, as is Mises, both Austrian economists.

Read more on faith and scientism in my essay Our Resource of Dreams and Deceits: Strategies for Practical Metaphysics in Past, Present, and Future:

Many have deceived themselves into vainly grasping for the perfection of science as a centrality in life. But in their scientism they subvert their own science — the process of learning which may yield more apparent facts, but will never provide values. Such dispositions must be held deep within our body-minds in conjunction with superficial semantics. The epistemology of scientific methods will never yield a reason to insist on atheism, for example, yet many rationalizers claim just that, unwilling to own up to their own hostility toward theism as the explanation for their assertion. Nor can logic argue against any physiologically predisposed tenet of hopelessness. If secular “rationalists” indeed feel some deep optimistic humanism, it rests on some faith of instinct within the body-mind, in strength, in health, in self-expression which attracts them to scientific means, subjects and aesthetics.

Even properly understood as a tool, science requires its own contexts of assumptions, and its own framework of faith for its practices (including tenets such as an understandable universe and experimental reproducibility). Throughout its past application as a tool (including the introduction of rigor into theology) science has called beliefs and values into question — which means it freed us from many primitive superstitions and misunderstandings incorporated within our consciousness, rendering them implausible. At the same time it left us stripped of many old moorings as well as tethers, to find we need new and more carefully considered ideas. For this enormity, it should have our respect, not our overestimation.