Friday, April 11, 2008

Thinking about Thinking About Religion & Science

That's what I've been doing. Or am about to do, anyway. Say, we don't have a word for "thinking about thinking," do we? Hey, I heard that! Don't be a wise guy. Besides, "masturbation" is already taken.

As I mentioned yesterday, I've been reading Michael Heller's Creative Tension: Essays on Science and Religion. He's a physicist and priest who recently won the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities for "his extensive philosophical and scientific probing of 'big questions.' His works have sought to reconcile the 'known scientific world with the unknowable dimensions of God.'" He maintains that

"If we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about the cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the great blueprint of God’s thinking about the universe; the question on ultimate causality: why is there something rather than nothing? When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes. Science is but a collective effort of the human mind to read the mind of God from question marks out of which we and the world around us seem to be made."

Hmmm.... "The monetary value of the Templeton prize (1.6 million US dollars in 2008) is adjusted so that it exceeds that of the Nobel Prizes. It is the largest single annual financial prize award given to an individual for intellectual merit" outside the game show Jeopardy.

I'm just thinking about all the progress I could make toward research about spiritual realities with 1.4 mil in my pocket. That's a lot of slack. So feel free to nominate me.

I see that Richard Dawkins calls it "a very large sum of money given [...] usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion." It's about time they gave it to a religious person who is prepared to say mean things about sophomoric scientists pretending to be philosophers. So feel free to nominate Cousin Dupree. Besides, he owes me 22 months of back rent.

Back to Heller. First of all, I can't say that I recommend the book, since he's not the clearest of writers, and at times he assumes a ridiculous level of understanding of modern physics. I can't imagine that anyone other than a professional physicist would understand some parts of the book, but they are likely to be the ones who would reject his arguments a priori anyway, so that doesn't seem like a good marketing strategy. But I suppose with 1.4 million in his saddlebag, he doesn't have to worry about marketing.

Here, I'll just take a sentence at random: "Every commutative algebra can be made noncommutative by suitably perturbing it (with a certain perturbation parameter). In light of the above we can say that, from the mathematical point of view, quantum mechanics is but a noncommutative C*-algebra, with the Planck constant playing the role of deformation parameter."

But you knew that already.

The other thing is, Heller is one of those fellows who hems and haws and hedges and qualifies everything he says, so you want to say, will you get on with it?! I wonder if he has OCD? It's more common than you think, especially among quantum cosmologist-priests. Admittedly, I have the opposite problem, in that I see the vision first, and then worry about the details later, if I worry about them at all, which is why I'd probably be no good at Jeopardy. As such, Heller's book is helpful, as it forces me to contend with the most up to date version of scientific "reality." As Heller points out, this is not necessarily important because one needs to fit one's theology into the grooves of science, but because one is probably already doing that, only with an outmoded version of scientific reality.

In fact, if you pause to think about it, we cannot think about either theology or science in the absence of some prior, usually implicit, conception of the world. I was thinking about this the other day with reference to Schuon. He of course deplored modernism, and felt that man's premodern conception of the world was "normative," so to speak. It is the way humans were "meant" to live. I don't want to put words into his mouth, but it seems to me that he felt that the premodern world was the proper "container" for man's spirit, so to speak, just as, say, an animal has a particular environment proper to it. Remove the animal from its proper habitat, and it will not thrive. For Schuon, the deepest problems of modernity and postmodernity came down to man no longer living in the proper soul-environment.

Believe it or not, I do sympathize with this view, and I grapple with it all the time. As I mentioned yesterday, it is specifically because of Schuon's influence that I have become rather "bi-polar" in this area. After all, it is a very real question: how do we reconcile revelation and modernity, or creation and evolution, or physics and metaphysics? I suppose first of all by not seeing them as antagonisms that must be hastily resolved, but by appreciating their "creative tension."

First of all, this is what humans do anyway, and what they have always done. Schuon takes the premodern worldview as normative, failing to appreciate the irony that this was actually the product of a hard-won evolutionary synthesis. To cite one obvious example, the early Christian fathers were hardly impervious to the influence of contemporary thought. To the contrary, they were intimately familiar with the very finest in pagan thought (e.g., Plato), and thought long and hard about how to reconcile revelation and philosophy. Obviously Aquinas attempted the same synthesis in the 13th century. Viewed in this context, a Teilhard de Chardin was simply "thinking about thinking" in the new background cognitive environment of cosmic evolution and quantum physics. As was I in my book.

There have been, of course, heretical streams of modern and postmodern thought. But when I say "heretical," I mean that they are intrinsically heretical, in that they betray man as such in his function as the Thinking Being. They reduce upright Homo sapiens to a downright Homo sap. In other words, these modern heresies -- such as materialism, atheism, Marxism, behaviorism, scientism, positivism, deconstruction etc. -- all poison Man at the root, and specifically prevent his evolution. And when I use the word "evolution," I mean it in the sense of man "becoming what he is," or actualizing his unique spiritual potential.

So it is not so much that certain strands of thought are wrong because they are modern or postmodern. Rather, they're just wrong, period. On the other hand, many postmodern ideas are obviously correct. For example, I have no idea why materialists still exist, since modern physics utterly obliterated their anachronistic worldview a century ago. No serious thinker can be a materialist, which is why a Christopher Hitchens is obviously a brilliant man in terms of raw candle power, but extraordinarily naive in his background assumptions of how the physical (let alone spiritual) world works. He is not postmodern at all, but operating out of a defunct, 19th century Victorian picture of the world.

In any event, when thinking about the relationship between science and religion, we must bear in mind that a good methodology does not necessarily make for an accurate ontology. In fact, quite the contrary. Science is first and foremost a methodology, a systematic way to "interrogate" nature. It's very much like a true-and-false test, when ontology is an essay exam. But there is no objective way to grade an essay, so an essay is outside the purview of the scientific method.

Interestingly, Heller points out that the "great miracle" of logical discourse about the world, which began in sixth century B.C. Greece, represented a transition from a belief in divine whim to logical necessity. To express the idea of logical necessity within the natural order, they used the term ananke, which literally meant "the various means, from persuasion to torture, by which a criminal was made to confess."

Thus we see the way that an "everyday concept changed its meaning to become a predecessor of such important concepts as laws of nature, determinism, and causality." Had it not been for human torture, we might never have put nature on the scientific rack. Indeed, we'd never have realized that quantum mechanics is but a noncommutative C*-algebra, with the Planck constant playing the role of deformation parameter.

This preramble is already too long, isn't it? Better pick up the thread in the next post.

10 Comments:

Blogger Van said...

"Here, I'll just take a sentence at random: "Every commutative algebra can be made noncommutative by suitably perturbing it (with a certain perturbation parameter). In light of the above we can say that, from the mathematical point of view, quantum mechanics is but a noncommutative C*-algebra, with the Planck constant playing the role of deformation parameter."

But you knew that already."

I'm thinking that some thinking about thinking just might have to include "a certain perturbation parameter" to avoid having to walk the Planck... you gno... otherwise the sentence will be noncommutative... or worse, could involve a deformation of your parameter. C?

Gulp.

;-)

4/11/2008 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

" To the contrary, they were intimately familiar with the very finest in pagan thought (e.g., Plato), and thought long and hard about how to reconcile revelation and philosophy. "

Speaking of which, in a slightly (ok, slightly more than slightly) off topic sort of way, I was reading Plutarch's Numa Pompilius this morning (yeah... I realy am that weird. Try being that weird and living with teenagers - that makes for some creative tension) - the wise ruler following Romulus, and whom the people had to practically beg to leave his country life to come and rule them, and I was startled to see something that made no impression whatsoever on me when I'd read it years ago:

"... conceived of the first principle of being as transcending sense and passion, invisible and incorrupt, and only to be apprehended by abstract intelligence. So Numa forbade the Romans to represent God in the form of man or beast, nor was there any painted or graven image of a deity admitted amongst them for the space of the first hundred and seventy years, all of which time their temples and chapels were kept free and pure from images; to such baser objects they deemed it impious to liken the highest, and all access to God impossible, except by the pure act of the intellect. "

Wise is as Wise does, in the egyptian desert or the itallian hills of 5,000 or 3,000 years ago... or now... and its amazing how if you aren't ready for it... you just. don't. see. it. at. all.

4/11/2008 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"But when I say "heretical," I mean that they are intrinsically heretical, in that they betray man as such in his function as the Thinking Being. They reduce upright Homo sapiens to a downright Homo sap."

ISS!!!

(Hellooo... [tap tap tap]... is this thing on?)

4/11/2008 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

Heller's granularity is a little too 'fine' for me. I have trouble seein' the beaches what with all the sand in my eyes...

I understood chaos theory somewhat, but this seems a bit... graduate level.

4/11/2008 10:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Petey said...

Yes, probably a good idea that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, not physicists. Unless we recognize the poetry in physics.

4/11/2008 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

Petey said "Yes, probably a good idea that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, not physicists. Unless we recognize the poetry in physics."

And then the grooves of science fit with one's theology, otherwise it's ananke.

4/11/2008 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger QP said...

Perhaps because it's in my nature "to get on with it" and for what it's worth:

For me, Wu-hsing,( Wu Xing) for the most part, poetically reconciles the physics/metaphysics conundrum. I have a hunch Schuon [I have no idea if he was aware of the concept] would sympathize with it (I certainly sympathize with Schoun). The link is a very brief, straightforward introduction.

4/11/2008 12:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Alan said...

late friday off topic fun...

I wonder what ol' Barry would think about us raccoons clinging to religion...
Obama bares his true feelings

ht. Huffpo and Powerline

The comments on the huffpo story are downright frightening.

4/11/2008 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger NoMo said...

Speaking of tension, it appears as if it may all be infinitely deeper than we can even begin to comprehend.

4/11/2008 10:59:00 PM  
Blogger AFFA said...

Thanks for the possibly unintentional book recommendation.

I'm more partial to anti-commutative properties, whether in subtraction or Lie algrebra. And speaking of such lies, E8 is poetic.

4/12/2008 10:21:00 AM  

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