maandag 31 december 2007

My New Year resolutions...

1. Do not stop smoking. I'll call off my regular encounters with the business end of a cigarette when the government calls off it's killjoy anti-smoker bullying campaigns, allows us back into the pubs, ceases to extort us with ever-increasing VAT taxes, relents on its second-hand smoke emotional blackmail based on highly dubious evidence, and stops insulting my intelligence with plans to place pictures of burnt-out lungs on cig packages (I can read, thank you). Until then, it's war. From my cold, dead fingers...

2. Make work of joining a Church. Which is likely going to be the lutheran Church of Sweden.

3. Get my academic research back to some empirical meat-and-gravy stuff. Try to get at least one paper dealing with corpus-based historical linguistics issues done by the end of the year. If current research proposal falls through, develop a new and exciting one. Look for some hard-to-get material that no one ever took a close look at before.

4. Take up writing poetry again. I'm inspired, the ideas are there - but I simply haven't taken the time to write them down. It'd be a good way to pass the time on the train to and from work.

5. Eat more healthily. Meaning: buy less ready-made salads with stuff I do not know the name of and skip the leaves, and eat more red meat with yellow sauce, beans with brown sauce, and brown meat with red sauce.

6. Visit another country than Finland, Sweden or The Netherlands. In order of preference:
- Northern England or Scotland
- Cape town, South Africa
- Constantinople

7. Buy a plant and make sure it does not die within three months. If successful, buy other plant to keep first plant company. If nervous, rehearse with plastic plant first.

vrijdag 28 december 2007

Sometimes they come back

One simple but at least superficially compelling argument against an afterlife that I once heard and entertained myself for some time is that no-one ever came back from the dead to report on what they saw. Reading Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel's book on near-death experiences and the nature of consciousness, Eindeloos bewustzijn, I realized the circularity of the argument. Because it is extremely hard to pinpoint exactly when death occurs. When our heart stops beating? When we cease to breathe? When electrical activity in the brain ceases? And, of course, parts of me are dying (and, hopefully, being replaced) all the time. Of course, we could define death as the cessation of personal experience, but this would be question-begging with regards to the issue of an afterlife. Now, a fair number of people appear to have personal experience (of some kind) in a situation when some hallmarks of physical death are already present - van Lommel's research would indicate near-death experiences may occur in some five percent of heart failures, or even a little more. But the very term "near-death experience" suggests that we tend to assume they have not yet "really" died in such cases. In any event, the argument against an afterlife seems to me much more circular and question-begging than it once did.

Pim van Lommel's well-written book combines a survey on the current state of NDE research (with a lot of personal testimonies) with a speculative hypothesis on the nature of consciousness. Van Lommel rejects neurophysiological explanation of NDE's (such as a hallucination in response of hypoxia, etc.) as it is difficult to account for hallucinations with the minimal or absent brain activity some people experiencing NDE's yet have. Van Lommel also mentions the enormous, life-changing impressions these experiences seem to leave. Finally, there may be an argument from the similarities across various NDE's. The cigarette I just lighted and am smoking now may be a hallucination. But the world, including other people, seem to be very much coherent with the notion that I am smoking a cigarette. They act in accordance with it. And ultimately, part of my warrant for believing what I'm seeing comes from other people believing the same (or acting as if they do). They of course may be hallucinations themselves, but let's not go there.

Van Lommel's survey contains many fascinating details. The sensory experiences people report from the other side seem to be not quite sensory, or almost akin to synaesthesia: colours are 'felt', rather than seen, etc. Especially striking is a drawing by a six-year old girl of a near death-experience, depicting her smiling and flying at apparently great speed over an operation table where her not-so-happy looking double is attended upon by two doctors. A curious detail is a little row of angels in the upper right-hand corner of the drawing, complete with aureoles and all. I very much doubt that the child actually saw angels with actual aureoles. Perhaps she gained a notion of "heaven" and drew the angels because, of course, that's where the angels are; or alternatively, she may have met people or beings who she interpreted as being angels. The latter possibility points to a problem in interpreting NDE's. Provided they are genuine experiences of a genuine reality, this reality may be so numinous or so alien that it becomes extremely difficult to describe without resorting to more familiar notions.

Van Lommel's speculative notions of consciousness are based, unsurprisingly, on quantum mechanics. I have no real problem with that, though I am of course aware that a lot of ideas concerning consciousness and quantum mechanics are a bit fuzzy, to say the least. But part of this surely results from the fact that quantum mechanics does genuinely point to a relationship between consciousness and matter which sits ill with more causally-based, materialist notions. Van Lommel is careful enough to point out that the interpretation of QM he chooses to follow is controversial, and bases himself on the work of such researchers as Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, Henry Stapp, etc. I'm aware of a lot of his sources and his treatment seems pretty competent to me - nonetheless, the sections on QM and consciousness are very, very dense at times. The problem here is precisely that experiments such as the double-slit experiment, or Alain Aspect's work on entangled pairs, do point to an underlying reality that is very, very weird. Books do not come in unlimited sizes, and Van Lommel's is hefty enough as it is, but this is one part where perhaps a little more time should be spent on making clear precisely why the picture of reality Van Lommel presents is so shocking.

This said, I find the picture in broad outline not unbelievable. Van Lommel defends a largely panpsychistic (or panprotopsychistic) idea of mind and matter in accordance with Chalmer's type-F monism: matter and mind are double aspects of the same underlying reality. As for NDE's, Van Lommel believes they tap into some kind of "non-local" underlying realm of spirit - perhaps akin to Whitehead's notion of the consequent nature of God (where possibilities or eternal objects are perpetually entertained, and which at the same time functions as the "memory" of the universe, to which every single event that has ever happened remains for ever present and manifest). Through intermediaries such as Sheldrake, Henry Stapp, Ervin Laszlo and the like, the influence of such figures as Whitehead, Peirce, Bergson and William James is accounted for.

No singular scientific observation can falsify philosophical materialism (or any other metaphysical notion of mind and matter). It's certainly possible that accounts of NDE's are indeed based on hallucinations, dreams, imperfect recollection, etc. On the other hand, metaphysical notions are certainly not impervious to empirical science. NDE's are just another part of a body of largely anecdotical and some statistical evidence that is hard to account for within a physicalist world-view (Van Lommel refers to quite a bit of it near the end of his book). Taking all of it together, there is a case for taking things exactly as they seem to be: that NDE's are indeed experiences of some kind of reality that awaits us all after death; that instances of extrasensory perception are indeed instances of extrasensory perception, etc. The task then becomes to propose a coherent world-view which is able to account for these notions. Van Lommel's valiant attempt is highly speculative and probably wrong in the honourable way that grand, speculative visions tend to end up being. But I think there's a chance that parts of it, and perhaps even big parts, may actually be correct.

I have very few set beliefs on an afterlife. I would tend to reject notions of an afterlife as "everlasting" rather than "eternal": as a temporal sequence which never ends. The idea seems at times even horrible to me. When I started to take the possibility of God's existence seriously some years ago, I refused to mentally touch the issue because I was afraid that my very vivid and very present fear of death would prejudice me. For quite some time, I entertained a Whiteheadian notion of "objective immortality": my life, and my thoughts, sensory impressions, etc. would remain forever present to God, though there would be no personal survival of consciousness in the works. At the same time, I began to entertain more eschatological notions (the resurrection, etc.) at least as an object of hope.

Currently, I don't know what to think. Van Lommel tends to reject the notion of reincarnation in favour of the notion that "remembered" past lives may be the remembered lives of others, and I would agree with that. I suppose I am torn between the "prophetic" pole of Christianity with its promise of a Kingdom of God and a perhaps very physical resurrection at the end of times; and the more "mystical" pole of philosophical idealisms, Whitehead's notions of process philosophy, etc. For this reason, I am not sure how to take Van Lommel's book. Perhaps for the moment I'll take it as a compelling argument that we, as centres of experience, feeling, consciousness, are after all quite at home in the universe.

maandag 24 december 2007

A happy Christmas

To whoever reads this.

Spiked Online has put up a review, by Michael Fitzpatrick, of a new book by Terry Eagleton on Christ and the gospels. As I figured out it might be fruitful for an ex-Marxist-turning-Christian to read an ex-Christian-turned-Marxist, I did some reading on Eagleton recently - After Theory and most of his study on tragedy, Sweet Violence. His writing style is brilliant and infuriating at the same time - brilliant because I think he's one of the sharpest polemicists in the Anglophone world, infuriating because he tends to hop from subject to subject in a way I occasionally find hard too follow. Especially with Sweet Violence, I am of course handicapped by literary theory being not my own subject.

The Spiked review points out Eagleton's new book is about the same kind of theme that more than occasionally occurs in his other writings as well: that of Christ and political radicalism:

The presentation of Jesus as ‘homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful’ has ‘an obvious popular resonance’. Eagleton explains Jesus’ austere lifestyle – and his celibacy – not as asceticism or Puritanism, but as sacrifices made in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.

I'm not at all unsympathetic to the idea, though (from a religious viewpoint) I think it's important to not try too hard to fit Jesus into categories of zealot, or revolutionary, or moral teacher - as they all seem to miss something essential. My own interest in Christianity was kindled by the notion that, taking the New Testament on the face of it, Jesus was not a Spartacus or a Seneca, but someone quite... different. In some kind of dialectical fashion, Jesus seems to me to encapsulate the notion of political liberation within the higher notion of the Kingdom of God, which is somehow already here, intermittently, in the solidarity between human beings - yet still infinitely far away at the same time. Or the notion of morality within a higher notion of God's love and mercy. In the same way that Jesus indeed did not abolish death but conquered it.

I'm curious as to Eagleton's treatment of these matters, and will look to pick up the book at some point.

Michael Fitzpatrick's review ends, somewhat predictably and anti-climactically, with Spiked's usual humanist pep-talk:

The fact that past attempts to realise the dreams of reason and freedom through the quest for social progress have ended in failure indicates the need to deepen the humanist project – rather than surrendering to the baleful doctrines of original sin promulgated with renewed fervour in the void of the new millennium by Pope Benedict. While Benedict insists that hope depends on faith in transcendental redemption, Eagleton rightly insists that our source of hope lies in the ‘open-ended nature of humanity’.

There's my usual gripe with Spiked. They remind me at times too much of the International Socialist meetings I occasionally attended. They always ended the same. A discussion about, well, whatever - Palestine, peace in Northern Ireland, the education system - would meander on for a little until an obviously planted IS cadre member would stand up from the crowd and spontaneously elucidate the need for a genuine socialist revolution to solve the problem at hand, with joining the IS or at least buying a subscription to their newspaper being a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for aforementioned event to occur. Likewise, with Spiked, for all their refreshing optimism, their disdain for political correctness and their willingness to slaughter the sacred cows of environmentalism, the animal rights movement, etc. always end up with a starry-eyed vision of tough self-reliant humans, liberated from their infantile fears of technology, progress, disease and death, and guided by the light of reason, marching off into libertarian socialist utopia. Can't they hire some appropriately curmudgeonly rightist, say an Anthony Dalrymple, as a guest columnist?

This said, they're more readable than just about anything else on the political Left.

Incidentally, I think Michael Fitzpatrick draws a false dichotomy in his conclusions - that between hope depending on "faith in transcendental redemption" and lying in the "in the ‘open-ended nature of humanity’". Though I am ever more sceptical of the latter - not so much of the potential of humans to evolve towards the better as of attempts to help that evolution along - I do not think the two hopes exclude one another. The big thing for me about the Christian narrative lies precisely in the way the universal and the symbolic (the reconciliation between God and man, the redemption of the latter) is played out in the very particular and concrete (a specific historical event concerning some specific people in Palestine). The transcendental, it seems to me, envelops and frames the particular, the historical, the here-and-now, without denying it. Likewise with the religious hope for some kind of reconciliation at the end of history and the here-and-now need for social justice, political freedom, etc.

zondag 2 december 2007

Paul Davies on science and faith

Physicist Paul Davies published an interesting piece in the NYT about science and faith (HT: Telic Thoughts). Paul Davies points out that:

(...) science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

Claims like these have the tendency to have atheists reach for their guns, and this one does not disappoint in that regard. And they do have something of a point. Because the "faith" ascribed to scientists, or atheists in general, often comes down to believing in the existence of an external reality, the existence of other minds, etc. - both prerequisites for the scientific methods that cannot be proven within the domain of science itself. There's a host of subsidiary, tacit knowledge we rely on to make our way in the world but scarcely reflect on, and which would leave us lost for words when challenged to furnish them with rational argument.

However, this kind of "faith" is very different from faith in the religious sense, which deals not so much with tacit, operational knowledge or prerequisite philosophical claims but with trust and hope in an omnipresent, transcendent You. My faith in some kind of ultimate redemption and reconciliation with God is mainly a matter of precisely hope - nothing close to the operational, practical near-certainty with which I deal with the existence of an external world, other minds, etc.

This said, the difference alluded to above does, in fact, shatter the popular conception of faith as "belief without evidence" on a par with fairies at the bottom of the garden, teapots around Saturn, etc.

And Paul Davies' claim is also more subtle and more interesting than the strawman I fought above. I'm not a natural scientist, I'm easily intimidated by mathematical formula, and for some reason the parts in Roger Penrose's books about imaginary and complex numbers and their importance in quantum mechanics disturbed me deeply. But many other mathematicians and natural scientists than Paul Davies have commented on the strange understandability of the physical world, the effectiveness of mathematics in describing it, and the remarkable beauty of those formula. Paul Davies writes:

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

The issue here is the distance between having "faith" in the rational intelligibility of the cosmos, and faith in the cosmos as the expression of rational intelligence, and whether the first might not easily cross over in the second and then result to something much more akin to faith in the religious sense. A question which arises here is then whether the relationship between the scientist and the natural world can become a relationship between an "I" and a "You" without the scientist realizing that herself.

Paul Davies sharpens the point by referring to the anthropic coincidences - the notion that if the fundamental constants of nature differed just slightly from their actual values, life would become impossible. Theistic answers to that conundrum - the "fine-tuning argument" has been often answered with various kinds of multiverse proposals. Perhaps the laws of physics are vastly different in unobservable regions of the universe - it is hardly an interesting coincidence that we happened to evolve in a region of space where the local laws of nature allowed for our evolution. According to Paul Davies, this answer leaves the existence of physical laws itself unexplained:

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

However, immediately afterward, Paul Davies makes a fascinating move problematizing the notion of disembodied laws of nature in the first place:

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency.

One way to think about such a possibility, I assume, it to think of physical laws as emergent regularities in the behaviour of singular events. There is something sympathetically Peircean or Whiteheadian about such a proposal, and it does vitiate the need for a "hard" Platonic view on mathematics and physical laws, together with a deistic or classical theistic view to which it would obviously point.

Indeed, theologically I would strongly prefer "emergentist" viewpoints. Because I believe the notion of God as the designer and fine-tuner of transcendent physical laws is often accompanied by possibly misleading metaphors: God as the Divine watchmaker. Which may lead one often to some kind of Deism: God as wholly transcendent with regards to the universe, but not in any way immanent in the universe (I don't even want to start on how a view on God-as-divine-lawmaker can be reconciled with belief in at least that one infinitely important miraculous event).

Compare this with St. Paul's vision of the Son as transcendent and immanent in creation at the same time:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, in that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross (through him), whether those on earth or those in heaven.
(Coloss. 1:15-20).

Here we have a notion of the Son as the agent in the creation, sustainment and redemption of the world. A watch, once assembled, will exist without the continuous presence of its specific assembler - but the world cannot continue to exist without the immanent presence of God. An alternative analogy to God and creation might be one between a poet and a poem (of course, the poem may be written down - but this is not when it is created. It is wholly created in the consciousness of the poet). Of course, there may be many flaws with this particular analogy as well, but as an alternative to mechanistic designer analogies, it may be nevertheless useful to ponder.

To a process philosopher like Peirce, laws of nature were regularities emerging from the behaviour of singular events (which did not necessarily obey these regularities in a precise and automatic matter). The laws of nature are habits. I think the same kind of notion could be applied to Whitehead's philosophy of process as well (in his notion of "societies" of events, those that exhibit regularities in the actualization of the same "eternal objects" or Platonic forms - and thus exhibit a certain continuity of existence not ascribable to atomic events themselves). And a similar notion on physical laws has been recently proposed by Sheldrake - which is why I don't believe Sheldrake is the crackpot he is made out to be. He stands in a very venerable and respectable philosophical tradition.

The infallibilist naturally thinks that everything always was substantially as it is now. Laws at any rate being absolute could not grow. They either always were, or they sprang instantaneously into being by a sudden fiat like the drill of a company of soldiers. This makes the laws of nature absolutely blind and inexplicable. Their why and wherefore can't be asked. This absolutely blocks the road of inquiry. The fallibilist won't do this. He asks may these forces of nature not be somehow amenable to reason? May they not have naturally grown up? After all, there is no reason to think they are absolute. If all things are continuous, the universe must be undergoing a continuous growth from non-existence to existence. There is no difficulty in conceiving existence as a matter of degree. The reality of things consists in their persistent forcing themselves upon our recognition. If a thing has no such persistence, it is a mere dream. Reality, then, is persistence, is regularity. In the original chaos, where there was no regularity, there was no existence. It was all a confused dream. This we may suppose was in the infinitely distant past. But as things are getting more regular, more persistent, they are getting less dreamy and more real.
Peirce, CP 1:175

Now, importantly, Peirce and Whitehead were both idealists and theists (as is, for that matter, Sheldrake). The ultimate stuff of the universe is in itself mental, experiential, and amenable to final causes, and their exhibitions of regularities perhaps comparable to the way that human beings obey or disobey the norms of language so that language as a normative, regular system emerges from the communicative behaviour of individual speakers.

Paul Davies' notion of physical laws in similar fashion draws the question away from the origin of Platonic, disembodied physical laws to the nature of events themselves. If we do not suppose that the concrete, the actual can be exhaustively described by quantitative and relational physical laws and mathematics, but that these rather may rest in some fashion upon regularities in the behaviour of the concrete and the actual, then the question is about the nature of the concrete and the actual.

And the basic question about the rational intelligibility of the universe remains. Where reformulating the question does indeed provide a possible answer to the fine-tuning argument, it may end up scaring away the Deist cat with the Panentheist dog.

EDIT: I just leafed through the responses to Paul Davies' post at Most of them leap like terriers on the comparison Davies makes between scientific and religious faith without really getting his point about the status of scientific laws. Exceptions are responses by Scott Atran and especially Lee Smolin, who I'm glad to see quotes Peirce.