Science and Disenchantment

by Mark English

At the age of seven, I went with my mother, brother and baby sister on a long plane journey. We flew for many hours, landing once for refueling (late at night). It was a rough journey, and I recall a certain amount of nausea and vomiting, but the positives certainly outweighed the negatives as far as I was concerned. As was then the custom with young boys on long flights, I was invited into the cockpit to talk to the pilots: a significant experience for someone who had previously never traveled on anything more impressive than a trolleybus.

The highlight, however, was finally reaching our destination, a metropolis more than five times the size of my home city. The sun had set an hour or two before, and the runway and tarmac were wet after summer rain. I remember the wetness, and lights  reflected in puddles, so many lights, as the plane taxied to the terminal. There was a sense of promise, magic in the air.

Of course, the magic didn’t last very long (it never does) and the promise was not quite fulfilled (it never is). But for many, myself included, it’s the prospect or at least the possibility of this kind of magic or something like it that makes life more than just tolerable.

So I’m certainly not blind to this dimension of life; but I don’t think we should extrapolate on or intellectualize these feelings in the way religions and religious philosophies (like Platonism or pantheism) tend to do. They take the feeling and tell a story about it (Plato’s anamnesis, for instance). I say all we’ve got is the feeling. And that’s enough. It’s got to be enough.

The old, Weberian concept of disenchantment – or Entzauberung – has recently come up on this forum, and it was suggested that those who wholeheartedly welcome a demystified world and are driven to promote the idea have a distorted or impoverished view of things.[1] I would certainly agree that any view is deficient which fails to appreciate the importance of the sorts of feelings I have been talking about. But I think it’s a mistake to extrapolate from how we feel to how things are, objectively speaking, or to take some of our natural ways of thinking at face value.

Arguably most of us crave a natural world which is at least to some extent responsive to human goals and purposes. In fact, we are wired to see the world in animistic terms, as the universal tendency to impute agency to inanimate objects and human-like agency to animals attests. (The latter is particularly evident amongst hunter-gatherers but is evident also in the way people relate to their pets.)

We also, of course, have a tendency to impute knowledge and agency to non-existent beings which we might imagine, for various reasons, to exist: spirits, gods, goblins, ghosts and so on. Pascal Boyer has mapped out a plausible theory of how our brains go about this process.[2]

Tribal religions were arguably the direct result of these (and other) natural human tendencies. And the major world religions could be seen to have resulted from the development and intellectualization of tribal religions. Some world religions, of course, retain tribal elements and this intellectualization (and purging of elements of superstition) is an ongoing process – albeit one to which not all contemporary religious communities are committed.

One thing virtually all the various forms of religion seem to have in common, however, is that they see the wider world as having some intrinsic meaning which answers in some way to our own goals, needs and deepest desires. At some level, the cosmos is, if not enchanted exactly, then at least attuned to our presence.

Unfortunately this is not the world which science reveals to us, and the bleak and soulless world which science does reveal creates problems not only for individuals but also for societies. There is no evidence of a God, and the wider cosmos is not animate in any meaningful, human sense and so remains necessarily indifferent to our individual or collective fates. In other words, entzaubert. No comfort or reassurance here.

Not surprisingly, as the old certainties on which customs, beliefs and social structures were based have fallen away, the structures themselves have been called into question and are, in many instances, failing. Weber himself was ambivalent about Entzauberung, and Durkheim talked about anomie.

There is no question that Entzauberung is a phenomenon which has some negative consequences, but that is not to say that it is something that a person subscribing to a modern scientifically-based view of the world may simply opt to take or leave, to embrace or not embrace. There is a sense, I am saying, in which a disenchanted world is part of the cost of modernity.

Sure, you can reject the package, but this entails rejecting the centrality of modern science for our understanding of the natural world of which we are a part.

I am not a scientist, but I am going with science here. I trust my feelings and intuitions in some respects and contexts (social and moral contexts, for example) but not in others. Specifically, intuitions and feelings are insufficient in themselves to satisfy good old-fashioned intellectual curiosity.

Not everyone suffers from this particular affliction, I know, but many of us (to varying degrees) do. We are simply curious about how things (really) work; about all those aspects of the world that lie beyond the scope of intuition and direct perception; about things which we don’t naturally see aright and so which (but for science) remain distorted, obscured or hidden from view.[3]

Furthermore, in accordance with my preference for restrained ontologies, I see the physical and natural sciences as underlying all that we are and do.[4] Obviously, the social sciences can’t be reduced to biology, say, nor (probably) biology to physics. For one thing, we need to be able to talk about things at different levels of description. But physics is not irrelevant to biology, nor biology to the social sciences – not by any means.

Practical or ‘how to’ knowledge is something else and, while much of it is dependent on scientific knowledge, much of it (like our practical knowledge of how to negotiate the social world) isn’t.

Such a view – even with the above qualification about practical social knowledge and my nod towards the arts – will be seen by many as scientistic. I don’t mind the label, actually, but I don’t think this particular understanding of scientism has much semantic content.

There is another more nuanced view of scientism, however, whereby it entails not just a particular attitude to science but also the application of scientific methods or practices to areas or fields in which they are inappropriate.

For example, much contemporary analytic philosophy with its research-based aspirations, structures and institutions looks to me to be attempting to imitate aspects of science. There are many sides to this, but one important one is the tendency to hypostasize concepts and maintain (or try to maintain) sharp conceptual distinctions in areas of discourse (ethics, for example) where the concepts are necessarily vague or fuzzy. Paul Horwich has talked about this sort of thing at length, and I won’t go into it here.[5]

There is also, of course, the misapplication of mathematics. It’s fairly well attested that statistical and other formal methods are often used in very doubtful ways in psychology and the social sciences.

Scientism in these latter senses is a necessarily negative appellation, as it signifies the inappropriate application of scientific methods. So where does my approach leave non-scientific, non-mathematical and non-historical studies?

I don’t want to generalize or pontificate here: I’m just tentatively presenting an idea or point of view rather than exploring its implications. But I do question the application of any meaningful notion of research to areas upon which neither empirical evidence nor formal methods can be brought to bear in a rigorous way.

Let me emphasize that I am in no way disparaging all forms or modes of non-scientific, non-formal or non-historical discourse. Many such forms are associated with the arts and critiques of the arts; other valuable forms of criticism or critique or polemic bypass the arts and are focused directly on political, social or moral subjects. It’s just that I don’t think it makes sense to define these activities primarily in terms of research or to see them as being necessarily tied to (or dependent on) research-based institutions like universities.

NOTES

1.See the latter half of this comment thread: https://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/28/excessive-rationalism/#comments

2.See his Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Basic Books, 2001).

3.The arts and literature reveal not what is hidden from view in this sense, but rather what is staring us in the face which we nonetheless fail to see. Much art, and especially from the beginnings of the Romantic movement on, could be seen to be an attempt to recapture or recreate that feeling of the significance and wonder of ordinary things. The best literary writing is neither didactic nor speculative: it doesn’t attempt – as religions and philosophies typically do – to moralize or intellectualize. And some philosophical writing (much of Nietzsche’s work, for example, or Heidegger’s later work) actually occupies a space somewhere between philosophy and literature.

4.For a little more on this see: https://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/17/on-what-there-is-or-isnt/
5.Here is my summary of his views with an embedded video debate between Horwich and Timothy Williamson. (Horwich starts outlining his views around the 40-minute mark.) http://languagelifeandlogic.blogspot.com/2015/09/anti-naturalism-in-philosophy-ii.html?m=1

Categories: Essay

Tagged as: ,

47 Comments »

  1. I say all we’ve got is the feeling. And that’s enough. It’s got to be enough.

    Difficult. Because the idea that the feeling alone is enough is, in itself, a feeling.

    Like

  2. We experience holistically, while we analyze discretely. The trick is to only analyze what you feel the need to and not just dissect everything into its components, because when you try to put it back together, the sum never adds up to a whole and you are left wondering why it seems so lifeless.

    It is the function of the brain to digest information, but a flower doesn’t need a brain to experience the sun. Sometimes you just have to tell the brain to shut up and quit being so obnoxious.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had a hard time with this essay as it simply doesn’t resonate with the way I experience my my life.

    Feelings of enchantment are a pretty regular occurrence for me, and these feelings have become more regular as my scientific competence has improved. These feelings often accompany a sense of discovery or a sense of accomplishment and could be related to some new conceptual understanding or a physical practice. I’m obviously not claiming to be enchanted all the time, but I would say on average I get these feeling a few times a week.

    I have never understand the argument that scientific understanding necessarily leads to disenchantment. Perhaps if we conceive of science as somehow undermining the reality of felt experience it could lead to disenchantment, but this conception is very foreign to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s trite but correct to point out that mathematics and science have their own enchantments. Personally, I get just as much pleasure from flying as I ever did, but that may just reflect a certain childishness…

    Like

  5. I guess I would like to question the premise. Has science revealed to us what kind of a world we live in (irrespective of the feelings such a world might invoke in us, bleakness or joy)?

    What world would that be?

    Is it the world which splits into infinitely many parallel multiverses, infinitely many times per second?

    Or something else? Or are we to suppose that things like this are mere piffling details?

    Can science explain that feeling of nausea I felt yesterday after riding with my kid on the roundabout? Yes, I know, someone is going to tell me about some sort of neural activity in my brain. But can you tell me why there are particular sorts of actions which could not happen without there being that feeling of nausea?

    And did it all come together in an infinite or vast ocean or randomness where really improbable things can happen, but relatively simple things are impossible?

    I have a an even more restrained ontology which does not make any assumptions about what underlies what.

    Like

  6. Mark,

    I read your essay somewhat in self-conflict. The younger me, who wrote poetry and studied literature, shouted ‘no!’ Then my older Buddhist self reminded me that life by nature is a series of disappointments; detaching from such experiences means allowing reality to be just what it is.

    Side-bar to that: the Dalai Lama – while not the leader my own ‘sect’ (if secular Buddhists can be considered a sect), but as leader of the Tibetan sect, with considerable influence among various Mahayana sects – has declared that where science and Buddhism appear to be incompatible, Buddhism must bow to science. If Buddhism is not about ‘what is,’ it has no claim to provide an ethical response to human suffering.

    Anyone holding to a world-view not scientifically informed is merely setting themselves up for disappointment.

    However….

    First, you’re suggesting a major reform of the university system; I don’t think that’s possible, and I’m not sure it’s desirable. However, let’s set that aside, since it depends on politics and logistics.

    Should studies that are non-scientific, non-mathematical, non-historical be considered proper academic research, assuming we could restructure the Academy?

    Unfortunately, you include “history’ as a proper field of research in your suggestion. I just had a study on Hitler’s rhetoric published here. That is clearly a historical study, even though superficially it only concerns a certain bit of political writing.

    Although much Academic literary criticism involves aesthetics, it should be noted that literary critics kept the study of rhetoric alive when there was no interest in it; and they did, and still do, manage to keep alive study of the history of discourse (which – unfortunately – professional historians have little interest in doing, largely accepting historic documents at face value without critical analysis, either rhetorical or literary – which can easily be demonstrated to be mistaken).

    In 1939, Kenneth Burke wrote a rhetorical analysis of parts of Mein Kampf (“The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle”. The Southern Review 5; 1-21). He didn’t go deeply into the anti-Semitism (possibly because then, nobody could imagine or believe how committed Hitler to his genocidal vision), but he caught Hitler’s authoritarian personality quite well. This was the only such analysis of Hitler’s rhetoric in America in that era. It couldn’t have been written except by a professional theorist/critic of rhetoric.

    I can’t buy that only science, mathematics, or history count as research, for the simple reason that other fields of study inevitably bleed into these.

    I’ve less faith in the sciences than you. I feel there is a number of crises unfolding in the ‘hard sciences’ right now; it is unclear how they’ll be resolved.

    I agree that much philosophy is simply a kind of literature, somewhere between logical analysis and poetry. So what? After the War, Heidegger frequently suggested that the most interesting philosophic thinkers (those closest to ‘Being’ in his terminology – that is, those who saw reality just as it is) were poets.

    But doesn’t a healthy society need poets?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mark,
    this is a fascinating essay. It is provocative and that is a good thing. Provocations motivate us to think more deeply and more clearly.

    Unfortunately this is not the world which science reveals to us, and the bleak and soulless world which science does reveal creates problems not only for individuals but also for societies. There is no evidence of a God, and the wider cosmos is not animate in any meaningful, human sense and so remains necessarily indifferent to our individual or collective fates. In other words, entzaubert. No comfort or reassurance here.

    No, I must gently disagree. What you have described is not the world that science reveals to us. What you have described is your interpretation of science. You have projected onto science your own sense of desolation and lack of Entzauberung. I see something entirely different, the glorious, thrilling wonder of the hand of God revealed in science. I see a world of hope, meaning and love.

    Science is a collection of facts contained in the collected papers published since the birth of science. This vast collection of facts is then interpreted and woven into a narrative. You have described your narrative whereas I have a very different narrative. It is a mistake to suppose that the interpretive narrative that we impose on the facts of science is identical to the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Is science the only significant source of knowledge? It has very little to say about the interior life of the human species. For that we need the humanities. In an earlier post Dan-K said this about sacralization:

    “It is my belief that once our material needs are met — and I mean “material needs” in the broadest, most substantial sense, which will also include all manner of social goods — there is one remaining need for it all to be significant in some way. To mean something. This is just the need for a life and a world that are sacralized, and I believe that the tradition of humanities and liberal arts can play a central role in that sacralization.”

    He is saying, in effect, that sacralisation is the capstone of the humanities. This capstone is what supplies the final meaning and makes it an End. Without sacralisation the traditional justifications are like the columns of a building, lacking a roof to give them unity, form and final meaning.

    I agree, but most will not. That is because the sacred has drained out of our WYSIWYG world. What is left is superficial, like a dessicated exoskeleton, drained of vitality. That is because abundance has become a trap that has left us stranded in the sticky marshes of pleasurable hedonism. Surfeit has depleted our will to explore the higher levels of our capacity for enjoyment. These are, starting with pleasure:

    1. Pleasure
    The experience is gratifying.
    2. Enjoyment
    A cognitive experience. Mental pleasure is derived from the gratification.
    3. Fulfillment
    The pleasure is seen as rewarding and worthwhile.
    4. Joy and gratitude
    It is a form of delight and elation touched by gratitude.
    5. Exaltation
    One’s spirit soars and sings on the wings of an experience that seems mystical in its intensity.
    6. Sacralisation
    It is an opening of the mind that allows it to see the world in a wholly new way, one that is infused with awe, wonder, ecstasy and a sense of the numinous. Life acquires a new dimension that gives it meaning in its own right. It is the peak of exaltation.
    7. Devotion
    This, the final level, perceives God and sees meaning in serving and loving God. Atheists will deny this level but they should at least recognise that theists experience this.

    Thus we can ascend the levels of pleasure, enjoyment, fulfillment, joy/delight, exaltation to sacralisation and as we ascend these levels we discover a world increasingly suffused with meaning.

    CS Lewis used this excerpt from Wind in the Willows to describe sacralisation, our sense of the numinous, the presence of the sacred:
    Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
    Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event … All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived, and still, as he lived, he wondered.
    “Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”
    “Afraid!” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!

    Many will deny that sacralisation can be the capstone of the humanities because they cannot recognise the presence of the sacred. It is a from of colour blindness. This is a symptom of a materialist, naturalist outlook that is overly concerned with the denial of God. The strength of their denial blinds them to the experience of the sacred. But some atheists do recognise the sacred, in a reduced, non-theist form, and Dan-K is one of them. Stuart Kauffman is another(Reinventing the Sacred).

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Robin

    “… Difficult. Because the idea that the feeling alone is enough is, in itself, a feeling.”

    Actually my feeling is that the feeling is not enough, but I am saying that I believe on the basis of other things I know (idea, not feeling) that it’s all we’ve got so we’d better make the most of it!

    In your second comment you claim that your ontology is more restrained than mine. This harks back to a previous discussion about Carnap and Mach and logical empiricism. Are you characterizing my view as materialism? (I don’t see it as such.)

    I concede that the position expressed in the essay has not been (and cannot be) demonstrated or shown to be true. I concede that the evidence we have does not rule out the possibility that mystical or similar feelings do tell us something about how things really are.

    It could even be that there exists some kind of benevolent providential force, but all the evidence I have seen unfortunately suggests that there is not.

    This is the key question as far as I am concerned which determines my attitude. Is the scheme of things essentially benign or indifferent? The natural world that science reveals is, I would say, supremely indifferent. This is all I am saying, really.

    You might reply: whoever expected it to be otherwise? Well, our distant ancestors believed in all sorts of spiritual beings and forces, and our recent ancestors believed in an all-powerful, benevolent being operating in and through the natural world.

    You seem to have a different focus (on qualia, etc.). Often religious apologists use such arguments. I am not putting you in that category. I always get the impression however that you are defending something like a religious view of the world.

    Like

  10. Seth Leon

    “I have never understood the argument that scientific understanding necessarily leads to disenchantment. Perhaps if we conceive of science as somehow undermining the reality of felt experience it could lead to disenchantment, but this conception is very foreign to me.”

    I certainly would not say that science undermines the reality of felt experience. The felt experience is what it is.

    But a scientific understanding of the world does in my opinion undermine the beliefs of traditional religion and by extension the ‘felt experiences’ of the traditional believer.

    Obviously how one sees and feels things can certainly differ quite dramatically from person to person. For many (especially those brought up to believe in traditional religious doctrines) what science reveals (or appears to reveal) not to be the case (e.g. the absence of providential forces acting in the natural world) can be more significant than the wonders revealed by science.

    It depends on temperament, but also on where you are starting from.

    (See also my response to Robin.)

    Like

  11. ejwinner

    “I can’t buy that only science, mathematics, or history count as research, for the simple reason that other fields of study inevitably bleed into these.”

    Yes, there’s no neat formula, and your commitment to rhetoric has led me to try to work out my own views on where this sort of thing fits in, institutionally (high schools, universities) and how it relates to other subjects (linguistics and subdisciplines of linguistics, logic, psychology, etc.). Is it not in the end a kind of skill? ‘How to…’ knowledge, related to learning how to write and speak persuasively (debating, etc.).

    “I’ve less faith in the sciences than you. I feel there is a number of crises unfolding in the ‘hard sciences’ right now; it is unclear how they’ll be resolved.”

    They will be resolved or not. I have no strong views on how this will play out. But it will play out in the context of physics, etc..

    “I agree that much philosophy is simply a kind of literature, somewhere between logical analysis and poetry. So what? After the War, Heidegger frequently suggested that the most interesting philosophic thinkers (those closest to ‘Being’ in his terminology – that is, those who saw reality just as it is) were poets.”

    Didn’t he gradually move away from a focus on poetry and towards a focus on language, pure and simple? (Obviously he was concerned with both, but John Passmore said something along these lines.)

    “But doesn’t a healthy society need poets?”

    Well, art forms rise and fall. Language persists, however, and it always has an aesthetic dimension.

    Like

  12. Editors: I have been having trouble sending a reply to labnut’s comments. Made a couple of attempts, not sure if they got through. Here is the text I want published:

    labnut

    “It is a mistake to suppose that the interpretive narrative that we impose on the facts of science is identical to the truth.”

    I agree that we need to distinguish the science itself from the interpretations we give it. I just happen to think that my interpretation is more plausible than yours!

    My phrase “bleak and soulless” is a bit rhetorical, but I simply mean to say that the natural world which science reveals lacks any ‘human’ elements. The medieval world picture, by contrast, put purpose and meaning front and centre.

    Regarding your second comment and quotation from The Wind in the Willows, it is a book I love, but I can no longer embrace that view of things (much as I would like to).

    Re: atheistic ‘sacralization’. As I see it, if you embrace ‘the sacred’ then (atheist or not) you are embracing a basically religious view of the world.

    I think there is scope for confusion here, however, because ‘the sacred’ and similar terms mean different things to different people. Some might see the sacred solely in terms of subjective feeling, but such a view is not consistent with the way the term has traditionally been deployed and (from my perspective) leaves the concept empty.

    Like

  13. Hi Mark, I thought this was a nice essay, though I disagree with certain statements. The most problematic for me was:

    Unfortunately this is not the world which science reveals to us, and the bleak and soulless world which science does reveal creates problems not only for individuals but also for societies.

    I’m in the sciences and while arguably soulless (depending on subject and definition) I’ve never seen the natural world as bleak. Certainly no science text I’ve read argues that the world is bleak. And I’m not sure why problems should be created by revealing facts about the world.

    I guess if one has a hard and fixed assumption there are animated spirits everywhere then the universe would look a bit less intentionally active than one assumed… dis-spiriting might be the word.

    And it certainly is less magical in the sense that not all dreamt of systems of controlling things are possible. But even for those magically minded, they admit some research would be necessary to find out what is possible (which requires the culling of all other errant systems of “magic”). I mean, even in Hogwarts not everything goes.

    Seriously, why aren’t the facts and methods obtained from scientific research viewed as magical? It’s wizardry as far as I’m concerned. For example, yesterday a colleague and I were separating and expanding important biomolecules and it not only looked cool aesthetically, much of the work was done using invisible forces that simply pulled what we wanted through other substances to collect where and how we wanted them. Where is the bleakness and lack of magic in that?

    While a landscape may be sterile or dull, for me the word bleak only applies to ugly wastelands of desolation and destruction such that life has been lost where once there was hope for it to fluorish. Usually that means humans have been active there, not nature. Bleakness is something we impose.

    What science has been slowly uncovering is that life can and often does exist in places we could not have imagined before. If there are fewer ectoplasmic souls, there are a lot more cytoplasmic ones. 🙂

    But I do question the application of any meaningful notion of research to areas upon which neither empirical evidence nor formal methods can be brought to bear in a rigorous way.

    I agreed with this at first, considering those other areas of intellectual or artistic consideration to be “exploration” and not “research.” They may be valuable but are not clinical or precise enough to count as really studying something. Then after a few minutes it hit me that maybe I was wrong. Yes it is not scientific research, but why does that mean it should not count as research at all? I think maybe there is a growing problem with science encroaching on everything such that (at this point) if it isn’t “scientific X” it is not worthy of being called “X”.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Mark,
    This is the key question as far as I am concerned which determines my attitude. Is the scheme of things essentially benign or indifferent? The natural world that science reveals is, I would say, supremely indifferent. This is all I am saying, really.

    You reach that conclusion by being very selective with your evidence. You have excluded us. But we are part of the natural world and our behaviour is as much evidence of the benign or indifferent nature of the world as are the physical sciences.

    Now look at our history, and despite many wrong turns and adverse events, there is a clearly discernable benign trend. One part of the universe evidences purpose, meaning and not indifference. That part is us. We are part of the scheme of things, so why do you ignore this evidence. I think you are, without realising it, cherry picking your evidence to suit your thesis.

    You said to Robin:
    Often religious apologists use such arguments. I am not putting you in that category. I always get the impression however that you are defending something like a religious view of the world.

    I don’t think that is a fair reply. Arguments should always be considered on their intrinsic merits and never on the background of the person making the argument. Atheists are not more trustworthy than theists and any implication along these lines must be strongly rejected.

    Like

  15. Hi Mark,

    I always get the impression however that you are defending something like a religious view of the world.

    The problem with that is there is no such thing as a religious view of the world – different religions have different views of the world.

    But I am certainly defending the idea that the view of the world which gave rise to theism or animism are at least as reasonable, perhaps even more reasonable than a naturalistic view.

    There is meaning and goodness and love in the universe, even if only in this tiny corner of it. The question of whether they are bi-products of matter, or matter is a bi-product of them, is a question that is still wide open to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. My first flight was on a Vickers Vanguard from Glasgow to London, to catch a Qantas Boeing 707 to Sydney via many stopovers, and finally a Focker Friendship to Canberra.

    The national capital of Australia had an airport which looked like an unkempt sheep paddock. We walked across the tarmac, though a terminal building which looked like a larger version of a demountable classroom in a school in a poor neighborhood and were picked up in a white Holden Kingswood.

    The magic of that didn’t fade. Life was perfect. I was absolutely, blissfully happy there for years after. And it was that rare kind of happiness that you realise it at the time, rather than thinking back later “I was happy then”.

    So I have that memory that life can be more than tolerable, more than good – it can be perfect.

    Like

  17. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the response. My comment was direct to the essay title and the dichotomy established here:

    “One thing virtually all the various forms of religion seem to have in common, however, is that they see the wider world as having some intrinsic meaning which answers in some way to our own goals, needs and deepest desires. At some level, the cosmos is, if not enchanted exactly, then at least attuned to our presence.

    Unfortunately this is not the world which science reveals to us, and the bleak and soulless world which science does reveal creates problems not only for individuals but also for societies. ”

    I think enchanted experiences emerge when we are holistically engaged with the world we are situated in. Language has limits and I feel is incapable of fully describing these experiences. So I see fixed unyielding belief systems (religious or otherwise), and the narratives that accompany them as the enemy of enchantment.

    The 2 paragraphs above present a picture of persons separate from a world and if the scientific picture of the separated world is cold & soulless than enchantment for persons is inaccessible. But our conscious experience is not separate from the world and it’s a mistake in my view to reduce conscious experience to a scientific description that separates objects for purposes of observation & experiment. Science has it’s uses, but like language also has limitations. In this case I think the limitation frees science from being responsible for any loss of enchantment, although a person who clings to an eliminative materialistic perspective may lose their enchantment.

    I saw a really good video last week by Ray Monk on Wittgenstein that covered his life through the war and the tractatus period. There is an interesting section where Monk presents a poem presented to Wittgenstein by his lover. The poem, which is simple, yet brings forward something unexpressed behind the grammar is meant to highlight the limits of language with regard to enchantment.

    What is not said is as important as what is said, and there are aspects of our experience that will always escape our abstractions. This I think is to be embraced.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Editors, I tried yesterday to post a reply to labnut; a couple of times the reply button didn’t seem to be working. Then it seemed to work but the comment didn’t appear. Trying again…

    labnut

    “It is a mistake to suppose that the interpretive narrative that we impose on the facts of science is identical to the truth.”

    I agree that we need to distinguish the science itself from the interpretations we give it. I just happen to think that my general interpretation is more plausible than yours!

    My phrase “bleak and soulless” is a bit rhetorical, but I simply mean to say that the natural world which science reveals lacks any ‘human’ elements. The medieval world picture, by contrast, put purpose and meaning front and centre.

    Regarding your second comment and quotation from The Wind in the Willows, it is a book I love, but I can no longer embrace that view of things (much as I would like to).

    Re: atheistic ‘sacralization’. As I see it, if you embrace ‘the sacred’ then (atheist or not) you are embracing a basically religious view of the world.

    I think there is scope for confusion here, however, because ‘the sacred’ and similar terms can mean different things to different people. Some might affirm the sacred but be thinking solely in terms of subjective feeling. Such an understanding (as I see it) is not consistent with the way the term has traditionally been deployed.

    Like

  19. dbholmes

    “Certainly no science text I’ve read argues that the world is bleak. And I’m not sure why problems should be created by revealing facts about the world.”

    I’ll probably come back to the “bleak” question, but I have already responded (e.g. to labnut) on this. On the issue of whether revealing facts about the world creates problems, I would say that it very often does. (Which is not to say that it is better not to know than to know.)

    “… Yes it is not scientific research, but why does that mean it should not count as research at all? I think maybe there is a growing problem with science encroaching on everything such that (at this point) if it isn’t “scientific X” it is not worthy of being called “X”.”

    I am not claiming that research has to be “scientific” – much historical research for example (which involves the gathering of evidence and using such evidence to test the accuracy of particular claims, etc.) is not thought of as such. But where there are no generally accepted and effective norms and procedures for testing claims, etc., then using the word ‘research’ seems inappropriate.

    Like

  20. labnut

    “… You reach that conclusion by being very selective with your evidence. You have excluded us. But we are part of the natural world and our behaviour is as much evidence of the benign or indifferent nature of the world as are the physical sciences.”

    This is a complicated issue. You could say that I am not basing my view on science as such, but science and history have (for me) dispelled certain potentially comforting ideas. My views are heavily influenced by my understanding of how the organic world works: natural selection and all that. (Thomas Hardy in his novels expresses a very similar perspective to mine, by the way.)

    “Arguments should always be considered on their intrinsic merits and never on the background of the person making the argument. Atheists are not more trustworthy than theists and any implication along these lines must be strongly rejected.”

    I did not mean to make any such implication.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Robin

    Thanks for satisfying my curiosity of that. I should really just leave it there but am tempted to respond to this:

    “There is meaning and goodness and love in the universe, even if only in this tiny corner of it. The question of whether they are bi-products of matter, or matter is a bi-product of them, is a question that is still wide open to me.”

    Leaving aside possible problems with the notion of ‘matter’, it seems to me extremely unlikely that the natural world is a by-product of “meaning and goodness and love” simply because of the way it works at the level of biological evolutionary processes.

    Like

  22. Seth Leon

    “I think enchanted experiences emerge when we are holistically engaged with the world we are situated in.”

    Yes, but “holistically engaged” could mean many things.

    “… Language has limits and I feel it is incapable of fully describing these experiences.”

    I agree.

    “… So I see fixed unyielding belief systems (religious or otherwise), and the narratives that accompany them as the enemy of enchantment.”

    I don’t think this is a fair characterization of normal religious life and belief as I understand it. Obviously there were and are rigid, extremist sects and so on, but I would not characterize mainstream Christianity or most forms of Judaism, for example, in this way.

    “…Science has it’s uses, but like language also has limitations.”

    Agreed

    “… In this case I think the limitation frees science from being responsible for any loss of enchantment, although a person who clings to an eliminative materialistic perspective may lose their enchantment.”

    That’s me is it? 🙂

    “I saw a really good video last week by Ray Monk on Wittgenstein that covered his life through the war and the tractatus period…”

    I have a lot of time for Ray Monk, but he is more sympathetic to Wittgenstein’s religious ideas than I am.

    “What is not said is as important as what is said, and there are aspects of our experience that will always escape our abstractions. This I think is to be embraced.”

    Absolutely.

    Like

  23. Hi Mark,

    To be clear I wasn’t at all suggesting that any religious view was the enemy of enchantment. I was trying to argue that fixed belief is in my view what eventually becomes limiting. I tried to make that clear by putting the ‘religious or otherwise’ in parentheses.

    Also the views you have expressed don’t sound to be those of an eliminativist to me, yet I’m still not understanding why you feel science limits your capacity to experience enchantment. I think I need to read the entire essay and your responses again to try to understand.

    Thanks

    Like

  24. “We also, of course, have a tendency to impute knowledge and agency to non-existent beings which we might imagine, for various reasons, to exist”.

    I have read a little about the speculative realists/OOO, mainly with bemusement (I even own a copy of Cyclonopedia ;)), but they may be relevant to enchantment. Bryant in The Democracy of Things mentions “the other culture ranges widely over nonhuman actors or objects and pays careful attention to the differences contributed by nonhuman agencies such as technologies, animals, environments, and so on…there is a tendency to decentralize the human by describing the impact of the nonhuman in the form of technology and other inhuman agencies on collectives involving humans and how these agencies cannot be reduced to human intentions, signs, meanings, norms, signifiers, discourses”. He refers not just to social scientific thought but to that of a broad range of influenced philosophers. The OOO “exuberant” / emergenticist ontology fits in with scientific ontologies, eg “social forces” are not metaphors, but interactions between real objects. I seem to detect a reenchantment, sometimes a more gloomy one, though
    this guy
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11217-013-9378-z
    seems to think they are quite jolly (I have not read the entire paper!).

    Harman may be seen partly as reenchanting by way of privileging aesthetic understanding: “[his] aesthetic works can be read as arguing that aesthetic comportment should be viewed as a third mode in addition to the theoretical and practical. Aesthetic experiences for Harman paradigmatically happen when we have a non-discursive awareness of the way that objects in themselves are at variance with the properties they display”
    [http://www.philpercs.com/2016/02/preliminary-reflections-on-harman-on-%C5%BEi%C5%BEek-on-bryant.html]
    There is actually a little scientific work of relevance in aesthetics and qualia/perceptions – often the only descriptions that we can put into language and share with others successfully are aesthetic terms, especially across modalities eg sharp or bright sounds, low mood.

    Like

  25. Mark, this is very well-written and quite clear, at least until the end when, out of the blue, things get very weird. (The stuff about the university and research makes no sense at all, I’m afraid.) I have little sympathy with your outlook, which is based on a number of false dichotomies, basic misunderstandings of the relationship between scientific and folk descriptions, and a failure to appreciate the common, normal human need for one’s world to be special and for one’s life to have meaning.

    You want to come across as the world-wise-guy who has dropped all that nonsense and is satisfied with the world as it “really is,” but I’m afraid I don’t buy any of it and doubt that too many others will. For, all that you’ve done is construct a meaningful narrative of your own, one that is to your liking. And the fact that you seem not to be aware of this just shows the extent to which you have not succeeded in escaping mystification any more than the rest of us. And how could you? After all, you are human, just like the rest of us are, and have the same basic needs and yearnings as everyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Mark: And now a few specific points.

    1. You write as if the desire for a sacralized world can only be satisfied, by treating fantastical and supernatural things as objectively true. Hence, your remark that “a disenchanted world is part of the cost of modernity.” But this seems obviously false. The aestheticizing of experience effects a sacralization of the world, one that is entirely consistent with the scientific picture of it, and which is facilitated by the arts. The efforts at rationalistic and narrative reconstruction of our lives and activities *in* the world add a dimension of meaningfulness to our lives, one that is entirely consistent with the “Electrons and Quarks” view of nature. This is what I meant when I described you as peddling false dichotomies.

    2. Beyond your stipulative — and eccentric — conception of “research,” I see no argument whatsoever as to why art historians, literary theorists, philosophers, theater professors, and the like cannot engage in research or why they don’t belong in universities. And to suggest that this suggestion is not a tacit or subliminal denigration strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. I’d also be interested in knowing where you think they should go, if not the university? Also, what do you think would happen to them, if they left the university? Now, I am hardly a cheerleader for the ways in which we currently incorporate these subjects into the university curriculum — see my earlier essay on Liberal Education — but that is because I think they are much *more* important than they are currently being treated, not less.

    Like

  27. HI Mark,

    Leaving aside possible problems with the notion of ‘matter’,…

    Which are only a problem for the convinced Naturalist…

    … it seems to me extremely unlikely that the natural world is a by-product of “meaning and goodness and love” simply because of the way it works at the level of biological evolutionary processes.

    And again I reject the premise that we know anything about how conscious experience works at a biological level.

    Indeed I think that a large number of people are in furious denial of the conclusion that there can be no biological explanation, because every single biological explanation anyone can come up with is something that could happen just as it does without there being any conscious experience involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Seth

    “I’m still not understanding why you feel science limits your capacity to experience enchantment. I think I need to read the entire essay and your responses again to try to understand.”

    It might help to see these questions in historical terms, e.g. how the theory of evolution and other basic scientific advances upset the apple cart and stirred up emotions in the late 19th century.

    By the way, Wittgenstein made some very dismissive comments about evolution apparently (casual remarks made while he was visiting a zoo with a friend – I don’t have the source). He may have written about it also.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. David

    Thanks for the comments and references.

    Bemusement is the word.

    [from Wikipedia]

    According to Harman, everything is an object, whether it be a mailbox, electromagnetic radiation, curved spacetime, the Commonwealth of Nations, or a propositional attitude; all things, whether physical or fictional, are equally objects. Expressing strong sympathy for panpsychism, Harman proposes a new philosophical discipline called “speculative psychology” dedicated to investigating the “cosmic layers of psyche” and “ferreting out the specific psychic reality of earthworms, dust, armies, chalk, and stone”.

    … There are two types of objects, then, for Harman: real objects and the sensual objects that allow for interaction. The former are the things of everyday life, while the latter are the caricatures that mediate interaction. For example, when fire burns cotton, Harman argues that the fire does not touch the essence of that cotton which is inexhaustible by any relation, but that the interaction is mediated by a caricature of the cotton which causes it to burn.

    I love this!

    Like

  30. Dan

    [I drafted this before your second comment appeared. Might as well post it and deal separately with your second comment.]

    First, regarding the “weird” bit at the end, I know it looks kind of ‘tacked on’ and acknowledge (and acknowledged in the essay) that it is not worked out or elaborated on, but these ideas are linked, in my mind at least, with what I am saying in the body of the essay (e.g. to the notion of scientism). But let’s leave that aside and focus on your central criticisms.

    First of all you are wrong that I fail to appreciate “the common, normal human need for one’s world to be special and for one’s life to have meaning.” I thoroughly appreciate this, and this knowledge is at the heart of my analysis.

    “You want to come across as the world-wise-guy who has dropped all that nonsense and is satisfied with the world as it “really is,” but I’m afraid I don’t buy any of it and doubt that too many others will.”

    It doesn’t matter how I want to come across: I am just stating some deeply-felt positions as honestly and clearly as I can and asking people to respond. Maybe I have things entirely wrong and I need guidance. I appreciate it when people bother to read what I am saying and try to engage. The exchange is a meaningful human activity in itself.

    You say you have little sympathy with my outlook and mention “a number of false dichotomies [and] basic misunderstandings of the relationship between scientific and folk descriptions.” You would need to tell me what these false dichotomies and misunderstandings are, though I am aware of one dichotomy I am pushing which you are resisting. (Dichotomies can be real and useful without being absolute.)

    “… [A]ll … you’ve done is construct a meaningful narrative of your own, one that is to your liking. And the fact that you seem not to be aware of this just shows the extent to which you have not succeeded in escaping mystification any more than the rest of us.”

    Yes I’ve put forward a point of view, but it is not original. It is deeply embedded in certain strands of 19th and 20th century thought. I don’t want to get into the history of ideas here, but we all know that a battle has been playing out since the time of Darwin, and I am saying that I favour one ‘side’ over another. Okay this is a metaphor and maybe a false dichotomy. But there are a whole string of thinkers (and writers like Thomas Hardy whom I mentioned in a comment to labnut) whose views are very close to mine.

    “After all, you are human, just like the rest of us are, and have the same basic needs and yearnings as everyone else.”

    Of course. But I think these needs and yearnings don’t mesh so well with the realities that a scientifically-based view of the world bring into view; in other words, they will not be as readily satisfied in the context of that reality as perhaps they might have been in a pre-modern context.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Robin

    [Quoting me] “Leaving aside possible problems with the notion of ‘matter’,…”

    Which are only a problem for the convinced Naturalist…

    You are introducing the word ‘matter’, not me. I try to avoid it.

    [Quoting me again] “… it seems to me extremely unlikely that the natural world is a by-product of “meaning and goodness and love” simply because of the way it works at the level of biological evolutionary processes.” And again I reject the premise that we know anything about how conscious experience works at a biological level.

    I am not talking about consciousness here, just about the nature of the basic mechanisms of evolution.

    Indeed I think that a large number of people are in furious denial of the conclusion that there can be no biological explanation, because every single biological explanation anyone can come up with is something that could happen just as it does without there being any conscious experience involved.

    I dispute this. I find the zombie argument a non-starter. We obviously start out with very different assumptions. Given a brain (and the rest of the body) we’ve got conscious experience. There is no mystery here as I see it. The mystery (as I see it) lies at a more basic level: with the development of the most basic life forms (and sentience).

    Like

  32. Dan

    You write as if the desire for a sacralized world can only be satisfied, by treating fantastical and supernatural things as objectively true. Hence, your remark that “a disenchanted world is part of the cost of modernity.” But this seems obviously false.

    What I am resisting is the use of the word ‘sacred’ and its cognates in this all-encompassing way, to encompass all forms of ‘making ourselves at home’ in the world. I make an (I think) very reasonable distinction between a religious outlook (which involves commitments beyond but not necessarily in conflict with those sanctioned by science and common sense), and a non-religious outlook. As I see it, the ‘sacred’ as real in some non-subjective way is usually affirmed in the former case and denied in the latter.

    The aestheticizing of experience effects a sacralization of the world, one that is entirely consistent with the scientific picture of it, and which is facilitated by the arts. The efforts at rationalistic and narrative reconstruction of our lives and activities *in* the world add a dimension of meaningfulness to our lives, one that is entirely consistent with the “Electrons and Quarks” view of nature. This is what I meant when I described you as peddling false dichotomies.

    You can call this “sacralization” if you like. I don’t like to.

    … your stipulative — and eccentric — conception of “research…”

    I don’t think my view of research is eccentric at all. I’m happy with most standard dictionary definitions. What I am saying is that if you are not operating within a context of generally accepted and effective norms and procedures for testing claims, etc., then using the word ‘research’ seems inappropriate.

    I see no argument whatsoever as to why art historians, literary theorists, philosophers, theater professors, and the like cannot engage in research or why they don’t belong in universities.

    I am quite comfortable with seeing art history and pretty much any kind of history (including intellectual history) as research-based. Of course they are.

    Literary theorists… I have experience in this area and would be happy to discuss it. I would have quite a bit to say, too much for a comment. (And my ideas are not entirely worked out.)

    Philosophers… Can I pass on this? (I do, of course, have problems with some philosophy and some views of philosophy.)

    Theatre professors. Are they historians, theorists, practitioners?

    And to suggest that this suggestion is not a tacit or subliminal denigration strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.

    Yes my views would involve seeing some kinds of discourse as less valuable than others. But I would not necessarily value the research-based forms above the non-research-based forms. For example, I value good polemical journalism.

    …where do you think they should go, if not the university?

    You’d have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. But, as I said in the essay, I don’t want to pontificate, and especially on areas I know little about.

    Also, what do you think would happen to them, if they left the university?

    I don’t know! Again, case by case.

    As I see it our education systems are in crisis. Changes will occur, are occurring. I have some general ideas and opinions about the current situation. I also have more specific ideas concerning subjects I am familiar with (philosophy, literature, linguistics). But this is too big an issue to deal with here, I think.

    Like

  33. Mark: 2 out of the 3 definitions given by Merriam-Webster are consistent with my — and not your — conception of ‘research’.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/research

    At least half of the uses of “sacred” given by Merriam Webster are consistent with my use of it.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sacred

    We don’t get to invent our own languages. If you want to limit your critique to supernaturalism and fantastical things, that’s fine, but the sacred is a much wider domain than that.

    Like

  34. Hi Mark,

    I dispute this. I find the zombie argument a non-starter

    Me too. Overly complicated for a start. I didn’t mention zombies, you did.

    But what I said is still true. Especially the part about furious denial.

    Like

  35. And let me add is I posted too soon, that is not to say that you couldn’t make a good argument about p-zombies, it is just that the existing ones are non starters. P-zombies are logically and physically possible in this universe under the currently known laws of science. I am pretty sure you could make a good argument around that.

    But you don’t need to. You just need to notice that anything proposed as the mechanism for some conscious feelling, using existing physics or any imaginable physics, will be something that ought to behave just as it does in the absence of any conscious experience.

    Like

  36. Dan

    I can live with most of those definitions.

    Research: “careful and diligent search”. Very general, yes. For our purposes I prefer their conflated version: “careful study that is done to find and report new knowledge about something…”

    And, if you are talking about research in the context of funding or sponsoring or maintaining institutional support for that research you have to take a position on what counts as knowledge, and then make decisions on prioritizing certain kinds of knowledge.

    That final definition of ‘sacred’, by the way, relates to idioms (as in talk about natural rights) in which it is used as a synonym for ‘unassailable’ or ‘inviolable’ (not your meaning, I think); or as meaning highly valued and important, but specifically in the context of such phrases as ‘a sacred responsibility’).

    This is all quite in accordance with my view of the term.

    Like

  37. Mark, when I was eight or so I had a friend that I’d developed a good deal of respect for. At some point he began telling me how certain it was that my family and I would go to Hell if we didn’t go to church each week and accept Jesus as our savior. I was a very literal kid, and so exposure to this “enchantment” gave me tremendous worries over the next couple years. These fears quickly lifted, however, as I began to reason how illogical “god scenarios” seemed to be. I then honed my arguments for perhaps the next year until I was confident enough to test this position against my father, and so told him what I had discovered. I suspect that your wonderful childhood experience landing over that enormous city was somewhat like my experience, when my grinning father leaned in to me and said, “You’re right!” But I wouldn’t call either of them “enchantments.” Perhaps they only seemed magical, because science remains quite clueless about the significance of the sensations that we experience.

    You and I seem consumed by the quest to “understand” rather than simply to “believe,” and so we place great stock in the essential institution which brings humanity generally accepted understandings of reality, or “science.” But this institution seems to remain quite blind to “meaning,” “purpose,” “good,” or what ultimately “matters” for any given subject. This is why its mental and behavioral disciplines remain quite primitive, I think, such as psychology and cognitive science. Once science identifies sensations as the fundamental unit of value throughout all of existence, or a unique product of the conscious mind which transforms irrelevance to relevance, I believe that these sciences will finally begin to advance — and so answer the questions that you’ve presented above.

    Mark, I sincerely hope that I have your interest, as you certainly have mine. Yes science should work this business out in the end, but there are still great things that it must do on the “soft” side.

    Like

  38. Eric

    … But I wouldn’t call either of [these experiences] “enchantments.” Perhaps they only seemed magical, because science remains quite clueless about the significance of the sensations that we experience.”

    Whatever the neurological mechanisms etc., magical-seeming is magical-seeming. And if you don’t believe in real magic, magical-seeming is all you’ve got.

    You and I seem consumed by the quest to “understand” rather than simply to “believe,” and so we place great stock in the essential institution which brings humanity generally accepted understandings of reality, or “science.”

    I don’t think we are all that unusual in this!

    But this institution seems to remain quite blind to “meaning,” “purpose,” “good,” or what ultimately “matters” for any given subject. This is why its mental and behavioral disciplines remain quite primitive, I think, such as psychology and cognitive science. Once science identifies sensations as the fundamental unit of value throughout all of existence, or a unique product of the conscious mind which transforms irrelevance to relevance, I believe that these sciences will finally begin to advance — and so answer the questions that you’ve presented above.

    Depends what you mean by answer. I doubt that science will ever provide emotionally satisfying answers. I suspect there are no good, emotionally satisfying answers. (Why should there be?) Views on this will vary from person to person, however, partly because people have different ways of judging ‘good’ answers, and partly because different people will have different emotional reactions.

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Mark,

    …”I just happen to think that my general interpretation is more plausible than yours!”

    Well, everyone thinks that of their own interpretation but it doesn’t count as an adequate defence in a debate.

    “As I see it, if you embrace ‘the sacred’ then (atheist or not) you are embracing a basically religious view of the world.”

    Not at all. The word ‘sacred’ has both a religious and a secular meaning. The secular meaning is ‘highly valued and important’, ‘of supreme value’, ‘regarded as too valuable to be interfered with’. Here are some examples(from Merriam-Webster) a sacred responsibility, the sacred pursuit of liberty, we have a sacred duty to find out the truth, freedom is a sacred right, they’ll make jokes about anything, nothing is sacred to those guys, I can’t believe they would do that. Is nothing sacred?

    “I simply mean to say that the natural world which science reveals lacks any ‘human’ elements”

    I find that such a strange statement, a denial that we are part of the natural order. We are part of the natural world and everything we do is a natural outcome of the natural world. Our thoughts, our intellectual products and our culture are all natural outcomes of the natural world.

    We, a part of the natural order, exhibit meaning, purpose, consciousness and intentionality. Therefore these properties are a part of the natural order so of course the Universe exhibits meaning and purpose. We are the evidence of it.

    You are right that science does not show this but that merely points to the inadequacies of today’s science. Science cannot examine our thoughts and experiences. It cannot measure purpose, meaning or intentionality, it cannot read out my thoughts or examine my metal processes as I compose this reply. It may never be able to do that but that does not make our thoughts and experiences any less real. Right now I am showing clear purpose and am creating meaning therefore there is purpose and meaning in the universe.

    You are saying that science cannot detect purpose and meaning in the universe external to ourselves, but how would you detect it? Purpose and meaning are the properties of thought and can only be found there, in thought. You are looking for it in the wrong place. The only place it can be found is in the minds of conscious, intelligent creatures, and here we are.

    When you complain of the ‘bleak, soulless world revealed by science’ you are selectively viewing a world devoid of humans. But why should you do that? Why selectively discard the evidence that contradicts your thesis? This would be like me wandering into a family home filled with people in the embrace of warm supportive love, carefully examining the construction of the house, its beams, walls and floors, and then declaring that it is a bleak and soulless house. That might be the viewpoint of an ant who is unable to perceive us but it is an extraordinarily myopic view. Scientism is an ant-like view of the universe.

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Mark: Labnut has made a very good point. It seems like your characterization of the world that science reveals as “meaningless” “soulless” and the like forgets that the world includes people in it, and people are anything but “meaningless” and “soulless.”

    Liked by 1 person

  41. labnut

    The word ‘sacred’ has both a religious and a secular meaning. The secular meaning is ‘highly valued and important’, ‘of supreme value’, ‘regarded as too valuable to be interfered with’. Here are some examples (from Merriam-Webster) a sacred responsibility, the sacred pursuit of liberty, we have a sacred duty to find out the truth, freedom is a sacred right, they’ll make jokes about anything, nothing is sacred to those guys, I can’t believe they would do that. Is nothing sacred?

    I acknowledge that the word is used in certain common idioms which do not entail a serious affirmation of ‘the sacred’.

    [Quoting me] “I simply mean to say that the natural world which science reveals lacks any ‘human’ elements”
    I find that such a strange statement, a denial that we are part of the natural order. We are part of the natural world and everything we do is a natural outcome of the natural world. Our thoughts, our intellectual products and our culture are all natural outcomes of the natural world.

    Look at what I said: “The phrase “bleak and soulless” is a bit rhetorical, but I simply mean to say that the natural world which science reveals lacks any ‘human’ elements. The medieval world picture, by contrast, put purpose and meaning front and centre.”

    Can you see the contrast here? Note that I put ‘human’ in quotes. I meant it as shorthand for something like ‘responsive to human feelings, emotions, etc.’. Of course I am not denying that we are part of nature – nor that human beings can do wonderful things.

    We, a part of the natural order, exhibit meaning, purpose, consciousness and intentionality. Therefore these properties are a part of the natural order so of course the Universe exhibits meaning and purpose. We are the evidence of it.

    You are right that science does not show this but that merely points to the inadequacies of today’s science. Science cannot examine our thoughts and experiences. It cannot measure purpose, meaning or intentionality, it cannot read out my thoughts or examine my metal processes as I compose this reply. It may never be able to do that but that does not make our thoughts and experiences any less real. Right now I am showing clear purpose and am creating meaning therefore there is purpose and meaning in the universe.

    I don’t deny any of this.

    You are saying that science cannot detect purpose and meaning in the universe external to ourselves, but how would you detect it?

    Good question. I referred to the medieval world view which saw the natural world as a system of signs. Think of those very popular bestiaries which read all sorts of moral values and lessens into (or as they saw it out of) non-human nature. The Creator was seen to be speaking to us via these signs and symbols. But this approach is no longer tenable because of scientific progress.

    Then the world was ‘alive’ with moral meaning and symbolism. It was a world deeply infused with divine (but human-like) values. Gradually the scientific revolution overturned this view, but it made a comeback in the late 18th century with the beginnings of the Romantic movement…

    Liked by 1 person

  42. Mark,

    “The medieval world picture, by contrast, put purpose and meaning front and centre.”

    What the ancient and medieval worlds thought is interesting for historical reasons. Given their restricted context, their outlook was inaccurate and we shouldn’t be surprised by this.

    The modern world, by contrast, banishes purpose and meaning entirely. It does this by the simple legerdemain of ignoring our species’ intellectual capacities and looking only at particles and fields, as if nothing else existed. But purpose and meaning could never be found there. Looking for it in the wrong place is guaranteed not to find it. To find it we must look at ourselves since only conscious, intentional, thinking creatures can exhibit purposive meaning.

    We are purposive, meaning making biological machines and we are also the entirely natural product of a natural world. Therefore purpose and meaning making is built into the natural order. Was it always a foundational property of the natural world, that would one day find expression when the conditions were right? Or is it an emergent property that would, unpredictably, arise from a unique set of circumstances?

    If the second possibility, how could meaning arise from lack of meaning? Randomness cannot give rise to meaning. This is the really, really difficult problem the atheist must solve if he wishes to exclude the possibility of panpsychism, pan-theism or theism. And despite the atheist’s confident declarations, this problem has not been solved. On the contrary, there are several good arguments against solving the problem. These are the syntax/semantics argument, the is/ought problem, the Chinese room problem and the Mary’s monochrome room problem.

    The best argument was given by Edward Feser in ‘Can Machines Beg the Question'(http://bit.ly/25oBNF7). It will repay careful study. Here is an excerpt to whet the appetite.

    I thank Robert Oerter for his further reply to my recent comments (here, here, and here) on his critique of James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of the intellect. You will recall that, greatly oversimplified, Ross’s argument is: (A) All formal thinking is determinate, but (B) No physical process is determinate, so (C) No formal thinking is a physical process. You will also recall that Ross makes use of thought experiments like Kripke’s “quus” example to argue that given only the physical properties of a system, there can be no fact of the matter about whether the system is applying modus ponens, squaring, adding, or computing any other function. That is what he means by saying that “no physical process is determinate.” Finally, you’ll recall that among Oerter’s criticisms is that he thinks Ross is being inconsistent. If we consider Hilda, a human being who can add — or, as Oerter puts it in his latest post, who can ETPFOA (“execute the ‘pure function’ of addition”) — then Ross’s argument would, Oerter says, apply to Hilda just as much as to a machine. Yet Ross, Oerter claims, applies it to the machine but not to Hilda. Hence the alleged inconsistency.

    A, B, and C are, after all, only the heart of Ross’s position. A little more fully spelled out, his overall argument essentially goes something like this:

    A. All formal thinking is determinate.

    B. No physical process is determinate.

    C. No formal thinking is a physical process. [From A and B]

    D. Machines are purely physical.

    E. Machines do not engage in formal thinking. [From C and D]

    F. We engage in formal thinking.

    G. We are not purely physical. [From C and F]

    The argument is valid, so to undermine it Oerter will have to reject at least one of the premises. Premise A is one that Oerter has so far not challenged, and Ross defends it by arguing that we cannot coherently deny it. Premise B is one that Oerter has also so far not done much to challenge. His strategy was, at first, to suggest (wrongly, as we have seen) that the premise was really epistemological rather than metaphysical. That failed, and Oerter shifted his focus to trying to argue that Ross was inconsistent in not drawing from B the same conclusion about human beings that he drew about machines. As we have also seen, that would be irrelevant to the question of whether B is true even if Ross was being inconsistent. But another thing we have seen is that Ross is not being inconsistent.

    So, Oerter has given us no reason to doubt B, and thus he has given us no reason to doubt that Ross has established C. D, as I have noted, is a premise both sides agree on. Hence Oerter has also given us no reason to doubt that Ross has established E. F is a premise which is not only agreed to by both sides — at least, I assume that Oerter will agree that we engage in formal thinking — but it is another premise we cannot coherently deny. Since G follows from these premises — premises which, again, Oerter has so far given us no reason to doubt — he has therefore given us no reason to doubt G. Ross, meanwhile, has given us very good reason — I would say conclusive reason (for reasons I explain at length in my ACPQ article on Ross) — to affirm his premises. Hence he has given us very good reason to affirm G.

    Like

  43. labnut

    “… [H]ow could meaning arise from lack of meaning? Randomness cannot give rise to meaning. This is the really, really difficult problem the atheist must solve if he wishes to exclude the possibility of panpsychism, pan-theism or theism.”

    I agree that there is a deep puzzle here. And, by the way, I don’t think you can exclude the possibility of pantheism etc..

    What I would say, however, is that I personally don’t see any compelling reason to accept traditional theisms such as the Christian belief in a benevolent creator-god. For most people this belief exists within the context of a believing community (and it is/seems compelling within the context of that community). But if you move outside such a community or if you were never within one, then you are in a very different place. All this is hard to put into words, but I am just trying to give you a rough sense of how I see these matters (religious belief as a kind of package, involving specific traditions and respect for certain authorities).

    You mention also various philosophical arguments and issues (“the syntax/semantics argument, the is/ought problem, the Chinese room problem and the Mary’s monochrome room problem”) and quote Edward Feser.

    Far too much to deal with here, but let me just say that there is no philosophical consensus on the key issues.

    The main point I want to make here is that a truly scientific view of the world accepts that we don’t have answers to many important questions. And I would prefer just to leave it there – accepting our ignorance – rather than jumping to embrace some kind of religious answer.

    Like

  44. Mark,

    The main point I want to make here is that a truly scientific view of the world accepts that we don’t have answers to many important questions. And I would prefer just to leave it there – accepting our ignorance – rather than jumping to embrace some kind of religious answer.

    That is a very interesting statement and it raises the question – how much evidence do we need before we give assent to a belief? I see the following eight levels of assent.

    1. We demand irrefutable proof.
    2. We demand evidence beyond all reasonable doubt.
    3. We demand clear and convincing evidence.
    4. We accept preponderance of evidence
    5. We accept the balance of probabilities.
    6. We accept substantial evidence.
    7. We accept some credible evidence.
    8. We think there is some reason to believe.

    Which standard do we apply? Science requires higher levels of proof. Safety critical technology similarly requires higher level of proof. Sentencing someone to death or long term of imprisonment likewise requires high levels of proof. But is that appropriate for social/cultural matters? In our daily lives we mostly and un-reflexively apply levels 7 or 8, some credible evidence or some reason to believe.

    My point is that we can’t apply the standards of evidence required of science, or even criminal law to most social/cultural matters, including religion, so it is misleading or inappropriate to appeal to “a truly scientific view of the world“.

    We intuitively weigh risk or cost against evidence and when the risk or cost is high we demand higher levels of evidence. Belief in God carries no risk(at least in this life) but it has a cost which may be offset by a benefit. It may be an opportunity cost, a reputational cost or a cost in personal investment of time and effort, or all three.

    Belief in God then depends on the standard of evidence we require, modified by our assessment of risk, cost and benefit. In my case I applied Test 5, balance of probabilities, as used in ordinary civil law. I think a strong case can be made for that approach.

    Like

  45. labnut

    I agree that different standards of evidence apply in different areas and fully appreciate that we can’t live our day-to-day lives ‘scientifically’ (as it were).

    But the notion of a ‘scientific view of the world’ is still tenable and useful, I think. Obviously it goes beyond science proper. It involves (amongst other things) a belief that scientific methods (broadly construed to encompass historical methods) and practical, commonsense reasoning constitute our only real paths to knowledge. I talked in an earlier essay (Facts and Values) about my assumption that there is a continuity between the ordinary facts that we know from practical reasoning and scientific knowledge. Given such a continuity, the notion of a scientific view of the world is more compelling than it would be if we saw some kind of unbridgeable divide between science and ordinary life.

    Interestingly, the way you are talking in your last comment seems to me to be not all that far from the sort of general scientifically-based outlook which I espouse.

    Likewise Blaise Pascal’s famous ‘wager’ argument (which you no doubt had in mind).

    But there is another side to Pascal. He was (unlike you) not interested in ‘the God of the philosophers’ at all. Have you by any chance looked into his (strongly anti-Jesuitical) Jansenism?

    Like

  46. Mark: Interesting essay, great discussion, and I hope you come back to it.

    Sorry for the last minute comment.

    On meaning and purpose, I’m not satisfied with the argument that we’re obviously doing them, we are, but I’m still not sure how to make the argument that they’re more than evolutionary illusions, which I find without merit [and self defeating].

    “Then the world was ‘alive’ with moral meaning and symbolism. It was a world deeply infused with divine (but human-like) values. Gradually the scientific revolution overturned this view, but it made a comeback in the late 18th century with the beginnings of the Romantic movement…”

    Humm. I feel science is ‘selective’ in what it maps, and it’s not mapping most of the ‘territory’, and how we characterize the mapped, un-mapped, and the in-between [including our social selves] is important.

    Like