Thursday, October 28, 2004

The God Option, Part 2

In the last post, I discussed the idea that God could be identified with the immanent presence of purposeful experience exhibited by the world as a whole. I bypassed the transcendent creator role which is a usual feature of God’s description. The whole concept of creation is difficult. I’ve always felt that positing a deity as the unmoved mover only begged more questions. And in particular the idea of non-existence followed by magical creation ex nihilo seems unreasonable to me, given my commitment to naturalism.

In thinking about the problem as it specifically relates to my worldview, note my frequent use of the phrase “our world” in the last post.

When I say “our world”, I am referring to the natural universe as we know it (about 14 billion years old, filled with galaxies, undergoing expansion). Now, rejecting creation ex nihilo, it seems likely that this universe arose from some other context, and many physicists would postulate the existence of a multiverse (see my previous post).

So, in thinking about the “God option”: if God is identified with our universe, what do we make of the relationship between our universe and this postulated larger context? Perhaps one could adopt the perspective of ancient creation stories where the world arises from pre-existing entities or from “Chaos.” Then, extending the pantheistic perspective, perhaps we can just extend the identification of God and nature to this larger universe or multiverse, in essence giving back to God a transcendent aspect (this would seem to be a version of “panentheism”). I guess a different way to extend the framework would be to say a multiverse means multiple gods. Now that would be interesting!

These considerations clearly complicate the formulation of a theistic option within the worldview I’m advocating. Still, I think a version of pantheism or panentheism seems reasonable.

By the way, given that I think the more compelling case is for an emphasis on God’s immanence rather than transcendence, the old notion of deism is not attractive. The deist world is too much like the materialist-atheist world with a creator bolted on.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The God Option

This post (building on this previous one) explores the theism/atheism landscape assuming one adopts the worldview I’ve been developing in this blog: a worldview of expanded naturalism which posits first-person purposeful experience as a fundamental component of the unfolding sequence of events in the world.

To summarize, in this worldview the traditional forms of both theism and atheism are no longer tenable. Revised forms of theism and atheism would both remain options. However, they are options which are much closer in spirit than in the traditional dichotomy.

Given a commitment to naturalism, there can be no omnipotent transcendent deity who reserves the right to supernaturally intervene in our world. However, most atheists (who understandably reject this notion of God) subscribe to a false worldview in thinking the universe is a machine made of inert matter moving without purpose in space and time. I’ve argued that such a worldview cannot account for first-person experience and is inconsistent with modern (quantum) physics to boot.

The new perspective sees our world as an evolving network of systems whose interactions intrinsically feature first-person purposeful experience. We humans are especially complex and developed systems which are integrated into the network. I think it follows that one can characterize our experience as one of participating in the larger experience of this world.

Now, the idea that the world as a whole is the subject of first-person experience is provocative. Could one use the name God to refer to the experiencing world-entity in this picture? I think you could. It would be a limited God, who is immanent in the process of the world’s evolution, rather than transcending it. But this God is a being much larger than us and our integration into the world could be thought of as our relation with this God. This take on things leads one to an updated version of pantheism.

An atheist option would be to call the larger experiencing world-entity something like “Nature”. One might think it is too limited and impersonal a concept to merit calling it God. Alternatively, one could accept the fundamental status of first person experience as a feature of things in the world and yet reject the idea I posited above of a world-entity which as the sum of these parts has any kind of its own coherent experience.

So, assuming acceptance of this expanded naturalism, the theism and atheism options still exist. However, which ever option you choose, one accepts that we humans are an integrated part of a world which naturally manifests life, consciousness, and purpose, but is devoid of supernatural interventions.

(Coming next: what about God's role as creator?)

Thursday, October 21, 2004


I started to expand and organize my links (over on the bottom right side). Suggestions on good links to add or on format are welcome.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Dialogue with Geoff Arnold

Over on Geoff Arnold's blog he and I have a brief debate on the nature of first-person subjective experience.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Whitehead and Process Philosophy

In past posts I have advanced the virtues of the metaphysical worldview described as panexperientialism. To explain the nature of reality and the phenomenon of first-person conscious experience, one is ultimately led to question the assumption that the world is a machine consisting of matter-in-motion. The revised vision is of a relational network of interactions, where each interaction entails first person experience for the participating system.

Now this idea is not without its challenges to work out, perhaps the biggest is explaining how the “experience” of primitive entities like electrons gets scaled up to entities like us. But it is an idea that philosophers plumbing the mysteries of consciousness keep coming back to (almost unwillingly). In my own reading over the last 15 years of books on consciousness by philosophers like John Searle, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn and Max Velmans, I was repeatedly struck by this sequence: first, their arguments would naturally lead their discussions to panexperientialism; next, they might spend a few pages flirting with it; and finally they would find (to me) unconvincing reasons not to make the final leap (see this paper by William Seager which makes similar points). My own conviction has built as I have recently focused on the considerable support this worldview receives from the theory of quantum mechanics (see my previous post).

Now, a panexperientialist metaphysical scheme was proposed by A.N. Whitehead in the 1920’s! The question arises as to why Whitehead’s process philosophy has remained outside the mainstream of philosophy for 80 years.

I think I see a couple of reasons for this.

As set out in 1929’s Process and Reality, it was a hugely ambitious metaphysical scheme. Such schemes (reminiscent of Continental philosophers such as Kant and Hegel) have definitely been out of fashion. Certainly part of the problem is that the book is famously difficult to read. Filled with invented terminology, it is very detailed and elaborate and ultimately somewhat obscure. Also, Whitehead included God as an element in the scheme, which is certainly not a popular move in mainstream philosophy.

Whitehead’s modern adherents, which I believe are exemplified by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, the founders of the Center for Process Studies, seem to also remain outside the mainstream of academic philosophy. I think this is exacerbated by the fact that their philosophy is coupled to a highly developed and specifically Christian theology. (Also, I’m a bit put off by the way they like to stretch to apply “process thinking” to social/political topics).

With that said, I must emphasize that while I started on my intellectual journey toward panexperientialism before encountering process philosophy, my thinking has been greatly aided by reading Whitehead and some of his intellectual heirs (notably Griffin). I will continue to study it. I also think the more “mainstream” thinkers would benefit from directly engaging process philosophy.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Evolution Sites

For anyone looking at this blog, I want to recommend visiting The Panda’s Thumb and Evolutionblog. These are sites which are fighting the good fight against misguided and/or dishonest attempts to disparage evolution or advocate the non-alternatives of “creation science” or its successor, “intelligent design”.

Of course the need for these efforts is a depressing feature of our cultural landscape. I sure wish that more religious people would explore ways to embrace theistic worldviews which are consistent with scientific naturalism, rather than concluding that evolution and other products of science need to be undermined. What a waste!

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Is Physics Stuck?

Thanks to references on mathematician Peter Woit's blog, I learned there was a powerhouse physics conference last week (“The Future of Physics” at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics) and the talks were made available on-line. An undercurrent of some of the big-picture talks by luminaries such as Steven Weinberg, Edward Witten, and David Gross was a sense of disappointment over the slowing of progress in theoretical physics.

The remarkable achievements of 20th century physics were relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Relativity theory explained gravity in terms of a geometry of space-time. Out of quantum mechanics grew quantum field theory which was the framework for the standard model of particle physics which made great strides in explaining nature at the microscopic level.

A natural next step was a theory which combined these successes and explained gravity in a way consistent with quantum physics. However, this remains unaccomplished. String theory and its variant mathematical models has been the largest focus of this work (the name comes from the characterization of fundamental constituents as one-dimensional strings, although the theory as moved well beyond that). As far as I have understood (not very far when you are ignorant of the mathematics), string theory was a generalization of quantum field theory which appears to naturally incorporate gravity. Problems include the lack of experimental evidence (hard to come by given the tiny scales of nature where the theory would matter) and the fact that there are a gazillion versions of the theory. A conceptual problem has been the fact that, like quantum theory, string theory presupposed a backdrop of space and time. General relativity incorporated space-time as a dynamical field within the theory itself. There have been more recent efforts which show that space could be said to be an emergent phenomenon within a string theory, but time is still not explained (A theory of dynamics by definition takes place in time, so how could it explain time?).

Loop quantum gravity (LQG) is an alternative program (one might hope it is complementary to string theory, as Abhay Ashtekar said in his brief talk). It goes more directly at the problem of quantizing general relativity in a way which is independent of background space-time, but at the cost of losing as an intrinsic ingredient the successful particle physics theory we already have. Interestingly, the concept of time is also problematic in LQG (on the question of time see my previous post).

In Witten’s talk, he mentioned that string theory doesn’t have the kind of conceptual “core idea” guiding researchers of the sort the principle of equivalence was for Einstein. Some great new insight is needed to jumpstart the future of physics. I venture to suggest that such an insight may come in addressing the still mysterious question of how time enters into physics.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Wright/Dennett Update

Since I commented on this, it is only right that I note that Dennett felt misrepresented by Wright in the article I linked to. Here is Dennett; here is Wright’s follow-up.

I was less interested myself in whether or not Dennett was agreeing with Wright or somehow changing positions (has anyone ever convinced him to change his mind?). I was more interested in focusing on the interview's underlying search for common ground between evolution and scientific naturalism on the one hand and the idea that there could be a sense of purpose infused into the world on the other. I think Wright's article is a case of good intentions coupled with not-so-good execution.

Bohr and Quantum Reality

I attended a talk at Penn by Loyola University (New Orleans) philosopher Henry Folse, who is an expert on the thought of physicist Niels Bohr. Like many non-experts, I’ve made the mistake of only acknowledging a simplified version of the Copenhagen interpretation, due to Heisenberg, which says that one must be agnostic about attributing meaning to the nature of the atomic world outside what is learned in the experimental setting.

As Folse pointed out, Bohr had wanted to ascribe a kind of realism to the quantum world, although it would obviously not be like the traditional objective realism of the classical world of matter and energy. As also pointed out in this Stanford encyclopedia entry, Bohr thought in terms of a relational picture of reality. He apparently never fully filled out this metaphysical picture the way a philosopher might have tried to do, but it is interesting that he thought the interactions of QM could be the basis of a real description of reality.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Robert Wright's "Planet with a Purpose"

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan's website, I found this on-line article by Robert Wright with a video of a interview segment of Wright and Daniel Dennett. Wright makes good points trying to find common ground between naturalism (especially Darwinian evolution) and the idea that there is some sort of design or purpose inherent in the world. Dennett comes across as unusually pliable in the video. I added a comment post under the username sesser.
-- Actually, I just clicked through and discovered Wright's own site, which has a variety of interesting interviews on topics relevant to Guide to Reality.

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems

Like many laypeople, I was exposed to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems some years ago by Douglas Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid), and Sir Roger Penrose (The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics). For an excellent concise account of this topic, check out this entry in Wikipedia.

Over the years there has been much written on the possible implications of Gödel’s work for larger questions relating to philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence. J.R.Lucas, Penrose, and others have argued that Gödel’s theorems support the view that human intelligence transcends what can be accomplished by computers. Numerous experts in logic and mathematics have entered the debate to deflate these attempts as misguided extrapolations from Gödel’s setting of formal logical systems. Given these responses, I concluded that the Penrose-type arguments are not ultimately successful.

However it seems that one modest, but still important philosophical insight comes from considering this topic. Gödel showed that a consistent formal system cannot be complete in the sense of being able to prove its own consistency. This dovetails with the common sense insight that one cannot have complete objective knowledge of a system of which one is a part. This is why the larger scientific program, based on a methodological simulation of objectivity, runs into limits when it comes to explaining the inherently subjective phenomenon of human consciousness (here is a paper by philosopher Haim Gaifman which makes a similar point).

We humans cannot get outside the world-system and look back at it. Therefore the effort of seeking full objective truth will never fully succeed. We do have true knowledge of the world, but it is grounded in our existence as an experiencing subject integrated into the system.

Monday, October 04, 2004


[UPDATE 16 March 2010: The link to the Silberstein/McGeever paper broke;  I can only now link to the abstract of the published version]
Can something truly new arise in the world? Can a new phenomenon emerge because its underlying constituents reached a special level of complexity? This issue comes up often in discussions of consciousness, but the question of whether truly emergent phenomena exist arises in other contexts as well. I recently read an excellent summary of the topic in this paper by Michael Silberstein and John McGeever.

I’ve always disliked the idea of emergence in the context of accounting for human consciousness. In this case it seemed clear to me that the entire emergence/reduction debate only existed because of the highly dubious metaphysical assumption that the underlying world is the made of up lifeless matter obeying Newtonian mechanics.

As the reader knows from past posts, I believe the solution of the mind/body problem is the position known as panexperientialism. A simplified story of the road to panexperientialism goes like this:

{Belief that first person experience is a real and integral part of natural world}
{Dismissal of emergence as a possibility}

In the paper, the authors argue that the best candidate for (ontological) emergence is the example of the correlation between entangled particles in a quantum context. The next best candidate (but the authors are less convinced) is in the area of complex (non-linear dynamical) systems.
An interesting project is to study whether the most common candidates for emergence in the macroscopic world may in fact follow from quantum mechanics.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Mechanism or Organism?

A.N. Whitehead called his process system a “philosophy of organism” thus distinguishing it from the mechanistic picture implicitly assumed in the prevailing scientific worldview. He believed the assumption that objects in the world were made of an inanimate substance was fallacious and undermined science.

While it has long been clear that biological systems are based in chemistry, which in turn is based on (quantum) physics, the notion that living things and all of their remarkable features can be reduced to physics has remained problematic to this day. Philosophers of biology continue to debate the issue (see this Stanford encyclopedia entry). As an example of a paper on the topic by a skeptic of the orthodox view, see the most recent one by Rich Cameron. (Gratitude is owed again to the resource of David Chalmer’s great web site). I differ from Cameron in that I don’t like an emergence model as a solution, but his analysis of the problem is well presented.

Here’s what I think it comes down to. In realizing that biological systems are grounded in the world of physics, we have two options: first, we can picture organisms as made of bits of dead matter and then struggle to recover what makes their qualities so remarkable; or, second, we could expand our view of the world of matter and energy to include features which make life explicable (and by the way quantum mechanics is pointing us there anyway).

Obviously, I prefer option two.