Friday, April 17, 2009

Beyond the Poles: Not a Christian Nation

Here is a link to a very nice article about the idea that the US is not a christian nation. While I have tried to argue that we must move beyond the traditional Creationism vs Evolution debate in thinking about Science and Religion, part of transcendence will require speaking forcefully to those who indulge intolerance and fan its fire.

The challenge those of faith will face (and many have already risen to) is to find a meaningful pluralism that acknowledges other paths as well as the beauty and power of science.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Phenomenal Promise

I have argued in my book that focusing on experience is a more fruitful way to think about the domains of science and human spiritual endeavor. You can find the line of that argument here but one might ask what is the big deal about experience? Why focus on it? The answer, I think, comes by flipping the question on its head and asking instead what have we been missing by not focusing on experience?

I take this question to cut broadly - the reason experience is a fertile starting point to think about science and religion is the same reason its a good place to focus our thinking about how we understand ourselves, the world and our attempts to make sense of them both. The unfortunate fact is that in much of modern scientific and philosophical thinking, experience has been forgotten as a question at all. Which brings me to Francisco Varela and phenomenology

Varela was a Chilean biologist of Harvard training who had a distinguished career thinking on a broad range of topics from insect vision to the nature of consciousness. Many people are familiar with his work which has been quite influential (he was one of the founders of the Mind and Life institute) so its a bit embarrassing for me to only encounter him now. Lately I have been reading an article by Varela in "Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem". This is a collection of pieces in response to David Chalmers' concept of the Hard Problem in the study of consciousness.

The Hard Problem that Chalmers pointed to was none other than experience - that elusive but inclusive totality that makes consciousness so different than other external phenomena science wishes to address. The text is great because it has so many perspectives in it but for now I want to simply touch on Varela's main focus in his article Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem.

In confronting the hard problem Varela reaches back about 100 years in the history of philosophy to the the school of Phenomenology. This was a European movement advanced by writers like Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The emphasis in Phenomenology is to take take experience and its investigation seriously rather than just dismiss it as unimportant or not really a worthy subject. As Husserl claimed "back to the things themselves" or as Merleu-Ponty wrote

"To return to the things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks and in relation to which every scientific stigmatization is an abstract and derivative sign language, as the discipline of geography would be in relation to a river, a forest a prairie we knew beforehand."
Taking the phenomenological perspective Varela claims that experience is irreducible. He then goes on to outline how a phenomenology when combined with cognitive science and neuro-science could provide constraints on each other to develop a true scientific study of consciousness.

Varela's perspective is an important one for thinking about consciousness and science in general. Experience is irreducible. It is always were we start and where we must return. The inability to recognize this has led to the objectification of objectification in science. We imagine the detailed nature of an objective world because it is so fruitful for our scientific world-view (and it is) but then we forget that no one ever experiences it. Objectification is a useful tool but it is not a thing in itself. It is a powerful story that helps us make sense of things.

Clearly there is a world out there. No one doubts that unless they have gone loco. The world is there and it kicks back. But what access we get to it, and what role we play in shaping what we see is very much an open question. We always begin from "behind our eyes" so to speak. What makes Varela's perspective in this paper (and his book the Embodied Mind) so valuable is it takes that recognition and then attempts to do something concrete with it in the service of investigation.

Varela takes our experience seriously and that is an attitude we could fruitfully apply many places.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Onward from Discover-y

Here is a link to my last post for Discover. It is a kind of summation of the themes I was working on there.

So now to the future.

My hats off to all the bloggers out there who can post 3 or 4 times a week. I think I may be a crusty old-timer in this new medium so I will be posting here a couple of times a week on themes from the book as well as a broader set of topics which run ashore of the human search for the True and the Real. These will include:

Science and Religion - the Good, the Bad and the Future
Science and the Human Prospect - how to best deploy science in the service of a just and sustainable culture.
Topics in Cosmology (woopie!)
Cool new stuff in astrobiology, planet and star formation
Stuff on the Foundations of Science (physics in particular but hey biology can be pretty weird too)
Topics in the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics - the endless debate about what QM really tells us.
The study of Consciousness (I got pulled deep into this via my bloggingheads debate and am now lost in how cool the topic is)

So thare you go. Hopefully the mucking around will be useful. So many wonderful topics, so many other day-to-day urgencies that get in the way (sigh).

Tomorrow's topic: Francisco Varela and Phenomenal Promise