Friday, May 15, 2009

Law without Law: an introduction

Here is a thought for the day.

For 2500 years (if we go back to the Greeks) the ideal of science has been to decipher the timeless laws which govern the universe. These laws, embodied in mathematical form, are the skeleton on which the flesh of the world is thought to be hung. They are the guide, the constraint, perhaps even the cause for the world having its appearance and structure. They are eternal and changeless, existing "outside" the material universe. For some they are like thoughts in the mind of God.

What if this very old, very powerful idea turned out to be just a metaphysical stance? What if there was a very different way to think about the nature of physical law that placed them squarely within the embodied, evolving world?

It makes my head spin.

To be continued...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Cherished Enemy

I have been following the really amazing response to the bloggingheads debate between me and Eliezer Yudkowsky. So much of it is thoughtful on both sides that it is a joy to read and learn from. There is also, sometimes, a line of reasoning which I have encountered before which always makes me sad. In the science vs. religion debate there are those on both sides who simply don't want to hear any attempts to develop a different perspective on these two long-lived human endeavors. There is an enemy out there - strident myopic atheism or religious dogmatism - and they want it to stay.

Even after one acknowledges the pointlessness of the extremes these poles can take and begins to argue for an alternative, the combatants seek to bring the argument back to the original line of antagonism. It's as if there is more comfort in having that enemy present then in finding a new line of reasoning which allow those who reject the extremes to build a useful language for a very different kind of discussion. An atheist who finds value in the domains of human spiritual endeavor is therefore not atheist enough and becomes an enemy for one side of the antagonism.

This is not new. History is rife with historical antagonisms and combatants who carried their ageless grievances around with them like talismans. The enemy became their meaning, their reason for being. The enemy became cherished for who would the combatants be, what would they become, without their enemy? How different this is from the perspective articulated by someone like the Dali Lama who spoke from the depths of wisdom and compassion about "our friends, the enemy."

Polarities are easy to support and can provide a sense of order and place but they don't require much work. We can fight against intolerance, we stand up against dogma and prejudice, we can retain the integrity of our cherished values and still allow ourselves the courage to look anew. Our creativity is best served not by holding a view of the war between extremes but in imaging an alternative.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Foxes, Hedgehogs, Science and Knowing

So the second installment of my debate with Eliezer Yudkowsky at bloggingheads is now posted for anyone who is interested. It was great fun and I thank Eliezer for participating in the dialogue with me.

There is a point I just wanted to touch on again related to the many ways we come to understand ourselves in the world. After 20 years of practicing science I remain deeply enamored of its methods and the grand beauty of its worldview. I also continue to marvel at the ways other forms of human inquiry reveal other aspects of our nature and its dilemma. From poetry to painting there are many paths to illuminating the human condition. That is why, even as an atheist, I became interested early on in the long history of human spiritual endeavor.

Isaiah Berlin once used a line from the Greek poet Archilochus to characterize different approaches to philosophy.

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"

Berlin was trying to differentiate philosophies that saw the world in terms of a single defining idea (hedgehogs) and those who who drew from a wide array of experience and were suspicious of overarching approaches (foxes). I would like to line up in the fox category. William James remains my hero with his distrust of "block Universes" or block ideas.

The debate between science and the domains of spiritual endeavor is usually cast as a choice between reason and faith. As a atheist and one who is committed to empirical investigation I am not big on faith but I do reject the idea that those who are committed the integrity of scientific practice must also see reason as the only means to understanding ourselves in the broadest sense of the word. Within scientific practice it is reason and a commitment to letting the data, the world, speak for itself. But when placing science into this broader context of human being I think the other ways we create meaning must have a place at the table.

Its easy to fall for the false certainty that comes by fully embracing a single metaphysics, confusing it with all-embracing methodology, and then letting your membership in an orthodoxy lull you in a false sense of comfort that comes with easy applause lines. Far harder is the path of embracing our strange complexity while retaining a determination to think clearly and feel deeply. But in our attempts to pass through the bottleneck of the next century I am convinced we will need all the sources of wisdom we can find.

Such, it seems, is the way of the fox.