Archive for the 'Religion' Category Page 3 of 8

Does evo-psych explain anything at all?

Evolutionary psychology and sociology have long struck me as arrant nonsense, because they ignore human free will and self-reflection, and thus our ability to rise above our own nature.   There are no pianos on the savanna, as I have remarked before, so an evolutionary psychologist will have a major challenge to explain a desire to play the piano in evolutionary terms.

Christopher Booker, in a review of E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, views similarly the flaws of evolutionary theory when applied to human behaviours:

It is our ability to escape from the rigid frame of instinct which explains almost everything that distinguishes human beings from any other form of life. But one looks in vain to Wilson to recognise this, let alone to explain how it could have come about in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. No attribute of Darwinians is more marked than their inability to grasp just how much their theory cannot account for, from all those evolutionary leaps which require a host of interdependent things to develop more or less simultaneously to be workable, that peculiarity of human consciousness which has allowed us to step outside the instinctive frame and to ‘conquer the Earth’ far more comprehensively than ants.

But it is this which also gives us our disintegrative propensity, individually and collectively, to behave egocentrically, presenting us with all those problems which distinguish us from all the other species which still live in unthinking obedience to the dictates of nature. All these follow from that split from our selfless ‘higher nature’, with which over the millennia our customs, laws, religion and artistic creativity have tried their best to re-integrate us.

Nothing is more comical about Darwinians than the contortions they get into in trying to explain those ‘altruistic’ aspects of human nature which might seem to contradict their belief that the evolutionary drive is always essentially self-centred (seen at its most extreme in Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’ theory). Wilson’s thesis finally crumbles when he comes up with absurdly reductionist explanations for the emergence of the creative arts and religion. Forget Bach’s B Minor Mass or the deeper insights of the Hindu scriptures — as a lapsed Southern Baptist, he caricatures the religious instinct of mankind as little more than the stunted form of faith he escaped from.

His attempt to unravel what makes human nature unique is entirely a product of that limited ‘left-brain thinking’ which leads to cognitive dissonance.

Unable to think outside the Darwinian box, his account lacks any real warmth or wider understanding. Coming from ‘the most celebrated heir to Darwin’, his book may have won wide attention and praise. But all it really demonstrates is that the real problem with Darwinians is their inability to see just how much their beguilingly simple theory simply cannot explain.”

Influential Books

This is a list of non-fiction books which have greatly influenced me – making me see the world differently or act in it differently.  They are listed chronologically according to when I first encountered them.

  • 2015 – Benedict Taylor [2011]: Mendelssohn, Time and Memory. The Romantic Conception of Cyclic Form. (Cambridge UP)
  • 2010 – Hans Kundnani [2009]: Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. (London, UK: Hurst and Company)
  • 2009 – J. Scott Turner [2007]:  The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. (Harvard UP) (Mentioned here.)
  • 2008 – Stefan Aust [2008]: The Baader-Meinhof Complex. (Bodley Head)
  • 2008 – Pierre Delattre [1993]:  Episodes. (St. Paul, MN, USA:  Graywolf Press)
  • 2006 – Mark Evan Bonds [2006]: Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. (Princeton UP)
  • 2006 – Kyle Gann [2006]: Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice. (UCal Press)
  • 2005 – Clare Asquith [2005]:  Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.  (Public Affairs)
  • 2004 – Igal Halfin [2003]: Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial. (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard UP)
  • 2001 – George Leonard [2000]: The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei.
  • 2000 – Stephen E. Toulmin [1990]:  Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  (University of Chicago Press)
  • 1999 – Michel de Montaigne [1580-1595]:  Essays.
  • 1997 – James Pritchett [1993]:  The Music of John Cage.  (Cambridge UP, UK)
  • 1996 – George Fowler [1995]:  Dance of a Fallen Monk: A Journey to Spiritual Enlightenment. (New York:  Doubleday)
  • 1995 – Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch [1992]:  Thinking Body, Dancing Mind.   (New York: Bantam Books)
  • 1995 – Jon Kabat-Zinn [1994]: Wherever You Go, There You Are.
  • 1995 – Charlotte Joko Beck [1993]: Nothing Special: Living Zen.
  • 1993 – George Leonard [1992]: Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.
  • 1990 – Trevor Leggett [1987]:  Zen and the Ways.  (Tuttle)
  • 1989 – Grant McCracken [1988]:  Culture and Consumption.
  • 1989 – Teresa Toranska [1988]:  Them:  Stalin’s Polish Puppets.  Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska.(HarperCollins) (Mentioned here.)
  • 1988 – Henry David Thoreau [1865]:  Cape Cod.
  • 1988 – Rupert Sheldrake [1988]: The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature.
  • 1988 – Dan Rose [1987]:  Black American Street Life: South Philadelphia, 1969-1971. (U Penn Press)
  • 1987 – Susan Sontag [1966]: Against Interpretation. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • 1987 – Gregory Bateson [1972]: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (U Chicago Press)
  • 1987 – Jay Neugeboren [1968]:  Reflections at Thirty.
  • 1982 – John Miller Chernoff [1979]: African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. (University of Chicago Press)
  • 1981 – Walter Rodney [1972]: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.  (London: Bogle-L’Overture Publications)
  • 1980 – James A. Michener [1971]: Kent State: What happened and Why.
  • 1980 – Andre Gunder Frank [1966]:  The Development of Underdevelopment.  (Monthly Review Press)
  • 1980 – Paul Feyerabend [1975]: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.
  • 1979 – Aldous Huxley [1945]:  The Perennial Philosophy.
  • 1978 – Christmas Humphreys [1949]:  Zen Buddhism.
  • 1977 – Raymond Smullyan [1977]:  The Tao is Silent.
  • 1976 – Bertrand Russell [1951-1969]:  The Autobiography.  (London: George Allen & Unwin)
  • 1975 – Jean-Francois Revel [1972]:  Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun.
  • 1974 – Charles Reich [1970]: The Greening of America.
  • 1973 – Selvarajan Yesudian and Elisabeth Haich [1953]:  Yoga and Health. (NY:  Harper)
  • 1972 – Robin Boyd [1960]: The Australian Ugliness.

String theorists in knots

Last week’s Observer carried a debate over the status of string theory by a theoretical physicist, Michael Duff,  and a science journalist, James Baggott.  Mostly, they talk past each other.   There is much in what they say that could provoke comment, but since time is short,  I will only comment on one statement.

Duff’s final contribution includes these words:

Finally, you offer no credible alternative. If you don’t like string theory the answer is simple: come up with a better one. “

This is plain wrong for several reasons.  First, we would have no scientific progress at all if critics of scientific theories first had to develop an alternative theory before they could advance their criticisms.   Indeed, public voicing of criticisms of a theory is one of the key motivations for other scientists to look for alternatives in the first place.  So Duff has the horse and the cart backwards here.  

Secondly, “come up with a better one“?   “better“?     What means “better“?  Duff has missed precisely the main point of the critics of string theory!  We have no way of knowing – not even in principle, let alone in practice – whether string theory is any good or not, nor whether it accurately describes reality.  We have no experimental evidence by which to assess it, and most likely (since it posits and models alleged additional dimensions of spacetime that are inaccessible to us) not ever any way to obtain such empirical evidence.    As I have argued before, theology has more empirical support – the personal spiritual experiences of religious believers and practitioners – than does string theory.    So, suppose we did come up with an alternative theory to string theory:  how then could we tell which theory was the better of the two?   

Pure mathematicians, like theologians, don’t use empirical evidence as a criterion for evaluating theories.  Instead, they use subjective criteria such as beauty, elegance, and self-coherence.   There is nothing at all wrong with this.  But such criteria ain’t science, which by its nature is a social activity.

Fathers of the Church

Yale theologian Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) was once asked by some friends to join a social event.   However, he had work to do, so he replied:  “I need to spend some time in the library with the Fathers, not time in the bar with the brothers.”   (HT:  LR)

Mathematics in Britain

From the music critic of The Times, writing in 1952 (issue of 2 May 1952, page 8, column 6, review of The Background of Music, by H. Lowery, published in 1952 by Hutchinson):

At Redbrick [University] they treat mathematics as an instrument of technology; at Cambridge they regard it as an ally of physics and an approach to philosophy; at Oxford they think of it as an art in itself having affinities with counterpoint and dancing.”

Quoted (incorrectly) by Ida Winifred Busbridge, in a 1974 history of mathematics at Oxford University, here. (Note that Busbridge writes “music” instead of “counterpoint”.)

Oxford University was a strong supporter of Catholicism in Elizabeth I’s time (eg, it was home to Thomas Campion), while Cambridge and the Fens, due to their proximity to the Netherlands, was the centre for an extreme Protestant sect, called the Family of Love, or the Familists.    Elizabeth I’s religious policy often sought to find a middle ground between these two extremes.   These religious differences persisted, so that Oxford was again, in the mid 19th-century, a centre of Catholic, and, within the Anglican Church, Anglo-Catholic (“High Church”) ideas.   The Redbrick Universities (Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Victoria University of Manchester, etc), mostly founded in the North and Midlands of England in the late 19th century or early 20th century, were the result of money-raising campaigns by local business people and civic worthies, who were often of a Nonconformist or Jewish religious background.   The name Redbrick arose from novels written by a professor of Spanish at the University of Liverpool, Edgar Peers, about a fictional northern university modeled on Liverpool.

I don’t think the distinct differences between Nonconformist, Protestant and Catholic world views could be better expressed than those here between the philosophies of mathematics of Redbrick, Cambridge and Oxford:   Nonconformism as pragmatic utilitarianism; Protestantism as serious reflection on life’s higher ends; and Catholicism as enjoyment of life and its pleasures!

Belief as end-point, not starting-line

The New Statesman asked several famous people about what atheists could learn from religious believers, here.  Particularly interesting were the responses of Francis Spufford and Karen Armstrong. 

Continue reading ‘Belief as end-point, not starting-line’

Gradgrinds de nos jours

Peter Hitchens reviews the latest jeremiad from Anthony Grayling in The Spectator, here:

‘Atheism is to theism,’ Anthony Grayling declares, ‘as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting’.  At this point, we are supposed to enjoy a little sneer, in which the religious are bracketed with bald, lonely men in thick glasses, picking over their collections of ancient stamps in attics, while unbelievers are funky people with busy social lives.

But the comparison is flatly untrue.  Non-collectors of stamps do not, for instance, write books devoted to mocking stamp-collectors, nor call for stamp-collecting’s status to be diminished, nor suggest — Richard Dawkins-like — that introducing the young to this hobby is comparable to child abuse.  They do not place advertisements on buses proclaiming that stamp-collecting is a waste of time, and suggesting that those who abandon it will enjoy their lives more.

Professor Grayling is too pleased with himself to have realised this. Intoxicated with amusement at his own dud metaphor, he asks: ‘How could someone be a militant non-stamp-collector?’  I rather think he has written the manual for anyone who might like to take up this activity.

It strikes me, once again, that the new atheists – particularly Grayling, Dawkins, Dennett, and C. Hitchens – want to show the world that they can think for themselves, that they are beholden not to churchly prince nor earthly potentate, neither to ideology nor tradition, in the formulation and articulation of their own views.   But thinking for themselves seems somehow insufficient to each of these people:  they want also to think for everyone else, to impose on the rest of us their own personal view.    Perhaps it’s that common affliction of people lacking in self-confidence:  by getting others to adopt their judgments (or beliefs, or consumer purchases, or career path), they can validate their own choices.

As I have remarked before, in my experience most people who profess religious belief and/or undertake religious practices do so because of some personal, transcendant experience they have had with non-material realms, or what they perceive to be such realms.  Grayling et al. tell all these people that they are each wrong:  Here’s what you should believe, not the evidence of your own lying eyes!   Who knows, our little Graylings may even be correct, and objective science may even – one day long in the future – show the delusion or invalidity of these many billions of subjective experiences.   But, in the meantime, it surely takes industrial-strength levels of presumption to assume that your own personal subjective viewpoint takes precedence over the subjective lived experience of others. 

Noticeable too, is the complete absence of any sense of wonder or awe at the unknown and the not-yet-explained in the writings of these folks (Sam Harris excepted).   It is remark-worthy, I think, that none of these people are poets, or artists, or musicians, or mathematicians, all people who seek regularly to wrangle the transcendant.   Gradgrinds the new atheists seem to be, as well as arrogantly presumptious.

Against anti-Mendelssohnism


The death of the pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen (1927-2012) last month led to many tributes.   While I have read and admired much of Rosen’s writing, he had a strange and unreasonable dislike of Mendelssohn’s music which led his thinking astray.

Continue reading ‘Against anti-Mendelssohnism’

Time, gentlemen, please

Harper Charley SerengetiSpaghetti

Much discussion again over at Language Log over a claim of the form “Language L has no word for concept C”.  This time, it was the claim by Wade Davis (whose strange use of past tense indicates he has forgotten or is unaware that many Australian Aboriginal languages are still in use) that:

In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time.”

The rebuttal of this claim by Mark Liberman was incisive and decisive.   Davis was using this claim to support a more general argument:  that traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures had different notions of and metaphors for time to those we mostly have in the modern Western world.

We in the contemporary educated West typically use a spatial metaphor for time, where the past is in one abstract place, the present in another non-overlapping abstract place, and the future in yet a third non-overlapping abstract place.    In this construal of time, causal influence travels in one direction only:  from the past to the present, and from the present to the future.   Nothing in either the present  or the future may influence the past, which is fixed and unchangeable.   Events in the future may perhaps be considered to influence the present, depending on how much fluidity we allow the present to have.  However, most of us would argue that it is not events in the future that influence events in the present, but our present perceptions of possible future events that influence events and actions in the present.

Modern Western Europeans typically think of the place that represents the past as being behind them, and the future ahead.   People raised in Asian cultures often think of the abstract place that is the past as being below them (or above them), and the future above (or below).   But all consider these abstract places to be non-overlapping, and even non-contiguous.

Traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures, as Davis argues, construe time very differently, and influences may flow in all directions.   A better spatial metaphor for Aboriginal notions of time would be to consider a modern city, where there are many different types of transport and communications, each viewable as a network:  rivers, canals, roads, bus-only road corridors, railways, underground rail tunnels, underground sewage or water drains, cycleways, footpaths, air-transport corridors, electricity networks, fixed-link telecommunications networks, wireless telecommunications networks, etc.    A map of each of these networks could be created (and usually are) for specific audiences.  A map of the city itself could then be formed from combining these separate maps, overlaid upon one another as layers in a stack.   Each layer describes a separate aspect of reality, but the reality of the actual entire city is complex and more than merely the sum of these parts.  Events or perceptions in one layer may influence events or perceptions in other layers, without any limitations on the directions of causality between layers.

Traditional Aboriginal notions of time are similar, with pasts, the present and futures all being construed as separate layers stacked over the same geographic space – in this case actual geographic country, not an abstract spatial representation of time.  Each generation of people who have lived, or who will live, in the specific region (“country” in modern Aboriginal English) will have created a layer in the stack.   Influence travels between the different layers in any and all directions, so events in the distant past or the distant future may influence events in the present, and events in the present may influence events in the past and the future.

Many religions – for example, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and African cosmologies – allow for such multi-directional causal influences via a non-material realm of saints or spirits, usually the souls of the dead, who may have power to guide the actions of the living in the light of the spirits’ better knowledge of the future.   Causal influence can thus travel, via such spirit influences, from future to present.  Similarly, the view of Quantum Mechanics of space-time as a single 4-dimensional manifold allows for influences across the dimension of time as well as those of space.

I am reminded of an experience I once witnessed where the only sensible explanation of a colleague’s passionate enthusiasm for a particular future course of action was his foreknowledge of the specific details of the outcome of that course of action.  But these details he did not know and could not have known at the time of his enthusiasm,  prior to the course of action being executed.  In other words, only a causal influence from future to present provided a sensible explanation for this enthusiasm, and this explanation only became evident as the future turned into the present, and the details of the outcome emerged.  Until that point, he could not justify or explain his passionate enthusiasm, which seemed to be a form of madness, even to him.    Contemporary Western cosmology does not provide such time-reversing explanations, but many other cultures do; and current theories of quantum entanglement also seem to.

Contemporary westerners, particularly those trained in western science, have a hard time understanding such alternative cosmologies, in my experience.  I have posted before about the difficulties most westerners have, for instance,  in understanding Taoist/Zen notions of synchronicity of events, which westerners typically mis-construe as random chance.


Do we each have a soul that incarnates in different bodies over time?  Most scientists in my experience dismiss any such idea, like they do most everything they cannot yet explain.  But a true scientist would (a) keep an open mind on the question, while (b) devising a scientific test of the claim.   And here’s where things become difficult – and interesting.  Exactly how would one test the hypothesis of reincarnation?

If reincarnation occurs, then there is a connection between bodies in different historical time zones.  Yet there seems to be no way that such bodies could communicate their special connectedness to one another.  In the case that reincarnation occurs, is there some way for instance that I could communicate with my future self (or selves), and only that person or people, in a way that they could recognize came from me (their own past incarnation) and no one else?  Thus far, I have not been able to imagine such a communication channel or message.  It may be possible to design a message that is public and seen by all, yet is only understood correctly by a particular recipient, as with the signal sent by the USSR’s Strategic Missile Command to the leadership of the USA during the August 1991 coup.

It would seem that no such inter-carnate communication is possible between incarnations of the same soul.   Yet all the scientific tests of  the hypothesis of reincarnation I can imagine would require some form of direct communications between separate human incarnations of the same soul, in the case there was reincarnation.   Suggestions for experiments most welcome.