Had an interesting evening Thursday, listening to Rupert Sheldrake (again) at Theos, the Christian religious think-tank (for the first time), and having the opportunity to question and talk with him and with other Theos members. Also acquired a copy of Nick Spencer’s “Atheists, the Origin of the Species“; more on which later. [Post Note : Full audio of Sheldrake here.]
I sympathise with Sheldrake, indeed agree that most of his ideas benefit from [ie rationally deserve] proper scientific consideration. Pending “materialist promissary notes”, I’m even happy to hold his panpsychism-based ideas as possibilities. (Interestingly, Iain McGilchrist who was cited as a recent Theos guest speaker, and someone whose ideas I recommend to anyone who’ll listen, holds a not-quite-panpsychic position in seeing the brain more as our “transducer” of consciousness (maybe of proto-consciousness) than its physical container.) None of which means I believe in the paranormal (by definition there’s no such thing), or that “morphic resonance” is the most likely explanation. Sue Blackmore, protege of Dawkins and Dennett, of course held the same position as Sheldrake in taking scientific research of the paranormal seriously. No-one can accuse Sheldrake of not taking a properly sceptical scientific stance on these (whackier) topics. It’s science’s response to scientific questions that is the target here.
Nailing his “10 theses” to the door of the “church of reason” Sheldrake succeeds in maintaining his pariah status in mainstream science. I questioned whether greater progress might be achieved by focussing on fewer key questions that deserve answers, than turning the situation into one large battle on a very broad front. Like, for example, Unger & Smolin who support (at least) two of Sheldrake’s positions (but couldn’t admit as such). One that physical laws and constants are fixed, and somehow don’t deserve evolutionary explanations of their values and form in the current universe(*). And, two, that when it comes to form and knowledge in the universe of physics, mathematics has some absolute privileged “Platonic” position. Science needs to recognise its own metaphysical dogmas as such.
One point I take issue with Sheldrake is in placing Dennett in the camp of denying the self and the reality of consciousness. Dennett rejects “the hard problem” characterisation of their explanation. He very much sees a common sense evolutionary explanation based on information as form independent of physical substrate, as do I, as does Sheldrake.
Anyway, I’m posting these Sheldrake notes under the “Atheists, the Origin of the Species” heading because the common point is that so much of the history of post-enlightenment science has had the denial of soul-like-stuff as its materialist agenda, the thin end of a theist wedge, rather than honest, sceptical investigation of how it is properly explained by natural science.
I’m only maybe 1/4 thru reading Spencer’s “Atheists, the Origin of the Species” since Thursday, but the parallel with Anthony Grayling’s talk “Values and Humanist Values” the night before is already making me smile. They’re both taking a historical view – Spencer on Christian atheism mainly post-1500, Graying on non-Abrahamic humanism from the Greeks onwards – the common ground is obvious. Christian humanism, Christian secularism and Christian scepticism are as real as their atheistic, scientistic counterparts.
[Reformation] sceptics could believe as confidently as any religious adherent. They were simply doubtful of the rational grounds for belief, and its capacity for certainty. Scepticism was the antithesis of dogma, not faith.
The fact that theological differences might be a cipher for political and social threats was a nuance easily lost amid the aroma of cooking [human] flesh. Theological certainty could kill, and it wasn’t even certain.
Earlier in the introduction, Spencer uses a quote from Francis Bacon that has intrigued me before and, in my case. has led to a more than passing interest in OxBridge intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that converted to Catholicism late in life.
“a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism;
but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
Or in my own corollary, even a little more attention to dialogue on philosophical common ground, might bring humanity to more rational shared values and priorities.
[(*)Note – and there are other real physicists questioning these if sources are required.]
[Post Note : Good timing. Humanism & Christianity Discuission on BBC R4 Beyond Belief between Nick Spencer (Theos, above) Stephen Law (CFI_UK) and Marylin Mason (BHA) – and Rory Fenton (BHA). Non-contentious agreement, more notes here.]
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